The Southern Architect

Architecture, Materials

Heart Pine Flooring: Dirty Top And Women’s Shoes

There was a time when the entire Southeast of America was virtually blanked by long-leaf pine trees. After 1900, there were close to zero remaining. An ever-growing and expanding America required an abundant, durable and attractive wood for its homes, schools and buildings. Three-hundred-year-old long-leaf pines, specifically the very center of the tree (known as the heart) fit the bill.

Today, old heart pine is a highly sought after commodity. Because they literally can’t make any more, true old heart pine is a limited resource and can be difficult to come by. But if you want a floor that looks like a beautiful piece of fine antique furniture, heart pine is definitely the way to go.

What To Look For:

It’s important to understand that there is such a thing as “new” heart pine. New heart pine is wood cut from the center of a pine tree (not long-leaf pines) that is over 100 years old. It’s nice wood, but if you are looking for real old heart pine, new isn’t going to cut it. So ask questions, and make sure you’re getting real old heart pine wood. Remember, all heart pine is recycled wood and will look like it. If it looks to new to be true, it probably is. Otherwise…

1. Look for a tight grain pattern on the cut ends: The tighter the grain, the more dense and hard the wood is. When the grain is loose with gaps between layers, the wood is likely too soft and fragile for flooring.

2. Don’t Let Her Trip in Those Shoes: We like some nail holes every once in a while in our floors. But anything larger than a dime will require filling. When evaluating if a hole is too big or not, consider the size of a woman’s heel. If it could get stuck in that hole, it’s too big. Also, ensure there are no splits down the wood or check marks on the edges.
Tip: When filling holes in wood flooring, mix sawdust from the wood with the filler before staining. The sawdust in the filler will help better match the stain on rest of the wood.

3. Ensure there’s enough of the same kind of wood for your project: Heart pine sourced from an old barn in Alabama and an old warehouse in New Orleans are going to have entirely different properties. They will have a different hue, patina, grain structure and overall character. No amount of staining, sanding or finishing is going to change that. They will forever appear to be different because they are different. If you want a consistent appearance, make sure you can get enough wood for your project from a singular source.

If You Can, Choose “Dirty Top”:

The very best and most beautiful heart pine floors are actually recycled and re-purposed floor joists and ceiling beams. Old floors are often too beat up or fragile to reuse, so we look to re-purpose “dirty top” wood.

“Dirty top” wood is exactly what it sounds like – dirty, old wood. But more specifically, it’s a large piece of wood (usually a beam or joist) that has not seen the teeth of a saw in a few generations. Because of that, this large piece of lumber is, well, dirty having gathered dust and grime over the years. These joists and beams make a perfect source for wood floors.

If you have a 3″ x 10″ beam, for instance, you can strip it in half and end up with two 1.5″ x 10″ pieces of wood with a fresh and level cut on one side and beautifully “dirty” on the other. Once lightly sanded and finished, the “dirty” side of the wood is going to look like a piece of antique furniture on your floor. A light sanding removes the dirt and grime, but maintains the original patina and character of the wood. We find too many people are too heavy handed when it comes to old wood. The lighter the touch the better to enhance the natural beauty of old exposed wood.


Where To Get It:

This is where things get really interesting. In our world of architecture, reclaimed materials (particularly heart pine dirty top) are like precious metals. And the people who find them are very much like treasure hunters. They spend their days finding old buildings from which they can salvage everything from window hardware and bathroom tiles, to floor joists and bricks. These old materials dealers then notify people like us that they have a new source of, let’s say, old soft red bricks.

For the consumer, getting your hands on these kinds of materials can take a lot of time and patience. Every town has a few stores which sell old and reclaimed materials – but if you’re looking to get enough wood to redo your floors or install in a new construction, you will likely be out of luck at most brick and mortar store-fronts.

I did a quick internet search to try and source this wood as a consumer might. I quickly concluded that I would have a hard time trusting any of these online dealers with wood I can’t see or touch. I can’t recommend going online or ordering over the phone with just anyone. I can only recommend the following dealer:

The Higgins Company
20966 Highway 22
Maurepas, LA 70449
Phone: 225-695-6006

Ordering heart pine online has another potential downside – we would never, ever, make a purchasing decision on heart pine without getting a sample first. There’s no feasible way to recreate the look and feel of heart pine on your floor other than to see the real thing right in front of you. As I said before, not all heart pine is created equal, so you may have to shop around to numerous sources before you find the perfect density, hue and size for your project.

This is another area where having an architect protecting your best interest can come in very handy. We know where to go to get exactly the kind of wood you want for your home and we can protect you from either being sold something that isn’t really old heart pine or from getting inferior or poor quality wood.

Next time, I’ll discuss various ways to sand, stain, finish and install heart pine floors.

Return to Post Archive