Flooring New house old sould Matt Risinger

New House, Old Soul – Ep.11 – Flooring

“Flooring” New House, Old Soul – Ep.11

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Brent Hall steps into the world of flooring with episode 11 of New House Old Soul. In this video Brent explores the history of flooring in the USA and how it impacts design decisions when you’re looking to give your new house an old look.

The video takes us on a journey through time, charting the shifts in flooring trends from the pre-industrial era right up to today. Why is flooring such a critical element in home design? How did regional materials influence what went underfoot in homes across different eras?

Brent guides us through intriguing details like why early homes used wide, random-width boards, how industrialization affected the length of floorboards, and the evolution of standardized width.

Using real examples, he also touches upon common mistakes in flooring selection and installation, and how to avoid them. Whether you’re out to renovate an existing space or planning a new build, you’ll gain insights into how to choose the right flooring material and design based on both aesthetics and historical context.

When considering your flooring remember to consider durability, maintenance, style and passive and radiant heating qualities. What do I mean by heating qualities? Well, concrete and stone floors are great for retaining the heat from the sun and giving you back that heat over the evening especially if concrete can receive direct sunlight during the afternoon. It’s also to remember that if you are using underfloor heating systems then a low thermally efficient material is best, like carpet rather than wood. it’s important to remember that hard floors are uncomfortable if you’re walking on them a lot – they’re hard on your joints and less forgiving than a good carpet and underlay system. So consider your choice carefully and ask yourself what’s important to you.

Using real examples, Brent also touches upon common mistakes in flooring selection and installation, and how to avoid them. Whether you’re out to renovate an existing space or planning a new build, you’ll gain insights into how to choose the right flooring material and design based on both aesthetics and historical context.

Video Transcript:

Welcome back to New Household Soul. Today, we’re talking about flooring as a design element, and as a subtle design element, I think it’s actually one of the most important decisions you can make. Because if you really want a new house with an old soul, getting the flooring right is really key. How do we do that? So that it works.

Build Original Series hosted by Brent Hall, New House Old Soul, sponsored by Stellar Floors and the Unico system.

It really takes a study of historic floors to really understand why it matters in a new house. For instance, when we did that Pennsylvania farmhouse, we used Eastern white pine. Why? Well, because Eastern white pine was the wood that would have been used up in the Northeast because most of their wood up there was Eastern white pine. Now, as industrialization and the railroads and everything else began to take hold across the country in the 1860s into the 1890s, you begin to have products from other parts of the country ending up in other places. But until that time, you didn’t have Vermont slate in Texas, right? In the 1800s, it wasn’t until after the railroad that you began to see this transfer material. So the story that you’re trying to build, the story that you’re wanting to use, are regional materials. If you’re out in California in the 1940s, the 1920s, you’re building with redwood, right? You’re building with these excellent, excellent woods out there, not the floor for the exterior trim and things like that. So there are regional woods that happen historically that I need you to keep in mind. This is post-industrial, and this is pre-industrial, so probably around 1850, in that range, as industrialization takes over around this time period, we switch over from a handmade era to a machine-made era.

Now, what that means is, a Colonial House that we’re trying to build means that the flooring is going to be random widths, okay? And it’s most likely wide boards because what would have happened is they would have taken a tree, right, and they would have cut the tree, and they would have sliced it out of that tree. So, you get some boards that are 8, 10 inches, and some boards that are 14, 16 inches, right, depending on the tree and everything else because they would have taken the fastest time, the quickest way to get flooring material made. Because Eastern white pine trees were really big, huge trees, you end up with pieces of flooring sometimes in historic houses that are 2 feet wide. So, in order to get a big, wide piece of white pine today, it takes a lot more work. The other thing that would have happened is that they would have felled this tree, and this tree was 20 feet long. So every one of those pieces of board would be a 20-foot length. That means when you lay your room out and you’ve got a 14×16 room, every board goes across that whole room. There is no breakup.

I mean, if you look at this floor right here, this is a maple floor in a warehouse. Look how short some of these pieces are. I mean, that’s 4 inches, 6 inches, 10 inches. And what happens is during an industrial era, they have them cutting knots out, and on nicer houses, there’s a minimum length of wood that’s acceptable. Maybe it’s 18 inches, maybe it’s 2 feet. You don’t see in normal houses 4-inch pieces of wood. That’s a cheap leftover. In nicer houses, you would have longer lengths. Realize that industrialization changes all that. And so, in our 1880s house down in Granbury, all the floors are done like this. There’s no weaving in of the floors, and so that’s 1880, and so as we think about these floors and we think about doing them, we need to try to order longer lengths and get it right.

