Front Parlor Flooring: Victorian Italianate renovation dilemma of the week

[NOTE! As of 12-16-09, the front parlor flooring is finished! Read the update here!]
As those of you know who read this blog and the main website, the Roff Home is a Victorian Italianate residence that was built in 1868. Its last major renovation took place in 1940.

I’ve taken on the task of peeling back layers of renovation and reversing the scars of more than a century of use and abuse, to put this home back together in a way that is respectful to its history and its original style. However, the home can be a do-it-yourself minefield, and this front parlor Victorian flooring has turned into just that.

 Here’s my Victorian Italianate dilemma of the week. I’ve been working on refinishing the flooring in the front parlor, and I hate the way the hues of the original plank flooring fail to combine with the ornate border that wraps around the room. It’s a mess of contrasting colors that makes my eyes hurt. If you have any experience dealing with flooring issues involving old Victorian homes, I would greatly appreciate your input.

Now, having said that I’m dissatisfied with the flooring, I need to take a deep breath, step back, and recognize that I’ve come a long way with the flooring. Here’s what this bad boy used to look like:

Here's the front parlor flooring, after the plywood and linoleum were taken up, but before varnish removal and sanding had begun.

Here's the front parlor flooring, after the plywood and linoleum were taken up, but before varnish removal and sanding had begun.

 

A close-up of the planks and border in the front parlor, prior to sanding the border and prior to varnish removal and sanding of the planks.

A close-up of the planks and border in the front parlor, prior to sanding the border and prior to varnish removal and sanding of the planks.

 

A close-up of the planks, prior to varnish removal and sanding.

A close-up of the planks, prior to varnish removal and sanding.

After varnish removal and intense sanding on the planks, as well as sanding through wear and tear and use and abuse of the border, here’s what the flooring looks like. The border now has one coat of polyurethane. The planks are bare. (The darker smudges on the planks are where I had wiped them down with water.)
The border has one coat of polyurethane; the planks are dry and bare.

The border has one coat of polyurethane; the planks are dry and bare.

 

When dry, the underlying planks are much lighter than the border.

When dry, the underlying planks are much lighter than the border.

The border has turned into the least of my worries.

The plank flooring is what has turned into a nightmare. It covers the whole room and runs underneath the ornate border. Over the years, it has been covered with shellac, then paint and/or varnish, then plywood, and then linoleum. I’ve ripped up everything on top of it, removed all of the nails, and completed a month-long process of sanding and sanding and sanding. The gunk is gone, but it has exposed a series of other problems with the original wood.

In a nutshell, I hate the way the exposed plank flooring looks. When I was sanding, it looked like it was basically the same wood or about the same color as the lighter wood in the border, or at least complementary enough to the border that I could put a polyurethane finish on the whole thing and it would all blend in nicely together.

However, when I tested the planks with polyurethane, they become much redder and darker than when dry. Here’s what the floor looks like when wet, which is close to what it will look like when coated with polyurethane, based on the patch test.

View of the border and plank flooring of the front parlor flooring, from the stairway

View of the border and plank flooring of the front parlor flooring, from the stairway

As you can see, the planks look redder and sometimes darker than the surrounding border. They aren’t consistent in color across the flooring. And there are marks across the planks where things have sat or been moved over the years. Moreover, there are spaces and ridges between the planks, because the planks aren’t placed tightly together as is the case with tongue-in-groove flooring throughout the rest of the house.

When the wood is dry it is a lighter color than the surrounding border (see photos above). I like that look because then the border stands out and is emphasized. However, with just a polyurethane finish, the planks take on this redder, heavier look, and to me that is too much competition for attention, and the border just gets lost.

I have tested a couple of patches of the planks with different stains, but nothing seems to be a great match with the border. The best one so far has been Provincial from Zar. However, I’m not thrilled with it. It just is the least of a mismatch with the surrounding border.

Adding insult to injury, the planks are fairly soft, so I have to be careful what I put on them while this discussion is going on, because the wood scratches easily.

I’m thinking that I should put a light-colored stain on the planks, such as Zar’s Honey Maple or Country White. That would allow the border to pop, and perhaps give a greater chance of a match between the finished planks and the surrounding border, much like the pictures above of the planks when dry.

