The most extensive amount of woodwork in an original 18th century house lies directly underfoot. These time worn boards set the tone of every room. Their mellowed color, ancient widths and rich patina hold history in their very grain. At first glance we have an intuitive response, and immediate respect, for the hands that shaped them, the years that mellowed them and the history that gave them character.
Original rosehead nails, embedded at the very edges, hold fast to the joists below with a strength forged by a long forgotten blacksmith. Giant oaks, pitch pines, hemlock and poplar that once stood mighty in the surrounding hills, now lay across miles of New England floors, testaments to the pride and skill of a hardy generation that risked everything to help shape a new world.
Recently, we visited an 18th century home replete with some of the most coveted architectural trim and woodwork of the period. The tiered brownstone steps led to a main entrance surrounded by a magnificent pedimented doorway. The four foot wide paneled Dutch door still had its original brass knocker. The arched fan light above shimmered with wavy glass. Four fluted columns framed the sidelights between them, and an ornately carved Palladian window towered above it all.
It was hard to get past the front door, with so much to take in. The outside adornment is usually a pretty good indicator of what lies within. I could just imagine the trim – paneled staircase, wainscot, moulded cornices and mantels – in their earthen colors, and the flooring, I was certain, would be a glorious pumpkin pine.
The homeowners were excited to share their home. It was a new acquisition, and they were eager to learn more about the treasures they had. They wanted to do the right thing – music to our ears. If only more people would inquire, delve deeper into understanding their old house before taking liberties with it, before changing woodwork, fireplaces, flooring – and even floor plans – on a whim. Why would anyone buy an old house to gut it? To change it? To remove from it all that gave it character and meaning? That’s a rant for another day. We were there to consult about several tasks, but most importantly, flooring.
Over the years the boards had shrunk. In some areas the gaps were as wide as an inch. In some rooms the boards had been painted, but in most they had just been varnished or covered with shellac. They wanted to know how to go about refinishing them and what did we think it would cost. This is the part that is so hard for so many to fathom. The grunt work, the elbow grease involved in reviving an antique floor. You cannot bring in the refinishers from your local flooring showroom. Armed with industrial sanders they can, in one day, or an hour, undo what took three hundred years of time and history to create.
This has to be one of the most heart wrenching scenes – the aftermath of a day of sanding machines gouging across the floors of an antique house. Three hundred years of original character and patina – lost.
Some people are truly sensitive to preservation. They appreciate the past and the reasons to preserve it. Even when they understand that value is maintained by preserving character, integrity, color and finish of original details, sometimes that devil, called convenience and economy, wins in the end.
And that is what would happen here. We advised, they ignored, and that phenomenal antique house now has a lousy new floor. The rosehead nails were sunk – a half inch below the surface! – which makes the floor look like it has holes gouged in it everywhere, and instead of a rich antique color to ground and tone the rooms, a light blond finish screams from below.
Henry Francis Dupont, in decorating Winterthur cautioned that, in good design no one thing in a room should stand out. Newly finished floors stand out. They overwhelm. They scream of their loss. And invariably, the homeowner who has been talked into taking these “convenient” and “economical” measures, regrets it later.
So I urge you, please, to love your old floors, even if they’re covered in stubborn paint or shellac. Strip them carefully, by hand, reveal their color, and enjoy their rich history.
Great piece. We love seeing preserved old wood floors as well. There’s something about the look and feel of older wood that is unexplainable in a home.
One big question …. From shrinkage etc there are many wide gaps between boards in the flooring How can that be corrected and still keep the original flooring ? ? … That’s what I want to accomplish !
Hi Gina – Yes that is a dilemma – just how much of a purist are you?! Outside of taking it all up and relaying it, some have used splines to fill in the gaps and colored them to match (best they can) and it’s an okay solution, especially if you use old wood. I knew a preservationist long ago who actually filled her gaps with dirt/sand and urethaned right over it all! My kitchen floors have a good quarter to half inch gaps, largest in the winter of course. As I was vacuuming the other day I mentioned to my husband that cleaning the floors can be more like carpentry than housework as I often use a screwdriver to scrape up the stuff that accumulates or gets stuck between the boards. In the overall scheme of the room, those gaps look fine – if you can learn to live with them : )
Thanks for a very informative post! We have an 1805 house with, alas, new wide plank hemlock boards that I had milled almost seven years ago and which are finally down (a LONG project). We have children, and pets: what would you suggest we use to preserve these boards for easy maintenance as well as looks?
Hi Ross – coincidentally, we also had to replace a missing old floor years ago and we used hemlock as well. Because the room is over nineteen feet long we needed boards at least that long so had them cut for us at a saw mill. Then we stacked and air dried them for two years! Then, a year after installing them, we had to pull them up and re-lay them because the heated house dried them more and the gaps were huge. Ever since, no gaps, they are almost too tight! I had our small children roller skate and play on them, and animals were welcome as well, to help “antique” the boards. We had the luxury of not having to put furniture in that room for a while. We oiled them at one point with a mix of turp & boiled linseed oil. And because our house is primitive, we havent’ done anything more. They are not as dark, nor the patina as fine as antique boards, but they don’t look new. For quick “antiquing” and for our customers who want a “finished” floor with easy maintenance, on new pine boards we mix and apply one or two coats of a custom stain color then coat over it with an oil based flat urethane. Flat can only be found in quarts these days (a problem!). It has a good patina – satin finish is too shiny for us – but you might like it. You can also try satin first, then one or two coats of flat over the top of that to dull the shine.
You can also just wax over the top of the stain finish – but that will be higher maintenance. We had a customer who just liked the stain finish alone – it’s much duller, but it holds up pretty well actually. For some reason dog scratches show more in a floor that has stain and urethane than it does on one with just stain! You might make yourself some sample pieces to see what you like best. I’m sure there are other ways and finishes, but these are what we typically do.
There was no short answer to your question – hope this helped!