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Why are floorboards in older houses so wide?

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Timber!

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Antique houses of the 18th and early-19th centuries all tend to have one thing in common: wide-plank floors. Take a look at a real estate listing for a historic house, and chances are it will tout the floors, which were often hand-hewn and pinned down with forged nails rather than locked into place with tongues and grooves, which is how contemporary hardwood floors are held together.

More interesting is that this type of flooring—wide-plank boards—disappear from pervasive use in the second half of the 19th century. By the 1870s and 1880s, planks of about three and four-inch width (something more akin to what we’re accustomed to in modern homes) became the new standard, and wider floors got left behind. Why? Look to American history.

"For early building materials, it was all about assessing where there was opportunity, what was most convenient, and what was most practical," says Ashley Robbins Wilson, the Graham Gund Architect at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Unlike in England, which was deforested largely in the Middle Ages, the untouched forests of America offered access to a plethora of huge, old trees. Simply, there was the opportunity for wide-plank floors."

These floorboards were often cut via saw pit, a technique that required two craftsmen to manually slice a tree trunk into sections as the trunk straddled a dug-out pit. The trunks were cut into quarters, and then the planks were cut at a 45-degree angle from those quarters, creating what is referred to as quarter-sawn wood. This cutting technique, Wilson explains, created the most stable plank.

"If you cut a tree trunk like a slice of bread, then you’ll get cupping, when the plank bows upward," says Wilson. "Quarter-sawn wood resists cupping. It’s what you want for your floors."

As 18th-and-19th-century builders and craftspeople worked through the supply of trees and stock depleted, so too did the opportunity to create wider plank floors. One reason we stopped seeing wide floorboards as the 19th century progressed was simply because material was becoming harder to find. Advancing technologies also contributed to the shift away from wide planks.

"As America industrialized in the second half of the 19th century, steam-powered saws could take a trunk and cut it into multiple narrow strips for floors," says Thomas Baker, building technology editor at This Old House. "Craftspeople could then put a groove and a tongue on each board so they could fit together and eliminate the gaps between boards that came with wider plank floors—that was the biggest problem with that type of flooring."

As opposed to tongue-and-groove construction, which locks the floor into place, the wide-plank floors were simply nailed down next to each other. This resulted in a lot of seasonal expansion and contraction. "Two boards next to each other might have a narrow gap in the summer and a wider gap in the winter. Tongue-and-groove floorboards did experience some contraction, but on the whole, they were sturdier," says Baker.

As production of this type of flooring increased, and the ability to ship product from city to city became refined and more efficient, these narrow floorboards could be more easily made, carted across the country, and installed in homes nationwide. Wider planks continued to be used for subflooring, according to Baker, well into the first half of the 20th century.

Jefferson's original chess set

A photo posted by Julia Wilder (@jujubejulia) on

Now, we’ll be honest and say that not all 18th-and-19th century houses had wide-plank floors. This is definitely not a hard-and-fast rule, but more a general observation. With the absence of industrialized tools, though, cutting down trunks into narrow strips of wood was much more labor intensive—and therefore more expensive. Examples of more intricate flooring tend to exist only in grander properties.

"Thomas Jefferson had a parquet floor in one room in Monticello," says Christopher Wigren, the deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. "Apparently, after Jefferson had the one room done, the carpenter said that he’d never do that again."

Interestingly enough, now, wide-plank floors are seen as a bit of a status symbol and a direct-line connection with America’s heritage. Ironically, a lot of the wood that makes up flooring today is ill-suited for wide planks. "Wood is farmed today to grow really fast," says Wilson. "That fast growth results in large spaces between the rings of the tree, which creates very unstable wood that differs greatly from the tight rings of naturally growing older trees. Many people turn to reclaimed wood for just this reason."

Companies like Olde New England Salvage exist for the purpose of preserving, restoring, and perpetuating antique building materials. "We’ve done everything from replace a single board to move an entire room’s flooring from one house to the next," says owner Glenn Pianka. "We’re trying to provide materials to restore either original houses or add them into new construction as a special and functional feature."

If you’re lucky enough to snag a bundle of reclaimed wood—or if your house naturally has wide-plank floors—there’s one tip that was widely recommended to us. "We’ve come across floors have have been sanded so profusely that they’re too thin to be used anymore," says Pianka. "Definitely avoid over-sanding your floors."