In fact, one of the mistakes I made, yes, I make mistakes because I wasn’t watching it, I didn’t notice it until later, was at the Pennsylvania farmhouse. We had wide-length white pine floors, but we weaved it in, and it wasn’t until afterwards I saw it, I was like, “Oh shoot, we should have had all consistent lengths in that room.” Not the end of the world, no one’s going to die, but it was a mistake. I remember when I was at North Bennett Street, we went to the Met, and we were looking at the period rooms at the Met. One of the things my instructor talked about, they may have fixed it now, was that the oak floors or the floors in some of these early period rooms had floors that were weaved in. He said, “They did that floor wrong.” So we were looking at that, going, “That’s crazy, that the Met, they messed that up.” He goes, “Well, when they did those period rooms in the ’40s, they weren’t as sophisticated preservationists as we were later. We continued to learn new things, and so they had actually kind of done that period room wrong. You can look if you’re in New York and go to the Met and go to their period rooms and see if their floors are still messed up or whether they fixed it yet. I haven’t looked in about 20 years.

So, some other things, okay. Not only in the pre-industrial era are boards wider, okay, and random widths, but when you cross over into this period, and you get the post-period, the early parts of that post-industrial era, is that you end up with boards that are about 5 inches wide, and fairly consistent. The early industrial floors were kind of a standard width of around 5 inches. The standard 2 and a quarter-inch strip flooring, which is what this is and what most houses built probably after the early 1900s, you end up with these 2 and a quarter-inch. So the 2 and a quarter-inch strip right, which is pretty standard, really starts about 1900-1910, and lasts into today. The 5-inch, okay, the reason why 5 inches kind of crosses over is because even in this period, even when they’re just sawing logs this way, they could get a better yield if they could get down to a standard kind of 5-inch width.

You’ll see houses. Our 1871 house had a mix of 5, 6, and 7 inches, but most of them are around 5 inches. So, even in that pre-industrial era, they were still trying to get to that standard 5-inch width. The other thing that happens is, with big, wide boards, even with old growth boards, is they can tend to warp and things like that, so 5 inches is kind of a nice thing. It doesn’t move too much, it won’t cup too much if you do get water on it or it does get wet. And so, you get into that 2 and a quarter, pretty standard, and then, back here, it’s all random, right? It’s random widths and long lengths. Over here, you get standard widths and short lengths.

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So, the next piece is wood type, okay. Now, we talked about Eastern white pine in New England, right? In the South, it would be longleaf pine, okay? And so, this same wood is a longleaf pine board. Now, the reason that’s important today is that if you just ask for a pine board, you’re going to end up, most likely, with a longleaf pine board, okay, or a shortleaf pine board, which is more available today. To really get Eastern white pine flooring or really get longleaf pine flooring, you’re going to need to be clear. You’re going to need to specify. You’re going to need to ask for that specific thing. A longleaf pine board is unique and is definitive because it has a wonderful amber hue to it. The grain can be very tight if you get vertical cut, and so there is a distinctive character to longleaf pine that, if you’re trying to capture this old house, if you’re trying to capture a Louisiana Creole townhouse or some Mississippi Natchez Valley kind of thing, you need longleaf pine. So, you really do need to get geeky. You really do need to get specific on the materials that you’re ordering if you really want to get the wood floor right.

And when we made repairs in this warehouse, we did it. These are maple floors. Now, maple floors were an upgrade over pine but maybe not as nice as oak. Maple’s a very durable hardwood, and so it makes sense for a warehouse. When we repaired that, we went back with maple. We’re going to do some repairs in the other side of this thing; we’re going to go back with maple. So specifying this wood, there are spots in our shop where we patched with oak, we patched with longleaf pine, and those areas stand out. They just look completely different. So, if we’re going to want a consistent thing, understanding wood type, understanding wood size, and that standard width and length, you end up with something that is cohesive and tells that old house story. Really, guys, there’s almost too much information here for this kind of length of video because there’s so many different stories to the way wood floors are laid. You think about McFarland, that historic house here in Fort Worth. That’s the 1890s Queen Anne Victorian. It had what was called wood carpets. Now, wood carpets were basically available in the millwork catalog, something that you would have ordered from. But each of those rooms had a different layout and a different thing, and they would show up in rolls and be laid out.

