Wood floors in the Victorian era saw plain, unfinished planks give way to parquet designs. Restoring these floors goes a long way to creating an authentic period look.
Unlike unfinished planks that get their charm from natural wear patterns, shiny strip and parquet floors benefited from new finishing products such as oil, varnishes and shellacs that added a special look to the floorboards.
When restoring a home of this period, opting for a varnish or shellac is a good way to give the floor an authentic, period look. As when painting, preparation is more important than application when you're refinishing an old house floor.
Many times, if a floor has been properly maintained, it's possible to coat the existing surface with the same finish. First prep a small test area by hand-sanding it, then add the chosen finish. If it bites and has the right look, it's probably the same finish that's on there.
Dissimilar products won't work on each other, so don't be tempted to shellac a varnished floor--it simply won't hold. (A note of caution if you go with shellac: This historical finish won't tolerate alcohol or water spills, so be sure to consider the room's usage beforehand.)
You can add a coat of wax over either, if you choose, to preserve and protect the finish while adding a bit of luster to the floor. Keep the surface free of dust and dirt with regular dust mopping. Expect to rewax periodically as this protective coating wears away. It's a small price to pay for retaining a piece of history.
If a previous owner refinished the floor of your old house with a coat of polyurethane, you may decide to strip it off and bring the floor back in a more authentic manner. Although this newer finish is extremely durable and offers a longevity most historical finishes don't, many restorers find that it looks plastic and doesn't mesh well in restored homes.
If the floor is badly stained and scratched, the floor's thickness will determine if sanding is feasible.
Extreme care should be taken when working on old parquet floors. Since these boards generally are only about 3/8 of an inch thick, there probably is only about 1/8 of an inch to work with until the tongue is reached. As a result, many restorers will recommend stripping the floor by hand, either with a scraper or with chemicals if the finish must be removed.
Although this obviously can be labor intensive, it may be the only way to refinish some old parquet without ruining the floor. Since old strip floors are thicker, many of these floors can be sanded.
Another factor should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to sand an early floor. Remember that flooring spans structural members. And the construction techniques common to many old homes are different from those we consider standard today. More than likely, your floor joints are 1 inch or so thick. The thickness of the board is adequate for this large span. But when the board is worn (or sanded) down to 7/8 of an inch or 3/4 of an inch, you're apt to get some spring in the floor.
Note that every sanding decreases the thickness of a wood floor by about one- to three-sixteenths of an inch. So there are only so many times you can sand down a wood floor. An easy way to gauge the thickness of the old floor is to remove the molding and baseboard or a floor heating register to reveal the edge of the wood.