Inevitably there comes a time when your hardwood floors start to look a little worn and in need of refreshment. You contact your friendly flooring pro, who asks, “Do they need to be just refinished or entirely resurfaced?” Say what?

Although the terms sound alike (and are sometimes used interchangeably), among contractors refinishing and resurfacing floors do mean two distinct things, with different processes and different price tags. Both can be performed on a variety of wood floors, including traditional hardwood and engineered wood (aka veneers). Here’s how to distinguish between refinishing and resurfacing.

What is refinishing a hardwood floor?

Refinishing a floor basically means giving it a facelift. Refinishing a floor involves:

  • removing the floor’s current varnish, seal and stain
  • sanding down the floor’s top layer, to expose the bare wood and its natural grain
  • applying a fresh stain and lacquer or varnish
  • applying a new coat of sealant

Since it’s a somewhat superficial operation, “refinishing” can be done on a variety of floor types, including tile and laminate — though the exact process differs, depending on the surface. If you have an engineered wood floor — that is, a veneer of natural hardwood wood covering a plywood or synthetic core — it can only be refinished two or three times (depending on the veneer’s thickness), before you expose the core.

What is resurfacing a hardwood floor?

Resurfacing involves all of the above, but more. If refinishing is a cosmetic job, resurfacing is more of a structural one. It comes into play when there’s actual damage to the wood, the wood planks, and/or the fasteners (nails).

Resurfacing the floor means repairing it: removing and replacing planks, grinding planks down to even them out, reinforcing the floor with new nails. After all that is done, then the floor can be refinished — sanded down, stained, varnished and sealed.

When to resurface vs refinish wood floors

If the floors are in good condition — just looking worn and somewhat scuffed or dull — then refinishing may be your best option. In fact, you might even be able to get away with just recoating them, which skips the sanding process and involves buffing and applying a new topcoat.

Refinishing can help breathe new life into an area of flooring that’s worn out and in need of a refresh. It’s ideal for floors that aren’t structurally compromised and that are still structurally sound, but not up-to-date.

In contrast, if a floor needs more than a facelift, you need to resurface it — that is, replace the old materials. Signs the floor needs resurfacing include:

  • Extreme fading, discoloration or uneven color
  • Cracks, holes or missing pieces
  • Signs of rot or water damage
  • Warped, sagging or bent boards
  • Missing or bent nails

Costs of refinishing and resurfacing floors

There are many factors that go into the average cost of refinishing or resurfacing floors including the square footage, the shape of the floor, the type of wood and local labor costs. In general, though, refinishing runs $3 to $8 per square foot; the national average range for a job costs $1,075 to $2,520, according to HomeAdvisor. A simple recoating will cost much less: $1 to $2 per square foot, according to FlooringStores, an online specialist.

Not surprisingly, resurfacing will cost more than refinishing, since you’ll have the repair and replacement expenses in addition. How much more can vary tremendously, depending on the nature and extent of the damage. In general, though, hardwood floor repair costs typically run from $450 to $1,500, estimates HomeAdvisor.

Even so, that’s a lot less than the cost to replace a hardwood floor entirely, which averages anywhere from $2,500 to $6,800.

DIY or use a pro?

Depending on the extent of your floors, refinishing may take a few days. Resurfacing may take a few weeks.

That’s if a floor specialist does it. It’ll probably take longer if you try to do the job yourself. Refinishing is not out of a DIYer’s league; though it is a messy, smelly business, it mainly requires an orbital sander. Unless you’re an experienced carpenter, resurfacing on your own is not recommended. It requires a whole toolbox of gear, including power saws, grinders and nail guns.

Bottom line on refinishing vs resurfacing floors

If your floor is merely scratched and scuffed, you’re better off refinishing than resurfacing it. That’ll restore its original shine, and it’s less invasive. Instead of removing the old flooring materials entirely, refinishing involves removing only the top layer of your existing flooring (including the finish), and then replacing it with a new layer.

However, if the floor is in noticeably bad shape, you’ll probably want to restructure it instead. It will cost more and be a more time-consuming process, but it will in effect create a whole new surface.

No matter which method you choose, you shouldn’t let your floor go too long without being properly maintained.