Plank & Strip Flooring

Plank and strip flooring with isolated areas of damage can be saved with careful patching.

Flooring made of old-growth wood is beautiful, but sometimes the floor comes with an undesirable history.  Termite damage, burn marks, pet stains, and signs of other mistreatment can so disfigure sections of wood that the only alternative is replacement.

Repairs to a termite-damaged floor in Cedar Key, Florida, were made with heart-pine boards of similar age and character. They’ll eventually darken to match the older wood.

Courtesy Goodwin Heart Pine Co.

Fortunately, ripping out the entire floor isn’t necessary. A bit of skillful patching can heal ancient wounds. There are two main challenges: matching the wood in all of its specifics, and “lacing in” or staggering the repair so that the patch blends with the rest of the floor.

Finding a source of replacement wood may be as simple as salvaging a few boards from the attic floor—or as time consuming as seeking out the right stock from reclaimed-lumber dealers scattered across the country. Obviously, the wood should be of the same species, be it heart pine, oak, or chestnut, and milled the same way (i.e., tongue-and-groove strip vs. shiplapped wide plank), and to the same dimensions. The cut is important too: for example, flat-sawn oak can look remarkably different from quarter-sawn oak once the floor is laid. 

The growth rings on flat-sawn boards appear as a tangential grain—curved lines running up and down the boards, a pattern some call “cathedral arches.” Quarter-sawn wood produces boards with a vertical grain like pinstriping. The denser the original wood, the tighter the pinstriping. Less obvious but just as essential is the age of the wood. If your house was built in 1910, you want wood milled from roughly the same era.

Even scarce or hard-to-find woods like chestnut are still available in wide planks, thanks to dealers like Chestnut Specialists, which remills wood they reclaim from old barns and other buildings.

That’s because the wood in the existing floor already has a patina from 110 years of exposure to the air, explains Jeffrey Forbes of the Goodwin Heart Pine Company. As wood oxidizes, the resins in it crystallize and darken. In the case of heart pine, color highlights shift from red to yellow. That’s what Forbes told client Bill Conway, who wanted to patch damaged areas in a house with century-old, tongue-and-groove floors. “It was to his benefit to use reclaimed wood, because it’s already the color he was looking for.”

The replacement wood should be installed in the same way as the original, and boards should be of similar lengths. The earliest flooring was random-width planks up to 16′ long, laid tightly against one another (butted) with square edges, then either face- or blind-nailed. Flooring laid since the second half of the 19th century is usually tongue-and-groove in 8′ to 10′ lengths. 

Today, a lot of newly milled stock comes in lengths that are much shorter, varying between 5′ and 7′, or even less. Look for wood in lengths that are similar to those in your floor. Boards are milled with projecting tongues on one side and mating grooves on the other. As each board is laid, the tongue slides into the groove on the board already on the floor to create a tight joint that can be blind-nailed in place. 

Making the repair requires basic carpentry skills and finesse. The most important rule to follow, however, is to stagger the board ends. No two boards should end within 4″ of each other. You also want to avoid the deadly rhythmic pattern known as H joints—where every other board is staggered exactly the same amount. You may have to remove portions of boards that aren’t damaged, but the results are well worth it.

If you’ve done your homework, you should barely be able to tell the new boards from the old, after the floor is sanded and finished.

If the floor had been stained, you may have to experiment to come up with a stain formula to match. If you’re concerned the finish on new boards may come out irregular, apply a pre-stain wood conditioner.

Weaving in a Staggered Patch 

1. The damaged area in Bill Conway’s Maryland home was in an awkward place: the passageway between two rooms. 

2. Here’s a similar repair, with new boards in place prior to sanding
3. New boards sanded and finished at the Conway home, the patch woven in. Although new boards appear slightly lighter than the surrounding wood, they’ll eventually darken for a better match.

Tongue-and-Groove Repairs

To replace damaged strip flooring, begin by marking the boards you plan to remove. Check under a radiator pipe or the edge of a door sill to determine the depth of the flooring, then set a circular saw to that thickness. Taking care not to cut into the joists or subfloor, make two parallel cuts into the board along its entire length, starting and finishing as close as possible to the ends. This will produce three narrow boards; the middle one will come out easily with a prybar. The groove side will need a bit of coaxing, and you may have to remove the nails from the tongue side to free it.

Salvaged wood was remilled as tongue-and-groove flooring at Sylvan Brandt, another reclaimed flooring specialist.

Cut the new boards to exactly fit each row of your opening, staggering lengths so that the new pattern
won’t be obvious. To lace in the new boards, first try using a mallet to persuade the boards to fit into place. Cut away the bottom shoulder of the groove on the side of the board receiving the new strip. Then slide the tongue on the opposite side of the board into the exposed groove on the mating floorboard.

If the tongue still won’t go in, choose a new board and cut the shoulder off the tongue side at a 45-degree angle, including the tongue. Fit the detached shoulder with its tongue into the groove on the adjacent board. Then nose the rest of the patch board into the mating tongue on the opposite side. Make adjustments as needed to get the board to lie flat. Then either face-nail the board in place with finishing nails or glue the new board to the detached shoulder.

Resources

for patching floors

Chestnut Specialists  Reclaimed antique solid plank flooring in chestnut, oak, heart pine & pine 

Goodwin Heart Pine Co. River-recovered heart pine & cypress; sustainable & engineered flooring 

Old Wood Workshop Salvaged antique flooring

Olde Wood Reclaimed & wide plank flooring; barn beams & siding

Sylvan Brandt Antique & resawn pine, chestnut, oak

more flooring

A.E. Sampson & Son  Natural wood planks renewably harvested in Maine & North America, plus vintage wood (many species) 

Authentic Pine Floors  Wide-plank heart pine, yellow pine, reclaimed wood, etc. 

Carlisle Wide Plank Floors Wood floors for historical projects

Carlson’s Barnwood Co. Antique wood flooring & barn wood 

Conklin’s Barnwood & Beams  Eco-friendly remilled flooring in vintage oak, pine, hemlock, chestnut 

Country Road Associates Reclaimed wide-board flooring 

Craftsman Lumber Co. Wide-board pine, oak, heart pine 

Granville Manufacturing Co. Traditional strip & plank 

Hull Forest Products  Sawmill-direct wide-plank flooring

Pete’s Hardwood Floors  Floor refinishing (local) and DIY tips & videos 

Pioneer Millworks  Reclaimed wood products for flooring, paneling, etc.

Vintage Wood and Forged Iron Reclaimed barn wood & vintage hardware


By Emily O'Brien

Emily O’Brien writes about old homes and traditional buildings. She’s the senior digital editor for Old House Online and the managing editor for Traditional Building. Recent (print & digital) publications include New Old House, Period Homes, Traditional Building, and Arts & Crafts Homes & The Revival.

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