DIY: How to Refinish, Seal, and Maintain a Slate Tile Floor
How to Refinish a Slate Tile Floor: A Guide by a Disillusioned Homeowner
When we bought the house, my husband and I were enamored with the beautiful tile floor: 2,000 square feet of gorgeous wall-to-wall slate tile from one end of the little ranch to another. Jackpot! we thought. No carpet to vacuum or shampoo: bonus for my allergies. And just imagine how easy it would be to maintain when we have kids! Sweep it up and you're done!
Little did we know that six years and two kids down the road, that beautiful tile floor would have become the bane of my existence—or that we were about to embark on a home project that could bring us to the brink of divorce.
A few things you should know about slate tile. It is not, hard, durable, and impervious to destruction. Slate is, in fact, extremely porous. It is not wash-and-go, low maintenance flooring. It requires love and attention and a fair amount of upkeep. That being said, it is beautiful, versatile in terms of interior décor, and excellent for sock skating. And, with a little know-how, it can remain so for years to come.
The previous owners of our house either did not keep up with floor maintenance or did a shoddy job of refinishing to make the floor all "purtied-up" for potential buyers. It looked great at first glance, but upon closer inspection, we realized they had polished dirt right onto the baseboards and gotten cat hair stuck in the floor. They used a standard floor polish, of which they left a few bottles ostensibly for our use. Upon reading the directions, I was horrified to find that the polish needed to be completely stripped using ammonia and re-done every three to six months. I did so diligently in the main traffic areas of the house for the first year.
Then, I had my son, and I got bored with the floor and overwhelmed with the task of mommy-hood. I decided that the stripping and polishing could wait—what difference would it make, thought I? (More on what a HUGE difference it would make later.) I still swept and mopped; the floor was clean. That was all I could handle. I spent large chunks of my daydreaming time thinking of plush luxurious carpet and large chunks of my spending money on various gadgets and gizmos claiming to make floor cleaning a snap. And yet, the floor kept looking dirtier and dirtier, and getting harder and harder to clean.
Skip forward three years to son number two. He's a food flinger. You moms know what I mean. Each delectable dish must be investigated, dumped, and dropped, wreaking havoc on my already belabored floors. I now steam clean the floor with a floor sanitizer (I highly recommend the HAAN steam products. They allow you to clean, disinfect and sanitize almost your whole house without a single chemical product—plain old clean water) and scrub the most soiled areas with a scrub brush attachment on a hand-held steamer.
But the floor steamer was getting harder and harder to push. It kept sticking, and the tile was picking up more and more grub. No matter what I did, my floors still looked dirty. So I started to research. I learned a lot about floors and even more about slate, and I figured out what our next home project had to be.
Important Notes About Slate
Slate is a highly porous natural stone material. If not properly polished or sealed, it will be extremely susceptible to liquid absorption and staining. Its surface has natural grooves and pockets (even in seemingly smooth tile) that will hold dirt and debris and pre-chewed food. The tile itself can be damaged and scratched by everyday grit and grime if it is not protected. This is why I could not clean my floor. The dirt is soaking into the tile, and the cleaning agents do, too.
There are several ways you can choose to handle this situation. You can ignore it until it is too late, like I did, or you can choose a protective measure for your slate.
- Polish or Wax—These are non-permanent solutions that will protect the surface of your tile from most minor spills and will make the floor easier to maintain and clean. They will need to be stripped and re-done periodically. From my personal experience, I'd estimate you will need to do so every six months in high traffic/abuse areas (like entryways or the kitchen). You can probably get away with once per year in other areas, especially if you do not wear shoes in the house.
- Penetrating or Impregnating Sealers—These sealers (as the name suggests) penetrate the surface of the tile or grout and sort of "fill up" all the little holes, making the material less porous and more able to withstand spills and debris and less likely to stain. Some of the penetrating sealers I came across were rated up to 15 years! Most penetrating sealers will not alter the look or color of the tile.
- Topical Sealers—This type of product does just what it says. It sits on top of the tile, sealing it and creating a barrier that prevents liquids and dirt from getting inside. This is the type of product that was recommended to me. I will be using Aquamix Seal and Finish Low Sheen. The company claims that this finish will last 3 years. But, more importantly to me, when it comes time to re-apply, you do not need to strip the old finish, just mop on another coat. Topical sealers generally do alter or enhance the look of your tile and are usually available in high gloss, low gloss, or, sometimes, matte varieties.
