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Blue Bungalow Farm

Heather Zydek writes about life on the east side of Tosa.

Peeling Back Layers: Restoring the original floors in our kitchen

hardwood floors, home improvement

Old houses, like onions and sensitive ogres, have layers. Peel back those layers of wall paper, paint and flooring and you don't know what you're going to find. 

We've experienced this a few times now in our 95-year-old bungalow, but never has this truism been more apparent than when we recently tore into the 1990s vinyl in our kitchen in the interest, originally, of putting in a new tile floor. What was supposed to be a relatively simple demo and installation of tile became a messy, exhausting, one-month ordeal that ended in the restoration of the home's original maple floors.
 
If you follow this blog you may recall that last year I ripped out our dog-vomit-stained, trampled carpets in our front living and dining rooms to expose the hardwood underneath. I hoped at the time that the original oak floor beneath would be salvageable. 
 
It was. 
 
However, saving the wood – or at least, making it presentable – required more than a wash-down with Murphy's Oil Soap. It was so stained and worn that it needed to be refinished. We hired Norwegian Wood Floors of Oconomowoc to do the job, they were in and out in two days, and we were thrilled with the results. 
 
Tile in the Kitchen
 
Of course, after peeling back one layer of carpet and restoring a beautiful oak floor, our minds wandered to other rooms of our house. What if, we started thinking, we finally ripped out the worn, sun-streaked, permanently-dirty vinyl in the kitchen and replaced it with something nicer (i.e. porcelain tile)? We knew there was hardwood underneath at least a couple of layers of vinyl, but when we asked one of the guys from Norwegian about it last year, he shuddered and told us the wood was likely so stained and gummed up with glue that it wasn't worth saving -- we might as well just keep it covered.
 
So that was the plan, originally. We asked a friend of a friend starting a new tile business to help with demo and install tile. It took us about a week to shop around for a product befitting an old home. We went to all the big box stores and some local tile shops, and most of the options available didn't seem to work with our 1918 bungalow. Finally I found something I liked, but it was a custom order.
 
While we waited for the tiles to come in, we began digging into the old floor.
 
My husband scored it with a circular saw. Then we pried up squares of vinyl glued to plywood with crow bars and hammers. 
 
It started out pretty simple.
 
Soon, though, the enormity of the demolition became apparent when we discovered some complexities under the surface of that top layer of vinyl and sub-flooring. 
 
I jokingly referred to it as "Pandora's Box" on Facebook.
 
First, some background. Our large kitchen used to be three separate areas: a much smaller kitchen to the south, a bedroom to the north and a hallway. In the 1990s a previous owner knocked down a few walls and turned a hallway, bedroom and kitchen into one big room. 
 
Each section presented its own demolition challenges.
 
In the old bedroom and hallway, we found thick particle board under the top layer of vinyl and plywood. The particle board was glued to the floor. Some of it was saturated with water and moldy due to a leaky dishwasher in our kitchen island.
 
In the original, much smaller kitchen we found another layer of vinyl (my mom identified it as Armstrong's "Solarian" vinyl flooring popular in the 70s and 80s). Under that layer of vinyl was more plywood. When we pulled that up we found a thick layer of black paper stuck with tar to the original maple floor. All of these layers throughout the three areas were attached to the hardwood with hundreds of nails and screws. 
 
Changing Direction
 
It was during the demo process that my husband Steve started to have a change of heart about the tile. For one thing, he worried that we'd need a rock solid subfloor to prevent the tiles from eventually cracking in our creaky old home. For another, as soon as he glimpsed some of the maple under all those layers he fell in love. 
 
At first I had my heart set on tile. But the more I thought about it, the better it seemed to have hardwood. If salvageable, why not restore the house to its former glory and not use any new materials in the process?
 
We chewed on this thought over a weekend of demo. 
 
On Monday we decided to return the tiles we'd ordered.
 
We felt pretty good about our decision. But we were also in a very awkward position. We knew what we wanted, but we had this hot mess where our kitchen floor once was and now needed to find an experienced wood professional to restore the floor, pronto. 
 
To be honest, we weren't 100 percent sure it was salvageable. 
 
As bad as that old 1990s vinyl was, what we unearthed was 100 times worse. Screws poked up every which way waiting to snag little toes. Tar paper, wood glue and chunks of particle board were stuck to the floor. You could see the basement through a couple of sizable holes in the wood. Vermiculite insulation poured out of the walls. Remnants of wall frame stuck up in more than a few places. 
 
Worse, we hit a road block: the guys from Norwegian Wood weren't available and then didn't call us back. Another company highly recommended by multiple friends and neighbors – Schmidt Flooring -- was booked solid for at least a month (they said a lot of folks decide to refinish their floors right before Thanksgiving).
 
So Steve went to the web to research hardwood professionals. 
 
He stumbled upon the website of David Passow Custom Contracting, whose array of online work samples and positive reviews impressed us both. We contacted David online and he responded with his rate (a very reasonable $2 per square foot, or a bit more if repairs are involved). I called him in desperation in the midst of finishing our demo and he came out within the hour to give me an idea of how salvageable the floor was. 
 
David wasn't fazed by the complexity of the project and said he'd done numerous floors similar to ours. He was very straightforward about the work he could do. He'd have to be creative to fix certain issues with the floor (gaps in the original hardwood where there were once walls, for example) and try to make everything fit together and line up right. But he had 20 years of experience and gave us an affordable quote. Most importantly, he was able to start work within a week. So we decided to hire him. 
 
He spent about two weeks in our home. The project was complex and at times frustrating, mainly because removal of the walls complicated piecing together boards that didn't line up. But David was creative and resourceful and, in the end, we think he did a fantastic job.
 
I'll let the photos speak for themselves. Here's a before photo of our old vinyl:
 
 
 And here's a view of some of the layers we exposed:
 
 
Note the tar paper in the shot below. We'd already scraped off some of the paper at this point.
 
 
We used a wallpaper steamer to scrape off the sticky tar under the black paper:
 
 
It took David a few afternoons to repair the floor. Finally it was ready for sanding:
 
 
After a round of sanding it looked like this:
 
 
Next came the polyurethane:
 
 
Finally, after weeks of work, it's now finished:
 

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