We bought our first house in 2010, six years before Frankie was born, and so I thought little of making giant sawdust and tool messes, leaving projects half-finished on Sunday night or of wet paint on the walls. There were certainly times that I felt bad about my seemingly uncontrollable urges to haul slightly too wide doors home from people’s curbs, to ask Pierre to “make it work” while I looked hopefully, unhelpfully on, but the only people we inconvenienced with our various projects were ourselves so, really, there was very little (or at least a little less) harm done.
Enter Frankie in early 2016 and our Toronto house was more or less done. We added a glass railing in the mudroom in March, reshingled the roof in May and got new eavestroughs in August her first year of life — all minor, one- or two-day-long inconveniences. Had we stayed in Toronto and in that house I’m sure we would’ve embarked on more projects eventually — the (not original) windows and water heater really needed replacing, for example — but we were really happy with the big stuff: the floors, the kitchen, the mudroom addition, the backyard, etc.
But, when Frankie was one year old, we decided to sell that house and move to Victoria. I pushed hard for a small character home, just like we had in Toronto. I begged Pierre to buy the house we have now, a 1913 craftsman bungalow, begged him to look past the wood panelling and forest green kitchen and the strong smell of cat. At that point, I was 14 months in to being a stay-at-home mom to our daughter and I was pretty desperate for a project, a creative outlet, especially if I was more or less going to keep on staying home with her. It’s only in retrospect that I understand this — what drove me so hard to push for the house that needed the most work when Pierre was eyeing a condo or at least a house that wasn’t lilting to one side.
I’m sure many would’ve cautioned us against taking on such a large project with a young toddler underfoot. But, having (nearly) done it, I say there’s no better time to do such a thing. If you have young kids, you’re home — a lot. If you’re a stay-at-home parent you’re home especially a lot. These are the best years to get a ton done at home. Not only can you quite literally not go anywhere while your child sleeps for three hours every afternoon, but there is no worse time to hate your bathroom tile than the time in your life when you’re staring at it every thirty minutes, toilet training, no worse time to hate your kitchen counters when you’re preparing one million snacks per day. In fact, just the opposite is true. If you’re going to be sweeping up Cheerios and cheese shards every night, it should be off beautiful floors that make you smile through the mess.
Which is why I decided we absolutely must and immediately refinish our kitchen floors. Has it been the most stressful project to date? It’s certainly in the top five. (Pro tip: if your floors need any kind of work, do them first, ideally before you move in.)
You might remember that I painstakingly painted these kitchen floors, just a few short months ago in January, when I was 36 weeks pregnant. This bright idea came to me a few months after I painted our vinyl bathroom floor with excellent results. Alas, while the bathroom floor still looks good, the kitchen floor looked good only for as long as that white paint was fresh, fresh, fresh and then they looked very bad and I could not get them clean ever again. It sort of got to the point where the beige linoleum may have actually been preferable and that’s when I got the itch to tear up the floor once and for all and reveal the original fir softwood floor that I knew was underneath.
So, no, this project was not simply refinishing our kitchen floors. It was, first, exposing our kitchen floors, not an easy task as there were two sheets of plywood to remove plus all of our kitchen cabinets were built on top of that plywood. (The fir predates everything else in our kitchen.) We couldn’t use a pry bar on the plywood (risk damaging the fir, which is very soft) so each nail had to be chiseled out of the bottommost layer of plywood. And if you know Ray (the previous owner of our house) like we do, then you’ll know there was a nail every inch of the way.
Working in two hour chunks at the weekends (the max amount of time I could manage being out of the house with both girls), Pierre was making very slow progress. I decided to book an Air Bnb for me and the girls one weekend in July and have Pierre just gut it out. (He was all, “Thanks, hon.”) He worked 16 hours straight and got all the plywood up, exposing fir floors in really rough shape. In addition to all the nail holes from all the plywood, the fir boards had been screwed into the basement ceiling joists — every 18″ or so there was a neat line of floor screws. There was a huge area (right in the middle of the kitchen floor) that looked weird. And the flooring straight up stopped behind the fridge.
