Throwback Wood Floor of the Year: Restoring National Treasures

Photo courtesy of Universal Floors

During the last 70 years, Universal Floors Inc. has created a unique niche for itself by focusing on the world of historic wood flooring restoration. And with good reason. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., the company is at the epicenter of the United States’ most historic homes and buildings.

Over the years, Universal Floors has worked in many of our nation’s most famous places: the U.S. State Department, the Supreme Court, the National Archives, the White House, and more. “If there is a historic building with real wood floors in it, we’re committed to saving and restoring them,” says Sprigg Lynn, president of Universal Floors, and the third generation to work at the company. “It’s pretty rewarding to take on a job no one else will tackle, saying it can’t be done. To that we say, ‘move over’ and then we get to work.”

This “can do” attitude has helped Universal Floors establish itself as the go-to resource in the D.C. metropolitan area for difficult projects. In fact, one of the niche services the company has established over the years is salvaging old wood from demolition projects in the area. “We spend a lot of time saving wood from old buildings that are being torn down or renovated to use in future projects,” says Lynn. “We’re one of the few companies that can source 100-plus-year-old wood for a historic restoration project, because, chances are, we already have it in our warehouse.”

Abrasive: 3M
Adhesive: 3M Epoxy
Buffer: Clarke American Sanders
Distributor: Cherokee Wholesalers, Derr Flooring Company
Dye: Industrial Finishes
Filler: Timbermate USA
Finish: DuraSeal Wax
Router: Porter-Cable

This project is a perfect example. The job was a restoration of a historic home built in Boston during the 1700s that had been relocated to D.C. in the 1930s. By 2007, when Universal Floors was contacted to restore the Eastern white pine floors in the home, they had a real challenge on their hands. “These floors were covered with layers and layers of old paint, old wax, old varnish, and everything else you could think of. They were black, and the owners wanted to restore them to their original, natural beauty.”

For two entire months, a team of 10 hand-scraped the 5,500 square feet project using a method Lynn refers to as a restoration scrape. This method does not distress the floor or change its contours; it simply mimics and reproduces the floor’s original look and feel. Boards that were damaged beyond repair were replaced with old wood salvaged from the estate of the founder of Johns Hopkins University, which matched this project perfectly.

Following this process, Lynn and his team hand-scrubbed the floor with potash lye, an old-school detergent that is very mild and lightly bleaches the wood. Once dry, the floor was abraded by hand before adding a proprietary dye. Several fine layers of wax were applied by hand to finish the floor.

Lynn emphasizes that every process for this floor had to be done by hand to maintain the historic appearance and characteristics of the floor. “Modern machinery would have ruined the historic attributes of this floor,” says Lynn. It’s the old-school methods learned from his father and grandfather that made a project like this possible, earning it the Best Restoration (non-CNC) Wood Floor of the Year prize in 2008.

“These are the kinds of skills that we need to pass down to the next generation,” says Lynn, “and the kinds of skills you can learn from experts at NWFA trainings. I always say, ‘the more you learn, the more you earn.’ It’s something we live at Universal every day.”

To learn more about NWFA training opportunities, visit nwfa.org/hands-on-training.

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