How to salvage and restore reclaimed wood flooring
We gave ourselves a month before moving in to make some changes to the place. Number one on my list was the vinyl kitchen floor. It’s gotta go.
Technically, vinyl is not a bad surface for kitchens – water resistant, durable, and warm to the toes. It would even be a period appropriate for this house. But, let’s be honest, a bad decision was made when this 90’s faux tile was chosen.
It reminds me of all the bad decisions I’ve made in my life and I don’t need that kind of distraction when I’m doing normal, everyday kitchen tasks like being yelled at by my kids for serving healthy food.
Oak already covers the rest of the house (except the bedrooms, which have fir) and I would like to have a kitchen floor to match. Believe it or not, sometimes you can actually find the perfect floor for no cost at all if you’re willing to put in some enjoyable hard work.
Find a condemned house
A lonely home sits in the industrial part of town, the last of its kind on a block filled with warehouses. The auto glass joint next door was purchasing it with plans to knock it down and expand their business.
I was given the ok to salvage some materials before the sale.
The house was built in 1930, same year as our place and the oak floors were perfect! Tongue and groove. They were sealed with a thick layer of grime, protecting them throughout the years. Not once had they been sanded which means the entire meat of each board is still there. All you got to do is skim off the top and you’ve got fresh wood.
Swear I was wearing a mask
Tearing out hardwood floors is easy. Carefully removing them without breaking too many is not.
Getting the first board out can be challenging. Begin by removing the baseboards then see if you can pry it up. However, I still had to use a circular saw to cut it out – that board was wasted.
From there, it took me about eight hours to clear this room using only a couple flat pry bars and adding sweat and curse words, your most effective tools for this step. Knee pads and a mask are a must as well.
To minimize breakage, start from the end of a board and lift up slightly near the first nail (or fastener) using your flat pry bar. Don’t pull it up too far or the tongue will snap off. Next, move down the board to the second nail and slightly lift it up. Then, go back to the first nail and pry it all the way out. Using two pry bars, one in each hand, you can complete these steps almost simultaneously. But, depending on how close they are, you may have to work three nails at a time.
Simply continue along in this fashion until it gets dark outside and you fear for your safety.
Regardless of your best attempt, it will be impossible not to break the tongues on a bunch so make sure the room they’re destined for is smaller than the room they come from.
Before leaving, we helped ourselves to some solid doors with glass knobs, a few pieces of kitchen cabinet hardware, and a kitchen nook bench to be used for future projects.
Once you get all the boards up, it should look like a steaming pile of tetanus with nails sticking out in every direction. I carefully laid them in my trailer and drove over to their new home.
This is the shop of my new home – a single detached garage too small to comfortably fit a car, unless you drive a Model T.
Now, we just need to make them pretty again.
The next step is removing the hardware. It’s not difficult work, but it makes for a monotonous half-day. These boards were fastened with old-time square nails. They don’t have modern ribs for increased holding power like the ones you see today; just a nice smooth, tapered shaft that makes removal quite easy.
Take a few minutes to construct a simple jig by securing two small pieces of wood spaced about six inches apart standing up against the edge your workbench. This acts as a fence that holds the floorboard in place while you hammer a nail through. Turn the board upside down and hammer the nail back out the way it came. Slide the board down to the next nail and repeat 1000 times.
As you’re working, inspect each board for bugs. Look for burrows and cavities. We don’t want to introduce termites, powderpost beetles, or any other infestation into your home.
With the nails out, the boards will now lay flat, but are still ugly as hell.
Boards sit nicely now after having nails removed
Clean your wood
There are a few different schools of thought on how salvaged wood should be cleaned. Choose your path based on how diligent you want to be. To summarize:
After careful inspection, I didn’t see any evidence of infestation on my boards. However, considering where they came from, I can assume they have mold spores on them.
Even though the sides and bottoms look pretty clean, I scrubbed them with a stiff nylon brush and a bleach solution: 1 cup mixed in 1 gallon of water. Then I called it a day, the wood was left to dry until the next weekend in my garage, which is hot as an oven this time of year.
Next, I’m going to slice off the top with a planer.
The power planer
We’re ready to remove the top surface to reveal clean wood underneath. This step calls for a good power planer. My favorite part about DIY projects is they give you an excuse to grow your tool collection. Scout Craigslist first, but you can usually buy new and still come out way ahead compared to hiring someone.
I’m partial to the yellow brand so I purchased a Dewalt DW734. It’s a mid-range planer that runs about $400 new, much more than my usual splurge but much cheaper than buying a new floor, and I’ve got several more projects in mind for it.
Standard home improvement-bro pose. Why do we think PPE makes us look badass? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.
For those unfamiliar with power planers, you feed wood through one end and this level 80 warrior casts a piercing battle cry spell while swinging three blades at 10,000 rpms to an adjustable depth inflicting 96 cuts per inch. The top layer effectively turns to dust leaving a nice smooth, clean surface.
It also serves to get each board to the exact same thickness. With reclaimed wood, the pieces may appear the uniform, but actually vary quite a bit in thickness between boards. This is a result of decades of foot traffic through the middle of a room while the edges are comparatively untouched.
Before feeding the wood through, make certain there’s not a single piece of metal hiding somewhere in the board. Running a strong magnet across each one is a good idea since all it takes is one nail to destroy the blades, sending your ass back to Home Depot. Replacements cost $50.
With the unit off, place a board under the material removal gauge. Flip the carriage lever up to unlock it, then crank the depth adjustment down until the gauge reads your desired cut depth.
This machine can cleanly remove up to 1/8” in a single pass. Try 1/16” inch first to see if that works for you. Flip the carriage lever down to lock it in place. Remove the board and gear up with a mask, eye, and ear protection. Now you’re set.
Switch on the power and feed a board right down the middle. I ran two at a time to speed the process. The blades will slowly pull the wood by themselves but catch it as it comes out the other side, doing your best to keep it as level as possible. If you let the board drop as it comes out, even a little bit, the end that’s still being cut will push up against the blades leaving a dip on the last few inches of the plank. That’s called snipe. Don’t’ let it happen (easier said than done).
When finished, I put the boards in order from shortest to tallest so I can quickly find the length I’m looking for during installation. They’re now ready for my kitchen. Just need to get the kitchen ready for them!
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