Refinishing 100 yr old white pine floor

YardleyJuly 14, 2011

Hello! We recently purchased our first home, a 100+ year old cozy little town house with great wide plank pine floors. A local restored wood place from which we ordered a few replacement planks told us it is white pine. The living room floor is in pretty rough shape compared to the rest of the house and we want to have it refinished. I've had two floor guys come take a look and they've both suggested polyurethane, seems like that's the standard. I'd love to hear suggestions as to how to go about refinishing the floor and what products to use. I don't want anyone to damage these beautiful old floors! We also want them to look as close to the rest of the house as possible after they're refinished. Here is a picture of the living room floor now, this is the section we're going to repair with the restored wood planks.

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Our 100+ year old floors are fir. They were sanded and coated with spar varnish, which has a nice look for old floors. I think poly tends to look plastic, especially the water-based poly. I would test the poly before you do the whole floor.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2011 at 4:50PM
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You have many options...there really is no standard or 'right way' to finish wood flooring. Research the myriad of products out there to get an overview. You will be amazed at the different products used to finish wood.

Whatever you decide as your finishing product, what you want on these floors is a soft sheen, not a shine, unless you're a fan of that look.

Also...the person you hire to work this floor is very important. You want to find someone who will take the time to blend the new with the old and knows how to do that.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2011 at 10:43PM
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It's frustrating, I've had two floor guys come out and they've both said they'll use oil based poly. I have a feeling they'll all say that.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2011 at 12:16AM
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That is their standard response to all floors. Maybe the rare floor finisher uses waterborne poly.
The answer depends on what kind of finish appearance you want, what expectations for wear you have, and how "historical" you may be willing to be.
The list of potential finishes, least-durable (requiring frequent maintenance, but giving a unique and more historically-authentic appearance, to hard, bulletproof plastic-y and inauthentic):
Bare floor: ages naturally, but will water spot and stain most easily. wood worn away by foot traffic, especially with a very soft wood like white pine. No color will be brought out except by passage of time and whatever dirt/patina builds up and as the wood oxidizes.

Wax finish: low protection from water and wear, must be renewed yearly or more, potential to bring out some color in the wood; colored waxes are now readily available. Will be a very authentic soft finish showing much of the natural wood color and texture. Wax does not form a film.

Oil finish: Lots of oils out there, most oil finishes do not form a film, so the wood still looks bare/natural. Colored oil finishes are possible, but may blotch a bit at first, this usually will fade when 100% dry. Water spotting still possible, and wood can still wear down. The wood's surface is still taking the wear, but it has been fortified because the oil has penetrated it. Some harder-drying oils, like 100% tung oil, Australian Timber Oil, and I think Landark, are fairly good at hardening the wood surface and are the most durable oils. Wear spots can usually be masked by the application of more oil as needed.

Shellac is called a "spirit varnish" because it forms it's protective beautifying film by the evaporation of the alcohol solvent that liquefies it. As the alcohol evaporates very quickly, shellac is a fast-drying finish. Some shellacs contain wax as an impurity. It is added as an extender, and it does help somewhat to achieve a smooth rubbed-out finish when buffed with steel wool. The wax/impurity also shortens the shelf life and lengthens the drying time, while making the finish less water-resistant. In my experience, it's the wax that makes shellac get white water spots. I only use de-waxed shellac, which can be purchased ready-mixed (Zinsser Sealcoat) or made by dissolving flakes in alcohol. I use a lot of shellac for various things, including some floors in my house (and fine furniture finishes). The formula I use for floors is to sand to at least 120, with the grain, by hand, then apply two coats of de-waxed garnet shellac (the darkest colored shellac that really brings out the beauty and gives a base color that's very pleasing on old wood/old house context) and put on 4 coats of the Sealcoat for the wear layer. Six coats of garnet to reach the same film thickness would be awfully dark IMO. Scratches in the shellac floor can be easily touched up without the need to sand the whole floor. Shellac will always bond to shellac, so there is never any problems with blistering or peeling. Because shellac has no odor after the alcohol evaporates, and you can put on 4 coats in a day, it's really great for bedrooms or people with chemical sensitivity.

Old-fashion oil varnishes are sometimes used, but the reasons poly is preferred is because it has more benefits for floors because it is harder, so people don't mess with non-poly oil varnish much at all. The only benefit would be that it could theoretically be removed by a chemical stripper so future refinishing would be possible without further sanding. Oil varnish gives a deep amber color to wood, especially your old white pine. Problems include long drying time, softness, difficulty to touch up without sanding. Easier to re-coat than poly, though, because it will stick to itself with lower risk of peeling.

