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Refinishing a Fir Hardwood Floor
Do you have fir floors in your home that need refinishing?
Fir floors are one of the most beautiful floors found in many homes throughout North America. It was one of the most popular types of flooring installed here for many years because of its easy availability.
But fir floors have many unique characteristics compared to true hardwood floors like red and white oak. This means the appearance and performance of your floor will differ significantly from those of an oak floor. If you want to be completely happy with your floors, then understanding these differences is really important. To start with…
– Fir Is Very Soft –
Fir is about 100% more vulnerable to impact damage than red or white oak. The wood flooring industry has a guide to tell the density of different types of wood called the Janka Hardness Scale. This test measures the force required to embed a.444 inch steel ball to half its diameter in different types of wood. On this scale, white oak rates at 1360, red oak 1290 and fir at the bottom with a lowly 660. Because they are so soft, fir floors are much more difficult to refinish.
Great care has to be taken to ensure the absolute minimum amount of wood is removed during the sanding process. This takes a lot of skill and years of experience. This is one of the easiest floors to mess up if you do not know what you are doing. Many fir floors become ruined by very deep drum marks caused by inexperienced hardwood floor refinishing companies.
Once these drum marks (caused by leaving the drum sander in one spot too long) are made, the only way to remove them is to sand the surrounding areas flat to the same depth. This takes decades off the life of a floor and in cases of already thin floors, it can mean having to replace large sections with reclaimed wood.
Fir is definitely not the kind of flooring to practice your sanding skills on.
– Mottling or Bruising –
Refinished fir floors often exhibit another characteristic called mottling or bruising. The extent of this bruising can vary greatly from room to room and even from area to area within a single room. In high traffic areas or near the perimeter of a room, the fir often shows darker, blotchy areas. Most of this is caused by many years of foot traffic and wear. The structure of fibers and cells in soft fir is very different to hardwoods like oak. As traffic makes its way across the floor over many years, fir becomes bruised and this shows up as darker, blotchy areas in the floor.
It is not uncommon to be able to tell exactly where furniture had been placed for many years in a room. You will be able to see a light patch that is exactly the size of a bed or dresser surrounded by a darker area which shows the occupants walking path. Usually there will be a darker path to the closets and entrance of the room as well. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done to guarantee this natural occurrence of mottling, bruising or blotching will not occur. In fact the only assurance that it will not show up is if you install a new floor.
– Your Fir Floors May Be Very Thin –
Over the years your floors may have been refinished many times, especially if you have a heritage home built before 1940. Because of numerous sandings, the thickness of the wood eventually decreases and the heads of nails begin showing between the boards. If your fir floors are this thin, sometimes refinishing is not an option, and installation of a new floor may be necessary.
Sometimes though this can be a false assumption, especially if there is only a few nail heads showing and they are irregularly scattered throughout the floor. The original installer may not have fully set the nail and it is now sitting higher in the floor than the rest. Also, these fir floors installed over a ship lap sub-floor can be very loose and have a lot of movement. It could be the case that the nail has slowly worked its way to the surface over the years and just needs to be set again. So do not let someone tell you that they cannot be restored unless they are absolutely certain that they are unrecoverable.
Another clue they may be too thin is to look at the top of the grooves. If they are splitting and breaking off, there is a good chance there is not enough wood left to sand. You could also put a knife blade down between one of the boards (if there is a gap) and measure how much wood is left. The measurement will be the difference between the surface and the distance to the tongue. If its 1/8 of an inch or more you may be in luck.
– Movement And Squeaks –
Old fir floors are also far more prone to movement and squeaks than other types of hardwood floors. This is because of the way they were installed and the fasteners used. Back then, screws were not used for holding down the sub-floor, or ship lap as it is called under these type of floors. The ship lap was attached to the joists with nails. (If your house is old enough they may even be square headed nails.) The tongue and groove fir flooring was then blind nailed to the ship lap.
Over the years, through many winters and summers, your house has settled and the floor has settled and moved along with it. Especially in high traffic areas, the fir and the ship lap will often work its way loose from the nails causing these areas to move and possibly squeak.
Movement and squeaks are normal for these beautiful vintage floors. If you have no squeaks consider yourself one of the very lucky few. Attempting to repair this kind of movement can be extremely pricey. It involves very carefully removing the existing flooring to expose the ship lap which then needs to be properly screwed down. Not any easy, quick or cheap process. You are much better off accepting this as part of the character of your floors and getting used to it.
– Large Gaps –
Another characteristic of fir floors is they often have large gaps between the boards. This has a lot to do with the settling and movement as described above. As they contract and expand over the years, the boards can slowly spread apart and leave you with space between the joints. Many refinishers trowel fill putty over the entire floor to fill these gaps just like they would for an oak floor. But this may not always be in your best interests with fir.
Because these floors can move so much, the dried filler will have a hard time staying in place. Also the gaps between the boards will be full of dirt and residue that has collected over the decades and this will further interfere with the adhesion of the filler. Filler that becomes loose will get ground into the newly finished floor surface, scratching it up and shortening its life.
Fir also varies greatly from board to board with respect to color. Some boards will be very red, others a lighter brown and still others will have significant light colored streaks in them. Because of this, no filler color will match perfectly. Always take these points into consideration before deciding whether your floors are a candidate for filling or not.
Many of these older floors also need repairs due to previous careless renovations like walls being removed etc. Make sure that reclaimed vintage fir from the same era as your floors are sourced so they match as close as possible. Unfortunately, new fir looks nothing like old growth fir from years ago. If you use this new flooring to patch areas in your floor, they will stand out like a sore thumb.
So there you have it, soft wood, bruising, movement, squeaks and gaps are all part of the charm, beauty and character of these gorgeous vintage floors. If you accept these characteristics for what they are, then you will love these floors as much as we do.
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