Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Wide-Plank Flooring from Antique Wood

Specifying antique boards for wide-plank flooring is trickier than buying new wood. Here are some purchasing tips -- and some reliable suppliers.

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When a client decides to "go rustic" and asks for antique wood wide-plank floors, the architect or interior designer is presented with a special set of problems. The reason: There's no uniform grading system for antique wood the way there is for new wood flooring. But if the specifier knows the tricky ins and outs of the antique flooring market, the client can end up with a beautiful floor that's unlike any other.

Many reputable antique-flooring manufacturers are located in the South and the Northeast. But there are also numerous small sellers, who make a business of acquiring and reselling old boards willy-nilly with little or no professional drying or milling. Some producers specialize in a specific antique wood, such as heart pine; others will manufacture flooring from numerous varieties of antique woods. Needless to say, it is safest to select a supplier that has been around awhile and, among other things, does its own kiln-drying and manufacturing.

There is no grading system for antique woods as there is with new lumber. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because appearance is much more meaningful than grade. One supplier's "antique oak" may not look like some other supplier's "antique oak." Interestingly, the very things that are considered defects in new lumber (checking, cracked knots, worm holes, and other "bug tracks," for example ) are exactly what makes antique flooring so attractive. Frequently, what one person loves as "charm and character" can totally repel someone else. So it can be a daunting task to compare, say, antique heart pine, when the names of the different so-called grades range from descriptive ("Clear," "Naily," etc.) to the names of dead presidents. Brochures and pictures can help to some extent, but it is a rare photo that will show the true color of a finished antique floor; slight errors in lighting, developing and color printing take their toll.

Samples of antique wood can be misleading. The very nature of antique lumber is that it varies from piece to piece, and that fact is part of its appeal. You're dealing with boards and beams up to 250 years old that have been exposed to the elements and used in the construction of buildings. Realize, also, that when an 18th-century farmer built a barn on his property, generally he used the lumber available locally. He may have used all oak, but more often than not, there were numerous sub-species involved, some of which may no longer be available. It is a rare load of antique lumber that is all the same -- such as "antique oak." Some suppliers may try to sort by wood species or, more realistically, by color. Clients need to realize that althourgh the floor boards in a shipment may vary in color, density, etc., the wood floor should be viewed as an installed whole. If the client doesn't find this appealing, staining is always an option; if that's not acceptable, consider new wood flooring!

Rather than asking for samples, it's best if the designer and client visit the supplier and actually look over a lot of antique wood currently available. If this isn't practical, make sure to get samples of all the various woods that the supplier is proposing to ship with the order. It's all about expectations -- so it's important that the client knows exactly what the entire shipment will look like. Be aware if the supplier is apt to mix woods like oak and chestnut together. You may not like the color contrast once they are combined on the floor.

Some suppliers will put one coat of finish on half of each sample; the color of all antique wood changes dramatically with the applied finish. If the samples don't come with finish on them, apply finish in consultation with the client. Normally, you'd use satin polyurethane -- the most common finish used by flooring contractors.

Many manufacturers have what appears to be the same wood with two different names (for example, antique chestnut and antique distressed chestnut). What this often means is that floorboards from the former are newly sawn from antique beams or logs while the latter are made directly from antique boards. A floorboard freshly sawn from a beam will be lighter in color, with few, if any, nail holes, but it may still have significant beetle tracks. The "distressed" boards are generally darker, with more checking and nail holes. Most clients will say that the distressed lumber is more rustic looking, and it appeals to those who prefer a naturally darker antique floor. Distressed boards work especially well in rustic timber-frame or log houses and in country-style construction.

Some antique lumber, such as heart pine, is rarely available from anything but beams, which were used to frame factories built in the last half of the 19th century. Many of these buildings are now being demolished, putting some beautiful lumber back into circulation. A secondary source of heart-pine lumber is from river-recovered logs -- "sinkers" that went down as they were being floated to the sawmill. Because boards from sinker logs are normally free from age-related defects, the resulting floor will have a newer, less rustic, look. It boils down to client preference.

