My company is featured in the April/May 2014 edition of Fine Homebuilding Magazine for the unique way we repair historic hardwood floors. Here is a large portion of the article available for free only to The Craftsman Blog family. Enjoy!
Other than refinishing hardwood floors, the most common repair my restoration company gets called to do is floorboard replacement. The most typical reasons we replace boards are due to termite or water damage, pet stains that almost blacken the boards to a point sanding won’t fix, and when customers are making changes to the floorplan that involve the removal of interior walls.
My goal is to find replacement boards that match the existing floor, and integrate them for a natural appearance. It’s a time-consuming job—one that takes skill and patience—but the payoff is another 100 years or more of use without resorting to an unfortunate solution: covering up the old floor with carpet, vinyl, or another layer of wood. The best sign of success for a restoration carpenter is for nobody to know you were ever there.
Identifying Wood and its Installation
When I get called to look at a floor-repair job, the first thing I look at is the species of the wood. Here in Florida, old homes I come across usually have heart-pine, red-oak, white-oak flooring, or occasionally Douglas fir.
There are online guides to identifying wood species, but this part of the job is a hard thing to teach. In truth, experience is the best teacher.
I can usually identify the species by examining the grain of the planks, and I know some people who can determine the species by the smell of the sawdust or weight of the boards. When in doubt, remove a couple of boards and bring them to the salvage yard for help in finding a match.
The second thing I look for is whether the joints of the floorboards are randomly spaced, or set consistently at 16-in. or 24- in. on center. Consistently-spaced joints are usually an indication that there’s no subfloor under the hardwood floor; it’s fastened directly to the framing. In my area of Florida this is common to the oldest homes (1890s and earlier) or homes in the low-end working-class neighborhoods built from the 1900s to the 1940s.
If there is a subfloor, I can use the replacement boards more efficiently, staggering the joints wherever I need. Without a subfloor, I have to use lengths in 16-in. or 24-in. increments, not to mention being careful not to fall through the floor while I’m working on large repairs. Also, in homes without subfloors, the planks run underneath the interior walls instead of butting against them, which means far more hassle when it comes to removing and replacing each piece.
Finding the Best Match
When it comes to finding replacement boards that will blend with the rest of the floor, you have a few options. In the case of this project, we got lucky. The second floor of the house had been gutted by a previous owner and the old flooring had been left behind, so we had a full stack of original floorboards to choose from. If we didn’t have that luxury, the next choice would have been to start shopping around for a match.
Don’t expect to get a good match just by driving to the local supplier to pick up some new wood of the same species. Wood will look different depending on where it was grown, when it was harvested, and how it was milled. For the best match, I rely on an architectural salvage yard. But first, you need to arm yourself with as much information about the existing floorboards as possible.
Start by taking careful measurements of the existing boards. In my experience, the width needs to be pretty accurate for a good fit and a satisfying match. Around here, depending on the house I’m working on, I’ve seen heart-pine boards in 21⁄4-in., 23⁄8-in., and 21⁄2-in. widths. Why they decided to have such minimal differences is beyond me, but they do make a difference, so measure carefully. Luckily, this is a pretty easy measurement to take right from the finished surface of the floor.
Accuracy is less crucial for the thickness of repair boards; as long as you’re within an 1⁄8 in. or so, the sanding should remedy any slight differences. That said, a thicker replacement board is better than one that’s not thick enough.
To measure the thickness, you’ll need to get creative. I typically look for floor grates or a piece of baseboard I can remove in order to get an accurate measurement of the cross section of the flooring.
Pay attention to the position of the tongue of the board, too. Generally, the tongue is right in the middle of most floorboards, but, sometimes, with thicker 7⁄8-in.- or 1-in.-thick boards, the tongue can be just below center, which allowed the boards to be sanded and refinished more times before replacement became necessary. You need enough thickness above the tongue to match the rest of the floor, but the more crucial dimension is the distance between the tongue and the bottom of the board.
Finally, you need to find an appropriate grain and color match. For instance, if the floorboards in the house are quarter sawn, then a replacement board with flat sawn grain will stick out like a sore thumb. The same holds true when comparing heartwood with sapwood. Some heart-pine floors have a lot of deep-red heartwood and others are a bit more yellow.
When searching salvage yards for a match, it helps to find out the date that the house was built. If the homeowner isn’t sure, check the property-appraiser’s website, or visit the town hall. This piece of information means I can look for replacement boards at the salvage yard that are from the same decade. If a decade match is not possible, I at least look for similar grain patterns.
Should you, despite searching, find new boards that are close but not quite perfect, there’s still a backdoor. In these cases, I like to borrow flooring from a closet or pantry to do the more visible repair, and then put the new wood in these more remote locations where it will be less noticeable. It means more repair work, but the payoff is worth it.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.