Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Finding the Right Way to Repair an Old Floor

Matt Cantor
Friday May 12, 2006

Dear Matt, 

I read your recent column on heating, and it motivated me to replace the ancient floor heater in my tiny 100-year-old house with central heat, which is being installed as I write. 

After they remove the old floor furnace, they will patch the floor with plywood (the intake hole is being cut elsewhere, in a less visible/central location). My floors are softwood, fir I think, and have a lovely patina of age.  

My question for you is this: Is there any way to patch it so that it'll look decent? Any way to match the old aged look? Or will this area always stick out like a sore thumb? 

Your answer might help me determine if I should get just the hole patched which would show a seam, or take out all the slats around the hole and replace a bigger area, so that there is no seam. 

If it's going to stick out like a sore thumb, then better to just patch the smaller area I think; if it can be made to look good, then I'll patch the bigger area. 


Karin, Berkeley 


Dear Karin, 

What a great question. As you may recall and for the others reading, I generally favor turning the old floor furnace into a cold air return so that this problem is avoided but if the location isn’t where you want the cold air return to end up and prefer to fix the old floor it’s time for the Over-qualified Contractors of Berkeley, those multi-faceted artists who eschew the corporate culture in favor of the airy life of the general contractor. 

They can be found almost any day sipping cappuccino out in front of Fat Apples or the French Hotel discussing their role in the latest anti-war march or practicing lute with the Society for Creative Anachronism. Some have problems showing up for work on time as they struggle through the last few pages of their dissertation on early Japanese Buddhism or mop oil paint off their elbow as they apply the final brush strokes to their latest painting. 

I’ve been meeting these guys (and gals) over the last 25 years around here and it always amazes and delights me to see that this fraction of society which could have trod the road worn rutty had chosen instead to amble, not run through a series of fortuneless events. 

The Berkeley area seems to specialize in this sort and though most are general contractors or handyfolk, many have specialized as tilers, painter and even plumbers doing extraordinary things in their areas of specialty. Some of the tilers even make their own tile and more than a few painters specialize in a range of faux finishes.  

Among the general contractors I’ve met over the years one will find painters, sculptors and poets who manage to insinuate their talent into the framing of buildings and the casting of concrete. 

The trick for these, mostly underpaid and often underemployed artisans, is to find people who will pay for what they have to offer. People who are willing to incorporate something non-traditional in their “personal space.” 

Many are too fearful to do so and select, instead, for square rooms and neutral colors. Those of you bold enough to let your freak-flag fly can avail yourselves of talents not available in much of the United States and make a part of your home into a work of art. 

Returning to your problem, Karin, the secret is to find an artist, who is willing to find the right materials and take the time to match what you have. 

Here are some tips on how to go about the repair of your floor. The first thing is to match the species, if possible. Your softwood floor is probably 1x4 tongue-in-groove flat-grain fir. It has probably gotten very hard and probably worn and pitted over time. 

There are a number of suppliers of used building materials in town that just might have what you need but you’ll have to do some spelunking amidst the salvage. As you may recall from a recent column, Berkeley has a number of salvage yards. Several have salvaged wood. I’d start with Urban Ore. 

If you can’t find just what you’re looking for, you and your artistic helper can distress some new matching wood. If you can’t find exactly the right size and shape, a good carpenter should be able to mill a few pieces that are just the right size. 

If this is beyond their skill set, you can take a small piece from the edge of the opening (you’re going to need to take a few pieces out anyway before you’re done) and take it to one of our local lumber mills to make some length of matching material. I like Beronio in S.F. but we have a few places in the East Bay that can also do this. Once you have enough board feet of lumber, you can generally beat up on it. This is where the artist comes into play. 

A person with the right vision can come up with a way to abuse it just the right way and get it to come out looking much like your old floor. You want to do this prior to installation. You can then paint with stain, testing on a piece you won’t use, until you have a pretty good match 

Lastly, you want to cut the planks that meet the opening so that there are very few that terminate right at the edge of the opening. If you cut many of the boards back to other joists (the supports your flooring nails onto), you won’t end up with a box of replacement wood and it will be a much more convincing patch. This is sort of like a reweave on a tweed coat. 

The best examples of flooring repairs involve removing as much as 50 percent more wood along the lengths that make up the opening. It’s best if some run longer than others. When you get done with this phase, you’ll be happiest if you put a new finish on the entire floor. 

In fact, if you sand and refinish all of the floor after this “reweave,” you can achieve a near perfect result, but this level of repair isn’t necessary if you’ve been really good about finding or manufacturing a good copy. Your carpenter will need to work carefully with chisels and perhaps a router (a great way to cut out old board if you know the tricks) to fit the new boards in. 

This sort of thing will take time and great care in the tiny details. Try not to rush your artiste and be prepared for it to cost a lesser limb. But if you do it well, you’ll be showing it off at dinner parties for years to come. Bon Chance. 


Matt Cantor owns Cantor Inspections and lives in Berkeley His column runs weekly. 

Copyright 2006 Matt Cantor›