Old house - not hard wood flooring questions

shesaidc2December 5, 2012

I know we have other things to do (like repair ceilings!) but we are also starting to think about what to do with our unfinished floors in the house. I don't think we are taking action anytime soon (not before the new year before, probably until summer), but still starting the decision making process.

Upstairs two of the bedrooms were uncovered, and the "dressing room" (former servent or bedroom turned shower room) we removed the 25+ year old vile carpet. All of the floors are about the same. Wide planks with varying size spaces between them. One was left totally unfinished in the center, and the edges have had a serious of treatments. The other rooms the centers had the same treatment but the center was never left unfinished. I say treatment because I do not know exactly what was done to them.

I first thought they had been stained a dark brown, but the more I looked at it (laid on the floor staring intently, taking pictures, touching and chipping away at things) I think they may have been painted "wood colored" a few different times, mostly just around the edges like for a rug of one size one time, and later a different rug...?

So that is in our bedroom. The dark edge is the more "recent" treatment, the lighter stuff in the middle is not the natural wood. Both are chipping away. where you can see natural wood there is step down from the dark wood.

Here you can see the unpainted wood on the right, then the older light brown, and the "newer" dark brown. By new I mean really old! For the past 20-30 years the floors were covered in rugs, before that there is some evidence of fake wood flooring having been put on top (maybe instead of repairing the finish? lol) Behind the dark brown here you can see some green... not sure what that is.

We need to do something in the nearish future - we get frequent splinters in the rooms and the kids like the play on the floor! I love the look of natural wood, but I also like the look of painted wood floors. I don't want to do something irreversible... but it also was historically correct at times to keep plain floors painted....

We do most of the work ourselves on the house. We have never refinished floors, it we were to rent the equipment we would want to do it not room by room... I have no idea when we could MOVE OUT OF THE HOUSE, to refinish it... perhaps for our "summer vacation". Lightly sanding inorder to paint a fresh coat we could do room by room. Also these planks are about 1" thick sitting the floor joists (one plank is able to be pulled up)

My husband is in favor of sanding these down enough to paint now, and if in the future we want to refinish them we would have had to sand through what is already there already. What do you think that finish is? I do think the floors could look lovely as finished wood, but being able to do that might be too far down the road to be practical.... I have seen other homes of this age with the upstairs floors painted white/blue/gray ect.

DOWNSTAIRS - we ripped up 30+ years old vile carpet, found some tile underneath which had no adhesion anywhere (and none when put down), and below that wood. Likely the subfloor. The three formal rooms of the house have a beautiful narrow strip tongue and groove flooring. The room we did this in used to be part of the kitchen and and then part of a small addition. I can see that the flooring here runs under the finished floor, and also is 1" + thick resting on the joists.

I don't know what this room was I used to think bathroom but I am now confused)

this is the former kitchen floor (I think)

Here you can see the line where the addition starts. Both sets of wood dip away from where they meet (on the foundation) and the whole floor undulates a surprising amount (yes we know this means there are some issues with the support, the addition does not have a proper foundation but a crawl space with inadequate piers likely our summer project). We are picking up a rug or two for this room for now (it's our office and I like to lay on the floor when I work) and find the roughness of it charming for now but at some point should probably do something. Our thoughts were maybe new wood flooring on top some years down the road.

So all of that was absurdly long. Mostly I would like some idea on what the finish might be upstairs. Someone commented that is might be thick layers of tinted shellac? So I guess I could do some experiments to determine that? And I guess I am asking for opinions (OMG!) about painting vs. trying to finish the floors upstairs. Not sure if I have any questions about the floor downstairs but if someone wanted to make a suggestion I would take it :)

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Don't plan on sanding before painting and then resanding to refinish, you'd be using up two of only the three to four posible sandings you can do to a floor before it needs to be replaced.

