Choosing A Traditional Floor

Editorial & Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper

There are many reasons for replacement of a wooden floor in a traditional home.  Small repairs to existing floors may be required due to damage from a leak around a hot water radiator, vents that are no longer in use, or a wall that has been moved (see Image 1 & 2).  Wholesale replacement may be required because of catastrophic water damage (for example rebuilding a wreck that has had a breached roof) or, in a worst case scenario, a fire.  Many times, floors become seriously unsafe because they wear thin through unsympathetic sanding.  Or perhaps some clod at some point in time has decided to tear up the floor and opt for plywood and carpet!

All is not lost, though. There are many architectural salvage companies that supply beautifully reclaimed first growth softwood and hardwood floors.  Some provide just the material and others supply both the material and the installation.

Structural issues (see Image 3) need to be remedied prior to laying a new floor. This project by Historic Lumber (see Image 4) was to lay a beautiful reclaimed tongue and groove pine floor, gently sand it and in Image 5, finish it to bring back its lustre and character. The floor looks like it has been in this remodelled kitchen for 100 years.

Houses built in Ontario, during the early to mid-19th century,  usually have a 1 3/8” + thick, tongue and groove pine flooring (traditionally painted), whereas, the tradition on the east coast, especially in Nova Scotia, is square planks (devoid of a tongue and groove).  House builders in the Arts & Crafts period (the last quarter of the 19th century to the mid-1920’s) sought out hardwoods for flooring − the strips becoming narrower and narrower as the 19th century came to a close.

There were also many early manufacturers of what was called “wood carpet,” a canvas backed hardwood that was simply rolled out over existing floors (during a renovation) and tacked around the edges.  These so-called wood carpets have issues, as they are very thin and for the most part cannot be sanded (see finishing sidebar).  Before considering any type of sanding, check the thickness of your hardwood by pulling up a heat register in your floor.  There are companies that do not use sanding unless it is the last resort.

There is a huge trend today to install so-called engineered flooring or laminate flooring.  How do I put this in a nice way?  They are rubbish!  A picture of some wood slapped on a piece of medium density fibreboard (MDF) is not suitable for a traditional home. Moreover, it is not sustainable, as I have seen these floors wear-out in less than seven years!  What is truly green, what is truly sustainable, is good quality timber flooring that will last a lifetime − no, not for the present owner, rather for the life of the house!

Sidebar Finishing:

The sanding of deal (softwood) floors can reduce their structural integrity and make them unsafe. Remember, the flooring is part of the structural floor system of the house, each time you sand it becomes weaker and soon has to be replaced. This is why, historically, floors of deal were always protected by many layers of paint and not a clear finish.

The same caution applies to hardwood floors, especially thin hardwood. Over-sanding can make them very unstable and subject to cupping and splintering (most are only 3/8” thick).

Thought must also be given when choosing a floor finish. A plastic or urethane finish acts as a vapour barrier in which moist air from crawl spaces and basements can cup and distort floors that cannot breathe. A natural varnish or oil and wax finish is preferred and required in older homes.

Sidebar Solution:

Repair the floor surfaces in-situ. Hand-sand heavy gouges and under-fill large imperfections with a two part epoxy. Finish with a coloured wax repair crayon and protect with a beeswax finish. If a complete refinish is desired, employ the least amount of sanding possible and finish with a natural product.

Sidebar Flooring & Pricing

With respect to pricing of antique lumber, it is all based on how it has been salvaged and in what condition the material is in after it has been salvaged. Stockists have provided me with prices that range from as little as $5.00 a square foot to $50.00 a square foot ( material only).

However always remember when thinking of sustainability and for the future, you get what you pay for and one should never skimp on something they will use every single day of their lives! Cheers, Cooper.

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