By Michael Good
For some, a gleaming hardwood floor is the vintage home’s crowning glory. For others, it’s just that thing you walk on. Most old-house owners, however, fall somewhere in between – wood floors are beautiful, they’re functional, but they’re nothing to get too worked up about – until it’s time to refinish them. Then wood floors become THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD.
Dondi Dahlin of Mission Hills wrote recently for advice about her wood floors. They were causing her some stress: “I live in an historic home. Since I bought it four years ago, I have had a very difficult time due to the very soft Douglas fir wood floors. Just one hour ago I put another large scratch in the floor. It is breaking my heart. Can you please advise? Everything dents the floors.”
Dondi closed her e-mail with a poem on the blessings of being a new mother. Although I don’t usually do floors, I felt a certain tugging of the heartstrings: New mother. Historic house. Her wood is breaking her heart!
Dondi lives in the Ida R. Hedges house, a 1904 “folk style” dwelling in what was originally called Crestline. This little-known pocket of early 20th-century houses is perched on a bluff overlooking Curlew Canyon. In person, Dondi doesn’t look like a new mother ¬– she’s trim and has the sort of poise and posture you usually find in a dancer, which is what she is (Middle Eastern and Polynesian). Her house has gone through some unfortunate changes inside – a previous owner removed the bookcases because they were “termite-eaten” – but the living room is large, light-filled and possessed of a beautiful old Douglas fir floor with a large, hard-to-miss scratch in the middle.
“We were moving some boxes,” Dondi explained. “And a picture fell out, and broke, and a big nail scraped across the floor.”
While I went into the kitchen to moisten a paper towel, I gave Dondi an abbreviated version of my Douglas fir speech. Although it’s classified as softwood, Douglas fir is really fairly hard, especially the old-growth heartwood. I returned and rubbed a little moisture into the scratch to see what it would look like with a clear finish. The damage didn’t quite disappear, but it did become less visible. Add some stain, two coats of polyurethane, and the scratch would be all but unnoticeable.
As for preventing further scratches, additional coats of finish would help deflect potential damage, but no finish, and no wood, is going to resist a blow from a nail. After all, that’s what a nail is designed to do: puncture wood.
I left Dondi with what I hoped would be some comforting advice (and a promise to refinish her floor while she was in Europe on tour): When people look at floors, their eyes are drawn more to the condition of the finish than the condition of the wood. That’s why it’s essential to maintain your finish. If not, you’ll have to completely sand the floor – or replace it.
That was the situation Darryl White and David Stephens were facing after they bought a 1930 Spanish house in Kensington. The floors had been sanded too many times (and rather poorly), and parts would need to be replaced. Darryl called Atlas Flooring. They determined that most of the floor, though worn thin, could still be sanded. Where the old and new floor joined, Atlas “laced” the boards together so the transition wouldn’t be obvious.
Now there was the small matter of staining the floor to harmonize with the decorative fir trusses and baseboards I had recently refinished a medium reddish-brown color. I provided samples for Darryl to show the floor guys. A day later, Darryl called. He was a little stressed. Atlas doesn’t use the stains I had provided. Could I come over and help him pick the right color?
When I arrived, there were four swatches of stain on the newly sanded dining room floor. Of course, they looked nothing like the samples. Over the next hour, we tried mixing Antique Brown with Chestnut. Coffee with Antique Brown. Chestnut with Coffee. Each time we stepped back into the living room and looked through the arch into the dining room where the dozen or so samples were arrayed like so much spilled paint, I thought, “Gee there’s a lot of floor here. And it’s all so white! If you were to pick the wrong stain color, you could really screw things up!”
I’ve made thousands of decisions about color – as a magazine editor, as a website editor, as a wood refinisher. My process has always been the same: trust my initial impression, consider the alternatives, squint a little, walk away if necessary, listen to the other creative people and then take a deep breath and make the call. And so that’s what I did. Antique Brown. It harmonized with the base. Everything else was too yellow or two dark.
An hour later we were still looking at the floor. In silence. Finally Darryl spoke. “I guess you’re waiting for me to make a decision.”
I nodded my head. Darryl decided to reach out for his lifeline.
“I better let David have a look,” he said, pulling out his cell phone.
When David arrived, he took one glance and said, “What about this one?” He was pointing at the Chestnut/Coffee combination, or maybe it was the Coffee/Chestnut combination.
“We’re not talking about that one,” I said. “It’s been removed from contention. Pretend it isn’t there.” I’ll have to admit my manners were slipping a little.
“Okay, then,” David said, perfectly reasonably. “I like this one.” He was pointing at the Antique Brown. “This looks good with the baseboards.”
It was a struggle not to hug him.
In three days, when the floor is finished, I won’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t look anything like Antique Brown. But it will still be beautiful. That’s the thing to keep in mind when you’re dealing with a wood floor. No matter what, it will be beautiful. And if not, you can always walk on it.