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A History of Wood Flooring, From Middle Ages to Modern Day

Wood flooring is perennially popular and has been for many hundreds of years. Where did the technique of using wood for flooring begin and why has it been a favoured floor covering for so long?


The Middle Ages


It’s believed that the use of wood as a flooring material began in Europe during the Middle Ages. Most houses had a beaten earth floor, which required visitors to either remove wet shoes or take them off altogether, to avoid churning the floor up into mud or dust. Few people could afford a second floor, but if they could, it would be built of wooden joists with flooring planks of up to 2 feet wide, usually made of oak or elm.


However, they were nothing like the beautiful wood floors we are accustomed to today, as using wood for flooring before the 17th century was a laborious business. Timber was hand sawn, split or axed to produce planks that could be fixed to the joists. This resulted in planks of varying thicknesses and widths, so every plank needed to be planed, trimmed or raised to achieve a level floor. Even with all this extra work, the result was usually rough and uneven.


The Baroque Period


In the early 17th century, the Baroque period saw the rise of wooden flooring as a status symbol. Originating in the homes of French nobility, wooden floors were seen as a sign of taste and wealth, with many being handcrafted by French artisans, often in beautiful and intricate patterns. These floors were limited to the homes of royalty and the social elite, due to the amount of time and labour they required.


To create a floor, each piece of wood had to be cut by hand in a way that would allow the craftsman to arrange them in a pattern. Once down, the surface of the wood was scraped with hand tools to even them out and level the floor. After this, large amounts of sand was brought in and rubbed on the floor to achieve a beautiful shine. Finally the wood was stained and varnished. Bearing in mind the size of some of the grand French houses, it is hard to imagine the amount of work that was necessary.


People with less wealth, such as minor nobles and the merchant class, would often try to imitate these grand flooring installations, but could not afford floors with the same levels of craftsmanship and durability. In contrast, many Baroque floors still exist to this day, hundreds of years later, which is a testament to the incredible qualities of hardwood flooring, as well as the people who created them.


Technological Advancements in the Victorian era


The earliest known example of mechanised planning was introduced in France in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the Victorian age that large-scale timber production really took off. The invention of the steam engine led to the development of powered mechanical saws, such as the dragsaw, which was a highly popular method of cutting wood until the popularisation of the chainsaw, a few decades later. Mechanised saws required much less labour and were also able to produce planks of consistent sizes. These were perfect for wood flooring because they could be easily and quickly laid without much need for adjustments.


The new technology made straight planked wood floors easy to install and more affordable for the masses, which may be why wealthy Victorians still wanted parquet floors. Parquet was particularly popular in hallways and ostentatious receiving rooms, where it could impress guests and visitors.


With the development of alternative floor coverings such as cork and linoleum during the 1920s, however, wooden flooring began to wane in popularity. Compared to these new modern materials, wood flooring began to look old fashioned and was expensive and harder to care for.


Post War Trends


After World War II, the popularity of wood flooring fell even further thanks to advances in the technology of carpet production. Previously carpet had been expensive and therefore the preserve of the wealthy, but in 1940 a group of American textile weavers invented a method of creating carpet called ‘tufting’. The tufting method could produce carpet much faster than the previously used weaving method, and, coupled with the introduction of nylon and acrylic yarns, it changed the world of carpet.


Even though wood floors still existed, they were hidden away under wall-to-wall fitted carpets. In new buildings they were sometimes done away with altogether and plywood was used in their place. The industry slumped and, in an effort to compete with cheaper methods, some fitters cut corners. This led to poor quality wood floors, which caused their reputation to sink even further.


Modern Day Wood Flooring Trends


Fashions always change, and by the early 1990’s wood flooring began to regain their previous popularity. This was partly due to the development of bespoke engineered wood flooring, which greatly increased the affordability of wood floors. Engineered boards combine a layer of hardwood with sub-layers of cheaper wood, all of which are fused together to create the impression of a solid hardwood board, but at a much cheaper price. Engineered wood boards can be used in a wider variety of rooms than solid wood boards, meaning they can be used in previously unsuitable rooms. People also began to appreciate once more the beauty of solid wood boards, and the warmth and elegance they offer to a home.
There are now so many options when it comes choosing between floorboards, from engineered to solid and from parquet to bespoke designs, that there is truly something to suit every taste. Thanks to advances in technology, wood floors are now much more affordable than they used to be, making fitting out your entire home easier than ever before. A wood floor is something that will last a long time if you take care of it well, making your home comfortable and stylish for many years to come.