They had a clear border that would have been made up into a factory, put on linen backer, and then shipped out as a border and as the main body of the house. So you can get into some really crazy oaks and walnuts and crazy different woods as those textures and patterns change. There’s so many different things. Really, what you need to do, you need to be a student of whatever house style you’re trying to build, standing and finishing floors was not something that happened until probably the 1930s at the earliest, to the 1950s. Up until then, floors were waxed, okay? It’s fairly new. I did a video on shoe mold, and I said the shoe mold is something that happens in the last 40, 50 years, and it wasn’t as common back in this back period.

So, speaking of floors, we’re not even going to get into marble. But you know, we did that marble floor at that Conservatory that we did a video of recently. Marble is something that, if we were in Europe, probably most of this conversation would be about stone floors, not necessarily wood floors. The other thing that makes it a challenge for this, you know, getting your floors right, is there is so much being done with floors today, okay? The pre-finished floors, which used to be ugly but are actually fairly good right now. On our Highland Park house, we actually did pre-finished wood floor because the way they come together is really good, and so there is technology happening out there that they can paint a finish onto your wood floor.

One thing I would never do, probably done it once but is, the hand-scraped floors. Okay. Hand-scraped floors drive me nuts, and hopefully, this fad has finally passed and no one’s doing it anymore. Certainly, I don’t see it like I used to see it 15 years ago. But the hand-scrape floors is an example of a designer or decorator having a kind of a fun idea of wanting a rustic floor and scraping the hell out of it, right? “Oh, I’ve got this rustic floor.” Don’t do that. And it’s an example of how something can become a fad, something that can become very dated. The reason I hate those floors is that if you had a board like this, there was that first of all, they’re scraping it this way, which they never would have done. They would have always scraped it with the grain. And so, you end up with all these bumps and bruises all over this floor. And no one ever in history left their floor like that. No one would have done that. And so, the fact that they left this floor so rustic almost kind of shows their hand of like, “What are you doing? No one ever did that.” So, there can be some very popular things. I know that the grays and whites are kind of losing their popularity, and people are starting to introduce colors again. We’re going to look at that gray and white era that we just came from and go, “Yeah, that was kind of crazy.” And it influenced everything. There’s some timelessness, is the point. We want our houses to be timeless, and understanding the historic precedent, understanding how that works really can help your house get that old house soul and have that timelessness, which adds the most value, in my opinion, and is the most beautiful long term.

What I want to do now is I want to take you out to the shop. We’ve got some samples out there, and I want to talk about wood grain. I want to show you how important the cut of the wood matters and how that looks.

Okay, so I wanted to show you some floors out here and then talk immediately about just the character of the grains of wood. Also, the placement. I mean, here we’ve got a herringbone and a chevron pattern. You know, herringbone over here, chevron pattern over here. These are French styles that really can make a huge difference in a dining room or in some special place where you want to really elevate something. But if you look at what we did here, and this is for that big European house we did. Notice what we did here, guys. We did antique oak. Okay, so the reason you’re seeing holes here where the nails went in and you’re seeing check marks and knots and a little bit of wormhole here is because, you know, we wanted wood with character. We wanted wood that kind of told the story of this house.

Now, look at the difference in this wood quality here and the grain quality. Okay, so there’s a piece of antique oak. It’s really wide. It’s probably 10 inches wide. A lot of natural checks in it. There’s wormholes in this. There’s some wormholes right there. So, you know, tons of character. Then look at this, right? And there’s a piece of very clear pine. Okay. Now, they are both plains. Okay, that means you see the stippling in the grain of the wood, and so they’re both plains. But because this is antique, it has tighter grain. The tighter grain means that it doesn’t show off that crazy pattern. So, if we stain this versus staining this, this is going to look not as wild. So, the cut of the wood is very important.

Notice, too, that this is an engineered piece of wood, right? So, they’ve taken that piece of oak, and they put it onto a piece of plywood. Now, whether that’s really helpful is where you’re putting wood onto slab floors, okay, where moisture from the floor might come up and try to cause that thing to warp, or you’re putting it in a basement where there’s a potential possibility of some flooding or some water coming through with heavy rain. The engineered floor, we really like with the wide plank oak because it’s so stable, and it keeps the wood from cupping.

