Don’t call fir floors ‘hardwood’

Reader calls attention to material's vulnerability

Q: I love your column but I had a reaction (to) what you guys wrote in a recent column — that older Berkeley, Calif., homes have oak flooring.

In my experience with my own house built in 1911, and all the houses that I’ve visited in my neighborhood, the typical original flooring was fir. It’s so soft that I always tell people, "If you drop your keys, it’ll leave a gouge." Yet people refer to them as hardwood floors.

The times I’ve seen oak flooring it is usually a replacement floor because the original fir can still be found in the closets or under carpets, as your column discussed.

A: We hope your reaction wasn’t too adverse. You’re right, of course. Vintage San Francisco Bay Area homes can have either fir or oak floors. A lot depends on when the house was built.

Kevin’s 1879 Victorian had tongue-and-groove fir floors that were meant to be painted. Area rugs provided the finished look.

On the other hand, Bill’s 1920s Craftsman cottage had oak floors. This was consistent with the Arts and Crafts movement, which featured copious amounts of oak furniture along with oak casement and baseboards.

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Hardwood and softwood refers to the type of tree and not necessarily to the density of the wood. Hardwood refers to deciduous trees, while softwood refers to conifers. We’ve bent many a nail on well-seasoned "soft" fir. The tendency to dent could well be related to the hardness of the finish, rather than to the softness of the wood.

We don’t doubt that the oak you mention is an overlay. It may well be that the fir floor you see is really subflooring meant to be covered with carpet, and at some point the owners were trying to save a buck or two by not extending the oak into the closet.

Q: My brick patio was made with concrete mortar between the bricks. It’s about 18 years old. There’s an area that has risen up a bit and is a tripping hazard. I think a tree root is pushing up in one part and water has caused the clay soil to expand in another area. Do you have a suggestion for the best way to deal with this problem?

A: We think both conditions are due to roots. Clay soil expands in the wet winter weather and shrinks back during summer. Unless the portion of the patio is wet down on a regular basis keeping the soil beneath it constantly wet, it should shrink back.

It’s not uncommon for certain types of trees to spread their roots close to the surface. Maples and poplars are two that come immediately to mind.

We wish we had an easier fix for you, but we think your best tactic will be to take up the brick and cut out the roots. Clean the old mortar off the bricks, and then reset them with new mortar.

                                     

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