Film-forming oil finishes, like Waterlox, are sometimes the most appropriate non-poly floor finish for historic floors. The huge selling point (what sold me) is the need for no future sanding. As historic flooring fabric is a finite resource, and can only take so much sanding until it is worn beyond use, eventually one must consider replacement vs. conservation. Waterlox makes the case that since it can be scuffed and recoated there is never any need to fully sand the wood, so a stable condition on the old floor can be maintained for a long time.
Waterlox is a thinner oil=based varnish made with tung oil (I can smell it!) along with other resins and solvents. It has a _very_ strong odor when being applied, as you are getting the effect of the solvent and the material all at once. You need an activated charcoal respirator made for VOC's, or you will suffer the effects. It stinks, OK? The curing time, during which the odor can be detected, will be about a month. The bad, toxic aroma is gone in a day or two. I chose Waterlox for my old kitchen floor. It has held up pretty well; it's now been almost 5 years and there are some scuffed-looking areas where the chairs sit. It's been great for spills, water, general traffic, etc. So I recommend it unless you have chemical sensitivities for aromatic organic compounds, or nut allergies (!) Tung oil is from a nut, BTW.

We then come to Polys and other hard commercial-grade floor finishes, some of which are technically difficult to apply and have severe health threats if the proper measures aren't observed while applying. I have such limited experience with any of these that I cannot comment as to any particulars, except to state that they do not have it within themselves to be touched up, and any damage to an area however small usually calls for the whole floor to be re-sanded for a total refinish, or the spot would still be visible. These finishes last an amazingly long time, requiring only cleaning maintenance, and if the floor in question were a new hard wood, it would make the most sense to use the most long-lived finish you could obtain. But in your circumstance it's probably obvious by now that I would not recommend such a finish for your historic wood floor.
Sorry this was so long, but I wanted to weigh all the characteristics within your specific context.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2011 at 8:13AM
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Casey, thanks so much for the detailed response. Waterlox sounds like a great product, problem is none of the floor guys that have given me an estimate have even mentioned it. They all say they use oil based poly, I even asked one guy about Waterlox and he didn't really know what it was and asked isn't that for decks? My floors are 1" thick so I think there's a lot of room for sanding. Can a floor expert look at a floor in person and kind of be able to tell what finish is on there? I ask because I'd love to know what is on the office floor, its a little darker than the living room and has a bit more shine. Here are some crappy phone pics of the office floor, I have to take some better pictures with my SLR.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2011 at 11:22AM
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"My floors are 1" thick so I think there's a lot of room for sanding."

If it is tongue and groove the distance to the top of the tongues and grooves is the important number.

You typically need to leave a pretty good amount of wood over them to prevent cracking.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 11:56AM
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There appear to be two places in the photos where that awful event has taken place already; sanding through to the tongues.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2011 at 3:01PM
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Hi Casey, I think what you're referring to is just a crack. I'll inspect the floor closer but I don't think any of the boards have been sanded down to the tongue.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 12:58PM
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I have to agree with the Waterlox guys! Great product and will give you a hand rubbed finish not a plastic look like from most polys. Check out I hear they a pretty good about getting this out. I live in CA and it is about 100$ per gall per 500 square feet for the satin/sealer. It is a 4 coat process with no sanding between coats. Follow manufactures guidelines. I just applied it to hickory and it looks AWSOME!

    Bookmark   July 21, 2011 at 10:32AM
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no sanding only if there is no raised grain or "junk" in the finish. In my above-pictured floor, I sanded after coats one and three, to great advantage.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2011 at 1:55PM
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Hi all, so I had the floors repaired with reclaimed white pine which is what I was told my original floors are. However, after sanding everything down, the reclaimed wood looks very different than the original. The picture below is test patch with sealer applied. The lighter wood is my original floor and the darker is the "reclaimed" wood, again this is with sealer applied. I really need some help/suggestions on getting the two to match. I wanted to go with a clear coat but I think the difference is too noticeable between the two and it would look like a big patch.

In this picture you can see the patch/repair against the rest of the floor. I have a repair like this in every room in the house.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2011 at 7:04PM
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I am NO EXPERT but that patch looks like fir or something other than white pine. Or is that what heart wood looks like? Never seen it.
Should the baseboards not be off for refinishing?
The old planks look great.

    Bookmark   December 9, 2011 at 11:29PM
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I agree with Yardley. Thanks for sharing your detailed response.

    Bookmark   January 7, 2012 at 12:39AM
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