Invisible Repairs for a Hardwood Floor
The key is finding boards that match and installing them with care.
Synopsis: The beauty of a hardwood floor has an underside: It can be difficult to repair damaged boards and to do so in a way that integrates the new boards with the old. In this article from FHB‘s Project House series, restoration contractor Scott Sidler shares his process for making invisible repairs to hardwood floors. The first step is finding boards that are as close a match as possible to the existing floor. This means not only finding boards of the same species, but finding boards of the same width and with a similar grain and color. Sidler then demonstrates how to remove the damaged boards, how to patch an open or damaged area of the subfloor, and how to install new boards tightly, maintaining the tongue-and-groove connections and keeping face-nailing to a minimum. He concludes with tips for blending the new with the old when refinishing the entire floor is not in the budget.
Other than refinishing hardwood floors, the most common repair my restoration company gets called to do is floorboard replacement. The typical reasons we replace boards are termite or water damage, pet stains that blacken the boards to a point sanding won’t fix, and floor-plan changes that involve the removal of interior walls.
My goal is to find replacement boards that match the existing floor, and then integrate them for a natural appearance. It takes skill and patience, but the payoff is another 100 years or more of use without having to resort to an unfortunate solution: covering up the old floor with carpet, vinyl, or another layer of wood. The mark of success for a restoration carpenter is for nobody to realize you were ever there.
Identifying wood and its installation
When I get called to look at a floor-repair job, the first thing I check is the species of the wood. The old homes I come across here in Florida usually have flooring of heart pine, red oak, or white oak; occasionally, they have Douglas fir. There are online guides to identifying wood grains, but this part of the job is hard to teach. Experience really is the best teacher.
I can usually identify the species by examining the grain of the planks, and I know some people who can determine the species by the smell of the sawdust or the weight of the boards. When in doubt, I remove a couple of boards and bring them to the salvage yard for help in finding a match.
The second thing I look for is whether the joints of the floorboards are randomly spaced, or set consistently at 16 in. or 24 in. on center. Consistently spaced joints are usually an indication that there’s no subfloor under the hardwood flooring. In my area of Florida, this is common to the oldest homes (1890s and earlier) and the homes in the low-end working-class neighborhoods built from the 1900s to the 1940s.
If there is a subfloor, I can use the replacement boards more efficiently, staggering the joints wherever I need. Without a subfloor, I have to use lengths in 16-in. or 24-in. increments and be careful not to fall through the floor while I’m working on large repairs. Also, in homes without subfloors, the planks run underneath the interior walls instead of butting against them, which means far more hassle when it comes to removing and replacing each piece.
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