Is it worth restoring old pine floorboards?

old pine boards in hallway
working on subfloor & old pine floorboards

Pine floor restoration - Is it worth it?

One of the most common questions we encounter in our showrooms about what to do with old pine floorboards runs along the lines of, “We just moved into an old property, and we have old pine floors. Should we try to restore them or should we replace them with new timber flooring?” Now, we do have a dog in this race, and it should come as a surprise to no one that the answer from Solid Floor will unequivocally be, “You should go for new timber flooring. That said, the practical reasons for this are many.

If you live in a property over seventy years old, then it will most likely have original pine floorboards. It was the ubiquitous flooring timber in British houses from the eighteenth century up until the middle of the twentieth. It is found in everything from modest cottages to grand terraces and mansion blocks. While we are all about preserving original features in old houses, pine floorboards are problematic, presenting their own unique challenges to the modern homeowner.

How were pine floorboards finished in the past?

First of all, it is important to remember that the pine floorboards laid down in our old houses were never intended to be a finished floor in the way we have come to expect today, that is stained and nicely polished. It was presumed that they would be covered, the particular floor covering itself being determined by one’s social standing, e.g., fitted carpeting if you were middling to upper class, rugs and floorcloths if you were working class. For this reason, there was no consideration given to their overall appearance. As it was assumed that they would be for the most part covered, then aesthetic concerns such as colour, the direction they ran, etc. simply did not figure into the equation.

old pine floorboards

The hard life of old floorboards

Additionally, the condition of these old floorboards is often quite poor. Depending on the age of the house, those boards have been through the wars. When plumbing and central heating was installed, they were uplifted for pipes and drains; when electricity was installed, they were lifted to run wiring. Thus, one can presume that they have been pulled up and nailed back down, with all the attendant damage, several times in their life, resulting in cracked, mismatched, and knackered planks. Added to this is the reality that they are soft. Pine is not classified as softwood for nothing. Not just high heels, but everyday foot traffic will seriously wear it. While boards can certainly be sanded back and refinished, any new finish applied to them will be walked off after a few years.

Gaps in the floor

Then there are the gaps. With these old pine floors, the individual planks themselves are not tongue and grooved along the edges, but are square-edged, meaning they were simply butt-joined and nailed straight to the joists. As this pine was not kiln dried like modern timber, it shrank after a few years, to the point where sizeable gaps opened up between each floorboard. There is nothing romantic or characterful about open gaps between floorboards, open conduits for chilly drafts and ancient black coal dust.

plywood screwed on top of old pine floorboards
installing plywood to old pine floorboards

What to do with old pine floorboards?

So, given all the aesthetic and practical concerns, what then does one do with old pine floorboards? Our advice is to leave them where they are; no need to disturb then. Then, like earlier generations have done before you, cover them. With a layer of thin plywood screwed on top – usually 6mm – they make a sturdy, economical, and environmentally responsible substrate for a new floor, preferably a new Solid Floor hardwood floor.

Best practice today for installing timber floors is to glue the planks to the substrate, and improvements in the strength and elasticity of modern flooring adhesives mean that thinner engineered boards can safely and effectively be utilised. With some of our engineered planks as thin as 12mm, overall height gain for a new hardwood floor, including the plywood, could be as little as 18mm overall, which means transitioning to tile and stone in adjacent rooms will be neither difficult nor problematic.

bedroom solid wood flooring finished