Many websites offer a step-by-step plan on how to strip and refinish any floor. What I hope to accomplish here is to add a few additional steps for those of us without unlimited time and money, and with marriages we'd like to keep intact.
First, approach your significant other with a plan. This is not the kind of job to do alone. You will need to move furniture, occupy children, and work with potentially dangerous chemicals. Unless you are still living in a tiny apartment with inflatable furniture and no kids, you'll need some help. Set aside a few days for the project, considering how large of an area you need to work with and what stage of marriage you are in. (If you are in the honeymoon phase, tack on a few days. C'mon, we all know how easily distracted you newlyweds are.) For our great room (living room and kitchen combined), we set aside three days, but it should have been four: two for stripping and two for sealing.
Keep in mind that after stripping, the floor will need to dry for 24 hours before sealing so that you don't seal any moisture into the floor. Many new topical sealers are "breathable" but only for normal moisture levels, not a freshly soaked floor. Also keep in mind that you will not be able to walk on the newly sealed floor for up to several hours and will not be able to place furniture there for up to 1/2 a day. You will need to figure this all into your schedule.
To strip the old polish, you will need:
- A chemical floor-polish stripper.
- An electrical floor buffer with the appropriate black stripping pad. (This if you choose to spend the money and save the back, which I highly recommend.) If you aren't stripping a large area or are tight on money, you can also use scrub brushes.
- Buckets for mixing stripper.
- Buckets for clean, cool water.
- A wetvac with a squeegee attachment for sopping up the stripper/polish slurry. If you are willing to put a little more work into it, you can also use a mop.
- Another mop for rinsing. Two if you and your significant other are not good at sharing.
- Goggles, a face mask, gloves, kneepads, or any other safety gear you feel is appropriate or that your bottle tells you to purchase.
- Read all instructions and follow the precautions listed in your chosen product.
- Make your spouse do the same. "Yeah, yeah, I'm sure it's fine, honey," is not going to cut it.
- Apply the stripper liberally to a workable area (you must be able to scrub and remove the "slurry" of stripper and polish before the stripper dries. If it dries, you have effectively put the polish back down on your floor and need to start over.) Let it set for the recommended time (usually about 10 minutes). Scrub vigorously or use the floor buffer with stripper pad. Be sure to get in corners and tight spaces with a hand brush.
- Clean up the sloppy mess on your floor. (You can apply the stripper to your next floor section while doing this so that it has time to soak in while you are working.)
- Rinse the floor once or twice with clean, cool water and a fresh mop.
- Patiently watch your spouse stretch and proclaim, "My back," while you continue cleaning. Do not suggest that he return to work, this is only the first section of floor. You still need him.
- Apply stripper to next section of floor and repeat.
- When you are finished with the whole floor, allow it to dry fully. Twenty-four hours is recommended.
- Order pizza. Your work is done for 24 hours. (Hey! Are the kids still at the babysitter you so cleverly arranged so you could get your work done? In that case, make it pizza and a beer, and why don't you rent a movie starring real people instead of cartoons while you're at it?)
Here, you can see the "slurry" and what the tile looks like afterward:
One of the three strippers we tried (um, yes, we ran into some issues) suggested that we "flood mop" the floor before the final rinse. In this process, after you soak up the "slurry," you fully re-wet your section with clean water and soak it up again. Then, you rinse with cool water and your mop. We found this to be extremely helpful. It left way fewer lines of polish from the slurry.
24 Hours Later: How to Seal Stone
Now comes the easy part: the re-sealing. One your floor is completely dry, it is time to put that permanent seal on top. It's tempting to speed through this process. Don't. You've put all the time and effort into the painful stripping; this is where it gets worthwhile. At this point, your floor will start to look better instead of worse.
Here are the steps:
- Read all instructions. (And, again, make your spouse do the same. If you tell him he can't leave puddles, it will cause an argument. If the bottle tells him, it must be true.)
- Plan where you will begin and where you will end. Be sure everything you need for the next few hours is at your ending point and that there is a door there. There is a waiting period before you can walk on the floor/apply a second coat. You will be much happier if you spend this waiting time near the couch and the TV instead of in a corner. Depending on how things are going so far, decide if you want to wind up in the same small area as your spouse or separate rooms.
- Apply the sealer to the floor. (Our instructions said to use a painter's sponge; we used mops, and it worked just fine and saved our backs.)