Replacing all the flooring was certainly an option. We were quoted a cost of $10 sq./ft. for material and installation, not unreasonable. But that would mean pulling up all this fir first, the stuff we’d been so careful not to damage. So we opted to patch new fir in where necessary, fill all the screw holes and move ahead with sanding and coating. I decided to embrace the fact that these floors would not look brand new — or even like they do in Winnie’s room, where the flooring is also original, but in decidedly better condition. Whatever. I’m much more interested in living in a house full of beauty and history than one that’s perfect. How amazing that these floors have been in this house since before WWI? I get a little sentimental (and impractical) about the things that have been in this house longer than anyone currently alive in the world. (I shared this sentiment with Pierre and he was very quick to say that he felt there were “at least 100” people in the world born before 1913. He’s like Ron wearing the horcrux sometimes, I swear.)
Once I’d wiped my tears, it was time to really prep the floor for finishing. All the screws in the floorboards (remember those neat lines) needed to come out or be driven deeper into the rafters. Our hood fan and art needed to be wrapped in plastic. The door to the basement needed to come off its hinges. All the lowest drawers needed to be moved elsewhere. And the appliances needed to come out.
We had some extreme PIVOT moments with the fridge, but removing the French doors, freezer drawer and door hinges and shimmying it up and over the lip into the dining room on broken down diaper boxes seemed to do the trick. That was Sunday.
Then came Monday, when I hustled both girls out of the house for 8:30 and back over to the same Air Bnb we had stayed at a few weeks prior. As of 8:00 that morning, someone was supposed to be coming to start the flooring job. We had two reasons for hiring the rest of this project out. One, Pierre has a new job and no longer has a week off at a time. He’d only be able to work on the floors at the weekends and being without a kitchen for several weeks isn’t really doable for us. Second, this floor needed more than just sanding and coating (which we did ourselves in Winnie’s bedroom). It needed a decent amount of patching, which we didn’t think we could do a good job on. The floor already looked pretty bad; it didn’t really need our “help,” too.
After a particularly harried Monday morning, in which I was suffering but assuming that at least good progress was being made on my kitchen, I received a text around noon to say that no one was showing up to work on our house that day, after all. So the girls and I went back to the house and I was really frustrated and I had to eat a sad salad for dinner because my stove was sitting in the living room.
On Tuesday someone showed up and patched all the areas that needed patching and gave the floor a cursory sand with 24 grit paper on the drum sander. You can see this weird part of the floor that I mentioned, above. Not only is it oddly stitched together with the rest of the flooring, but it has a bunch of butt end fir boards (as opposed to the tight grain fir that’s in the rest of the kitchen and Winnie’s bedroom). A guess from the flooring guy was that this was originally a pantry — it would explain the lower grade flooring material and you can sort of see the outline of a door/room in the way the boards are stitched together. Pretty neat, right? It’s certainly imperfect, but I also love peeling back the layers on this old home. Now instead of seeing imperfections when I look at this floor, I just see history and I’m glad we kept the flooring as-was. (The flooring guys think I’m insane, btw.)
On Wednesday, the sander went full throttle all day long, leaving us with this! All the screw holes and gouges got filled in as well, between sandings.
On Thursday the floor got a final buffer sand, then a coat of Bona sealer, followed by a coat of Bona Mega about an hour later. These are the same products we used in Winnie’s room.
You only have to let the first coat dry 2–3 hours before walking on it, but we let it dry 6–7 and then went in to clean off the countertops (no more sanding!) and put some of our drawers and cabinets back together. We still wouldn’t have our kitchen back for several days (the floor needs to cure for 3 days before you can move appliances), but we got a bit of breathing room in other areas of the house (I’d been sleeping next to Tupperware for a week) and could start to see what the finished room would look like! I had always imagined the wood-on-wood would be way too much, but I love it. Especially as the sun’s going down (or coming up), the kitchen just feels so warm and cozy. Key to the wood-on-wood, I think, is the fact that these are two different types/grains of wood. The cabinets are oak and the floor is fir. They’re not radically different wood tones, but having white countertops and appliances, painted trim, a light colour on the walls and not a lot of upper cabinetry really helps to dilute the log cabin vibe. You can also see the repair job in the fridge area here.
On Friday the floor got its final coat and the sun streamed in and I was so happy. We kept everyone and everything off it for 24 hours, which was hard — damn cat.
On Sunday a friend helped Pierre move the stove back in, but we waited until the following Friday to move the fridge. Our absolutely last interior project will be to replace the base trim in here and affix new toe kicks to our cabinets. So. Close. To. Being. Done. (Inside!)
Kids have wasted no time making it their own, so I’ll repeat what I said earlier — life with young kids (life in general, really) is made better with refinished 100-year-old floors. Real glad we did this one!