Why parquet flooring has stood the test of time
IN WOOD flooring, trends move slowly. Parquet is a leading choice tickling everyone’s ribs going into 2022, and you might be surprised to know just how old this woodblock system actually is.
It was created to deliver not only elegance but to overcome certain installation and maintenance issues. Those talents have not changed in close to four hundred years. Built up of individual thick blocks of solid timber, parquet can be lifted out in single blocks or whole sections and be replaced with relative ease.
You have a pooling water incident and the floor is discoloured or you simply need to reach a pipe or insert insulation or sealing tape – parquet really is your friend. An entire period floor can be sanded and repaired in situ, or lifted and completely reassembled.
Broken up it can be recycled in this house or someone else’s in the course of a renovation. A brand new house yearning for character can wear an authentic salvaged art deco floor.
Parquetry comes from the French word for compartment, and we have to go back to the gilded chateau set of French society in the 16th century to find the first jigsaw style wood plank flooring. Parquet is the floor, parquetry is the art of laying the floor.
It’s always been a labour intensive, back-mangling job. The Egyptians were one of the first civilisations to use brick flooring in smalls sections that slotted together. Marquetry was a technique used to lay pieces of wood into the veneer of furniture, so you could see parquetry as a larger-scale format of that artistry.
If you had money, marble flooring was an obvious choice as a brag material. It could, with a lot of difficulty and expense, be cut into pieces and composed in various colours to create elaborate slab patterns and borders. Marble was heavy, dear, difficult to transport and easily stained – potentially ruining its colour.
Wood was abundant in the 1500s, a familiar vernacular and could sit on old joists on upper floors without causing an aristocrat to crash through the ceiling in their bath. If a floor bowed under the weight of stone, it let water and letting water would rot the joists in any freezing old building. Wood can be re-sanded, protected under sealant, and repaired by the section to perfectly match the original floor.
To start with, parquet was installed in triangular pieces which were stuck to the subfloor. It was then finished with excruciating hand scraping by artisan craftsmen to bring it level and to reveal its lovely figuring before being sealed with natural oils. The flooring had good structural integrity but could move with a comfortable elasticity underfoot, making it less likely to warp and lift.
In the 1680s Louis XVI installed oak parquet in the Palace of Versailles. With that haughty royal nod it became the flooring of choice not only throughout the chateaus of France but throughout the aristocratic, civic and better religious buildings in Western Europe.
The geometric repetition in squares and diamond shapes had a formality and rightness. Even swathed in gigantic carpets it was highly sophisticated and visually warming.
You only have to step into the Crawford Gallery or any number of public spaces in Ireland to enjoy the opulent beauty of a gorgeous, treacle dark or golden bright parquet. Hardwood choices included oak, walnut, cherry, lime and maple. If you could afford it mahogany or even ebony could be used for an entire floor or to mix up a scheme of colours.
With various species of woods having different characters in terms of grain, colour, and crucially movement in the fluctuating humidity and temperature of an old building – this was a highly specialised area. Good old tongue and grooving (T&G) was another 17th-century innovation easing the inclusion of new parquet designs.
Louis’ choice of pattern was dubbed Parquet de Versailles. You can still buy it today with squares set on edge as interlocking diamonds, set within a framing square. Other nobles and aristocrats worked up their own designs and there are six or seven familiar heritage patterns surviving today in new flooring. The most familiar to us is the relatively plain herringbone or chevron. It’s said that Queen Henrietta Maria, was ahead of the trend, and in 1620 had parquet installed in Denmark House (now the current Queen’s Somerset House) when she commissioned Indigo Jones to flip Charles I’s palace into a more modish style.
Parquet remained a favourite choice right up into the 19th century. Simple one-size plank herringbone and chevron parquet enjoyed a popular renaissance in the 1920s where their bold contemporary look in blond wood married to an honest oldie in a material was ideal for dance floors and smart living spaces.
Smothered in carpet, (the increasingly affordable and insulating solution for homes in the 1940s) many gorgeous parquet floors were lost for up to half a century. A hundred years on, pulling back old underlay and linoleum in Edwardian home renovations – we just can’t get enough of the pleasures of this old darling.
Salvaged timber, oak being a favourite, can be sawn up from beams and redeployed as parquet, adding an extra element of fascinating and sustainable grandeur to a building.
If you are lucky enough to have a durable, intact hardwood parquet floor in your home, chances are it may at some point in time have to be refinished. In a deep energy renovation where the sub-floor must be insulated, it may have to be lifted in its entirety. An expert will allow for movement in the floor as with any timber flooring with flexible glues and expansion gaps to the edge of the room.
Damage and gaps in a period floor can be repaired using colour-matched resin and sawdust, new blocks cut and inserted, and the whole floor delivered back with sanding and finishing to its original Edwardian glory. If you want to see the grain – don’t go for a moody stain colour.
In new flooring, products like Junckers Twin-Herringbone, allow the parquet floor to be laid in larger sections of interlocking staves, fully sanded and finished. At 14mm (d) x 129mm (w) x 516mm (l) it can be sanded up to five times, making it a lifetime floor.
In salvaged flooring and floors cut from old planks, expect convenient 70mm widths in choices of 250mm, 300mm, 350mm and 500mm in a T&G (still best installed by a seasoned professional). Try Kilkenny Salvage – eurosalve.com. Old blocks will likely be stained with bitumen underneath but can be coloured on the surface right through to black if you prefer a dramatic dark. For a more matt finish consider wax oil rather than lacquer.