How to Preserve Historic Floors

Historic wood floors add character that more recent materials can only hint at.      Oftentimes, the lumber came from primary growth forests (old growth forests) with massive, ancient trunks.     The wood is wonderfully dense in its cell structure, even the pine and are much more resilient and resistant to insect damage.     Many a Newburyport home has wide-pine flooring.        Unfortunately, in too many homes, the dirt on these decks has built up too!

One of the major challenges of an historic home is how to clean and polish wood floors.      

Of course, if you ended up purchasing a home that was stripped of all its priceless character and has plastic floors or some modern wood floors because the developer thought it would sell better than you need not read any further.      My condolences that you have lost an irretrievable treasure and all the character of the home but now you can go out and buy any cleaning product that will do the job.

For the rest of us, there are five ways that you can deal with original wood floors.     One, floor paint.     Often times, especially in rental units or if you live a very busy life; it is the best way to take care of the stains and uneven wear that often occurs.       The one advantage is the floor is now preserved.     Later, an owner with more time and determined to bring out the beauty of the floors, can strip it and begin the process.        Black tends to be the preferred color especially when dealing with plaster walls and open beam-work.      It just hits it right.

Two, polyurethane it.   It’s a way all right but it leads to disaster.   If you own a typical home in suburbia land, this will work.      Unfortunately, the nature of historic homes (presuming pre-1900) is ‘breathing’.       Modern homes are tight as can be which of course has arisen their own problems with buildups of argon and unforeseen gas emissions from some construction products.     With no where to go, many a new home is a low-grade gas chamber.    This is where truly ‘green’ products are a necessity.       Historic home floors tend to breath and this means that air can reach the underside of the polyurethane causing it to cloud up.        Once this happens, the pain and misery of having to strip the floors can not be measured!      

Three, the natural look.      This is where a homeowner needs to make a special trip down to the historic preservationist shop, Market Basket (or Shaws).        This is where you can pick up distilled white vinegar.       This stuff for a household is what aspirin is for the body, a miracle drug, or in this case, a miracle chemical.        White vinegar has been credited to have as much as 1001 environmentally safe, all natural uses that are non-toxic and the best part for a poor preservationist, low cost!   

Just get yourself a bucket and add nine parts to one part white vinegar.    Get some gloves so you won’t smell like a salad and start applying liberally on the floor and rub it in thoroughly.    The first application will clean the floors and then afterward, a regular application will leave your floors looking sharp.

For those with a more expansive budget, there is a product called Oz Cream Polish from Behlen Company.    It cleans deeply and polishes old wood so its natural grain stands out and the cleaning is so effective, the natural look dazzles.

Four, the oil look.    Often, the nature of the floor can be pushed so far with the natural appearance.    Oftentimes, oil will give the wood a softening “wet” effect that is beyond looks which soaks into the cracks and traps the water properly hydrating the wood.       The oil gives a rich, organic texture to the floor.       This is where Tung Oil can do a great job.    This of course requires a trip to Lunt & Kelly.     Pure Tung Oil is made from the pressed seed from the nut of the Tung Tree.    Pure Tung oil is also sometimes called "China wood oil". It is believed to have originated long ago in China and appears in the writings of Confucius from about 400 B.C.     It is a favorite of environmentally-sensitive users because of its natural chemical composition and its non-toxic nature.      Unfortunately, it tends to be a labor-intensive workout applying it to wood.      In recent years, companies like Cabot Stains and Minwax have produced Tung Oil Finish.        These are more hybrid products.        Tung oil finish indicating a wet wood look that the original produces so beautifully.    Lunt & Kelly has several brands to choose from.     

A popular product using the same idea of a ‘Tung oil finish’ is Danish Oil which is a combination of oils and varnish.      Watco is a company who leads in this type of oil though their brand is hard to come unless you use the Internet.

Five, the wax look.      This version provides a great appearance but it does require a lot of elbow grease.     A good brand is Butcher’s Boston Polish which not only gives a beautiful sheen but because it contains solvents, it actually cleans on the first application.      After applying the wax, the floors will need a thorough buffing to create the appropriate gloss.

A highly recommended version can save time and that’s Liberon Liquid Beeswax.      It’s high liquidity allows for deep access into the wood grain.

Finally, if you are a serious historic preservationist and price is not an issue, there is the ultimate wax finish called, Louis XIII.      A French product that is available from Fine Paints of Europe.       Being French, it has a beeswax smell that is wonderfully addictive like perfume.

Finally, use some precautions while enjoying your historic floors.     Provide walk-off mats at entries, use felt protectors on furniture legs  and vacuum regularly. Wipe up all spills promptly. Inspect periodically for plumbing leaks (icemaker, dishwasher, etc.) or any other water penetration from above or below.     Protect the floor from damage by keeping cats and dogs nails clipped, and high heals should be avoided especially on soft wood such as pine.  All wood expands and contracts seasonally dependent upon ambient humidity. The flooring planks that lay tightly together in the summer may develop some gaps between the boards during the dry months or heating season. This is normal and does not require any special attention but if you plan on leaving your historic home for a short jaunt to Florida or warmer climates, don’t leave your home unconditioned.     Make sure a steady temperature is maintained to avoid severe warping.     Finally, a light mopping or running over with a dust mop (or modern equivalent) is often all that is needed to make sure the floors look sharp.

If you have original floors, especially the extra-wide ones, don’t throw them away – restore them to the original glory when they were new.

-P. Preservationist

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About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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