Antique distressed Eastern white pine and hemlock are examples of woods that, although still plentiful today as new lumber, bear little resemblance to their newly grown counterparts. The years of rain, sun and general neglect impart colors and markings that simply can't be duplicated with stains and chains. Most people are aware that these are softwoods and as such will dent, scratch, and mar more readily than other species. But fans of antique wood feel that questions of hardness are more relevant to new flooring than to old anyway. If you want your floor to have and maintain a pristine appearance, you would not -- and should not -- be considering antique lumber in the first place.

Be aware that if you are installing a highly distressed rustic floor, your client might overhear an inexperienced or insensitive worker say something like,"What are they using for flooring, pallet lumber?"

With antique wood flooring, beware of old lumber that is "punky" -- unduly soft due to rot, insect damage and other conditions. Ideally, you want flooring that has been ravaged by weather and eaten by bugs only to a certain extent, and you want the bugs to be gone (more on that later). It is the manufacturer's job to discard any lumber that has cell damage sufficient to allow it to crush when walked on. Although this increases the already sky-high waste factor, it is another mark of a good producer.

If wood is old, isn't it dry already? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If the old barn was dismantled when rain soaked or allowed to get wet during handling or transit (which is usually the case), the lumber will have a high moisture content. More important, it may have an uneven moisture content, causing a finished plank to shrink more in one place than in another. Even properly stickered and air-dried, lumber will not usually dry to less than 15% moisture content in most parts of the country. That's why some suppliers make a big point of kiln drying their wood -- even though it raises costs.

Wood-burrowing insects, such as carpenter ants, termites and powder post beetles, need moisture to live and work; something in the range of 15-20%. That's another reason advanced for kiln drying. Because kiln drying leaves wood with an average of around 8% moisture, there's little worry about insects crawling out of the woodwork.

Most antique flooring is milled to a tongue-and-groove edge, which allows for ease of installation by blind nailing through the tongue. Usually, this is all the attachment needed with narrower widths (up to 5 or 6 ins.). Wider boards, though installed the same way, will require fasteners on the face or flooring mastic on the back. Experience has shown that antique flooring is usually more stable than its counterpart in new flooring; an antique floor expands and contracts more evenly over the heating and cooling seasons than a new floor that's similar in size.

Some clients prefer square-edge planking, without the tongue and groove. With no means of blind nailing, the boards are not forced tightly together. This gives the planking a more relaxed fit that is seen in most older, original floors. Of course, some means of attachment is needed on the face. Be sure to ask your supplier if he end-squares his flooring. This will not only speed up installation, but will also leave the bulk of the waste in his dumpster. A 10% waste factor is sufficient for estimating most installations.

Experts disagree about the importance of acclimating wood flooring -- storing the wood on the jobsite for some period of time to allow it to reach the ambient moisture content of the air on the site. The importance of acclimating depends on many things, such as time of year, whether the space is currently being heated or cooled (regulating the humidity), whether or not air conditioning will even be used, how your supplier stored your flooring and other considerations.

If the supplier delivers flooring during a hot, humid week in July and the HVAC isn't installed (or isn't running), does it make sense to allow the wood to gain moisture and expand? Conversely, it doesn't make sense to leave unfinished flooring stacked in an unheated room in December. And if acclimation is a good idea (which it is in certain situations), it does little good to "dead-stack" a pile of lumber with no stickering for air flow; the only thing acclimating will be the ends of the boards. Also, find out if your supplier's warehouse is heated, dehumidified or both, think about current and future conditions at the site and then make your decision.

There should no difference between installing properly milled antique flooring and new plank flooring. There are, however, some differences in sanding and finishing. Some of the antique woods should never see a coarse "cutting" grade of sandpaper; distressed chestnut and pine are two examples. Sanding off the beautiful patina easily ruins antique floors.

On some antique floors, a stain can be used to even out the color, rather than change it. But before staining, be sure to first test a corner with just a natural finish; it can easily be re-sanded later if you decide a stain is absolutely required. Some types of antique flooring may also require judicious use of wood filler. More often than not, this is purely personal preference. Some clients would never use fillers under any circumstances, while others will instruct the finisher to fill every minuscule cavity and dent. In either case, be sure to discuss the use of fillers with the installer-finisher, just to make sure that he or she is on the same page as your client.

Click here for suppliers of antique wood wide-plank flooring
Click here for suppliers of traditional hardwood flooring
Click here for suppliers of parquet flooring and ornamental wood borders