I forget how low long you have been in your house? Not long, IIRC. Floors are not your main problem at this stage. If this is your first winter you may be surprised at how wide the gaps between the boards become when the full dryness sets in. A useful thing to do when the cracks are really wide is get them cleaned out. I use old credit cards and other plastic lades and a good vacuum cleaner. Once they are clean - keep up with aggressive cleaning and then once the cracks close again in the summer you can consider some other things to make the floors look nicer. (You want the cracks clean and free of debris which will interfere with some light-duty treatments.

The first thing I'd do is actually wash the floors. Yup, with water and soap (preferraly not Murphy's). Obviously not a lot of water, with very thorough rinsing (I know that's a contradiction but you can rinse with multiple, immediately wiped up applications) and hand drying. You will be shocked at how much dirt is on them. It may raise the grain a bit but don't worry about that. Do this when the cleaned cracks have reclosed and on warm dryish days, vent well.

Also test in inconspicuous places what kind of finish is there now: varnish (soluble in paint thinner) or shellac (soluble in alcohol). Maybe both on the same floor, but different layers.

Once you have studied the floors and the finishes you can think about what to do.

One option maybe removing the old stains from the edges, and lightly sanding/screening.

Painting is forever because you can rarely remove all the paint w/o reducing the thickness irreparably. Staining may be better, but the fact is that without going down to bare wood (and removing all trace of the much-valued patina of old wood) you're likely to have a blotchy floor as different areas will take the stain more or less well.

There are some techniques of screening, lightly sanding and even hand scraping (that's how the floors were smoothed efore the advent of floor machines) that can help rejuvenate old floors. Keep them as possibilities, both for DIY and hired work.

You also must eventually make a decision about the finish. I'm not sure you can find old-fashioned non-poly varnish any more. You can still buy shellac and there's lots to be said for it, although it can't take water. (You can wax it, though.) Meanwhile don't apply paste wax to unfinished floors as that will render them permanently unable to take any poly finishes. The same may be true for simple oil (linseed or citrus) finishes to some degree.

You are ahead of the game in realizing that not all wood floors are hardwood. The old wide board pine, while very hardened by now - and probably originally harder than pine available today - is still a challenge for poly finishes. Maple and oak take poly much better.

Painting is not a bad choice if that's your permanent solution. But it's not good as an interim stage en route to a clear finish because of the extreme difficulty of fully removing it.

If you're getting splinters then going over the floor with a sanding block or sponge may be a good idea, especially after you've washed it.

Sorry I have raised more questions than I've answered, but floors take a lot of study and thought.




This post was edited by liriodendron on Thu, Dec 6, 12 at 21:39

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 7:18PM
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Yes you are right we have only been in the house a little while about 6 months. This is not the top thing on our to do list, however it is rather annoying to be always getting splinters simply walking or playing on the floors in our house. So I will give the good washing and sanding block a try. The sanding we would need to do to paint would be very light, just enough to rough up the paint that is there to take paint, not really enough to remove wood.

Regarding the gaps, they do not seem to go away. We moved in in the hot humid summer and still had big gaps. I will go to town cleaning them well though and giving the floors a good going over. If not murphey's oil soap what would you recommend. That is what I always used to use, then I switched to Method's good for wood... but am now pretty keen on simplifying what we use for cleaning supplies and making my own... so yeah.

There is so much conflicting opinions/recommendations on the internet about cleaning wood floors you would think we have not have wood floors around us for long ;) So I really appreciate your comments.

For hand scraping and screening is it the kind of thing that could be done slowly room by room?

My real goal (for the whole house really) is to get a sense of where we want to go on some of these things so that each time we need to make a decision we are moving in the right direction and not making things harder later, and if possible getting us closer to our goal. I realize that is both impossible (we know to be flexible about decisions) and vague. There are immediate issues we need to deal with health & Safety (electrical), winterizing, mechanical ect. but then there are idiosyncrasies of the house which I know will not work for our family long term (these are changes PO have made to the house) so while we are getting use to living in it and dealing with what we need for now we are trying to get a rough sense of where we want to go. It helps make some decisions easier now. Hence the premature obsession about the floors :)

Thank you for your response. The more questions raised is better, I was posting here hoping for more information that I had been able to gather on my own :)

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 11:02AM
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ok i tested a little :) The lighter brown stuff came off with nail polish remover and there are actually two different coats there one simply disolved and wiped away, and one came off a bit with rubbing and was tacky. Then there was the dark brown hard as nail shiny stuff. It maybe dimmed it.

