There is a lot of advice on practical treatments for repairing and restoring old pine floorboards, but only a few don’t involve a lot of cost or arcane techniques, or drastic and inappropriate treatments. Some of the low cost measures are the most effective though. My favourites are distressed painted floor finishes treated with nothing more than wax (but less the challenge of carefully exposing it from under obdurate layers of lino or impossibly tacky carpet glue.)
The temptation to replace or to sand, when for example previous tenants have ruined a floor by careless lifting and replacement may well be great, but is to be resisted. Also never entrust the task of occasional repairs to plumbers and electricians, or anyone else that doesn’t know or care. If they must do the work discuss it with them first and supervise them during the lifting and replacement, don’t go and make them tea.
There are times when replacement is the only choice – e.g. the floor has been already replaced with chipboard, substantial sections have been seriously damaged perhaps through repeated, but careless access/placement of services or doubling of rotten joists, use of ugly modern thin boards have been used as lazy replacements. Partial replacement can work too. The honest repair is perfectly acceptable (just make sure your new boards have done most of their shrinking!).
God knows how many insensitive flooring treatments there are and how difficult it may be to remove them, but more often than not judicious removal will allow you to substantially retain the original floor. It is surprising what you can do with a 2 hundred year old floor, with light touch repairs, even when it looks quite unpromising. We are assuming here that the floor is not going to be subjected to the humiliation of laminate flooring or wall to wall carpet, rather at least a proportion of the floor will be visible and on show. Due to furniture and rugs, some of the horrors and imperfections will not be as noticeable – so bear this in mind and concentrate your efforts on the visible sections.
Reclaimed or new?
A full replacement using modern or reclaimed boards is radical but sometimes necessary. Choosing suitable flooring is tricky and you’ll have to set yourself some ground rules, some of which will be imposed by the house you are repairing – it may be a Listed building. In some parts of the country you’ll find it harder to find suitable like for like replacement boards of similar thickness and width – or enough to cover your space. Shop around as prices vary from the ridiculously expensive to the bargain (pick up only – which means you need somewhere to store it immediately).
Probably the next best thing is a reclaimed floor of similar ilk, ie that will blend in, perhaps after some additional surface treatment. Reclaimed floors involve quite a lot more work as the wood may require denailing and the tongues cleaned – get this done before hand and examine carefully the stock or you’ll be landed with someone’s waste or be short-changed. If you have a small room an old pitch pine job might be a compromise, even if the boards are narrower than elsewhere. Typically slightly narrower boards might have been used to infill small rooms anyway, but chose wisely. A gym floor has probably been sanded – whereas those dirty old brown boards from an old school may already have the finish that you are looking for, but which just need a little bit of work for it to be revealed. If you are replacing a chipboard floor in a kitchen, dining or living area – then a new floor might be an option.
SPABs technical note 3: Timber floorboads should be adhered to. If you find that boards have been moved around the house, it will be impossible to return them to the rightful place. Don’t obsess, as the chances are the reason they been moved is they no longer fit snugly – and anyway you’ll be looking to find new homes for ones that have been lazily replaced. Slight thickness differences can be catered for with a very sharp axe and shaving off a small amount where it rests on the joist. Use the bigger shavings to even out the levels. Superficial damage such as dints and dents are not a problem as they will infill with your wax stain and polish. Larger holes can be filled with a proprietary wax or your own beeswax concoction. Large splinters can be glued and carefully nailed and all sorts of end and other breakages can be subtly repaired. Other problems may be concealed by rugs and furniture. Surface imperfections are mainly a worry for bare feet – check for delaminating boards that have been cut straight down the middle and nasty edge splinters, remove or glue / nail down. Otherwise the imperfections should be left and will give the surface character.
A japanese pull saw and Fein saw are handy aids for board repairs, like for quickly shaping a small block, removing tongues and straightening up ill-considered cuts. And remember not to chuck out or burn the small stuff quite yet – it may well have a use in the next room. Avoid modern fillers, unless there’s a compelling reason to use them. You’ll obviously need to take extra care around services. You will spend a good amount of time making good any problems along the way, for plumbers and electricians take far more short cuts than is good for you. Revert to their advice if in any doubt, but only about areas they are competent in!
