Diary of a Reno: Hidden Floors

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Renovations can be about discovery as well as transformation. In the second installment of  the Diary Of A Reno series, Lisa Michelle relates her experience in discovering the hidden treasures in her legacy home.


When we first viewed our new house, we could see the diamond in the rough. Only 106 years young, the house had great bones and surprisingly even floors, especially in an area known for its rainfall. But what was obvious from the start was that the 1980s-era beige builders’ carpet had to go. This is the story of how we brought our floors back to life.

What lies beneath

The carpet wasn’t just beige and boring, it had withstood at least thirty years of kids, dogs, and what seemed like random acts of violence. Stained and smelly, it ran through most of the house, including all four bedrooms, halls, and stairs.

Getting the carpet up and out the back door wasn’t difficult, but taking out the staples around the edges was a time-consuming task. One by one, they had to be lifted free before any other work could be done on the floors. What we hadn’t expected, however, was that underneath the carpet wasn’t wooden slats, but rather Edwardian-era linoleum. It was beautiful, like the marbled inlay on a book with wonderful creams, reds, and blues running through it, but it was cracking at its seams.

The biggest worry was that, as our handyman suggested, the linoleum might be lined with asbestos. We had to take a sample to a testing agency to make sure that we wouldn’t be harming our health by lifting it up. Luckily, the report came back negative. The age of the linoleum meant that it pre-dated extensive asbestos use. If you are taking out old linoleum, it is very important to check for asbestos every time if you know that it was installed in the 1970s or earlier.

The staples ran right through the linoleum to the wooden floor beneath, but it was the glue that was the real problem. We painstakingly lifted off the linoleum, but it separated from its century-old paper backing in the process, which was glued to the floor. Taking up the paper and glue required hundreds of hot, wet towels and hours of scraping. For each room. it took about two to three weeks to completely remove all of the excess.

A clean start

The next step was figuring out what to do with the raw wood floors. Our friendly neighborhood handyman told us about how all of the local houses from the Victorian and Edwardian eras were built with wood felled right on the property. Our floor boards were likely the result of the downing of a massive old growth pine. It seemed a shame to cover them up in any way.

We decided to finish the floors, but with a more modern look and feel. Instead of a simple sanding and clear varnish, which would have brought out the natural red in the wood, we went dark.

Choosing a medium chestnut brown stain, we had the floors finished professionally so that the natural grain and imperfections would stand out. Shiny wood seemed like overkill, so we finished the floors with five coats of a scent-free polyurethane, but in a medium satin finish, so that there was more of a matte look to our floors. Finally, we put down clean, white-painted wooden edging around each of the floors. This really helped the new, dark stain to stand out.

The exception

In all of our renovation enthusiasm, we decided on an exception to the rule. In one of the bedrooms, the one being used as an office, we left the Edwardian linoleum intact. In this room, the floors were in decent condition, and with a concerted effort to clean the linoleum and edge the space with the same white-painted baseboards, the floors ended up looking outstanding.

The natural contrast between the dark wood floors in the hallway and the soft colors of the antique linoleum added a unique texture to the upper rooms that stood out beautifully. Even with a more modern look in these rooms, the linoleum added an eclectic value to the space, and a bit of drama to an otherwise monochromatic area of our home.

In any renovation, there’s always the risk that when you peel away the layers, you’ll find more than you bargained for. Becoming overwhelmed with the scope of the project is a natural feeling, but once you push through it all becomes worthwhile. Just remember to take your time: it doesn’t all have to be done at once. And when you actually are done, think back to that smelly, old carpet and sigh with delight. There’s no going back.

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