Timber floors: a period character guide

Roger Hunt uncovers the secrets of antique floorboards and gives valuable advice on care and repair

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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 timber 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.

Left-right: An Aladdin’s cave of reclaimed floorboards at LASSCO (lassco.co.uk); Narrow strip oak flooring, which shows the patina of age

Buying salvaged wooden floor

There is a huge variety of wooden flooring available today and all you need to do to see it is visit somewhere like LASSCO, an architectural salvage company based in London and Oxfordshire. It’s everchanging stock includes both new and reclaimed flooring.

There are slight variations in flooring style for different property types:

  • 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 and is relatively easy to get hold of.
  • The Edwardian boards are anywhere from four inches to 5½ inches.

Buy floorboards that are de-nailed, trimmed to remove split ends and batched into widths. Some reclamation yards and salvage shops sell floorboards in ‘as is’ condition and many customers do very little to the boards once they have been laid because they want to retain the original patina. Wire wool should be used to remove any marks, rather than sanding, as it does the least damage to the surface.

Left-right: These reclaimed antique oak boards came from LASSCO; New Burnt Oak floorboards by Victorian Woodworks suit this barn

When it comes to salvaged parquet, the difficult task of removing the old bitumen adhesive from the back puts some buyers off. However, new adhesives mean that second-hand blocks can be stuck down without the bitumen being removed. Even so, parquet is tricky and should always be laid by an expert.

Don’t discount engineered wood flooring as an addition to a period house, especially if it is being installed as part of a renovation. They are sometimes more suitable where underfloor heating is installed. Whatever flooring you choose, buy well ahead of time to allow it to acclimatise and thus minimise shrinkage after laying.

How to maintain and repair timber floors

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.

Take a look at our expert guide on repairing wooden floorboards

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.

Left-right: Original floorboards within a 14th-century building, they could be incorporated into the house when repairs are undertaken;  Antique sawn boards from Victorian Woodworks have unique character

How to finish a wooden floor

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.

Wooden 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.

Reclaimed floorboards

Reclaimed floorboards, labelled and ready to be sold