Is it worth it to tear up these floors to see what’s underneath
December 26, 2020 9:54 AM   Subscribe

What’s the likelihood I can save/restore wood floors beneath the existing wood floors in my house?

I just bought an old farmhouse built in the 1870’s. Over the years people have done a bunch of updating. Some I have liked a lot. Some not so much. In the attic and one of the bedrooms, the original oak floors are still there, and they’re really beautiful. But in a hallway, a bedroom and in the dining room, someone has put new, much less attractive flooring on top of it (See oak floor in the background for comparison). I know the original stuff is still under there. What I don’t know is if it’ll look like shit if we try to take up the new stuff. As a smart flooring person, can you tell by looking if there’s any chance the old floors under this would be salvageable? I’m willing to invest in this if I can restore them, but I don’t want to tear the house to shreds only to find out the original floors were damaged beyond repair in the process of putting down these new ones. Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by to sir with millipedes to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
That doesn't look like oak to me. That looks like pine, which is a lot softer and more easily damaged. If you bought my house, you would find much less attractive floors over the really beautiful original red fir. What you wouldn't know until you ripped it up is that the red fir, being so soft, had to be repeatedly sanded down and refinished during its lifetime and the last refinishing went down to the nailheads, so it can't be refinished anymore. I have no idea whether this is the case with your floors, just that it's a pretty common scenario for softwood floors.
posted by HotToddy at 10:03 AM on December 26, 2020 [20 favorites]

They covered the old flooring in the high traffic areas. I suspect you will be disappointed in their condition. If they are really thick, you might be able to plane them down to better wood but I wouldn’t count on that. You can pull up the new flooring but likely you will heed to replace it.
posted by sudogeek at 10:04 AM on December 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

How crap is the new floor? If it is cheap and badly put down that increases the chance that the person who put it down did not know how to re-finish floors and went with the easy, quick solution. You want them to have loved click-floor laminate and have decided it was the easiest solution after they removed a thirty-year-old wall to wall job. If they did any decent restoration in other parts of the house - sinks, woodwork, electrical fixtures etc. That increases the chances that they tried everything and regretfully covered it up after considering everything.

You can, of course restore an antique floor in bad condition. If you willing to go to the trouble of removing all the nails, you can flip the planks and get a new side to work with. But you are talking major effort and expense here and should check if you can source some matching replacement planks before you start a process like this.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:11 AM on December 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Seconding fir, not oak.
Much softer.
That said, i've succesfully sanded old fir floors after diving ALL the nail in with a countersink thingy.
A lot of work, but worth it IMHO.
posted by Thug at 10:25 AM on December 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

It looks like the new floor has a patched area in it (the area where 7+ seams line up) which suggests that there may have been a pretty large hole there, presumably also going completely through the flooring beneath it. Could have been a floor register that was removed, an access hole cut for plumbing or wiring repairs, etc ,etc. So, I'd be prepared for surprises if you pull it up.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 10:29 AM on December 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

We finished our soft fir floors -- technically the subfloor, never intended to be the actual floor -- in the mid 90s and it is only just now getting to be decrepit enough that we're considering what to do next. This is in a house with a lot of traffic, children running around, etc. The floors do get scratched up and they are visibly worn, but the aesthetic of that reads "homey and warm" to me, not "jacked up." I also would not be at all annoyed by patched-up areas so YMMV, but I say go for it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:47 AM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

The newer, ‘much less attractive’ flooring actually is oak.
posted by jon1270 at 11:21 AM on December 26, 2020 [17 favorites]

Could you stain the new flooring to something that is more your taste?
posted by olopua at 11:50 AM on December 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Well, unless you’re going to host NBA games on it, your floor does not have to be finished as smooth as an arena court. Rustic is fine, pine is beautiful, and I really don’t like that oak either. I had a pine floor with dings and patches and a gorgeous buttery tone that I refused to replace or restore or sand or refinish for whatever good that was going to do. And it was fine, because it was right for that place, and you should do what you want with your place.
posted by sageleaf at 12:11 PM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would assume the new floor was installed because the original floor (which is a softer and much more easy to damage wood) was in very bad shape. Your time would be better spent refinishing the new oak floor so that the stain and final finish match the original flooring. At a glance it’ll look seamless. I think that a lot of what you don’t like about the new oak flooring is the jarring color change that calls attention to the difference in flooring materials.
posted by quince at 12:15 PM on December 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

The much more likely history of your floors is that the narrower (oak, as others have noted) planks are the original flooring, and it was *removed* in some areas to reveal the subflooring (the wider softwood planks that you like). Probably because of damage or having been refinished too many times. If the house was built by the residents, they may have never gotten around to installing the "real" floor in those areas, actually.

The oak floors will be far more durable, I'm another vote for refinishing them.
Is an old-timey/historic feel partly what you like about the wider planks? If so, you may be interested to know that the narrower plank width is actually what was used for house floors until very recently; wider planks in wood floors are a very modern trend that just screams "new" to old-house people, even when believably distressed.
posted by Krawczak at 1:09 PM on December 26, 2020

Whatever is underneath your current floor will probably look like crap. If it was previously carpeted, there will be nail holes from the tack strips, discoloration from spills, etc. On the bright side, they will be solid wood planks, so you can definitely fill the nail holes and refinish them. If there is no other subfloor underneath they might be too thin to be sturdy, but otherwise it's just a matter of driving any nails in further, as has been noted by others.