You get into that 2-1/4 pretty standard, and then, the 5-inch. Okay, and the reason why 5-inch kind of crosses over is because even in this period, even when they’re just sawing logs this way, they could get a better yield if they could get down to a standard kind of 5-inch width and 5-inch dimension. So, you’ll see houses, our 1871 house had a mix of 5, 6, and 7, but most of them around 5. And so even in that pre-industrial era, they were still trying to get to that standard width. The other thing that happens is with big wide boards, even with old growth boards, is they can tend to warp and things like that. So, 5-inch is kind of a nice thing. It doesn’t move too much. It won’t cup too much if you do get water on it or it does get wet. So, you know, you get into that 2-1/4, pretty standard, and then, back here, it’s all random, right? It’s random widths and long lengths, okay? Over here.

That is the worst.

Random widths, long lengths.

Over here, you get standard widths and short lengths. Okay, so the next piece is wood type. Okay. Now, we talked about Eastern white pine in New England, right? In the South, it would be longleaf pine, okay? And so, this same wood is a longleaf pine board. Now, the reason that’s important today is that if you just ask for a pine board, you’re going to end up, most likely, with a longleaf pine board, okay, or a shortleaf pine board, which is more available today. To really get Eastern white pine flooring or really get longleaf pine flooring, you’re going to need to be clear. You’re going to need to specify. You’re going to need to ask for that specific thing. A longleaf pine board is unique and is definitive because it has a wonderful amber hue to it. The grain can be very tight if you get vertical cut, and so there is a distinctive character to longleaf pine that, if you’re trying to capture this old house, if you’re trying to capture a Louisiana Creole townhouse or some Mississippi Natchez Valley kind of thing, you need longleaf pine. So, you really do need to get geeky. You really do need to get specific on the materials that you’re ordering if you really want to get the wood floor right.

And when we made repairs in this warehouse, we did it. These are maple floors. Now, maple floors were an upgrade over pine but maybe not as nice as oak. Maple’s a very durable hardwood, and so it makes sense for a warehouse. When we repaired that, we went back with maple. We’re going to do some repairs in the other side of this thing; we’re going to go back with maple. So specifying this wood, there are spots in our shop where we patched with oak, we patched with longleaf pine, and those areas stand out. They just look completely different. So, if we’re going to want a consistent thing, understanding wood type, understanding wood size, and that standard width and length, you end up with something that is cohesive and tells that old house story. Really, guys, there’s almost too much information here for this kind of length of video because there’s so many different stories to the way wood floors are laid. You think about McFarland, that historic house here in Fort Worth. That’s the 1890s Queen Anne Victorian. It had what was called wood carpets. Now, wood carpets were basically available in the millwork catalog, something that you would have ordered from. But each of those rooms had a different layout and a different thing, and they would show up in rolls and be laid out.

They had a clear border that would have been made up into a factory, put on linen backer, and then shipped out as a border and as the main body of the house. So you can get into some really crazy oaks and walnuts and crazy different woods as those textures and patterns change. There’s so many different things. Really, what you need to do, you need to be a student of whatever house style you’re trying to build, standing and finishing floors was not something that happened until probably the 1930s at the earliest, to the 1950s. Up until then, floors were waxed, okay? It’s fairly new. I did a video on shoe mold, and I said the shoe mold is something that happens in the last 40, 50 years, and it wasn’t as common back in this back period.

So, speaking of floors, we’re not even going to get into marble. But you know, we did that marble floor at that Conservatory that we did a video of recently. Marble is something that, if we were in Europe, probably most of this conversation would be about stone floors, not necessarily wood floors. The other thing that makes it a challenge for this, you know, getting your floors right, is there is so much being done with floors today, okay? The pre-finished floors, which used to be ugly but are actually fairly good right now. On our Highland Park house, we actually did pre-finished wood floor because the way they come together is really good, and so there is technology happening out there that they can paint a finish onto your wood floor.