Any thoughts? Has anyone out there dealt with this problem? If so, any advice would be greatly appreciated!

[NOTE! As of 12-16-09, the front parlor flooring is finished! Read the update here!]

10 comments to Front parlor flooring: Victorian Italianate renovation dilemma of the week

  • Helen Todd

    John,
    I think you should go with your plan but you can help make it match by putting on two or three coats.I think Daren put two coats on ours. With eachcoat, it gets a little darker.

  • cheryl

    A paint store can mix colors to get the effect you are looking for or to match pre-existing colors. We did that when refinishing woodwork.

  • A paint store here suggested that I mix stains to come up with something, but they put the onus on me of choosing the right combination. I was already overwhelmed with 25 options for stain, let alone exponentially increasing the options by mixing to match that border. I tested several stains here, and the inherent redness of the wood always came through, regardless of the color of stain. So if the stain was a honey color, then it would end up looking a reddish burnt orange by the time the stain dried. Today I punted and chose a stain. I told myself, “If I hate it, I can always cover it with a rug. That’s why God invented rugs.” Today I stained and varnished the floor. Once it all dries I’ll take pictures and post them here.

  • Klem

    Sounds like the planks were not meant to be the primary floor (soft, dents easily, so not hardwood, not tongue and groove like other floors in house, large gaps etc.). Tear it up and put in tongue and groove hardwood. Cover it with a rug. Cover it with carpet. Or perhaps best, stain it any color you want. Looks like after you sanded it, the wood “lightened up”. The darker the stain you use, the more uniform it will look. Even after you stain it and put a polyurethane coat (coats) on it, it may still be so soft that after a year or so of wear and tear it will not look like you want it to look.

    Good luck.

  • The guy at the hardware/paint store suggested that I use multiple layers of oil-based finish on the floor. He said that it would create a very hard coating that would do a good job of resisting damage to the underlying wood, even when the wood itself is soft. What do you think?

    I haven’t wanted to rip up the wood and get rid of it, or stain it too dark either, because there are markings across the planks that help tell the story of how people have used the house over the years. For example, you can see dark markings in the wood in one corner of the room where something heavy may have been rolled over the floor. Since a piano is mentioned in the Watseka Wonder story, it could be that those are the markings of that piano having been in the home, and I didn’t want to lose those.

    Depending on how it turns out, a rug may be in order!!!

  • Daren

    John,

    What kind of sanding equip. did you use? With the right equipment, it should only take a couple of days. If what you have is a bunch of blemishes on the wood, since you’ve already done all the main sanding, maybe what you need is to just even it out. After drum sanding my floors, I used an oscilating sander from HDepot with a 100 grit sanding pad. They are rectangular and therefore easy to fit into corners, unlike a drum sander. 100 grit shouldn’t hurt even a soft wood. Sounds like you have pine, which can still be sealed or urethaned even though it’s soft. Typically, if this were a subfloor it would be nailed in on a diagonal vs. perdendicular to the room. Then, tong-in-groove nailed on top. Anyhow, you’re doing the right thing by wiping it down and doing test patches. Eventually, you just have to pick something :) But seriously, you don’t like it. You already said so in the beginning, so I’d start looking for some product to cover it with. There are types of flooring which are interlocking and no glue or nails are needed. THis would preserve the floor underneath for the next guru to worry about. Leave the notes you mentioned in the history, and let THEM worry about it! :) You’d need to consult/research how you could transition from the border to the new product. There must be some creative solution out there for that. I can’t remember how much higher the border is vs. the planks. Personally, since that parlor will never lack for sunlight, I’d go with something dark….like American Walnut-ish in color. Not too dark like mahogany though. Are you planning on doing the rear parlor in the same finish? It might tie the two rooms together nicely. Oh….and don’t do the rug thing, because all you’ll think about is the wrong stain that you chose underneath. If you think choosing a stain is hard, wait until you price/see the selection of rugs!

    Peace,
    Daren

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  • Fabiola

    It sounds as though the border was not part of the original flooring and was added on later over top to enhance the existing floor, but believe whoever did this failed miserably. The border, although somewhat nice, doesn’t go with the original floor. I would consider getting rid of it altogether and just concentrate on restoring the plank floor to its original state.

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