Hardwood Floors--Not tongue & groove

eastgateMay 6, 2008

I pulled up particle board from the house that I recently purchased and found plywood; under the plywood, I found what appears to be a vinyl carpet (not glued down), and under the vinyl, I found newspapers from 1958. Finally, under the newspapers I found planks of solid wood, only they're not tongue and groove. Do you think these could be the original floors or original subfloor? Or does it seem more likely that the original floors were removed?--maybe the foundation needed work?

I've only pulled up one piece of plywood and particle board so I don't know the length of the planks.

The house was probably built in the 1830's or 1840's and is an extremely humble dwelling.

Does anyone else have floors like this? Can they be refinished? Or will the slight gaps between the wood look odd?

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I don't know if what you're looking at is the orginal top flooring or a sub-floor. But I can answer your question about wide gaps between boards. I have wide-board (up to 21") T&G flooring, but during the dry period of the winter I get gaps I could lose a Bic pen in. Then later in the summer they expand and nearly close right up. This is perfectly normal and no cause for dismay. Some people try to shove roping (or other things) into the cracks but this can backfire by crushing the sides of the board and creating bigger gaps in the end.

IMO, cracks such as you describe are not a defect, merely a sign of old wood in an old house. You may need a longer brush on your vacuum, though, to really suck the dust out.

You didn't mention what sort of basment or crawlspace is below your floors. If it's dirt you may find it is unpleasant have all the infiltration of dampness and mustiness from the below up through the cracks. In which case (and in some ways in ANY case) you might find laying some vapor barrier material on the dirt will help the liveablity of your house a great deal.


    Bookmark   May 6, 2008 at 10:27PM
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That's what the original flooring is like in my 1830s house. They are little more than planks. The vinyl carpet, not tacked down is what we old codgers know as linoleum. ;)

    Bookmark   May 6, 2008 at 11:08PM
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Thanks for the responses.

Molly, I wasn't sure if they put subfloors in the more humble houses, but these floors don't appear to have any finish on them, so they definitely look like subfloors.

Calliope, did you re-finish your floors? How do they look? And is the linoleum worth anything?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 10:28AM
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I'm guessing, but I don't think sub-floors came into common use until Victorian times when thin strip flooring became popular & the subfloors were a structual issue. 1"+ wood, plank or T&G, wouldn't require additional support in a residence. Most ante-bellum floors were meant to be covered by a carpet, rug, or linoleum.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 12:03PM
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I've got a 1830's house too. The finish is off much of the floor just from general wear and tear. I'm pretty sure it's been in this condition for a long time now. I'd imagine that back in the 50's it was just easier to cover it up than to refinish it.
How it's going to look and how satisfied you will be with it is a all a matter of personal taste. Some folks need to have their floors look perfect in order to enjoy them, some enjoy them just knowing how old they are and that each ding is part of the floors history.
If it were me I'd work on saving what is there. Seems kind of silly to hide something which can be salvaged with some elbow grease and a little research.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 2:37PM
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I like the historical feel too, but the old owner had 15 indoor cats, and I want everything to look super-clean--I don't want a reminder of those animals and the stench that they've left in the house.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 3:31PM
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The floors are still in my house under the existing newer versions. They are sturdy as sin, and there was no subfloor. They are exposed in a few parts of the house, like the stairwell and foyer. My husband had already carpeted the upstairs before I had married him, but it's on my agenda to remove it all (needs it anyway). I would like to just expose the planks and use some large floor cloths or braided rugs. (I can make braided rugs). Neither of us are into "perfection" in old houses, we both like to retain as much integrity as possible.

I've had several Victorian aged houses and compared to them, my late Federal is very modest as far as being ornate or having ornamentation. They are solidly built, plain and were made to be functional. The gaudiness and luxury came with the beginnings of the industrial era. People in the Northwest Territories were happy to just survive with a modicum of civility.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 8:32PM
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Calliope, I'm not into perfection by any means either, but the floors in this house have no finish on them (such as polyurethane or stain). Do yours? Some of the gaps are wide enough that you can see the ground below. I'll post pictures if I can. I definitely intend to use them if at all possible. They look like floors you see in an old attic.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2008 at 9:43PM
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Someone has painted the ones I have exposed in the foyer, and it looks to have been stained under that. The ones in the living room looked to have been stained and perhaps waxed at some point in time. The others I've seen are dark, and not glossy. Like it's just old, aged wood.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2008 at 7:40AM
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In the old days they scrubbed floors regularly with lye and other harsh cleaners. Daily cleaning involved strewing sand on them and sweeping it away. Many old houses had no subfloor. I certainly don't have any except where additional flooring was laid later. Although I have plastered ceilings in my first floor, many early homes had the planks of the second story floor visible from the rooms in the first floor.

Going back to my comment above, if you can see ground through the cracks, you really should consider laying down some vapor barrier (on the surface of the soil). Unless you live in the desert, your building is taking up huge amounts of ground moisture and that will impact your comfort and the health of the house structure, in a big way.

However, for floor finishes, there are a number of ways you can handle it without using poly, or stain. The simplest way is to clean them well (that's scrubbing on your hands and knees) followed by carefully drying them with rags. The next step is to remove any stains you want to shift (water, cat pee, etc.) This will raise the grain a bit, but it can be smoothed down by light hand sanding without impacting the established patina. Then you can seal the floors with a variety of things from tung oil to varnish to shellac. All of the above have pros and cons, but each is an historic finish. One of the advantages of doing this type of floor work is that it is relatively reversible (oil is less so, see below) and can be patched up in sections where necessary because of later wear, unlike poly finishes. Another advantage is that you may be able to avoid having the floors sanded, which will not only save you money, but preserve the thickness of the floor boards (they can only be machine sanded a few times before they must be replaced) and you will not lose the patina of old wood. You would be surprised how often people arrive here and report they are paying extra to install floors with artificially created patina.

