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Reviving an old floor

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

My 1935 farm house was built by a man who spared no expense. The hardwood floors and trim are of very good quality and worth restoring. I took up the carpet that had been laid over the floors in the 1970s and found them to be in good shape. I'm not sure how to match the original stain and what kind of finish to use.

It's your good fortune to have old hardwood flooring and trim that's worth keeping.

My wife and I once owned an early 19th century farm house in Connecticut with chestnut floors. Whatever finish had originally been applied was long gone by the time we got there. We didn't miss it -- the floors had been burnished to a fine polish by all those years of foot traffic. The flooring was a little rough in places but completely serviceable and quite lovely.

After we sold the house, the new owners had all the floors sanded and refinished. I never saw the result. But I just know I would have hated it. So depending on your point of view, sometimes less is better.

Original finish probably was wax

Your floors could be some kind of hardwood or vertical-grain fir, both common for the era in which your house was built.

According to Frank Kroupa of the National Wood Flooring Association (visit them at www.woodfloors.org), strip flooring 2-1/4" wide is hardwood, while 3"or 3-1/4" planks would likely be fir.

In either case, your flooring probably was finished with paste wax. Wax may not be as bullet proof as many modern film finishes, but Kroupa says it tended to mellow and improve with age. Waxed floors were typically maintained by applying a thin layer of fresh paste wax every six months. The surface was buffed periodically to keep it looking its best. Then, every two or three years, floors were stripped to bare wood and re-waxed.

This regimen prevented wax build-up and removed any dirt and grime that had accumulated. Kroupa says it's not very likely the wood was stained. The wood probably picked up an amber color from exposure to sunlight and air and because of repeated applications of paste wax.

To refinish, wax still a candidate

If you want to be strictly true to tradition, you can make wax your new floor finish.

Kroupa's advice is to ask a professional to take a look at the floor first. There may be nail holes in the floor that need filling. But assuming you don't need any serious remedial work, the refinisher can strip off what's left of the old wax and apply a new coat. That's something you could maintain yourself with an electric buffer. Wax can water-spot easily and isn't that durable in high-traffic areas, but at least it's authentic.

You may also choose to have the floors sanded. Once the floor is back to bare wood it could be coated with a modern film-forming finish.

No, they're not for a by-the-book restoration. But there are a variety of water-borne finishes on the market that will do an excellent job of protecting the wood. These finishes dry quickly. And just as important, they do not have the oppressive odor of the solvent finishes you may have used.

A low-sheen finish might be the perfect complement to the 1930s flooring. But eventually, even the best finishes can look shabby. Count on applying a maintenance coat every three to five years.

On the bright side, that's probably a job you could do yourself.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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