In my role as a professional decorator, I love working on older properties – they often require a lot more work, but can look amazing when they’re done properly. I particularly love old Victorian terraced houses, but sadly I live in a desert of 1970s and 1980s red brick boxes. Fortunately, my daughter and her boyfriend have just moved into a Victorian place, and I’m loving the opportunity to help out on a few projects.
One of the first things they wanted to do was to renovate the pine floorboards downstairs, which were actually in pretty good condition structurally, but had been on the receiving end of a lot of wear and tear over the years. I thought this was a good opportunity to document the correct process and explain how to renovate old floorboards.
Preparation of Old Floorboards
The first thing you’ll need for renovating floorboards is a good pair of knee pads! Seriously, you’ll be spending a lot of time on your hands and knees, and they will thank you for a bit of extra protection! Click here to see the knee pads I use.
The first task is to remove all the furniture from the room –renovating old floorboards is virtually impossible if you’re constantly moving sofas out the way, and besides, they’ll get covered in dust, so it’s best to remove them.
Then, check over the floorboards for areas of damage; ideally, you should replace any damaged or missing boards with new or reclaimed ones of the same dimensions and similar appearance – it can be tricky to find matching boards sometimes, but on this occasion, we were lucky as there was very little damage, and the only missing boards were under the washing machine in the utility room. If you do need replace floorboards with newer timber, you could use wood dry to change the colour of the newer board and blend it with the rest. Or, if you have carpet in another room, why not swap a new board for an older one under the carpet (where it won’t be seen), and use the old board in the room you’re working on.
Next (sorry – on your hands and knees!) you need to painstakingly make sure that all the nails (or screws) are tapped down below the surface of the wood – a good 2-3mm below the surface at least, depending on how much sanding needs to be done. A hammer and nail punch are the ideal tools for this. If you miss out this step, protruding nail heads will destroy your sandpaper when you come to sand, and besides, they’re never pleasant to stand on in bare feet.
Some people like to fill the nail holes at this stage, I prefer to wait until a little later (see below). If there are any large gaps between the boards, you can fill these by cutting thin strips from reclaimed boards and tapping them down into the gaps.
Before you start sanding, tape up the gaps around any doors to adjoining rooms, to minimise the spread of dust. The best way to sand a large area is to get your apprentice to do it. Only joking! You will need to hire suitable sanding equipment from a local tool hire shop – a drum sander and edge sander are what you need, but if you explain to them what you are doing and the rough size of the room, most hire places will be helpful enough to make sure you have the right equipment for the job.
You’ll also need a small detail sander for the awkward corners, and from a health and safety perspective you will need ear defenders, goggles, and a good quality face mask to stop you breathing in the dust.
Yes, even with the bags fitted on the sanders, there will still be a lot of dust! Use the drum sander first to get the large easy-to-access areas of the floor done quickly – it’s best to test in a small area first so you can work out the best grade of sand paper to use to take off as much of the old varnish and grime as possible without taking too much wood; that way you minimise the amount of time spent following the drum sander up and down the room!
Follow the instructions that you are given by the hire company when using their equipment – often it’s best to do one “pass” diagonally across the floorboards to remove the worst bumps and protrusions, and then further passes up and down the floorboards until the desired finish is achieved, using gradually finer grade (higher “grit”) sandpaper each pass, or as you feel necessary depending on the state of the floor. Working with the grain on the last pass of your floorboards will give you a nicer finish.
Then use the edge sander to go around the edges of the floor, and the detail sander for the awkward corners. When all the sanding is done, sweep up thoroughly to get rid of the dust, and have a good inspection – once you are happy with how the boards look, sweep up again.
This is the stage when I like to fill the nail holes. Ronseal ready-mixed wood filler (available online here) is a good general-purpose product, and it is quite easy to find the colour you need to match the rest of the timber. You can see a full range here. Once the filler has hardened, sand each area of filler smooth, and vacuum the floor to get rid of all remaining dust. If you want to be 100% sure you’ve cleaned it all thoroughly, you can wipe down with tack cloths, available here.
To make sure every last trace of dirt, grime and old oil or wax is removed from the floorboards, wipe down the floor with methylated spirits on an old rag – keep the windows open to maximise ventilation during and after this stage, and it’s a good idea to wear protective gloves.
Once the meths has dried, your floorboards should be looking vastly improved compared to how you started. Now it’s time to apply some finishing product, which will further enhance the natural beauty of the wood as well as providing it with protection for years to come.
There is a huge choice of products available that are suitable for this job. Hard-wearing varnishes, specifically developed for floors to withstand wear and tear, are a good option and are widely available in both clear and coloured versions, and matt, satin and gloss finishes.
Another increasingly popular option would be a wax or oil. Again, choose one specifically intended for floors to ensure it is hard-wearing. In this particular instance I chose to use Fiddes Hard Wax Oil (see my product review here), as it is a hard-wearing product that soaks into the wood, so it won’t chip or flake (and is easier than varnish to “touch up” later if needed), and really brings out the natural beauty of the wood. Fiddes Hard Wax oil is a fantastic product when renovating old floorboards. Click here to see online prices.
Whatever product you choose, I would expect to apply a minimum of two, possibly three coats, making sure the room is well ventilated and allowing plenty of time for the product to dry before applying the next coat.
And once your floor is looking perfect, don’t rush to move the furniture back in – although the varnish or oil may be touch dry, some can take up to a week to reach their maximum durability, so don’t do anything in that time that risks scratching your new surface.
How to Renovate Old Floorboards – by Robin Gofton
Other Decorators on How to Renovate Old Floorboards
Renovating old floorboards is something that I’m asked to do on a semi-regular basis. I think it looks quite cool to be honest. You’re working with battered timber that is as old as the house, and never designed to be on show. You’d think it wouldn’t work, but it does.
You sand it back, repair it, then coat it with something like Wax Oil, which brings out the natural beauty and protects the timber. It may sound like a cliche, but it’s like art. You start with something hideous and end up with something that looks beautiful.
It is hard work and messy. Robin is correct to say tape up doors to limit the dust to the room in which you’re working. Knee pads and a mask are very important too. Oh, and be careful with the sanders. I once knocked a customer’s hearth and didn’t notice the damage until I de-masked at the end of the job.
Leaning how to renovate old floorboards is no problem. It’s quite a simple process. The trick is to hire the correct tools before you begin (have a chat with your local tool hire shop). Other than that, the best tip I can give you is to keep it clean.
Get through your prep, then remove as much dust as you can. Sweep up, let everything settle, sweep again. Then vacuum, then wipe. After the first coat of product, I tend to give everything a light sand by hand with some fine sandpaper. Make sure you go with the grain. This will make your floorboards smooth to the touch.
Just keep the room as ‘dust free’ as possible when you’re applying the product to your floorboards.