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Vanishing Floors

If you are a wood floor contractor and working on an older home you get accustomed to a frequently asked question; “How many more times can my floor be sanded?” Thirty years ago, the question might not have been considered too important. That is not the case today. With the increased popularity of wood floors and how much they appreciate the value of a home, homeowners are going to greater lengths to keep their floors in top notch shape. And this is taking a toll.

When do you know?

The most often repeated answer to the “how many times” question is that a floor can be sanded three times. But that is not telling you a lot if you haven’t owned the house the whole time. What I have found gives a homeowner a better indicator to measure by is the age of the house. The younger the house, the less likely it exceeds the magic number of three. More specifically, I use 1950 as the all important time line. Anything built around 1950 or before has usually experienced multiple wood floor refinishing projects. As you would expect, as you digress (houses built in the1940s, 1930s, 1920s and so on) you can almost be assured that your wood floors are at serious risk of not being able to endure any more sanding at all. Homes built in the 19th century would be even at greater risk. Homeowners whose homes are 80+ years or older should exercise extreme caution and make sure that any wood floor contractor they consider has a high level of experience working on older homes. You don’t want to find out after they start that they are lacking this experience.

What to look for?

Knowing the age of the home is a good starting point but there are other ways of double checking how much wood you have left. One of the first things you will see with most tongue and groove floors are the tips of the nails securing the flooring to the subfloor. In this picture, just above the pencil is a line of shiny objects. These objects are the tips of the nail used to secure the flooring to the sub-floor. Notice that the row of nail heads are at a 90 degree angle to the direction the wood is installed. At the time of the original installation, these nails were well below the surface of the floor and not visible. But the loss of wood from repeated aggressive sanding has exposed them and they are bright because of the sanding process. This floor is about 90 years old. The wood in this photo is pine and has probably been refinished a total of four times.

Another very obvious sign is when the wood splits along the parallel seams following the direction of the wood. This split happens when the wood has become so thin that even small amounts of pressure cause the wood to break. This pressure would come from furniture, musical instruments, high heels and simple walking patterns of the residents. In this photo you can see that the break exposes a large gaping hole. You are looking at the actual tongue and groove configuration used to fit the pieces of wood together. At this point, the damage is catastrophic and the floor is ruined. If a homeowner wants a sturdy and structurally strong floor, they will need to replace this floor with a new one. This project had numerous other failures like this. Homeowners often ask that these cavities be fill with a wood filler but this will not provide a permanent solution and the wood filler will eventually crack and disintegrate.

Now What?

Replacing an old wood floor is very costly and extremely invasive to your home and your lifestyle. You really want to be diligent to avoid inheriting a floor that needs to be replaced or losing one with a well intentioned refinishing project. The most important point here is to detect the warning signs before you see the wood splitting. Most old floors still have a very useful life and can provide decades of service. Most can still be refinished but not in the traditional manner. Homeowners really need to make sure they exercise caution in selecting a contractor and find one that has plenty of experience working on older wood floors. Most contractors are taught to attack a floor with aggressive and coarse sanding as this is the most time efficient way of completing the work. The excessive loss of wood always occurs as a result of aggressive sanding. Fortunately there are techniques and equipment available that dramatically reduce the amount of wood lost during the sanding process. The focus is on removing just the old finish and little, if anything, else. This approach will typically take more time and require a more skilled worker so be prepared to pay more but it beats having to install a new wood floor.

In summary, wood floors in any older home represent a significant and sizable asset. It is one of the reasons people covet these older structures and you don’t want to the owner who finds out they are at risk of losing this asset. Do your homework before you start a wood floor project. Look for the signs I have pointed out in terms of wear, erosion and damage. But your best insurance is simply finding a contractor who has the track record to take on the project in the first place. They know what to look for and have a better idea of how to handle the situation. This is no time to be betting on a lower price or cheaper work.

Michael Purser | ©2016 Rosebud Co.

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