Wood floors of the Victorian era, with plain, unfinished planks, have given way to parquet designs. Restoring these floors goes a long way to creating an authentic period look. Unlike unfinished planks that got their charm from natural wear patterns, shiny strip and parquet floors benefited from new finishing products such as oil, varnishes and shellacs, that added a special look to the floorboards.
If you’re restoring a home of this period, opting for a varnish or shellac is a good way to give your floor an authentic, period look. Like painting, preparation is more important than application when you’re refinishing an old-house floor.
Many times, if a floor has been properly maintained, it’s possible to coat over the existing surface with the same finish. First prep a small test area by hand sanding it, then add the chosen finish. If it bites and has the right look, it’s probably the same finish that’s on there.
Dissimilar products won’t work on each other, so don’t be tempted to shellac a varnished floor — it simply won’t hold. (A note of caution if you go with shellac: This historical finish won’t tolerate alcohol or water spills, so be sure to consider the room’s usage beforehand.)
You can add a coat of wax over either, if you choose, to preserve and protect the finish while adding a bit of luster to the floor.
Keep the surface free of dust and dirt with regular dust mopping. Expect to rewax periodically as this protective coating wears away. It’s a small price to pay for retaining a piece of history.
If a previous owner refinished your old house floor with a coat of polyurethane, you might decide to strip it off and bring the floor back in a more authentic manner.
Although this newer finish is extremely durable and offers a longevity most historical finishes don’t, many restorers find it looks plastic and doesn’t mesh well in restored homes.
If the floor is badly stained and scratched, the floor’s thickness is the indicator you should use to decide whether sanding is feasible.
Extreme care should be taken when working on old parquet floors. Since these boards are only generally about three-eighths of an inch thick, there’s probably only about one-eighth inch to work with until the tongue is reached. As a result, many restorers will recommend stripping the floor by hand, either with a hand scraper or chemicals if the finish must be removed.
Although this obviously can be a very labor-intensive job, it might be the only way to refinish some old parquet without ruining the floor. Since an old strip floor is thicker many of these floors can be sanded.
There is another factor that should be considered when you’re deciding whether to sand an early floor. Remember that flooring spans structural members. And the construction techniques common to many old homes are different from those we consider standard today. More than likely your floor joints are 1 inch or so thick. The thickness of the board is adequate for this large span. But when the board is worn (or sanded) down to seven-eighths of an inch or three-eighths of an inch, you’re apt to get some spring in the floor.
It’s noteworthy that every sanding decreases the thickness of a wood floor by about one-sixteenth of an inch to three-sixteenths of an inch. So, there are only so many times you can sand down a wood floor. An easy way to gauge the thickness of the old floor is to remove the molding and baseboard or a floor heating register to reveal the edge of the wood.