Old solid floors often have surfaces that develop a beautiful patina through many years of use. Yet they are frequently damaged through inappropriate repairs or alterations and a lack of day-to-day care.
The simplest maintenance for all solid floors is regular sweeping or vacuuming to remove grit that may damage the surface. At external doors, a good doormat, shaken regularly, helps prevent dirt and moisture being carried on to the floor.
When it comes to cleaning, sanding or polishing, think before you act, as this may destroy the surface patina that gives the floor its character and colour. Choose products and methods carefully and always test on a small, inconspicuous area.
- Caring for stone and brick solid floors
- Looking after tiled solid floors
- Dealing with salts in solid floors
- Sinking or cracked solid floors
- Damp in solid floors
- Preserving wooden floors
- A brief history of solid floors
Brick or flagstone floors were originally laid directly on to earth or sand, sometimes with a lime mortar bed. These solid floors, like the rest of the building, were breathable. There weren’t damp proof membranes so the structures remained in equilibrium — moisture was able to evaporate freely through the floor’s surface and via the open or lime mortared joints between the bricks or the flagstones.
When these traditional floors are relaid, a damp proof membrane is often added and concrete is used. This can be a mistake, however, as it frequently results in damp being forced up the walls and into other parts of the building. Limecrete is a breathable alternative to concrete.
Geometric tiles produced in a variety of shapes and colours and mixed together created striking effects on original Victorian floors
Brick and stone floors can generally be cleaned with a mild detergent, such as washing up liquid diluted in hot water. Scrub gently with a stiff bristle brush, but never flood the floor and continually mop and rinse as you clean.
More problematic stains, mortar and plaster deposits may require diluted ‘brick acid’ or ‘patio cleaner’, but be aware that some types of stone – such as soft limestone – can react adversely.
Marble is particularly susceptible to damage, even from water. Never use abrasives such as wire brushes.
To bring out the colour of old stone flags or tiles, apply a light coat of beeswax. Avoid smearing this over the joints, as the moisture from the floor will be unable to evaporate. An excessive layer of wax can attract dirt, darken floors and form a slippery surface and, like some modern sealants, may inhibit the floor’s ability to ‘breathe’. Avoid modern sealants as they trap moisture and interfere with the frost-resistance of tiles used in exterior porches and front garden paths.
Tiles, such as terracotta pamments and quarry tiles, were traditionally left largely untreated, gradually taking on a colour and sheen through wear. If there is concern about unglazed tiles staining, consider one of the products available from specialist tile shops. In general, tiled floors require little maintenance.
- Use warm water or a specialist tile cleaner sparingly to remove surface dirt, but ensure it is fully rinsed off.
- Never soak a floor with water and avoid household detergents, scouring powder, caustic soda or hydrofluoric acid.
- Check for loose or broken tiles and rectify the problem as soon as possible. See here for how to maintain old floor tiles. Usually, tiles can be levered out using a knife, then relaid with appropriate adhesive. More extensive damage should be approached with caution and the cause remedied before tiles are reinstated, as it may be due to movement in the sub-floor or poor bonding between the tiles and the surface. Taking up or relaying a tiled floor is a job always best left to a specialist tiler.
Solid floors are vulnerable to salt efflorescence, especially where there has been a high level of moisture, animal urine has soaked in or salted foodstuffs have been stored. Indications of salts being present are white staining or if they are ‘hygroscopic’ – which means able to absorb and hold water – damp patches.
Although unsightly, salts are not usually a cause for concern and can often be brushed or vacuumed off. Never use water, as this is likely to re-dissolve them. Where the problem is severe, poulticing with a paste carrying a reactive chemical to draw out the salts may help, but such work should be undertaken by specialists.
Some unevenness and settlement is not unusual in older solid floors. Problems may be more serious where there is a large number of cracked tiles, or gaps of a centimetre or more below skirting. Uneven floors with irregular dips may indicate localised settlement. Where such defects are longstanding and established over time, the floor may now have stabilised, with no remedial work required. However, where a floor has cracked across a corner and sunk, repairs will be needed.
In more serious cases, the hardcore base under the concrete can start to compact many years after construction so the floor sinks and cracks. This can leave a void under the surface which can sometimes be detected by stamping hard with your feet to see if the floor sounds hollow.
If the settlement is not excessive, lay a levelling screed over the existing concrete. Large areas of loose or damaged tiling are usually caused by structural movement in the base. In severe cases it may be necessary to relay the entire floor, which is a specialist job. Where a new solid floor is required, limecrete, a natural lime-based concrete, is recommended as it is breathable so allows moisture to escape.
To locate the source of damp, start by looking at the ground around the house, which should be at least 20cm lower than the indoor floor level, and slope away from the walls.
Impermeable floor coverings, such as vinyl or rubber-backed carpets trap moisture, causing sweating on their underside, mould and potential damage to the solid floors.
Other causes of damp include leaks from defective pipes embedded in floors, or condensation on old floors in kitchens and bathrooms, which may be mistaken for leakage or rising damp.
To minimise dampness in the ground, remove concrete paths adjoining the house and replace them with gravel next to the walls. Check also for leaks from gutters and downpipes.
Remove floor coverings so that the solid floor can breathe. It can take several weeks to dry out fully. If a floor covering is needed, only partially cover with mats made from natural materials, such as jute or seagrass, or loose rugs of natural fibres such as wool or cotton.
Reduce condensation by fitting extractor fans, and disconnect corroded and defective pipes and replace with surface pipework run along walls or skirting.
At ground floor level, suspended timber floors generally consist of floorboards nailed at right angles to timber joists resting on ‘sleeper walls’. Air vents in the external walls ensure cross ventilation under floors so the timbers stay dry.
Wooden floors are vulnerable to damp, rot, beetle infestation and being lifted by electricians and plumbers. Over-enthusiastic cleaning and sanding is potentially damaging, destroying the surface character. The most traditional finish for wooden floors is beeswax, but it can be high maintenance. Hardwax oils are an alternative.
If possible, repair rather than replace original floors. By matching the wood and grain pattern, repairs can be made and weakened board can be strengthened from below by screwing battens to the joists. Split boards may be glued and ‘cramped’ together. Creaking boards come about when the wrong nails have been used. Special ‘cut’ floorboard nails avoid this; or brass screws can be used. Screws are also advisable if boards may have to be lifted in the future to access pipes or cables.
Victorian floors combined tiles of different size, shapes and colours laid in elaborate patterns. Once blended together these could achieve striking effects.
More elaborate designs made use of expensive encaustic tiles – inlaid with clays of different colours in intricate, decorative designs.
As well as mainstream suspended timber floors, there was a vogue in the early Victorian period for wooden parquet floors set on a solid base, later revived by the Edwardians as woodblock flooring. In the most expensive homes polished marble would be used.
In the ‘service areas’ to the rear of Victorian houses, kitchen and scullery floors were commonly finished with hard-wearing plain quarry tiles – simple unglazed clay tiles, typically red, buff or black.
Words: Roger Hunt and Ian Rock