- If you want to apply a second coat, wait the allotted amount of time and do so.
The steps above are simple enough, but nothing ever goes as planned. In our house, Murphy's is the only law. If you'd like to learn from my mistakes, rather than your own, read on.
Plan how much time you think you will need for your project. Add two days. This is how much time you will actually need. I planned one day for stripping, and assumed we would be done by 3pm. Then we would wait till 3pm the next day and seal 1/2 the house, picking the kids up at daycare by 6pm. The next morning, we would drop them off, seal the rest of the house and have a blissful evening to ourselves for dinner and a movie. The reality? Stripping became a nightmare. We spent 2 full days doing it, finishing at 2:30 am on day 2. Meaning we couldn't start sealing until 2:30 am on our final project day. (I, by the way, had to be at work by 6:30 am the following day.)
If you can, find out what is actually on your floor by any means necessary. If I ever move, and that won't be anytime soon considering how much time I just put into re-doing my floor, I will ask the owner exactly what was used to treat any flooring. We assumed that the only thing on the floor was the polish the previous owner had told us to use. The reality? We think they originally sealed the floor and then polished on top of it. This means that after 2 days, 3 chemical strippers, a steamer, a brass brush, a professional buffing machine with stripper pad, and various attempts at scrubbing, we still had patches of some sort of sealer or polish on our floor. Stuck at a point of no return, we decided to attempt to seal over them and hope for the best. (So far, this seems to have worked out okay. If it holds, we're very lucky. If it doesn't, we'll be buying some new area rugs.)
Find a good janitorial supply place and make friends with a manager. I started my purchasing journey at Lowe's and Home Depot. This was fine for most of our supplies, but they didn't have the pads we needed for the buffer. The reality? Once we went to a janitorial supply place to get the pads, we found the manager there to be a very valuable resource. He advised us that the "industrial strength" stripper at the hardware store, was nowhere near as strong as the one on his shelf. He also suggested we buy an extra stripper pad and alternate them, rinsing in between. Getting the bristles unclogged in this manner and using a stonger stripper really helped.
Splurge a little. Unless money is really tight, and I mean really tight, get yourself a wet vac and a rent a floor buffer. I originally thought we would scrub the floor with bristle brushes by hand and soak up the "slurry" left after stripping with rags and a mop. The reality? My brilliant husband was amazing enough to insist that we borrow a buffing machine instead. I broke down and bought the $10 squeegee attachment for our wet vac. I'm fairly certain that our sanity would not have survived this process without those two items. (The hand scrubbing might be all right if you are only doing a small area. We were attempting about 1,000 square feet.)
Take the time to make your sealer application very even. Toss down the polish with a sponge! Easy, right? The reality? Applying that second coat is a lot like painting (or putting on nail polish). There's a fine line between too much and too little, and the resultant streaks show up in the final product. Take your time (but not so much time the sealer gets tacky while you work with it), and, if you have to break the project in two, choose a stopping point that makes sense. We had to leave out one small section of the room where we had moved all of our big furniture pieces. The overlap line between day 1's polish and day 2's polish is obvious. Luckily, it lines up with where our couch goes, but it would have been better if we'd been careful to polish up to a specific grout line so we had a starting point for day 2.
Collect your resources. I did my research ahead. I spent weeks online reading forums and talking to co-workers. I thought I knew every detail. The reality? Questions came up. We were uncertain of how the tile should look when we were done stripping. We needed to know if we could seal after 20 hours instead of the recommended 24, etc. This is one area we did right. I chose a sealer (Aquamix) that had a fantastic technical support line. (Thank you, Barbara!) The 800 number was right on the bottle, and they actually had answers. I also made use of the knowledge of the janitorial supply manager mentioned above. When all else failed, and I needed advice, I even called a few local flooring contractors and picked their brains. If you are polite and gracious (and mindful that their time is money), I find most people who have some level of expertise will be willing to share it with you.
At the end of the day (actually four days) my husband and I finished the biggest DIY project we have yet attempted. It was exhausting and frustrating, like most major home projects. But last night, I spilled some water on the floor, and it beaded up instead of soaking in! I nearly did a jig. And this morning when I got up, I was greeted by a shining, clean and "un-foodified" floor. Hopefully, the floor will continue to look as good as it does today, and the time I save in maintenance going forward will more than make up for the four crazy days I spent cleaning, sealing and stripping.
Oh, and in case you were wondering—I'm still married.