A laminate floor may look like hardwood, but it isn't, and you can't treat it the same way. That means no sanding. The hardwood design on most laminate planks is basically stamped on and coated with super-hard floor finish, and trying to fix it with a sander is like trying to fix a painting with an eraser. The analogy is closer than you might think because some pros can fix worn laminate floors by repainting the wood grain with an artist's brush.
That's probably more work than you're prepared to devote to your laminate floor, so when it begins to look worn, a great option is to restore the finish. That will make a bigger difference than it sounds because, most of the time, it's the finish that's worn out. It isn't that difficult to resurface a laminate floor using hardwood floor refinishing products you can find at any home supply outlet.
The Best Strategy for Refinishing Laminate Flooring
In your research for the best laminate restoration method, you may come across advice to strip the old finish. That's a bad idea. The finish is probably baked on and catalyzed, and it's quite capable of resisting the softening efforts of most chemical strippers. But that's not the worst of it. If you do manage to find a stripper that works, consider what happens when the finish softens and you scrape it off. There goes the surface design – and the floor.
A good laminate restoration kit contains a chemical etcher, not a stripper. Its purpose isn't to remove the old finish but to de-gloss it so the new finish will stick. You can also do this mechanically, using a floor buffer and a 120-grit sanding screen. The buffing method is best because the abrasive action flattens the finish, which makes for a super-smooth final result.
Getting the Floor Ready for Restoration
Before you start the floor restoration, which takes about a day for an average-sized room, remove all the furniture and carpeting and clean the floor with soapy, warm water. Dry the floor manually, using a rag, immediately after rinsing to prevent any of the water from seeping between the planks. If there's any wax on the floor (there shouldn't be), you need to scrub it off or your restoration efforts will be for naught.
Once the floor dries, apply the chemical etcher to the floor, following the instructions on the container, or run a floor buffer with a 120-grit sanding screen over the floor. Wipe the floor down with a tack cloth after buffing or etching and you're ready for the next step.
Staining and Finishing the Floor
The best time to recolor laminate flooring is after you've completed the surface etching and before you apply the new finish. You can use conventional wood stain for this, applying it with a rag or brush and wiping off the excess with a second rag. Always wipe in the grain direction to avoid streaks.
When the stain dries, apply the first coat of finish. Most contemporary floor finishes are waterborne, and the best way to apply them to a floor is to use a floor applicator, which is a large, weighted sponge shaped like a squeegee on the end of a broom handle. If you don't want to buy one of these, use a painter's pad. A paintbrush should be a last resort because it leaves streaks and bubbles.
Let the finish dry for the recommended time, then apply a second coat. If you have a floor buffer, it's a great idea to screen the floor once again before applying the second coat. After the second coat dries, you should give it 24 to 48 hours to cure before moving furniture back into the room.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.