Homeowners who live with historic softwood flooring can attest to the character and grace that these floors impart to interior spaces. Each historic softwood floor is a unique product of nature, craft, and, more subtly, of those who have traveled across it through time. The repair and surface finish of a historic softwood floor should be carefully planned to preserve these special qualities and to protect the floor from future damage.
Historically, the most common flooring material in New England was plain-sawn, random-width, face-nailed, white pine boards, due to the ready supply of white pine in the region. There is some evidence that Northern yellow pine was used occasionally for floors in New England, while other softwood species, including Southern yellow pine, cypress, hemlock, spruce, and cedar, were dominant in floors outside New England. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, softwood floors were typically left unfinished, and because they were washed regularly with hot water and lye, they would have mellowed to a gray color quickly after installation.
By the end of the eighteenth century, as occupants sought to protect the wood from dirt, abrasion, and spills, softwood floors were commonly painted any of a wide array of colors, including shades of gray, green, brick red, yellow, and brown. This transition to painted floors seems to have been a part of a larger eighteenth-century shift toward a much more extensive use of paint in general, as even painted roof shingles were not uncommon during this period. The practice of painting softwood floors became widespread in New England and endured through the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the application of paint to softwood floors was, and still is, a good choice, as paint is a very effective sealant, it is durable, versatile, economical, and easy to apply and touch-up.
Paint schemes for softwood floors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ranged from the monochromatic to very fanciful and complex decorative renderings. Through the second quarter of the nineteenth century, fine rugs and colorful wall-to-wall carpets covered softwood floors in the formal spaces of only the wealthiest households. At a time when rugs and carpeting were expensive luxuries, paint was a convenient way to simulate their decorative and refined effect. Painted floors with a contrasting border or stenciled motifs were common, and evidence also exists of striped, checkerboard, and geometric designs. Figurative images were often painted at the center of the floor, with animals, and especially dogs, as popular subjects. Classical designs such as urns and swags were featured during the Federal period.
Owners of historic homes in New England seeking a historically appropriate and appealing finish for historic softwood flooring should consider retaining existing painted surfaces when possible, or repainting when the painted surface has become damaged or is missing. The condition of the flooring should be carefully inspected and repairs made prior to undertaking any painting. Split or deteriorated sections of boards should be removed and replaced in-kind (with new sections of wood that match the species, dimensions, and profile of the existing boards, and using the same fastening techniques to secure the existing flooring). Weak or spongy areas may be an indication of weak or deteriorated sub-floorboards or framing members. If possible, these elements should be inspected from the cellar or crawl-space beneath the floor. If these areas are inaccessible, or if a plaster ceiling prevents inspection, floorboards can be carefully lifted, taking care not to damage floorboards or fasteners. Damaged sub-floorboards should be replaced in-kind, while damaged floor joists can be "sistered," a process of adding new sections of wood alongside existing joists to provide stability.
Next, any protruding nails or fasteners should be made flush to the plane of the floor. Debris should then be removed from all cracks and openings between floorboards, using a flathead screwdriver or small putty knife, and a vacuum, taking care not to damage or gouge the boards. Areas of peeling or failing paint should be hand scraped and hand sanded to a feather edge. Firmly adhered paint should be left intact. In no case should a softwood floor be sanded to completely remove paint, as this process will remove all of the floor's paint history, as well as any evidence of hand planing and historic wear. After thoroughly vacuuming the floor, the surface should be washed using TSP (trisodium-phosphate) or a commercial cleaner such as "Simple Green."
Cracks and gaps often develop between floorboards as a floor ages, due to the swelling and contracting of wood responding to ambient moisture conditions. Openings one-quarter of an inch or larger may be filled prior to painting, using a flexible paste or fiber filler that can withstand the expansion and contraction cycle of the floor. A mixture of sawdust and varnish, shellac, or white glue, or hemp rope soaked in linseed oil or glue have also traditionally been used. The sawdust mixture is pressed into the gap or the soaked hemp rope is packed into the crack using a flathead screwdriver or small putty knife. A flexible poly-sulfide caulking may also be used; however, this should only be done when cracks are halfway through their expansion and contraction cycle (spring or fall). It may be necessary to fill openings larger than one-half of an inch with a pliable backing material, such as cloth or weatherstripping. Finally, minor holes, gouges and cracks can be repaired by gluing down any long splinters, then filling the crack with wood filler as described above. Once repairs have been made, the floor can be painted with an oil-based floor or deck paint applied in two or more coats to achieve a long-lasting finish.
Through wear and abrasion from traffic, floors probably take more abuse than any other interior element in a house. With proper care, though, a historic softwood floor will last long into the future. An understanding of appropriate repair and treatment of historic softwood flooring is critical to the preservation of this valuable feature.
-Roberta Lane & Joseph Cornish