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How To: Repair Hardwood Floors

How To: Repair Hardwood FloorsHardwood floors are synonymous with old homes. It’s almost impossible to find an old home without them. And yet, they are disappearing because people don’t realize how resilient and long-lasting they are. Unknowing homeowners and contractors rip out or cover up these amazing floors when they could be saved and used for another 100+ years!

Other than refinishing hardwood floors, the most typical repair we run into is board replacement. It may seem daunting to remove a tongue and groove floor board without damaging the neighboring boards, but with a couple tricks of the trade I’ll teach you to get it done yourself if you are a brave DIY warrior.

And don’t miss my little secret to a perfect match at the end!

Stained hardwood floorsStep #1 Remove the Damaged Boards

Whether it’s termites or pet stains, some boards will inevitably be beyond saving. When you find these boards, you’ll have to remove them completely and find a suitable replacement (more on this later). It’s also important to take the entire board, or at least stagger the joints like in the picture below. This will allow the patch to blend in seamlessly with the existing floor. You’ll need a few tools to get the job done too:

    1. Circular Saw
    2. Hammer
    3. Cat’s Paw/Trim Pry Bar
    4. Wood Chisel
    5. Multi-Tool (recommended)
    6. Brad Nailer
  • Mark the Boards – I mark the specific boards I will be removing very clearly along their entire length so there are no mistakes.
  • Determine Thickness – You need to find out how thick they are (*this is important*). You need to know how thick the boards are so you can set the depth of the cut on your circular saw properly. Most old wood floors are between 1/2″ and 1″. The best place to find the depth is to remove a floor heat register or pull up a threshold. The threshold is less fun.
  • Set Saw Depth – Once you know the thickness of your flooring, set your circular saw to just a hair deeper than the thickness of the flooring (about 1/32″).
  • Cut 2 Lines Make 2 parallel plunge cuts into the floor board along its length with the circular saw. Start and finish as close as you can to the ends without crossing into the next board. You’ll essentially be cutting the board into three slimmer boards. One piece will have the tongue, one piece the groove, and the middle piece will be free floating.
  • Finish Cut With Multi-Tool – To finish the cut, you need a multi-tool or chisel. Cut the small amount of wood remaining to the end of the board so that all three pieces of the board are completely independent of each other.
  • Remove the Pieces – The middle piece should come out easily with a pry bar or even your fingers. The groove side will likely need a bit more coaxing with your pry bar. The tongue side will have been nailed down and so you’ll need to use the cat’s paw to either dig out the nails or simply tear the remaining piece out. This side usually breaks a few times on its way out.
  • Clean Up – Vacuum out all the saw dust and make sure the tongue and groove of the remaining boards are clear of any remaining wood and in good shape.

Step #2 Install the Replacement BoardsHardwood floor repair

So, now that it’s all cleaned up and free of any damaged boards, you need to patch the floor with your replacement boards. If your replacement boards are not the EXACT same width and thickness as the originals, the repair will not work at all. Don’t think something close will suffice. Here is the way to get the boards into place properly.

  • Measure & Cut to Length – Measure the length you need to replace and cut your replacement to size. It will need to be tight so if anything, don’t cut it short. Cut it long and sneak up on it if you must.

To replace just a few boards:

  • Remove the Groove – You’ll need to remove the bottom half of the groove on your replacement board. I usually use a table saw to cut it off cleanly, but a wood chisel or hand plane will work fine. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just don’t hurt the top of the board. This is only to be done if you are replacing just a few boards. For larger sections see the instructions in the following section.
  • Insert Tongue Side First – Insert the replacement piece tongue side first into the existing flooring. It will require some force to get it into place, but don’t be too aggressive. Sometime a piece of scrap lumber can be used as a beater board so you can gently hammer the piece in place with scarring the surface.
  • Face Nail in Place – Once the board is seated properly and flush with the existing floor, you can nail it in place. I put two 1 1/2″ brads on each end and then every 16-24″ alternating sides. Keep in mind that since we removed the bottom half of the groove, the only thing holding that side down in the nail. So you may need a couple more nails on the groove side if the board isn’t perfectly snugged down at first.