So I am thinking the dark brown is either varnish or paint will look for some paint thinner to test it later.

Only one room is mostly untreated, the rest are covered with varying degrees of chipping of the hard stuff....

and then I spent the day searching for forums for flooring posts and my brain oozed out of my head :)

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 5:09PM
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I realized after I posted that I just added more issues to think about; but you are correct there are tons of info and misinfo out there about floors in general.

Nail polish remover is acetone, and what you removed was probably old-fashioned varnish which I think is soluble in acetone. I'm not sure acetone dissolves shellac - alcohol does that. It's not un common to have multiple different types of old finishes, for various reasons, (You might try some denatured alcohol, or vodka. I use grain alcohol which is the nuts, though sometimes hard to obtain because of laws trying to prevent people from misusing it. I actually have to leave NY and buy mine in VT, by preorder from a State source.)

The cracks you see in August (and still now) are likely the narrow ones! Wait until late March rolls around after a full winter of heating. I can lose Bic pens in some of mine. That's when they are easiest to clean out, though. I wouldn't try anything other than emergency washing until the cracks are clean as there is no point moistening that junk in there. It's important that at the end of the season that the gaps are clean as they begin to swell back up. Dirt and debris trapped in the cracks as they close can compress the edges of the floor board, causing increasing gaps the next season. Of course old houses weren't built when there were effective vacuum cleaners so there's a lot of debris down there.

As to washing: Murphy's has long been a standby, but has also acquired some (perhaps innaccurate) reputation as being hard to fully remove from floors prior to using poly urethane finishes. I will say this: about a decade ago I was visiting Montpelier, Pres. James Madison's plantation, (he was comtemporary pal of Thos. Jefferson) in VA. I happened to be visiting in the off season and got to wander around a bit more than most visitors. I climbed a staircase and encountered the curatorial staff working on an as-yet-unopened-to-the-public room. They were busily at work washing the floor of the room, with you guessed it: Murphy's and water. So if it's good enough for such an important and professionally cared-for house, it's probably good enough for mine.

Otherwise I use Organic Linseed Oil Soap - imported from Sweden, doncha know. I got it from the site that sells the Silent Paint Remover. I find it's an excellent cleaner, smells nice and wasn't particularly expensive since I only use a little at a time. In olden days the floors were sometimes washed with lye, leached out of wood ashes, so I imagine a little Murphy's or Method won't hurt. Floors were also strewn with sand which was then swept up. (That's why you'll likely encounter sand in the cracks even if you're far from the beach.)

Don't try washing unless you have a huge pile of rags on had to handdry the floor off at once.

Yes, hand sanding or scraping is a one-room-at-a-time type project. More so than renting a drum sander. The only catch is how to meld the meeting point of applied finishes at the threshold when the adjacent rooms are not done all at once, if you don't have a raised threshold.

One of the beauties of shellac is that it can be patched up or touched up, or joined together seamlessly anywhere, even in the middle of board in the middle of a room. It's not without its detractions however, the primary one being that it is not bulletproof the way modern poly is. OTOH, should trouble ensue you just clean the surface where the problem is of any wax and dirt and get out a brush and touch it up. It redissolves the old shellac, mixing it with the newly applied stuff and dries so the patch is invisible. Can't say that about any poly finish. You can get it completely off with rags and alcohol and start the whole thing anew if you want. The fix-ability and the reverse-ability have much to recommend it. It is also pretty easily DIY-ish, and cheap.