One thing I would never do, probably done it once but is, the hand-scraped floors. Okay. Hand-scraped floors drive me nuts, and hopefully, this fad has finally passed and no one’s doing it anymore. Certainly, I don’t see it like I used to see it 15 years ago. But the hand-scrape floors is an example of a designer or decorator having a kind of a fun idea of wanting a rustic floor and scraping the hell out of it, right? “Oh, I’ve got this rustic floor.” Don’t do that. And it’s an example of how something can become a fad, something that can become very dated. The reason I hate those floors is that if you had a board like this, there was that first of all, they’re scraping it this way, which they never would have done. They would have always scraped it with the grain. And so, you end up with all these bumps and bruises all over this floor. And no one ever in history left their floor like that. No one would have done that. And so, the fact that they left this floor so rustic almost kind of shows their hand of like, “What are you doing? No one ever did that.” So, there can be some very popular things. I know that the grays and whites are kind of losing their popularity, and people are starting to introduce colors again. We’re going to look at that gray and white era that we just came from and go, “Yeah, that was kind of crazy.” And it influenced everything. There’s some timelessness, is the point. We want our houses to be timeless, and understanding the historic precedent, understanding how that works really can help your house get that old house soul and have that timelessness, which adds the most value, in my opinion, and is the most beautiful long term.

What I want to do now is I want to take you out to the shop. We’ve got some samples out there, and I want to talk about wood grain. I want to show you how important the cut of the wood matters and how that looks.

Okay, so I wanted to show you some floors out here and then talk immediately about just the character of the grains of wood. Also, the placement. I mean, here we’ve got a herringbone and a chevron pattern. You know, herringbone over here, chevron pattern over here. These are French styles that really can make a huge difference in a dining room or in some special place where you want to really elevate something. But if you look at what we did here, and this is for that big European house we did. Notice what we did here, guys. We did antique oak. Okay, so the reason you’re seeing holes here where the nails went in and you’re seeing check marks and knots and a little bit of wormhole here is because, you know, we wanted wood with character. We wanted wood that kind of told the story of this house.

Now, look at the difference in this wood quality here and the grain quality. Okay, so there’s a piece of antique oak. It’s really wide. It’s probably 10 inches wide. A lot of natural checks in it. There’s wormholes in this. There’s some wormholes right there. So, you know, tons of character. Then look at this, right? And there’s a piece of very clear pine. Okay. Now, they are both plains. Okay, that means you see the stippling in the grain of the wood, and so they’re both plains. But because this is antique, it has tighter grain. The tighter grain means that it doesn’t show off that crazy pattern. So, the cut of the wood is very important.

Notice, too, that this is an engineered piece of wood, right? So, they’ve taken that piece of oak, and they put it onto a piece of plywood. Now, whether that’s really helpful is where you’re putting wood onto slab floors, okay, where moisture from the floor might come up and try to cause that thing to warp, or you’re putting it in a basement where there’s a potential possibility of some flooding or some water coming through with heavy rain. The engineered floor, we really like with the wide plank oak because it’s so stable, and it keeps the wood from cupping. So, you’re really, you know, with the wood, the wide plank, one of the reasons that we love it is because it really tells the story of old houses, really does a beautiful job, and you can’t always do that, okay?

What I want to do is, I want to move this over. I want to move this over because when you look at the chevron pattern here, okay, this piece here is a quarter-sawn. Okay, and you can see that the grain is very straight because it’s the way they cut it. It’s also got that medullary ray that shows up in the quarter-sawn wood. This, over here, is plain sawn. It shows up over there in the grain. It’s a very wild and crazy grain, very active. It also means that this piece is likely to cup, whereas this piece is less likely to cup. It’s got a much straighter grain. So, if we move these around, it’s because we’re making a sample board, but you can see the chevron, you can see the herringbone, you can see that wood floor can really make a difference.

So, like I say, the other piece is in flooring. This is the stuff that no one really thinks about when you’re just getting an idea for your house and you’re just thinking, “Oh, I want wood floors.” You need to get into the details of this, and if you don’t feel comfortable, that’s one of the reasons you’re hiring a designer or an architect is to help you get through all these kinds of things. And so, you know, but if you get your heart set on something, just don’t be shy about being really geeky about it. Be really specific about what you want, because, you know, you’re going to end up with, you’re going to end up with an important thing to live with for a long time. Flooring is something that you’re not going to want to change out. It’s probably more permanent than any other thing in your house, and so, this is something where getting it right is really important.

So anyway, this is how you get your floor right for that New House with an Old Soul. So make sure to subscribe to the channel. Look at the other episodes that we have, and we’ll see you next time.

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