Help me clean and protect these wood floors
January 22, 2012 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on cleaning and protecting an old wood floor. The wood is heart pine, I don't know what the finish is, and there are gaps between the boards. Pictures inside.

My wife and I bought our house about a year ago. It was built in the 1920s and has a beautiful wood floor. The seller said it was heart pine, and although I'm pretty sure it's finished, I don't know if it's with wax, or polyurethane, or something else. We've been vacuuming and sweeping when it gets extra furry (we have three dogs), but are interested in giving it a deeper clean.

The entire floor is just boards attached to joists. There is no subfloor. Also, I don't think the boards are tongue and groove; I think they're just square planks that have been nailed to the joists. There are parts of the floor where the boards are not tightly aligned next to each other. You can see this here; here is a picture with more detail. When people stomp around on the main floor or drop something big, some of the filling stuff (which could be some kind of filler or just 90 years of gunk) in between the floorboards rains down onto things in the basement. (This is annoying, but is nothing compared to the time when a dog peed on the floor and someone was in the basement.)

The gaps in the floor make it seemingly impossible to wash the floors with anything wet, because it will seep through the cracks into the basement. It would be great to seal these cracks, but since they're all over the floor, I don't know how to go about doing it. So I'm interested in the simple, medium, and difficult solutions to this:

1. Is there a way to clean these floors with something besides a broom and vacuum despite the gaps between the boards?

2. Is there a way to seal these cracks to make an airtight/watertight surface? Is there a viscous floor covering that I could just dump and spread on the floor and have it fill the cracks but not drain through them all the way?

3. Assuming I had the time and money, is there a way to refinish the floors to create a good, sealed surface?

Another piece of information: we will probably sell this house in the next two or three years. I don't know if refinishing or buffing or whatever is standard when you're selling a house, and if we should hold off till then and just keep sweeping, or if it's worth undertaking something more substantial now.

Oh and one more thing: there are some areas where the boards are cracked (like here), and one spot where the floor board actually cracked when I stepped on it (it had been cut to accommodate an air duct, so it was weakened, but still). I sometimes get scared that I will step through the floor and end up in the basement, but I don't know if this is a legitimate fear. Any thoughts on that?
posted by jalexc to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see light through any of those gaps between boards; they all seem to stop at a fairly uniform depth, which suggests you do have T&G flooring.

To your specific questions:

1. You shouldn't dip a string mop in a bucket and sling it around, flooding the floor with water, but a damp sponge mop or one of those wet swiffery things wouldn't hurt anything.

2. Not in any permanent way. Those cracks have been filled before. Wood shrinks and expands seasonally, and the filler pops out.

3. Not sure what you mean by a "good, sealed surface." It will never become like sheet vinyl, if that's what you're thinking. Some finishes are more moisture-tolerant and scratch-resistant than others, but there are limits to what you can ask of a softwood floor like this.

I might experiment with brushing some of the gunk out of the gaps between boards, but overall those floors look pretty good, and their roughness is a large part of their charm. If you want a totally different kind of floor then you can install a different floor, but I wouldn't put a lot of money into trying to make these into something they're not.

Except where the flooring has been compromised by cuts for air ducts and the like, the occasional lengthwise crack shouldn't be a major concern. You're very, very unlikely to fall through.
posted by jon1270 at 2:56 PM on January 22, 2012

I have a pretty similar floor, it's T&G but it's also nailed down and there are cracks. I did refinish it with polyurethane but the next winter the cracks opened right back up (as I knew they would) and the poly did drip down into the basement in a couple spots.

I wash the floor with either a steam mop of a Hoover floormate, both of which leave very little water on the wood. Works fine. In fact I think washing it keeps the wood hydrated in the winter a bit better.

One thing to note: my floor had not been poly'ed until I did it and I think it dried the wood out considerably, there was a lot more shrinkage the following winter and I have had to be careful about the humidity levels. On soft wood like pine and doug fir the poly is relatively useless at preventing scratches because the wood just deforms under the poly and eventually the top coat will crack and peel. You cannot prevent scratches in soft wood!

If I had to do it again I would wax the floor, no question. People around here have 100+ year old wax floors that still look great. The poly looks beat up after a few years. Once it looks really terrible I'll sand it off and have the floors waxed once professionally then maintain them myself.
posted by fshgrl at 3:07 PM on January 22, 2012

These guys might be a good resource for you.
posted by DaddyNewt at 3:24 PM on January 22, 2012

I'd think about oiling the floor, letting it soak in for a few days, and then waxing. It's the only thing that works for mine.
posted by answergrape at 3:55 PM on January 22, 2012

Your floors are beautiful! I love the color.

I use this Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner. It's a spray, and wipe system, and the spray bottle sprays in a wide, super fine pattern which has never made my floors very wet, so you shouldn't have any problems with the liquid dripping. I vacuum, spray and mop my floors regularly and love the cleaner (especially because it is non toxic).

As far as the refinishing/resealing aspect, you might want to call some local floor finishing companies and have them come give you estimates. I did this a few months ago and used the opportunity to get as much advice on floor care as possible. I decided not to spend the money on actually refinishing my floors, but the consults were free and gave me more confidence in my floors.
posted by nerdcore at 4:20 PM on January 22, 2012

When I had lovely old wood floors, I stripped off the old wax with ammonia & water, then used wax over the old oil-based varnish. They were beautiful and had character. I did an annual-ish damp-mop with a mild ammonia & water solution, then re-waxed. Amuse yourself & your neighbors by putting down old towels, and polishing the floors. It's good exercise.

People used to put rugs on their wood floors. If you live in a cold climate, I recommend it.
posted by theora55 at 5:21 PM on January 22, 2012

I hope this isn't a derail - tell me if I need to get my own question - but if you have urethane-finished floors, can you go back to an oil and wax approach?

Mine were done years ago and frankly, I've never been happy with the results other than the color. They've been extremely vulnerable to staining, scuffing, etc.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:08 AM on January 23, 2012

If you are selling the house in the future, a damaged floor or a floor needing repair will be a negotiation point - does it make more sense to have the floor up to par now so that you can enjoy it, or perhaps give thousands of dollars at close to the buyer so they can make needed repairs? Some people will be enamored with your floors as is, but others will complain that the gaps are a potential deal breaker.

When my floors were refinshed, needed repairs like yours were from $50 to $75 each. The repair was either a plug or they cut out the damaged flooring and installed a new piece of of wood. Each repair is visually seemless, but your floors have a such a patina that a match may be difficult.
posted by lstanley at 6:39 AM on January 23, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you for the responses, everyone. I'll check out some of the suggestions and hopefully they'll work out.

One other question that I should have asked at the outset: is it possible to tell, from the pictures, whether the floor is coated with polyurethane or wax (or something else)? Knowing that is critical to any later attempts to refinish the floor, right?
posted by jalexc at 11:34 AM on January 23, 2012

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