Timber floors are back: not maybe, definitely

Office-grade carpet and cushioned vinyl are out and bare wood is all the rage. Jeff Howell lists some do's and don'ts for those who feel like coming clean
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Timber floors are back in a big way. After a surge of popularity in the 1970s, when everyone was hiring sanding machines to attack their Victorian floorboards, the bare wood look hit something of a hiatus. In the 1980s floor coverings became fashionable once more as office-grade carpets, cushioned vinyl, and even good old linoleum made a comeback.

But now, a combination of the Ikea-influenced Scandinavian look and the New York loft living image has made the natural timber floor desirable again. Gavin Muir, marketing manager with Hewitson Hardwoods of Woking, says there has been a tremendous upsurge over the last two to three years. He said: "Ikea has been a major influence. People go there for furniture, and see it displayed standing on attractive timber flooring and they want to take that image back into their homes." He says the most popular wood finish is oak, followed by beech and maple.

So this time around it may no longer be enough to just sand down the old pine floorboards and slap on a couple of coats of sealer. Now the emphasis is on quality hardwood flooring, to provide a practical, hardwearing surface that is easy to maintain and keep clean, as well as being attractive.

Paul Brock, a south London builder specialising in up-market refurbishments, says he has been asked to provide more and more hardwood floors. He said: "Hardwood is an ideal finish for kitchens. You've got to have something smooth and wipeable, so why not have timber? It looks good and it feels nice when you walk on it as it's warm on bare feet." Mr Brock says most clients will also opt for timber in one of the other downstairs rooms. Cost is clearly a determinant, but people appreciate the luxury of a hardwood floor, and will either carry the kitchen floor finish through to a separate dining room or the lounge.

Costs apart, there are some practicalities to be considered. First is that in the average Victorian house water and central heating pipes and electrical cables were put in at a later date, usually under the existing floorboards. An expensive new hardwood floor should be laid once and for all; it should not be necessary to lift sections of it up to get at these services. Ideally, therefore, pipes and cables should be rerouted around the periphery of the room, either at skirting level in one of the proprietary trunking systems available, or below floor level in ducting, which can be covered over with a removable section of the new floor. At the very least plumbing and central heating pipes could be replaced with continuous lengths of polybutylene pipe, so there will be no joints to leak underneath the new floor.

Another consideration, for flat dwellers, is sound transmission. The click of heels on a bare wooden floor may sound great for the person wearing the heels, but it can become a form of Chinese water torture for the neighbours underneath. Anne and Steve, a couple living in the lower maisonette of a converted Victorian terraced house, rue the day their upstairs neighbour took up his carpets. Anne said: "He plays the banjo, which has never really bothered us. But now he's got bare floorboards all we can hear is the tap, tap, tap of his foot on the floor. It's really driving us mad." Local authority planning and building control departments issue guidelines about sound insulation between dwellings, which include details of acceptable floor finishes. Bare timber floors are only likely to be approved if they are separately suspended above the existing floor. In other words, if the floor joists of the upstairs flat are also the ceiling joists of the downstairs flat, then bare wood is likely to present a sound transmission problem.

The costs of timber flooring varies enormously. If you are set on having the timber look, but are strapped for cash, you can still consider sanding and staining your existing floorboards. The problem is, very few old floors are up to this treatment; most floors have damaged sections. Repairs with new lengths of board will stand out because of the different colour and grain of the wood and, possibly, slight variations in the width and depth of the timber sections. In any case the introduction of central heating will almost certainly have dried and shrunk the boards, leaving unsightly gaps between them; these fill with fluff, household dirt, and the sawdust from the sanding process, and can hardly be said to be hygienic. Also, before sanding with a hired belt-sander, the heads of all the nails need to be countersunk with a hammer and punch, otherwise they will tear the sanding belt. The whole process can be time consuming and frustrating and, it should be remembered, the Victorians themselves would never have dreamt of leaving their floor timbers exposed as the pine boards were chosen for cheapness, not appearance. Victorian homes had rugs in the centre of the room and the boards exposed around the edges were painted.

For new floors, at the cheapest end of the scale, the DIY "sheds" are offering thin tongue-and-groove chipboard with a wood-look laminate that retails for pounds 9.99 per square metre. It is not the real thing and can delaminate if it gets wet, so is not ideal for the kitchen. A more upmarket version of the same thing, this time with a real wood veneer, costs around pounds 20 and produces, to all intents and purposes, a real wood floor. These systems all come under the heading of "floating" floors: that is, they are not fixed to the original floor surface, but just rest on top of it. They can be laid onto existing floorboards or, and this is a real bonus, can be used to give concrete ground floors a timber finish. A polyethylene- sheet damp-proof membrane should be spread out first, followed by a thin layer of foam rubber, to take out any unevenness.

Next come real hardwood boards. The idea is to remove the old softwood boards and replace them with the real thing. To avoid gaps opening up between the boards, the trick is to leave them to acclimatise to the temperature and humidity of the house before final fixing. This advice is often given but rarely followed. Since most flooring work of this nature is carried out as part of a bigger makeover, it is rare for the house to be occupied, with the central heating on, for the six weeks or so required for moisture equilibrium to be reached. An alternative is to buy timber that has been kiln dried and shrink wrapped. The new boards also have to be clamped and wedged before fixing, which may take the process somewhat out of the DIY bracket. Real hardwood boards are supplied unfinished, so they will then require sanding, as before, and lacquering. Prices from pounds 30 per square metre for materials, with labour extra.

More expensive still come ready-finished hardwood tongue-and-groove boards with their own proprietary clip fixings, such as the Junkers system. Selling at around pounds 50 per square metre, this is a floating floor that rests on its own felt underlay, which may present a solution if sound transmission is a problem. The high materials cost is also balanced by the fact that, once laid, no further finishing work is needed.