Patching Wood Floors

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

I have a 1920s house with oak floors. After removing walls during a remodel and updating the heating system, I now have holes in the floor that need patching. Is this is a DIY job, or should I go with a professional? If it's something I can do myself, what's the best way to go about it?

It all depends on how adventuresome you're feeling. But in reality, repairing or replacing small areas of flooring is a manageable job. You need a few tools--not a lot of exotic ones--and the process is straightforward.

Before you start with the finish flooring, you have to do something about any missing subflooring. In a house that age, the subfloor most likely consists of solid planks but you can use plywood or a pressed wood panel such as oriented strand board for the repairs.

To replace the subfloor you removed for a heat register, start in the basement. Cut a piece of plywood slightly larger than the opening you're trying to fill and screw it to the underside of the subfloor so it covers the hole. Now, from the top, cut another piece of plywood to fill the void and screw and glue that into place. If the plywood isn't as thick as the subflooring, shim the patch so it's flush with the surrounding subfloor. You should now have a flat, sturdy base for the finish flooring.

Oak strip flooring was (and is) popular for its durability as well as natural beauty. The narrow (2 ¼ in. or less wide) pieces of oak are milled with a tongue-and-groove profile on the edges and ends, allowing floorboards to interlock as you nail them down.
You have to find some flooring to match--not only the right width, but also the right kind of oak. Both red and white oak is used and while the colors are similar, they're not exactly the same.

A flooring dealer should be able to match the species and width. If it's an oddball size, try searching the Web for a specialty source. If all else fails, you can always ask a local mill shop to make the few pieces you need from scratch. It costs more, but it's not rocket science.

Your repair jumps out at you if you simply fill in the rectangular space. Your eye would stop abruptly at the edge of the new flooring as your brain shouted, "Patch!" It would be better to make the space irregular by cutting back some of the floor boards and install new ones in the same staggered pattern you see on the rest of the floor.

With a circular saw, make two parallel cuts in the center of the board you want to remove, cutting through just to the subfloor (wear safety glasses and keep the blade away from nails at the edge of the board).  Chisel out the strip and then pry out the board.

To install new strips, you have to cut away the tongues on the edges and ends of the boards. Glue and nail them in place through the face of the board. Then fill the nail holes with putty. If you have access to one, a pneumatic nail gun drives a small-diameter nail that's easy to hide.

If you're going to sand and refinish the floor, the old and new boards should match fairly well. If not, blend in the repair by mixing wood stain and practicing on scrap until you have a good match. Then finish with a couple of coats of polyurethane.


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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