Restoring and Maintaining Antique Heart-Pine Floors
What Is Heart Pine?
Heart pine is the wood from old-growth pine trees, mostly long leaf pine. Old growth trees are estimated to have been 300 years old or more in the late 1800's and early 1900s. They are defined as "first generation" lumber.
There were approximately 80,000,000 acres of long leaf pine trees in the United States in the 1800's but nearly all of it was gone by the first decade of the 1900s. The trees were solid with rings that were pushed tightly together in a way that made the lumber made from them both hardy and beautiful. The lumber that was milled from them was a prized building material.
Obviously, if the trees were gone by the 1900s it means this wood is not still available in tree form. The only way to get the beauty of antique heart pine is by using the wood from structures that are being torn down or, as some companies are doing, bringing up these old growth tree trunks form the bottoms of rivers where they may have been lost during transport.
Antique heart pine is a beautiful asset to any home, giving it a warmth that gets better with age. The wood deepens to a warm rich red- gold over time. Keep in mind that since pine is a soft wood it dents easily as well as being easily marred. This is not the wood to have if you like a very shiny, flawless wood floor!
The day that I first looked at my house it wasn't much to look at. Although it had been built as a home for a wealthy Victorian family it did not fare well over time. It had been cut in four parts and moved 15 miles, then it had been a farmhouse, then a girls home, then abandoned, then used to house South American transients and political refugees, and then abandoned. Walking through it you caught the intense smell of rodents, and there was raccoon scat here and there on the floor.
The local wildlife had apparently moved in with a vengeance.
Any trim or individuality that the 100 year old house might have once boasted had been torn out during it's various updates over the years and there was carpeting over the entire floor. I was always unsure of the original color but I thought that it had been white or cream at one time. The house was certainly what we wanted in size, 5 huge bedrooms, 3 baths, 4300 square feet, perfect for a big family...but the agents next words were not what I wanted to hear:
"The original floors are probably gone, of course."
I began tearing at the nasty carpet and was thrilled to find heart pine underneath. It was splattered with paint, covered in spackle and texture, dented, and chipped but it was beautiful to me.
I was determined to have my floor in spite of, or maybe because of, it's character and flaws. In doing so I learned a lot about soft pine floors and how they are different form the hardwood floors that were popular in other areas. I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do as well as learning about the history and manufacture of heart pine floors.
Repairing Vintage Heart Pine
If you find that you have one of these gorgeous floors you probably also have areas of it that need to be repaired. It can be pretty daunting if your home, like mine, wasn't taken care of very well.
Try Cleaning First
If your floors are in decent shape you may be able to just clean them well with a good wood cleaner and maybe put a new protective coat on them. This is the easiest, least expensive, and safest way to bring the beauty back to your floor.
Although I sanded mine, in retrospect much of it could have been cleaned with some patience and effort.
Your heart pine floors can be sanded and refinished if necessary but be careful with this. It is best to get someone that specializes in historic floors because the wood wears away faster and more easily than in newer floors. It doesn't take much sanding with a drum sander to end up with nails protruding from the tongue and groove. Be very careful!
If it is a small area you might try hand sanding to repair the floor. This is time consuming but gives you complete control over the process.
You can replace badly damaged planks by a process called weaving in where the new boards are interspersed with the old so that they don't show up so badly. The area is then refinished and the boards will age naturally with the rest of the floor.
If there are holes, from old radiators for example, you can use a dowel to plug them. Just get a dowel the same size as the hole put it in and cut it off level with the floor.Sand it and finish. We have several of these repairs and they are hard to spot. They look just like some of the knotholes that occur naturally in the wood.
Finding Reclaimed Heart Pine
You can get reclaimed heart pine at architectural salvage centers and on the web. Be careful of what you buy, read all information and make sure you understand it. The reclaimed wood could have nail holes, worm holes and other defects in it and you need to be sure you understand how much. Know what you like and what you will be comfortable with!
Reclaimed heart pine is graded. The grade is determined in a variety of ways including:
- The pattern of the grain
- Actual heart content
- Nail holes and flaws
Many mills will trim it to you specifications as well.
Be sure to make sure you are getting 100% antique pine. There are other woods that can be sold as heart wood, it is a common term, but other heart wood will not age with the beautiful signature orange-red and gold tones that antique heart pine will.
How Heart Pine Is Reclaimed
Pulling Old Wood Up from a River
Maintaining Your Floor
Heart pine is, like all woods, susceptible to humidity and temperature changes in the house. If you live in a very dry climate consider getting a humidifier to help your floors keep their natural moisture.
Be sure to sweep the floor often. Silt and dust are an abrasive that will scratch the finish off your floors and damage the wood. If you have children and/or pets then sweeping and dust mopping several times a week is important.
Mopping the wood floor weekly with an oil soap like Murphy's will help keep the floor looking it's best. Dry it as soon as possible to protect the finish and prevent water from possibly soaking into the floor.
Antique heart pine is a beautiful choice if you are willing to put up with the flaws and go to a little extra trouble to keep your floors looking great.
Expensive but Worth It
Heart pine needs a lot of care to look its best and it can be expensive to replace. Still, if you have a historic home there really is nothing that will give it the warmth and vintage look that heart pine will. If you can possibly save it then do so. If you feel you must replace it then consider getting an architectural salvage company to come and get it. It may be of use to someone else.