If your old house boasts original plank, strip or parquet wood floors, giving them the proper care is the key to retaining their authenticity. You should think of them as an antique underfoot and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.
What you decide to do with your old wood floor depends, first of all, on the type of floor, the appearance you’re striving for, how much authenticity you want and how much maintenance you’re willing to devote to keeping the floor in shape. Options can run the gamut from leaving an old plank floor unfinished to varnishing or shellacking a Victorian strip or parquet floor.
Knowing a bit about wood floors, along with the choices you face as a sensitive restorer, will help you deal wisely with this part of your restoration.
Up until about the middle of the 1800s, the wood floors in most American houses were made from wide planks, often pine. Although some people favored painting and stenciling these early floors, for the most part they left them bare or unfinished.
Generations of use allowed the wood to wear and cup naturally, creating an aged patina that can’t be duplicated. It is these years of living that give an unfinished plank floor its charm and mellowness. So, in many cases, the most authentic way to treat an old unfinished wood floor is to leave it that way--unfinished.
Sometimes, though, folks are concerned about exposing the bare wood to the ravages of daily living. Food and pet stains can wreak havoc with untreated boards.
For people who desire the period look but want some protection on the planks, some restorers suggest treating the planks with a clear penetrating oil, followed by a coat of wax. Depending on the kind of usage it sees, expect to re-wax the floor every year or two.
If the floor is in bad shape, you might need a professional to make the call. More than likely, the job will begin with a good cleaning. Often, all that’s used is trisodium phosphate (TSP) and water. Trying to sand down an original plank floor isn’t recommended. It is usually so worn that you risk ruining the floor.
Early plank floors were butted together--rarely tongue-and-grooved. In some cases, you can flip the boards over to expose the never-walked-on side--a light sanding should give you a beautiful new antique floor.
One restoration company uses an interesting historical technique to clean old plank floors. Mimicking the way these boards were often cleaned in the early days, they cover the floor with a layer of sand about half an inch to three-quarters-inch thick while they work on the rest of the room. The abrasion caused by the movement on the sand above cleans the floor naturally. As a bonus, the sand cover acts as a protective coating against drops and spills.
Damaged boards can be replaced with original salvaged ones. Just make sure that the same species of wood is used, and be sure that the graining and coloration match.