My personal choice is a pure tung oil finish followed by a coat of Butcher's wax. This is quite durable and easy to maintain. And if one of my cats has an accident the fluid stays on top for a bit and I can clean it up with no problems. (Cat pee, or any fluid, not cleaned up promptly will create a mark on almost any type of wood floor finish, including poly after it has had some use.)

One thing to think about with tung oil finishes is that if you do choose that, you will have to sand the floors down before switching poly at some later date. This is somewhat true even for shellac and varnish which can get caught in cracks and interfere with the smooth flow and adherence of later poly coats.

Keep in mind, too, that some "tung oil" finishes have only a small amount of tung oil and they are mostly polyurethane varnishes. I prefer pure tung oil. (You can read about it at the Real Milk Paint company website.) Some people who are allergic to nuts (peanuts, cashews, etc.) may also be allergic to tung oil which comes from a tropical tree. I'm not sure how much of an issue it is on floors, but it can be problematic to use it on kitchen counters, or at least I've seen reports of that being a concern.

As for getting the smell of old cat pee out of unfinished wood: it's hard to do. The best product I've tried is something called Get Serious. It's for sale at PetSmart places and online. IMO it works better than the more commonly used Nature's Miracle. YMMV.

One other caveat, I've seen reports that washing unfinished wood with Murphy's Oil Soap can lead to subsequent finish adhesion problems. I don't use it, so I'm not sure. However, FWIW, I once toured Montpelier in VA , the home of President James Madison, and I was lucky enough to be the only visitor that day so I got a behind the scenes tour of the restoration work in progress. And the highly skilled restorers were washing the floors with Murphy's.

I live in a modest country-style Greek Revival farmhouse and I have great appreciation for simple, plain, buildings. Too often the grander houses are the ones that one sees or reads about. It warms my heart to hear about other plain houses getting the care they deserve as they tell a story of their own.

You can't really go wrong trying to keep what you can of the old materials; repair rather than replace; and go slow so you don't wind up doing things that shouldn't have been done. If these 19th c buildings weren't solidly, if simply, built they wouldn't have survived into their third century. I try very hard to make sure that whatever I do is along the lines of careful maintenance of what I have, and when necessary, minimal changes at the same level of build-quality. I sure don't want future owners in 2108 shaking their heads at the penny-foolish and thoughtless "improvements" done under my care.


    Bookmark   May 8, 2008 at 4:54PM
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Wow! Thanks for the detailed instructions. I can't wait to pull up the remaining plywood and see the condition of the rest of the floors. I've looked at some books on hardwood and these appear to be heart pine. I'll probably try out one of your techniques on a small portion of the floor to see how things go.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2008 at 10:20AM
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If it's heart pine (technically a soft wood), it's easy to detect. On a bare spot of wood (lightly sanded works best), apply a drop of turpentine/mineral spirits. If it's heart pine, it will turn reddish which is the unstained color your floor will be after finishing. Otherwise, the wet spot will remain the same color. I thought I had a picture in photobucket that I could post, but I don't so I'll try to remember to post tonight.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2008 at 3:02PM
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Cool! I've have to try that and I'll check back to see if you've posted the photo.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2008 at 3:12PM
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This is an old picture (& not a very good one) but it will give you an idea of the true color. There is no stain on this floor. It has 3-4 coats of hand rubbed linseed oil & than paste waxed. When direct sunlight is shining on it (like now)it appears lighter than it usually is. I've seen some floors that are almost mahogany. YMMV

    Bookmark   May 10, 2008 at 12:48AM
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Isn't that just beautiful?

    Bookmark   May 10, 2008 at 10:56AM
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Thanks for posting the photo of your floors; they really are beautiful. I don't think my floors are capable of looking that good, but I'm going to work with them anyway. Today I pulled up several more sheets of plywood and found a giant hole where a fireplace used to be; the hole is right in the middle of the room.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2008 at 9:24PM
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Eastgate, don't be discouraged; you will be surprised how good they can look & mine are a perfect example. My house is an 1858 city townhouse-style home in the inner city & it was slum lorded to ghetto tenants for at least 30 years before we bought it in 1988. The halls had linoleum covering most of it, but the main rooms had been painted (someone had even painted over a large piece of balled up cheesecloth left on the floor!). The corner in the above photo used to be a bathroom built in the 50's or 60's & the floors are the worst in the house but luckily a lot of the rot was where the cabinets are & we replaced that with plywood. We didn't fill any scars, the board gaps are huge, some of the tongues are gone, we made a couple of repairs that were eye sores but we left some that were exsisting - & everyone raves about what beautiful floors we have!

The instructions to my floor guy were to sand as little as possible (he said he thought the 1"+ tongue & groove floors had been lightly sanded once before) because I didn't want floors that looked showroom new. He did exactly as I asked, although he thought I was crazy to want to oil & wax them. He may have been right because it's an incredible amount of work involved in this method - but I love my floors & haven't regretted the work! The layers of oil transform dry, splintery boards to silk.

So tell more about the missing fireplace. What's on the floor above & below it? Do you have a room where you can salvege flooring to fix the f/p hole? I love a good mystery!

    Bookmark   May 10, 2008 at 10:12PM
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