You can search for more info using Google and here on thsi site. But be forewarned there is a LOT of anti-shellac prejudice out there by floor pros, and some people who are just repeating what someone else said. There are also some excellent reports by people who took the chance on it and are very happy. It is relatively slower to apply and more hands and kness sort of work. Don't try it unless you are in a warm-ish, but mostly unhumid time of year. You need to ventilate the room. It is not the worst stuff for breathing, but not benign either. Shellac itself (though not the carrier) is an organic product made from exudations of a beetle in India.

I'm imagining you might be interested in seeing what can be learned from your floors. Here are two things to look for (get down on your knees with a good flashlight.) Look for little rows of holes running along the floor. The holes will probably close be together but the rows separated by about 21-27 inches apart. This is evidence of an early floor covering called ingrain carpet held down by tacks. Another thing to look for is evidence how the floor was finished originally (and to know if it has ever been sanded by modern methods). Drum and orbital sanders didn't exist, even sand paper as we know it didn't, so very sharp broadknives were used to scrape the floor flat and ready for finishing. If you hold a light at a raking angle in a place where the wouldn't have been much foot traffic, you may be able to see shallow 1/16th to 3/16 ths inch wide grooves on the surface. This are the still-remaining toolmarks of the original floor's finishing, you are looking at the hand-made work of the floor installer. If you can see the undersides of the boads, say y looking up at the first floor from the cellar, you may be able to see the saw pattern, which can tell you if it was made from logs using a hand-powered pit saw, circular saw, etc. This helps nail down the age of the building because of technology of locally available materials is often known pretty accurately.

Have you sorted out which floors are the splintery-est? I have some fir and it has narrow, sharp, fierce splinters. The flat-sawn wide-board pine pretty mellow. Quarter-sawn oak strip is rarely that way. It's not uncommon to find many types of wood in a single house. It's worth learning the correct indentifications of both species and board type (flat, quarter, radial, T&G, butted, lapped, etc.) as sometimes choices of floor finishing techniques are limited by type of wood.

Oh, I forgot to add: the reason I use old credit cards (and similar plastic things) to clean out cracks is that the edges and rounded corners are less damaging to the board sides within the groove than metal implements. Plus all the credit cards that are expired get another round of use if recycled into my floor tool box. Card companies used to send out plastic versions of fake ones they use to try and get you to apply for them. I was in plastic tool heaven, but, alas now the facsimiles are just cardboard.

Another solvent to try is Soygel. It is particularly, though slowly, useful on floors. Leave it covered with plastic wrap for days, if necessary. Let time do the work, rather scraping it yourself. It also cleans up nicely which is something you can't say about most chemical strippers.

All these solvents and the rags used to apply and clean off have the potential for spontaneous combustion. Either air them out on a line for days or dispose of them in a metal, closed container filled with water, and kept outside away from the house.

HTH(elps) more than just adding to the overload.


Here is a link that might be useful: source of Excellent Technical on Info on Care of Old Buildings (NPS Preserv. Briefs)

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 10:58PM
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Murphy's Oil soap is fine on a finished floor (varnish), not so good on a damaged finish, and even worse on bare wood with NO finish.

A light damp mopping (NOT WET) will clean up a lot, and paint thinner can remove greasy filth.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 1:52PM
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One way to deal with the splinters, inexpensively and temporarily, is with a floor cloth.

Cut a chunk of canvas dropcloth that covers most of the room, leaving the margins exposed as was traditionally done. Hem or serge the edges.

Paint the cloth as you wish, solid or stenciled or freehand. Tack it down.

This was the old-fashioned way for tenants to deal with poor floors.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 5:07PM
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Another thing that works well for cleaning out wide cracks is a grout saw, available in the tile dept for a couple of dollars. The 'teeth' are good at breaking up the dirt/grime that's compacted into a solid mass.

I'm another in favor of NOT painting your floor - consider paint permanant. You can always paint over stain but you can't stain over paint. And if you get paint in the cracks, you'll likely have a striped floor if you later decide to resand & stain.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 1:25AM
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