Q: I have an old (1920s) house that has a very worn linoleum kitchen floor. In beginning to remove the linoleum, I found that it is covering very nice redwood planks some 6 inches wide.
The boards appear to be about 1 inch thick and are laid directly onto 2-by-8-inch floor joists. There is no subfloor.
I would like to remove the linoleum to use the existing redwood. How do I best remove the linoleum adhesive so that the redwood can be refinished?
Can you recommend a solvent to do this that will not damage the redwood, though I realize that the redwood will need to be sanded?
A: You’ve uncovered one of the hidden treasures of the homes of yesteryear. What you see from above and below is indeed the subfloor, but it’s probably not redwood.
More likely, it’s vertical-grain Douglas fir. In 1920, fir was relatively inexpensive and was a common choice for subflooring. Today, vertical-grain “Doug fir” costs an arm and a leg.
The worn linoleum you’re removing was installed directly on the subfloor, without particleboard underlayment. That tells us that the linoleum is the original floor covering.
You’ve got the right idea about stripping, sanding and finishing the fir. Doug fir’s natural coloring with its reddish and yellowish tones is drop-dead gorgeous when sanded properly and a clear finish is applied.
But the beauty that is the final product comes at a price. You’ll invest a lot of time and elbow grease, in addition to some money, to get the job done right.
The first thing you must do is remove the old linoleum. A word of caution here: It’s possible that both the linoleum and the mastic contain asbestos. Have a sample tested to be sure. If it does, special steps must be taken for removal and disposal that will probably raise the price of the project substantially.
Call a local licensed asbestos abatement contractor for more information.
To remove the linoleum, use a floor scraper. This is a tool with a head that looks like a garden hoe only the head is straight. Simply start at one end of the floor and start scraping.
After 80 years of foot traffic, the flooring probably won’t come up easily. It’s hard work. Wear gloves to avoid blisters and a dust mask to avoid breathing in any dust particles. Don’t worry about getting every little bit off. The next steps will take care of that.
After scraping, if you are left with some areas of mastic still stuck to the floor, soak the areas with a little lacquer thinner or acetone to soften the mastic then scrape it off. Make sure the room is well ventilated when you do this and that there are no open flames, such as pilot lights, on the stove.
Don’t worry about the solvent damaging the wood. Sanding will remove any marks it may leave.
Once the old flooring is off, it’s time to sand the wood. Fir is a soft wood and is difficult to sand. We’ve done it, using floor sanders from a rental shop, but we believe this is a job best left to a professional.
You should be able to arrange for a flooring contractor to do the sanding and leave the finishing to you. If you want to take on the sanding job yourself, go slow and plan on using quite a bit of sandpaper. The residual mastic gums up the paper pretty fast on the first pass.
When the sanding is all done, vacuum the floor thoroughly and go over it with a tack cloth to remove all the sanding dust.
To finish the floor, we’d probably go with three coats of polyurethane. Make sure to sand between coats for a smooth final product.
Of course, you could always apply a stain before the clear coats. We wouldn’t do this because we want to allow the natural beauty of the wood to shine. Also, we’ve found that polyurethane yellows with age and adds a patina to a fir floor that complements the natural tones of the wood.
Another option, of course, is to have the flooring contractor apply the finish. If you go this route be sure to ask about other finish options that might be available.
However you do it, once the job is done you’ll be amazed at the beauty that has been hiding for decades under the old linoleum.
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