The living room at The Homewood, a 20th-century National Trust property in Surrey. The floor is maple and sprung for dancing
When the heel of a friend’s shoe went straight through a floorboard in a house I was working on, my fears about the state of the timber were confirmed. Rot and woodworm had ravaged not only the floorboards, but also the joists below, and I was faced with the prospect of major repairs and replacement. This is a worst-case scenario, and a job to be undertaken with great care as so much of the building’s original fabric may potentially be lost in the process.
Early floorboards of the 15th and 16th centuries were generally of oak and in widths of up to 18 inches; they were produced by laboriously splitting, axing or hand sawing the timber into planks, which were then nailed or pegged to joists. Inevitably the widths and thicknesses of these boards varied enormously, so they had to be trimmed or packed up underneath to make the floor level.
Hardwood has always been preferred for flooring because it is denser and more durable. In the 17th century, elm boards were common but, as these became less readily available, cheaper softwoods such as pine were used. During Georgian and Victorian times these ‘inferior’ boards were invariably hidden either by ‘Turkey’ carpets or by being painted to resemble hardwoods.
Machines were introduced in the 1790s to plane timber, but it was not until the 1830s that consistency in production was achieved with the advent of steam-powered mechanical saws. It was around this time that tongue-and-groove boards began to appear — enabling them to be slotted together and invisibly nailed. In grander rooms and hallways, parquet flooring was popular with the Victorians and, although it was relatively expensive, it remained prevalent until the 1930s.
Of course, some floors serve a very special purpose. The maple floor in the living room at The Homewood, a 20th-century National Trust property in Surrey, is sprung for dancing. It’s a direct descendent of Georgian assembly halls up and down the country, of which the Bath Assembly Rooms, dating to 1769, is a magnificent survivor.
Buying a floor
The huge variety of wooden flooring available today was brought home to me when I visited LASSCO, an architectural salvage company based in London and Oxfordshire. Its everchanging stock includes both new and reclaimed flooring.
LASSCO’s flooring manager Nicholas Newman showed me some Georgian boards ranging in width from seven inches to 13 inches but these are becoming rare. Victorian timber is more common and widths from 4¾ inches up to seven inches are stocked. The Edwardian boards are anywhere from four inches to 5½ inches.
Standing in this treasure trove I felt I could almost imagine the ghosts of the people who had danced, walked and tiptoed across the oak, mahogany and pine. Nicholas explained that they treat all the floorboards like antiques and never buy them unless the provenance is known. They currently have boards from the Honourable Artillery Company and the Home Office in Horseferry House, for example.
The salvaged floorboards that arrive at LASSCO are de-nailed, trimmed to remove split ends and batched into widths. They are sold in ‘as is’ condition. According to Nicholas, many customers do very little to the boards once they have been laid because they want to retain the original patina. He recommends wire wool rather than sanding as a way to remove marks as it does the least damage to the surface.
When it comes to salvaged parquet, the difficult task of removing the old bitumen adhesive from the back has always put me off, but Nicholas explained that this is no longer necessary. New adhesives mean that second-hand blocks can be stuck down without the bitumen being removed. Even so, he warns that parquet is tricky and should always be laid by an expert.
As well as reclaimed and new flooring, LASSCO stocks engineered boards that, Nicholas says, are sometimes more suitable where underfloor heating is installed. Whatever flooring you choose, he advises buying well ahead of time to allow it to acclimatise and thus minimise shrinkage after laying.
As my experience proves, beetle attack and rot can be disastrous but, rather than rushing in with chemical treatments, the priority is to identify the cause. Woodworm struggles to survive in dry environments so deal with the damp and, in the case of a suspended ground floor, ensure there is adequate ventilation underneath. Beetle infestation does not necessarily weaken floorboards enough so that they have to be replaced. Boards may be strengthened from below by screwing battens to the joists, while split boards can be glued and cramped back together.
Very satisfactory repairs can be made to the broken end, corner or edge of a board by using the appropriate species of wood and matching the grain pattern. Gaps can be filled with thin slivers of matching timber, papier mâché or lengths of string glued into place.
A frequent cause of damage to floorboards is when they are lifted by electricians and plumbers. It’s preferable to get a carpenter who understands their value to lift them in advance and be sure to number the boards with chalk so they can be correctly relaid.
Non-powered hand tools should always be used and, where the boards may have to be taken up in the future, brass screws are preferable to nails for fixing. Where nails are employed, use special ‘cut’ nails to minimise squeaks.
Grit will very quickly scratch a wooden floor so try to regularly sweep or vacuum the room, and make sure that there are adequate mats at all the exterior doors. During building work it is best to protect floorboards with hardboard or plywood sheets.
Finishes: waxes, laquers and oils
Always think carefully before stripping or sanding off old finishes; they are frequently far more attractive than the ‘restored’ result. Another point to remember is that wood becomes darker with exposure to sunlight, so any sanding may radically change its colour. Sanding or even rigorously scrubbing floorboards that are infested with any woodworm is likely to remove the surface and reveal worm-ridden timber, which is difficult to consolidate.
If you do decide you want to sand your floorboards, a small hand sander will generally be inadequate, so it is best to hire a drum sander along with a small rotary sander for the more inaccessible border areas.
The most traditional finish for wooden floors is beeswax but it can be quite high maintenance. Hardwax oils are an alternative and may be reapplied as and when required. The harder wearing option is lacquer but if this becomes damaged it can mean refinishing the whole floor. When cleaning, sealing or finishing your floorboards, always carry out tests on a small inconspicuous area first.
Word for word: A timber floorboard glossary
Certification: the process by which a number of schemes ensure that new timber products are sourced from sustainably managed forests. These schemes include FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification).
Engineered flooring: timber boards made up of layers ‘sandwiched’ together, which, in theory, make them more stable. Most have a hardwood ‘wear’ layer over several softwood layers.
Kiln dried timber: wood that has been dried in an enclosed kiln to help to reduce shrinkage, distortion and movement when in use.
Parquet flooring: hardwood blocks, glued to a sub-floor, which interlock to form geometric patterns.
Tongue-and-groove flooring: boards with a slot (groove) on one edge and a ridge (tongue) on the opposite edge enabling them to be slotted together. The boards can be nailed at an angle through the tongue so the fixing is hidden. Non-tongue- and-groove boards are known as square edged.
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