I cannot tell you how many times I have walked behind my American Sanders FloorCrafter. How many hours my hands have touched the Super 7R edger. The years have passed quickly and the flooring is in the millions of square feet. So how do I express in writing the best way to sand a floor? Truth is, at first my reaction was that it will be easy, but not so easy at the same time.

First, I pictured myself instructing an NWFA class, going over the units in my mind. It’s not so easy to do without a sander in my hands. Then my thoughts went to the different style of sanders: drum vs. belt, toe kick edger vs. standard edger. That is not going to work unless I have a hands-on demo to show you how they all work. Then, on a job in Knoxville, it came to me. It’s not just knowing how to run the units that makes us better; it’s the details of “what” they do that makes the floor look great.

The Machines

So now I need to define the work that these machines do—how they act, react and what they are made for. If you have been to my classes with the NWFA/NOFMA or the presentations with 3M you should remember me asking this. Standing over a belt sander looking at the group, I’ll ask, “What is this?” The most common response is “it’s a floor sander.” Next, someone will say “it’s the money maker” or “the big machine,” while the response that I want to hear is nowhere to be found.

Yes, it is the money maker and yes, we call it the big machine, but in my mind all these tools have one, and only one, function: it’s a paper turner. The contact drum or pad on the edger does not touch the wood. What does touch the wood is the sandpaper.

If we install a 36 grit sandpaper we know that we will get a deep scratch and remove stock fast. Once we are done with the 36 grit we install a 50 grit and sand the floor. So what changed? Not the tool, but the paper on the machine. We now have a different scratch and a different look to the floor.

I am one that does not adjust the pressure on the machine. It’s my opinion that removing head pressure does not help remove a deep scratch. So if we start with a 60 grit on an edger—and the speed of the unit is the same and the head pressure does not change between that and 100 grit—then, again, what changed? When using a single disc buffer or a multi disc sander, it all comes down to the grit on the paper. So it’s really a paper turner not a floor sander. That’s the best way I can express what it is and what it does.

Now that we are on the same page of what the tools do and what they bring to the floor, let’s look at the sandpaper. Once more, my mind works differently than most in the wood floor sanding market. It seems like production has become the key to getting the floors sanded. Fast work, fast cuts and fast out the door with the payment.

One of many blessings in my sanding education was the man that took me in so many years ago. Daniel Boone gave me the first tool for sanding: the broom. Keep the job site clean and free from dirt and grit. The more stuff on the floor, the more we can grind it in or cause more harm. The cleanest spot on the job should be the back of the van to the front door. What we bring in can do harm. Let me explain in better detail.

On a job outside St Louis, when Daniel said, “You drive, and I will buy us a burger for dinner,” I jumped up, hit the van and drove to a fast food restaurant. The drive-thru was long and I did not want to wait in the hot van. So I parked, went in, got out and headed back the jobsite. With my arm full of drinks and a mouth full of fries, I opened the door to walk in the house. Daniel yelled out from the back room, “Did you walk in or drive through?” I yelled back, “Walked in!” He met me at the door and said, “Clean your boots.”

Now why do my boots matter? I may have stepped in brake fluid, oil, transmission fluid or whatever else was in that parking lot. The broom and keeping the job clean is a huge step in a floor sander’s toolbox. Learn that lesson fast.

The Paper

Now, let’s get to the paper part. The hardwood flooring market has four common minerals that are used on a day-to-day jobsite. I want to break them down, then share the insight Daniel shared with me and how I made my choice between the minerals. The NWFA/NOFMA classes will teach more about the minerals, if you can make it to the classes. This information comes right out of the handbook for the NWFA.

Silicon-carbide: This is a man-made grain, extremely sharp, finer scratch pattern. Zirconia Alumina: Man-made grain, sharp spindle shape, micro-fractures into small sharp edges. Aluminum Oxide: Man-made grain, blocky shape with sharp edges; ideal for low pressure sanding, intercoat abrasion. Ceramic Alumina: Man-made grain, long and sharp edges, micro-fractures into tiny sub-micron particles, longer lasting abrasive.”

Let’s look at each grit and see how we can use them to our advantage. If we have an old coating that will take a bit of work to get off, I will take a Ceramic Alumina grain to get that work done. It’s a long sharp grain so it will remove that old coating much faster and allow us to control the scratch. Once we are down to raw wood I will change the grain to one that will remove the scratch and begin the look we are after. I will switch to a Silicon Carbide grain, as this grain is extremely sharp and has a finer scratch pattern. I’m not going to change the head pressure or my rate of walking speed, just the grit. Likewise, when we use the edger, it’s best to find the right grit to do the work. On new wood, I can take an extremely sharp grain and cut it flat with a finer scratch.

Now my hope is this is starting to become clear: it’s the mineral that cuts the floor and how we scratch the floor that matters the most. I have seen jobs where the crew used the same long sharp grain from start to end and looking at the floor you can see fine scratches going the length of the room from the big machine. Edger marks that are deep and not 100% removed with the jitter bug along the walls.

When we use the disc sander or a multi-disc sander, we can do more harm than good if we pick the wrong grain. The screens or paper we use for fine sanding might not get out the deep long scratch, or the single-disc buffer could dish out the floor from over-sanding to get out the deep scratch. I have not used a screen in many years; we use the aluminum oxide paper to remove those scratches.

With the multi-disc unit, I am going to look at two things. 1. I am looking to get the floor flatter 2. How do we hide the scratch? If we pick the grit to flatten, then we will need to make the extra cut to hide the scratch. So taking a zirconia alumina grain we will cut the floor flat, but we need to follow that with a silicon carbide grain to keep it flat and hide the scratch.

I am sure if you want or need more help running the paper turner, please talk to the manufacturer of the unit you run. Most hold classes for the best use of the tool. The NWFA holds a ton of classes all over the U.S. and Canada. For me it became clear: Daniel could show me the use of the tools, but his greatest lesson was learning how to use the tools with the paper. What are we after? Fast work, in and out and get the payment—or we can add a day to a job or sometimes just hours to get a super-flat smooth floor. I feel it’s easy to sand floors and easy to get the job done, but it’s a treat to take a floor to the next level.

What grain will you think about the next time you fire up that paper turner? What scratch pattern will you think of while running the tools? I hope this will get you to stop and think about more than just sanding the floor but the look of the floor when you are done. From the moment you place a sheet paper on the tools, rethink: What am I going to do to this floor with this grain/mineral? Setting your company and crews apart from the production companies will take you to the next level. I understand it’s a battle to get bids and be awarded jobs based on price alone, but word of mouth goes much further than we believe. Doing our best work, keeping the tools in great working order and picking the right grit/minerals will have your customers talking all over town.