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Wood flooring: No longer like walking the plank


One of the reasons people buy old houses is for the floors -- the gorgeous honey- or molasses-colored old wood, polished to a high gleam, perhaps layered with jewel-like Oriental carpets or with cheerful homespun rugs.

But there's often no way to tell the condition of the floors in an old house until you remove old carpet and tile. Sometimes there's a pleasant surprise -- and sometimes the old floor can't be saved.

Homeowners who plan to do all the work themselves may hesitate at installing a wood-plank floor, because a traditional 3/4 -inch tongue-and-grove floor had to be installed, then sanded smooth and coated with polyurethane. If you didn't want a "natural" look, the wood had to be stained as well.

It meant days of back-breaking, exacting labor, the expense of renting the sanding machinery, sawdust, noise, days of not being able to use the room while the floor was being worked on.

No wonder people gave up and replaced the carpet or installed tile.

But for those who want an old-fashioned floor without the old-fashioned hassle, there's good news. There is a lot of prefinished flooring available these days that looks good and installs, if not exactly simply, at least with only the usual amount of hard labor.

It comes in all sorts of colors, styles, patterns and profiles. There are a number of manufacturers -- Bruce is probably the largest, but Harris-Tarkett, Chickasaw and Hartco are others -- offering new wood products, not just tongue-and-groove, but herringbone and other parquet designs.

The base price of a prefinished floor is more expensive, but when you add in the cost of sanding and finishing, the comparison is more favorable. And if you'd have had to hire someone to finish it, the comparison is downright close.

One of the objections to prefinished plank flooring in the past has been the beveled edges that formed grooves between the boards. They were great collectors of dust and debris, and could be a nuisance to keep clean. Beveled edges are still offered, but most companies also have square-edged boards that fit together tightly, as in traditional plank flooring.

The labor involved in installing prefinished flooring is not easy, no mistake about that. But it's not brain surgery, and it can be performed by anyone with a strong will, a strong back and a really good set of knee pads.

You do need to rent a good tongue-and-groove flooring nailer. It's a steel contraption that is designed to drive nails through the tongue at the exact angle needed for plank installation. You buy "clips" of nails that load into the business end of the device, then whack the other end with a maul to drive the nail. You need to buy lots and lots of spiral flooring nails; they're not expensive and less is not more, if you run out of nails.

You also need a drill to pre-drill some nail holes -- when you get close to the walls the nailer doesn't work, so you'll need a drill, a hammer and a nail set. Sometimes you need to pry boards into position (they may become a little warped in the package). Randy uses an old screwdriver for that.

We're not kidding about the kneepads. Buy the best ones you can find, and if you can, try them on, no matter how silly it looks, before you buy them, to make sure they're comfortable. They should be snug, but not so tight they hinder circulation.

The first step is to create a surface suitable for nailing the new boards into. If the old floor is fairly even, you may be able to nail directly into that. Or, you may want to put down underlayment -- half-inch plywood glued and nailed (with flooring nails) is standard. If there's molding around the base of the walls, you may want to take it up, or, if you're just installing molding, delay installing it until the floor is done. If an existing baseboard has a "shoe molding," or quarter-round finish piece at the floor, you should be able to remove that piece only. (Don't try to save the old molding. It's impossible to remove it without damaging it, and you can still find similar profiles at a good lumber yard.)

Once you've assembled the equipment and established the surface, it's time for what may be the hardest part of the job: Figuring out where to start.

If the room is a simple square, there's no big problem. Pick a corner and start. It shouldn't matter where you end up.

However, if the layout is at all complicated, you need to do some careful calculating about where you want to start, and what direction you need to go. The flooring needs to all go in the same direction. You always start with a board with its groove against the wall. That ensures that most of the nails are covered -- by the next board. Hang on to that nail set; if for some reason the nailer doesn't drive the nail all the way in, you'll need the nail set to recess it so the next board fits smoothly.

Spend a few minutes working out where you need to go. Randy has been working on a kitchen and addition where the plank flooring was split by an island. It took some careful calculations to figure out how to install the flooring so it looks right from every nTC direction. We often talk about home-improvement projects as jigsaw puzzles or video games, and this is a prime example. Work out where you're going before you start.

In general, it's more aesthetically pleasing if the boards go in the direction you're moving when when you enter a room.

Follow the manufacturer's directions about the floor installation. There will often be tips about how to ensure that the boards meet at random. It's a good idea, when you start installing a floor, to open the package and lay out all the boards nearby according to length. That way you will know what lengths are closest to the ones you need.

It's nice if all the boards you use need square ends. But if there are any angles, you might need a miter box to cut the proper angle. And it might be worth renting a power miter saw, if you don't have one.

And if you're very lucky, the boards will go in easily and will come out even. But that's rarely the case. Rooms with closets will require a lot of hand nailing.

The main thing is, just about any reasonably intelligent person can install plank flooring. It's a wonderful process, in a way, because the floor sort of develops behind you. It seems slow; it may even seem like you're getting nowhere.

But every now and then you need to look over your shoulder. Because the wood will have been creeping after you. And suddenly you will look back and see a beautiful floor -- a completed room -- a lovely setting for furniture. And all the effort will seem worthwhile.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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