Fine Hardwood Floors
Serving San Francisco and the North Bay
Tim's Quarterly Newsletter
"Restoring the Antique Floor"
Most homes built from the early 1900's through the mid-1940's have douglas fir flooring. The boards will be 1" thick by 3 1/8" wide. There's a good chance that half the homes have 2" x 1/4" oak strip flooring nailed down on top of the fir.
The reason why this was done is because the fir is quite soft and it's not considered a hardwood. After everyone saw that the furniture was scratching and denting the fir floor, people tried painting the wood. The problem with painting the wood is that no wood grain was able to show through the paint.
So the solution in the early 1920's was to add new oak strip flooring on top of the fir, usually accompanied by "intercrete" picture frame borders around the rooms. Some also having small strips of walnut or dark wood enhancing the border.
Sometimes you can re-sand the oak, and there's a 50-50 chance that it will turn out. If it does, it can be quite beautiful. Most pieces are rift, quarter-sawn or clear. But if you find that the oak flooring is too thin to re-do, there still may be hope for the fir floor underneath.
After 50 to 100 years, the douglas fir actually hardens up and it becomes almost as hard as new red oak. But it's not all downhill from there. First you will need to take up the old oak flooring. Then, get the roughest sandpaper they make, and grind off the old paint. It will have lead in it, so you will need to have a good respirator.
The next issue is that homes built back then had a two-foot joist span. There probably will be momevent in your floor. The solution to stop the movement is by adding a 2x6 under and between the joist and the floor. If no access is available, try nailing the floor through the top into the existing joists with a small finish nailer, add two nails per board along the joist. Snap chalk lines along these areas to help keep your nail lines straight.
Most likely, there will be long cracks in between the boards. If you are unable to apply extra 2x6 joists, do not bother to fill the cracks. With a two foot span the putty will pop out. Remember, you're going for the old look, so keep continuity throughout.
There will probably be a lot of discolored boards. Keeping these will add to the character of the floor. Only replace the rotten wood. Recycled flooring is available through salvage shops and various wholesalers, and at lumber yards.
As far as color goes, natural tends to to show everything. A diluted cherry or rosewood stain gives you that original look, without having to wait for the natural to age. Also the floor will be quite thirsty, so four or five coats of polyurethane is definitely recommended.
Add a few throw rugs, and some antiques, and the original look is restored.
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