If whole sections need to be replaced, check there are none lurking in your basement, cellars or sheds before you ask neighbours and friends, especially the hoarders whose wife’s will give you encouragement, along with extra cakes and tea. Check your local Freecycle on the off chance. If you cannot find reclaimed ones that will suit, measure up carefully and get the boards made up by a friendly joinery shop. You can dispense with tongues to save a bit of money or for small infill jobs – getting them to match with the old can be a headache. These new boys are almost certainly going to shrink, so jam them in nice and snug but with damaging the other boards. In fact the conventional wisdom is to let your boards settle in for a week or so before fitting. My advice is don’t let them hang around too long or they may start to cup. Secret nail larger sections and pilot the hole before nailing into reclaimed wood if you find it is splitting. Countersink if you are screwing down, a good idea if you predict the boards are going to come up again! Don’t overdo it or you’ll be spending more time filling! If you have a choice you can always stick the new boards under the rugs, but don’t worry as honest repairs are cool.
Removing old flooring / finishes
Patience in abundance is necessary. Gloves too or you’ll be cursing a lot or spending time with your favourite nurse down in casualty. There’s no recipe here, but you should have an array of scrapers to hand – large and small. Wide chisels, blunt ones especially are handy as are conventional cabinet scrapers – but save these till last. The Hamilton wallpaper scraper has its use too if you are dealing with carpet glues and tiles. Denailing should be attempted before embarking on scraping, but often enough you won’t find the nails until you start scraping. Small nails can be removed by gripping with wire cutters and the holes will infill easily – at worst bash them in a bit further out of harms way.
When removing seriously glued coverings some splintering is unavoidable. A bit of friction can warm up a glue layer and it may peel off more easily. Don’t use cellulose thinners, except very sparingly in very localised patches. Cement on wood will come off, but take care where it has been used to fill cracks and holes, rather than for levelling (why would anyone do that?).
Old paints and stains used around the edges will give you a clue as to your desired old floor look. So here use the scraper more judiciously or if in reasonable nick not at all. Avoid wet treatments on wood. It is recommended that you don’t use electric sanders, but if you work quickly and lightly with a small orbital sander you can avoid removing excessive paint or wood. I’m assuming here that recent plasterers and builders have mixed up all sorts of muck here and that you are not concealing an unusual painted floor decoration in an A listed home. You may well ask: how would you know? Well until you do know, proceed cautiously and with greater care.
I personally like retaining an old distressed look. That distressed look can be accentuated with a wax polish – my favourite is the Auro Hard Wax, which is a delight to use – it is probably edible too, though I wouldn’t recommend it.
If you have a number of flooring histories competing for attention it makes it difficult to chose which look to retain. An easy way out is to make this into a feature. Even though it may look a bit hotch-potch, there’s no reason why not in corridors that are going to have rugs.
Depending on what exactly you are trying to conceal, there is probably little harm in reproducing the main distressed look over the areas you want to hide, provided you use water based stains – which can be removed easily. Again I would recommend Auro Woodstains. They take a little getting used to as the colours change depending on the surfaces you are working with and the colour charts are somewhat approximate. I tend to have between 3 and 5 colours open and blend them as I work. It is easy to achieve a variety of effects from painted wood, to a painted ‘wood effect’ through to a simple stain. I often let it dry for 24 hours or more and apply a darker coat last if I want to reveal lighter / older layers. You can do this with or without an intervening scraping and sanding to give a more distressed / worn finish. Finish with the Auro Hard Wax. Steal a good quality linen dishcloth to apply ever so sparingly. The polished glossy effect dulls reasonably quickly. Don’t be impatient and do not walk on it for at least 24 hours.
If you are repairing the floor it may be an idea to get the services checked at the same time. It is an opportunity to inspect and tidy up. But don’t tidy too much. I always leave some rubbish (artefacts) for posterity, but draw the line at the fish and chip wrappings and large volumes of rubble which threaten the ceilings below (boy I’ve seen some!). And I occasionally leave an artefact that I found, e.g. Woodbine Cigarette Packets from the Great Exhibition and when I remember I add to them. I should really add a note about draughtproofing too, but perhaps that deserves an article in its own right.