Repairing the floor – 1

The floor we want to repair is of unknown age but must be pretty old, not just because of its battered state but because the boards are of uneven widths of up to a foot or so, presumably because they were cut from the same tree.

It is largely intact, but there are some knot and other large holes, deep cracks and one patch weak and brittle from old wet rot; unfortunately, one plank had to be partly removed to insert a steel flitch beam into a slot cut in the middle of the weak – but still attractive – main beam which supports the whole floor. It was damaged, though long ago, by wet rot and insect action.We’ll deal with disguising that reinforcement later.

The main issue and the biggest job is filling the gaps between the planks, which are mostly of between 6mm and 10 mm but are very irregular. We can’t ignore them, because the floorboards are the ceiling of the kitchen so dust falls through in clouds. We won’t be plastering the kitchen ceiling because we like the look from below of the ancient joists and planks of the farm building this once was. So since we moved in, the floor above has been covered in hardboard and carpet.

We always had in mind that the floor would look great exposed to view, and beeswaxed, with a few rugs on it. But that won’t work unless the cracks and holes are dealt with to keep the kitchen clean. If we tighten up the floor by filling the cracks, it should also reduce the noisy squeaks it makes when walked on.

The simple solution is to take up the boards, shuffle them together to close the gap, and find a piece of matching wood to fill the space that will be left on one side of the room. However, it became obvious from lifting one board a while back that it would be very difficult to move them without breaking and cracking some. All the nail heads have rusted away so they would need to be levered up, but the wood is so hard and brittle that many boards are likely to split or crack. Many boards have moulded themselves to the irregular shape of the rough joists hokding them up, so only fit well where they are.

The standard crack-filling method with old floors is to plug the gaps with papier mâché, sawdust mixed with glue or thin wooden slivers or splines, then sand it all down to an even surface. That would be criminal with a really old floor that clearly has the patina – and the damage – of hundreds of years of use. A trial patch of beeswax showed that the wood comes up an interesting dark grey-brown, and that was what we wanted.

On-line advice from the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is that whatever we do, we should not damage the evidence of age by sanding or by scrubbing. We decided just to brush it very thoroughly.

BUT – how do we fill the gaps if we can’t sand the floor down? Below are the tools and materials we used. The most important was an assortment of pre-cut slivers made from old pine floorboards, bought on-line from Period Projects of Southampton. We could not find a supply of hardwood slivers and we have not got the machinery to make our own – they are quite tricky to cut because they are tapered across their width.

Also, hard wood could be much tougher to trim with a spokeshave and Stanley knife, and softwood could easily be stained.

More on the method in the next post.

Soft wood slivers in 6, 8 and 10m sizes from Period Projects of Southampton
Old screwdriver for scraping gaps clean, spokeshave and Stanley knife
Essential knee pads – it can be a painful job!
Rubber mallet to tap down slivers

2 thoughts on “Repairing the floor – 1”

  1. Fascinating. This really is the proverbial can of worms, where you start with one thing in mind but find there is a knock-on effect of a million other related tasks. Seeing wood like this that is obviously so old makes me want to go back in time and see just where it came from and what were the people like who chopped it down and turned it into the boards you can see now…

    Awaiting the next instalment!

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