If you don't like your current flooring, there is no good reason to not pull it up and see what you have, so long as you have a plan for what to do if what's underneath isn't to your liking. It's probably not going to hurt anything to leave it exposed for a month or twelve, though it might be worth waiting for better weather in case there are big gaps that could be uncomfortably drafty. Just mind the possibility of lead dust/paint chips that could be under there. Wear masks and wipe the flooring down immediately after removing the finish floor, especially if you've got kids.
posted by wierdo at 2:01 PM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I did this in my house. The underfloor needed TLC. I patched it with pine that I stained to match and spent a lot of time countersinking nails, filling holes, etc.

I much prefer the textured feel of the older wood and the way that it flexes underfoot. The drawback is that dragging anything heavy over the pine will cause marks. So I'm careful.
posted by pdoege at 2:53 PM on December 26, 2020

All good comments above, the only thing I have to add is that a good way to tell newer wood floor from older wood floor is by the length of the original boards. Most modern (oak / maple) hardwood floors are going to have a maximum board length of ~7 feet at most, although higher end stuff might have a few longer. Cheaper floors will have mostly 2-3 foot sections. Really old wood floors will have a selection of much longer boards, in the 10-12 foot range or even longer in my experience. It looks like from your picture that you have longer boards, so I agree that it's not a new-new addition.

If it were me I'd probably take up some boards around the horizontal ugly patch section line, to the bottom right of your picture. If the floor underneath is trash, you can replace/patch the part you took up with a more random arrangement of boards, to obscure the horizontal line. That will be an improvement and not a waste of time, even if you decide to replace the upper floor.
posted by true at 4:13 PM on December 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think it's possible that both are original, it's hard from the photos to tell if the oak is on top. Wall-to-wall carpeting and imitations of it were popular by the 1870s, and then as now if you were going to cover the floor there was no need for nice floors. Wood was still abundant, so wide planks meant less labor. Narrower boards were seen as nicer because at the time they were more expensive and newer technology. Upstairs they might also have been painted. More formal rooms might have had hard wood floors, like the oak you have, and area rugs.

I second the comment about length as an indication of age - I have 3" wide pine boards in my 1830s house, so at first glace it looks like a newer floor, but they're almost 18' long, the full width of the house. The ones in the less formal rooms are wider and painted, the closets have really wide boards, and then in the 1920s or so someone put oak throughout the ground floor. They all have visible nail heads, I think the toe-nailing used for floors now wasn't invented until a little later. Dense grain with few or no knots is another indication of age for pine.
posted by sepviva at 8:22 PM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hidden nails pretty much requires tongue and groove material. Flat sawn and planed material is much cheaper to produce (uses less material, requires 1/4 the finish handling) and doesn't need an expensive specialty tool (a side/end matcher). Besides the side matcher wasn't invented until the mid 1880s and T+G flooring essentially wasn't a thing before that so the thin strip oak is definitely not original to a house built in the 1870s.

Why it was put down is anyone's guess. Wear or damage to the plank flooring is a possibility but it is, IMO, just as likely to have just been a esthetic choice added as a renovation later. If the large panel could conceivably been a floor vent for a gravity furnace than obviously the oak was added after the heating system was changed.

If you do take the oak up at a minimum the wide planks underneath will have hundreds of holes in them from where the old flooring was nailed down so it won't look as good as the floor where no oak was installed. The holes should be filled and you can either use something dark to accent the recycled nature of the floor or attempt to colour match thereby minimizing the visiblity. The latter takes more time if oyu want to do a good job on the match.

It's a lot of work but it is possible to salvage the oak flooring if you do decide to take it up.
posted by Mitheral at 10:14 PM on December 26, 2020

If so, you may be interested to know that the narrower plank width is actually what was used for house floors until very recently; wider planks in wood floors are a very modern trend that just screams "new" to old-house people

I'm not sure where you are getting this or what region you are from, but historian here. In the Northeast, until the advent of relatively cheap machine-milled lumber in the mid-to-late 1800s, all the floors (except in high-finish places like mansion parlors and ballrooms) were wide-board. It doesn't scream "new" at all because it testifies to a house that was built before 1850ish at least. So might need some qualifiers there.

Speculating about what you will find if you remove the (very nice) narrow oak floor: you might have a continuation of the wide-board softwood under there. If so, going on the high-traffic theory, it will probably look a lot like the boards in an 1830s Greek Revival I lived in in the early oughts. The boards were painted, not varnished. They were uneven and worn deeply away in a couple high-traffic areas, occasionally with some wood fiber erosion. There were wide gaps between the boards we were forever losing coins and earrings into. Still? They were lovely. The painted matte finish was warm and looked nice with throw rugs. We never worried about dropping or spilling things - little dents just added more character, and they could be repainted easily. It definitely had more character. So, much of your question is a matter of taste. Given the age and quality of the current flooring, I really doubt you'll face a worst-case scenario and find a plywood subfloor or rotten joists or anything like that. It's very likely it's just a super worn softwood floor, or, maybe, the new floor is sitting on joists.

I don't see many nailheads in the photo, so it's possible your oak flooring is tongue-and groove - actually a good thing as you can remove a small section (maybe in the already-patched area?) and see what you're dealing with before making a decision. If it doesn't look good you could refinish with a stain to match the tone of the pine floors that you do like. That is what I would do.
posted by Miko at 6:45 AM on December 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

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