 To replace a large section:

Wood floor board replacement

  • Insert Groove Side First – If you’re doing a large section, you should install the groove side first. There is no need to remove the groove. Simply fit the replacement’s groove into the existing board’s tongue. Use a beater board and hammer to make sure it is fully seated and snug.
  • Blind Nail – With this technique you can now blind nail the board in place by nailing through the tongue into the subfloor or floor joist. Do this every 16″ or every where you have a joist if there is no subfloor.
  • The Last Board – In order the set the final board, you will have to follow the instructions above about removing the groove. and continue on from there.

Step #3 Refinish the Repair

Once the boards are in place, the only way to have a seamless match is to refinish the whole floor. This will take care of any high or low spots and will also ensure a consistent finish throughout.

If you replaced just a couple boards, you may be able to finish them prior to installing, but they will still look slightly different. If a full refinishing is beyond your reach or price range right now then just relax. The replacement boards will be fine until the time to refinish works with your budget. Until then, you’ll just have to enjoy the fact that you don’t have crumbling or badly stained boards anymore!

A Few More Tips

Now you have the basics for replacing damaged boards on your hardwood floors. It has always been a fairly easy repair for me to do, but as I wrote the instructions down, I began to realize how much there was to think about! It really is fairly straight forward, I promise.

You may just want to print out this list to set beside you if you decide to take this on. I’ll also be putting together a video very soon of the process for those of you who are visual learners like me! But here’s a few more things to think about before you start:

    1. Get the same species of wood – This kind of goes without saying, but you need replacement boards of the same species of wood, otherwise they won’t match. The 3 types of historic flooring I run across the most often are heart pine, red oak, and white oak.
    2. Get the same age of floorsThis is my little secret to make your floors match PERFECTLY! Wood has changed a lot over the decades and centuries. If you put red oak from 1995 next to red oak from 1925, next to red oak from 1795, all three will look very different. Try to find replacement boards from the same decade from architectural salvage.
    3. Subfloor or not – Some old houses have subfloors and some do not. If you start taking up boards and don’t find a subfloor, don’t panic. It is more difficult, but can be done just the same. Your replacement boards will just have to end and start on a floor joist. Also, be careful not to fall through!

Alright, that’s it! You now know pretty much everything I know about hardwood flooring repair from this VERY long post. Now go get busy saving that old house!

 Photos: © Austin Home Restorations

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66 thoughts on “How To: Repair Hardwood Floors

  1. Scott,
    That is a great synopsis of the repair process. There is one tiny piece missing, and that is how deep to set face nails in a small repair. I know that it is deeper than most people think, but I am not sure how deep to make it or how to explain that. Setting nails is crucial if you are getting your floors refinished. Sanders that hit nail heads quickly wear out the sandpaper I hear. If you already responded to this in the lengthy comments, could you move it into the main blog? Thanks!

  2. I found this blog after searching for more info on ways to repair our hardwood floors. This was a very helpful post and I pinned it for future reference. After each of my children moved out we discovered several surface scratches on their bedroom floors. I’ve been hiding them with rugs but not anymore – thanks!

  3. I am in the process of repairing hardwood floors and the replacement boards are about 1mm less thick than the original boards. Is there a way to fix that? Is it s simple as sanding it down to match?

  4. I have an old house and want to refinish the pine floors. There are spaces between the boards, mostly 1/8 inch or so but up to 1/2 inch for short runs (splits or chips) in some areas. The cracks fill with dirt/debris over time and look unsightly. I have seen refinished floors with the cracks filled. If stained to match it can look good. Can you recommend a good filler that will resist cracking as the floor flexes.

  5. Remove dirt, scuffs and stains from vinyl floors with these easy cleaning and maintenance tips from DIY experts.

  6. Its change the overall look of home. I found your blog recently while researching information on floor sanding and staining. Thanks for making a wonderful blog. I love your straight to the point tips.
    Straight edge hardwood

  7. Thank you for the post, Scott! I just bought a 1953 home with original oak hardwood hiding under some hideous carpet and linoleum. One room has some pretty remarkable pet stains. If I can’t get the stains out with oxyalic acid I’ll try to pull up the stained boards and weave in pieces from the bedroom closets. Thank you for the tips! Your advice is simple and frank, but encouraging.

