Historic floors have long been a neglected subject. Floors have always been of a lower of architectural hierarchy of other elements of a building. Wood flooring is subject to wear, fire and water damage. Because of this, many wood floors have already been subjected to excessive deterioration. Conservators of Historic buildings have started taking steps to preserve these fragile wood floors for posterity.
Protecting and maintain wooding flooring is a major concern. Wear can be minimized by limiting traffic on the floor or placing carpet runners in walking areas. The least damaging methods should be used to maintain the flooring. Older methods of maintenance are a too harsh and longer used. In the past wood floors may have been cleaned with small amount of beer or vinegar or by dry washing slightly damp Fullers Earth a fine claylike earthy material on the floor and dry scrubbing. Dry sweeping with herbs was also popular. Floors that are coated with varnish, shellac, or lacquer finish should never be damp mop a. If need be a small amount mineral spirits can be used to remove surface stain residue. Today soft brittle brooms or felt lined vacuum attachments are employed.
Restoring historic wood flooring involves a great deal of research. A review of the building’s history will reveal why and when the building achieved significance. Each historic place is a physical record of its time and the flooring should be restored to the period of significance. Although in some cases, the changes to a historic place which have occurred over time might be the defining character of the building.
Even historic builds that that have preservation programs in place may not treat the wood floors with the same significance of other architectural elements. I was touring the Biltmore Estate inAshevilleNorth Carolina. The Biltmore was built in 1895. It was richly ornamented in the French Renaissances and is designed after three famous early-16th-century châteaux’s theBlois, Chenonceau, andChambord. The Biltmore has an expert team of preservationist that work year round on the Estate. While I was touring I casual commented to an attendant on a large area that I believed had been repaired. About ten minutes later I was approached by two men. I quickly tried to remember if I had improperly walked into any restricted areas. Come to find out they just wanted to know how I could tell it had been repaired for future reference.
When possible wood flooring should be repaired rather than replaced. If the flooring is too severely deteriorated to be repaired, a survey of the building should be taken to see if boards are available from normally hidden areas such as under stairs or cabinets. Any changes should be well documented for future reference.
Time creates a priceless patina on the floors which is almost impossible to recreate. When repairs are unavoidable, the patina, wood grain, age, color and texture should be duplicated as close as possible. These principles were repeated to me so many times by my grandfather that I hear them in my sleep.
The passion that my grandfather invoked on me for historic preservation is fueled by my close friend Sprigg Lynn of Universal Floors inWashingtonDC. His company is considered one of the worlds foremost in wood flooring restoration. His portfolio is unmatched including buildings like the White House, Supreme Court, Alexander gram bell, Ted Roosevelt. I have enjoyed consulting and preserving history with him.
Creating a supply of age boards is a difficult task. Although some material may be very hard to come by, Sprigg and I do not like to collect any material that improperly came at the expense of another historic building. It is difficult to artificially age boards. Boards can be bath lime solutions or fumed with ammonia but it generally comes down to a good eye and a mixture of dyes and stains.
These mid 1700’s plank floors were hand scraped to restore them back to the to the time period of significance. The floor was treated with potash lye and waxed.
Thomas Jefferson’sMonticelloparquet pattern
The floor in Thomas Jefferson’s parlor was installed sometime around September 1804 – June 1805. The cherry panels are 12” square. The beech frame members are 4 1/4″ wide. The cherry panels are held into the frames with a tongue and groove joint on the sides’ perpendicular to the grain of the panels. On the other two sides, iron pins or dowels are used. The frames are joined at the corners using a mitered half-lap. Screws are inserted from the backside to hold these joints together.
The parquets were probably originally finished with oil and beeswax. The floor is now occasionally given a coat of paste wax and buffed. Some touch-up is also occasionally necessary where the floor is not protected by carpeting. Orange shellac thinned with denatured alcohol is used for this purpose.
Each historic place is a physical record of its time and the flooring finish should be restored to the period of significance. Some of the earliest softwood floors were often never coated with a finished. Old-growth Eastern white pine is common through the North East and heart pine in the southern states. The Eastern white pine is often referred to as pumpkin pine because warm amber patina it has developed over time. Lower grades of plank flooring were commonly used on floors for flooring of the second floor of the home and in rooms of less importance. These bare wide planks were generally maintained by washing them with water and homemade lye. Over the life of these floors they may have been painted, finished with linseed oil, waxed, shellacked or varnished. Although modern stains and dyes are used many old techniques are utilized in achieve historic accuracy. A stain made from boiling walnut husks creates a lovely shade of deep golden brown.