My Home Remodel, Part 9: Restoring Hardwood Floors

hardwood floor refinishing
The existing red oak hardwood in our home was installed in 1960 and is in great condition. We’re pretty sure it never saw the light of day after 1984.

I have always loved history and been drawn to old, or shall we say vintage, items. When Bart, my husband, brought home the abstract of title for our house, I read through it with interest. I learned our house was built in 1960 by the same man whom our street—Irwin—was named after. Mr. Irwin also built and owned the houses on either side of our house. All three houses were rentals until Mr. Irwin died in the early 1980s and left the homes to his two sons. The sons sold all three houses, and our home was purchased in 1984 by the Brockman family. In 2014, Bart bought our house from Mrs. Brockman who was moving into assisted living.

As I learned about our house’s history, I really wanted to bring back some of its original qualities (and give it a bit of a mid-century modern vibe). Although there isn’t much 1960s character left in our home, there are original hardwood floors throughout the main level, except in the kitchen, which—we think—always had some type of linoleum or vinyl sheet. I was determined to restore the original hardwood floors, which were in fabulous condition because Mrs. Brockman laid carpet throughout the house and Bart removed the carpet and installed LVT over the hardwood. We don’t think the hardwood had seen the light of day since the ’80s!

Who’s the King of the Mountain? Our cat, Niko, inspects the reclaimed 1940s red oak hardwood that will be installed in our kitchen.

Despite how common restoring hardwood appears to be on HGTV, finding someone to restore floors in Iowa was not easy. I have a number of family members who have refinished their hardwood but every referral I received had retired. I finally did what a good trade editor knows to do: refer to the trade association for hardwood flooring, the National Wood Flooring Association. I located the only certified hardwood sander and refinisher in the state of Iowa, Ames Tile. (If you know anything about Iowa, you know there is one degree of separation between everyone in this state. When I made the call to Ames Tile, which is an hour and a half from my house, the woman whom I spoke with told me the owners are originally from Carroll, 25 miles from me. I soon learned the owners of Ames Tile graduated from high school with one of my husband’s and my local friends, who gave the owners a positive review. That felt like a good sign!)

Brian, one of the Ames Tile owners, came out to measure and confirmed the red oak wood was original from when the house was built. Our boards are very narrow, only 1 1/2-inches wide, and Brian said that was more the trend in the 1940s and ’50s; typically he sees wider flooring from the ’60s (obviously Mr. Irwin wasn’t concerned about being on-trend for a home that was built as a rental). The good news? Ames Tile’s team reclaims hardwood and Brian had 1 1/2-inch-wide red oak in storage.

The existing kitchen area, which had always had some type of linoleum or vinyl (bottom left), and the new addition to our kitchen, will feature the reclaimed hardwood.

A few weeks later, Brad, the other owner of Ames Tile, arrived with the reclaimed hardwood and carried the sticks into our house by hand, piling them in front of our glass door. I could tell Brad is really passionate about hardwood flooring as he studied our floors and we talked through the process. He told me the “new” hardwood was taken out of a 1940s home in Ames. I absolutely love that! Brad also talked about how, back in the day, hardwood was milled in longer lengths than it is today. If we had to order new wood in the lengths matching our existing floor, it would cost exponentially more. Sometimes when taking up old hardwood, the pieces break, despite being very careful in the reclaiming process, so Brad and his crew would lay the longest pieces in more visible areas of the kitchen. The shorter pieces will go under our forthcoming island, our range, refrigerator, etc.

I had narrowed down my stain choices to three, so Brad suggested laying the stains on the floor where the island will be, just to be on the safe side, and letting us live with them for a while before making a decision. I like the way he thinks! Because I want my kitchen to be light, bright and airy, I opted to choose between three medium stain colors (DuraSeal Early American, Nutmeg and Provincial). I’m leaving a wall of shiplap in our kitchen natural and will have a natural-wood barn door that will cover our pantry, as well as slide over the basement stairs, so, in my mind, going with a medium stain will tie the light-colored wood with the existing oak trim around our living room windows and doors (see the top photo)—until I can figure out what to do with the existing oak. Paint it? Leave it? Something else? I’d love suggestions if you’d like to share them in the comments section or email me at [email protected].

Matching the reclaimed hardwood to the existing is like a giant puzzle. (Ames Tile also made two custom heat registers to match the flooring; one can be seen here.)

I will admit: The hardwood flooring process was loud and dusty, though Brad and his crew, which consisted of Phoenix and Joe, were incredibly awesome about cleaning up after themselves. You want these guys working in your home! The floor refinishing also was inconvenient; we shipped our daughter Clare to grandparents for a few days each week during the process, and Bart and I lived in our basement for several days during water popping (wetting the floor to make the grain “pop” and help the stain achieve a rich finish), staining and finish coatings.

However, the nearly two-week process was also really cool to watch. Matching up the reclaimed boards to the existing hardwood was like a giant puzzle that Phoenix, Joe and Brad enjoyed the challenge of. I watched them cut out existing boards that weren’t up to their standards and replace them with surgical precision.

After the team sanded everything smooth and even, we could see the original and stunning raw red oak boards. Joe showed me what a clear coat would look like on the red oak just in case I didn’t want to stain, but it was a bit too “red” for my taste. Bart and I opted for the Early American stain instead. The moment the stain was applied to the wood, I was even more certain we made the right choice in restoring these beautiful—and historic—floors. (Watch the process in the slideshow below.) I’d like to think Mr. Irwin and Mrs. Brockman would approve of what we’re doing with the place!

  • applying hardwood floor sealer
  • buffing hardwood floor
  • hardwood floor
  • beautiful refinished hardwood floor

Read the previous posts in my home-remodeling series:

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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