  8. I have quite long (20′ and 12′) boards. I would like to cut sections out to replace. Someone had cut a hole for a heat register that was moved quite some time ago.
    How would you “weave” in new boards for a section in the middle of the floor? I have ten of these to do…
    ———–
    ————-
    ———–
    ————-
    would you cut the tongue off the area of the board you are trying to slide in between the other two?
    Thank you,

  9. Scott, my 1868 farmhouse has no sub floors and I am replacing boards that are termite damaged that go under the baseboard and are nailed to a joist. What the best way to remove these boards and install new ones? I’m not replacing the entire floor just the ones that are damaged. Im familiar with the process of cutting out the middle etc but I’m stumped on how to get the boards out that are tucked under the base board.

  10. Scott, thanks for your tips. I am happy that I found your post. My floor is in a sorry state and I was about to call for the craftsmen. But now I will try to do it by myself. I hope things will turn out well for me)
    Regards,
    https://www.chcompressors.com/

  11. I never imagined anyone would ask this question. A circular saw is powerful and cuts wood much faster than a carpenter’s handsaw. Some skill and practice is required to cut accurately with a circular saw. This saw guide is a quick and easy way to achieve a great deal of precision with a common circular saw that many would think impossible and that approaches the accuracy of a table saw, given some patience. These things are especially important for the home woodworker who dreams of owning a table saw, but cannot afford one.

  12. I have a home built on 1910. Heart pine floors are reclaimed from barges or ships in the early 1900’s. The bottom stair tread and some other boards on the landing have teredo worm damage. according to the realtor Victorian homes here in Richmond Va, often have this and it was considered expensive and coveted. The 89 year old grandson of the original owner, says the ” ship worm” became apparent in the 1940’s. Leading me to believe it was puttied and painted. I can’t find anyone willing to replace the double quarter round stair tread. Is there any information about the best way to cover the damage. Should I use a putty and faux paint it?

  13. We have historic home completed in 1880. It has intricate hard wood floors with a unique design. I hesitate to call it parquet. It uses two to three different color wood. Would they have used stain or would it just be three different woods? I’d love to send you a picture. If you email me I will. I’d love to see what you make of it. We’d like to refinish, but we can’t stain it unless we pull the boards up and I’m too scared to do that to it. Thanks.

  14. we are restoring a 1928 home with hardwood floors. Can’t sand and refinish at this time. What is the best way to thoroughly clean and rejuvenate them?

  15. I had 8″ wide red oak installed when renovating my house. I thought it was acclimated; but the boards have cupped noticeably, particularly on the first floor (above the crawl space). I have closed cell foam sprayed between the joists in the crawl space, so I don’t know how the boards could’ve swelled. Is there any hope for these floors?

    1. Newer wood floors are not quite as stable as the old growth wood so wide boards have a tendency to cup. Keep watch of the humidity levels in the house to help prevent it and also nail and glue wide boards during install to help prevent cupping. At this point it depends how bad the cupping is whether it will be able to sand out in a refinishing.

  16. Our home was built in 1964’wonderful home, but the hardwood floors upstairs squeak only in some places not all.
    Any help in solving this problem would be wonderful

  17. Hi Jeremy, as part of a closet redo project I had to move the existing door opening to one side which left a 13 and 5/8″ wide gap in the oak floor ( comparable to 6- 2 and 1/4″ wide floorboards. The length of the boards if they were all even would be about 5 1/2″ long. To just put in 6 short boards would look bad of course without staggering the lengths as you recommend. My question is, have you ever just cut the remaining boards out and installed a one piece threshold perpendicular to the existing floor boards instead using in this case 1×6 red oak? Thanks for your feedback. Mark

  18. Scott thanks for the article. I’d love any tips you would have for my predicament. We own a 50’s home in Louisiana. My wife and I have removed a partition wall. We have red oak hardwood flooring in both rooms and both room’s floors appear to be laid from the same starting point (our threshold allows our wood to extend into each room). After we removed all the flooring that will be replaced we noticed the joints do not exactly line up between the two rooms. Any ideas on how to lace the flooring together easiest? My first thought would be to do every other strip and line them up. Then work on the pieces between, kinda cut my work in half.

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