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A brief history of wood flooring

You may associate hardwood flooring with the many grand historic buildings of Liverpool, but it actually has surprisingly humble beginnings. Using wood for flooring was a laborious business in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Timber needed to be hand-sawn, split or axed to produce planks for flooring that could be fixed to the joists. This often resulted in planks with varying widths and thicknesses, so many planks needed to be raised, planed, or trimmed to achieve a roughly level floor.

It therefore comes as no surprise that by the early 17th Century, most European homes still used compacted dirt floors that required special care to be taken. Before entering a building with a dirt floor, visitors would generally need to clean or remove their footwear to avoid making the earth dusty or muddy.

Those who could afford it would have stone floors instead, possibly made from slate or some other locally sourced stone. For those wealthy enough to have a first floor, only then would wooden flooring be used, usually in the form of planks of oak or elm supported by joists.

The Baroque period

In the early 17th Century, the Baroque period saw the rise of wooden flooring. While not an original Baroque building, you can see the Baroque influence in the Port of Liverpool building, which was designed in the Edwardian Baroque style.

Hardwood flooring then began to achieve the artistic status we know today as French parquetry, and other patterns appeared in the grand houses of Europe. These were initially limited to royalty and the wealthy elite, because installing these floors required considerable labour by skilled craftsmen. Every piece of wood had to be cut by hand in a way that would enable the pieces to be arranged in a pleasing pattern. Once down, the surface of the wood had to be scraped with hand tools to smooth them out. Sand was then brought in that would be arduously rubbed into the wood to achieve the smoothest possible surface before staining and finishing the wood.

Those with limited wealth, such as the merchant classes and minor nobles, would often try to imitate these grand installations, but these did not enjoy the same level of durability. In contrast, some baroque floors still exist to this day, hundreds of years later, especially in areas that experience less travel. This is a testament to the durability of hardwood flooring, as well as the care and attention of the craftsmen involved.

The use of hardwoods and softwoods

Hardwood has always been the preferred option for flooring thanks to its dense nature and ability to resist wear. As hardwoods became scarcer in the country, however, many people turned to softwoods like pine as a cheaper alternative. In an effort to disguise these arguably inferior floors, many had them painted to achieve the illusion of hardwood or covered them up with carpets and rugs, such as those from the Ottoman Empire.

The introduction of technology

The late 18th Century saw the introduction of machinery to help plane timber, but it wasn’t until the Victorian age that timber production really took off. The invention of the steam engine led to powered mechanical saws that, in addition to requiring much less labour, also produced consistent planks that were ideal for flooring. These could then easily be installed without adjustments to get a level floor.

A further advance came soon afterwards in the form of the tongue-and-groove boards that we know today. This radical development meant floorboards could be easily slotted together and nailed down far less obviously.

While these innovations made straight-line floors easier to install, parquetry still remained popular with the wealthy Victorians despite the relatively high cost, especially in the hallways and their more ostentatious rooms. This trend continued up to the 1930s.

In the 1920s, alternative products based on linoleum and cork became more readily available. Offering an easier installation and reduced maintenance, these solutions started to take market share away from wooden flooring, especially for those looking for a more contemporary appearance. Wooden floors retained some of their popularity thanks to the development of polyurethane, which enabled the development of a wax-free finish that offered increased durability. In fact, many hardwood floors today are still finished with a polyurethane varnish.

After 1945

Following World War II, much changed in the world of flooring. Carpets became a lot more affordable due to improvements in production. Hardwood flooring then came to be seen as an old-fashioned option. Even when hardwood floors were fitted in new buildings, the inhabitants would quickly hide them with wall-to-wall carpets. This led to the construction industry shifting away from using hardwood flooring and towards using softwoods and plywood for subflooring.

During the post-war period, the hardwood flooring industry struggled to survive. In an effort to compete with the cheaper options, many operators cut corners wherever they could. Installers were often overworked and underpaid, resulting in sloppy work becoming commonplace. This, in turn, diminished the reputation of hardwood flooring further and contributed to the decline.

By the 1990s, however, people began to rediscover the beauty of hardwood flooring.

Modern hardwood flooring

Today, hardwood flooring benefits from many technical advancements that have eased installation or enabled it to be used in previously unsuitable rooms. For example, pre-finished boards avoid the need for an onsite finish, although many people still prefer the smooth consistency of the latter option.

The introduction of engineered hardwood boards has also increased the affordability of hardwood flooring. These boards combine a layer of actual hardwood with layers of other cheaper materials, all of which are fused together to give the appearance of solid hardwood without the cost. The cross arrangement of these layers also improves the board’s strength and makes it less likely to expand or contract, enabling it to be installed in damper areas where solid hardwood flooring would be unsuitable, such as cellars.

There have never been so many options for wooden flooring, with plenty of materials being sourced from around the globe, so you can be sure you’ll find the right floor for your home.

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