Wednesday, January 9, 2013

the floor

Most of the sawdust is gone.

This process has been physically arduous, and it may also be taking a toll on my mind.  I have to go back and remind myself what the floor looked like when we bought the place:

Pink-tinted sheet vinyl, printed to look like...travertine?  Or some sort of tile.  New, resilient, and in good condition.  Not attractive.  (Sorry I don't have a close-up.  I really should.)

Vinyl is supposed to be glued down, but as I believe we've discussed, this wasn't (except for a very small spot right in front of the sink.  Your guess is as good as mine).  It was held down, effectively, by the metal thresholds across the doorways - there are four doorways into the kitchen, so this is marginally more thorough than it sounds.

Under the vinyl was the 1/4" fiberboard stuff (basically glorified cardboard).  In the picture below, the white at the top is the underside of the vinyl, which I cut loose with a razor and just rolled back.  The brown stuff from which the handle of the garden shovel is protruding is the fiberboard.  (I had a veritable arsenal of tools and materials for this job, and I defy anyone to find me something that would have worked better than the shovel for this particular purpose.)  See:

(By the way, some of these image files are large, and if you click on them, the pictures will get bigger.)  The above shot looks into the kitchen from the dining room.  The dining room has a wood floor that has already been refinished.  The elephant in the room is that green stuff.  It was under the fiberboard.  It's Armstrong-brand sheet linoleum, from (I estimate) the '50s.  It's extremely ugly:

(It has stray splotches of red paint, apparently left over from a misbegotten seafoam-and-red color scheme some decades ago.)  I understand why the previous owners didn't want it.  I just don't understand why they wanted that vinyl instead.  But to return to our adventure: under the linoleum was the garbage that adhered it - a layer of tar, a layer of paper-ish stuff, and another layer of tar.  The first layer of tar peeled off obligingly.  The layer of paper sometimes peeled off and sometimes not (it scraped off if I was really patient with it).  The second layer of tar sometimes did not want to come off at all.  This shot shows some of all three of those layers:

By the way, although they are present in all of these photos, the thousands of brad nails don't really show up.  They were, as I have noted, by far the worst part of this project.  My right hand is still stiff and sore when I flex my fingers, and I haven't pulled out a nail in weeks.  I am only 30 and I better not have arthritis.  I will not be happy. 

These are brad nails:


The thing is, the tar layers peeled off relatively easily for the first few inches (in this doorway ONLY - nowhere else).  That allowed me to see the original flooring underneath, and motivated me to restore it.  But it belied the difficulty of the project that was to come.  In fact, it was a slow process of ripping off sheets of vinyl (fast), prying off a big piece of fiberboard (moderately fast - but once that's off, I have exposed hundreds of nasty brad nails, and I will have to pull every one of them out before I can leave the house, or someone will puncture a foot), then the linoleum (a little slow), then whatever layers of tar paper I can easily remove (about the same), then the nails (AGONIZINGLY slow), and then the remaining tar (requires special methods).  By the middle of this process, the floor was basically a collage of its own progress:

In the foreground, the fiberboard is on the right, and linoleum is on the left.  They are surrounded by tar and paper that refused to come up.  That was hideous:

And you may not be able to see, but at the left side of the photo, under a yellow level and a steel ruler, there's a section of floor that's missing the original boards.  It was patched with three extra-wide planks that looked like they belonged on a picnic table.  Obviously, these would have to be replaced.  Maybe you can see them better here:

On the left.  Oh, and another thing!  See the pipe from the radiator that feeds into the floor?  Not the long skinny one on the far left; the one attached to the radiator proper, that has an elbow joint.  If you zoom in, you can see that part of the floorboard that hits that pipe is just missing.  That board and the one next to it had several inches of dry rot.  So, I had to cut pieces out and replace them, too.

I may not have mentioned this, but I was fortunate enough to have the last two weeks of December off.  I planned to spend them finishing up whatever wee little bit of the kitchen was undone (HA!) and baking cookies.  And maybe watching some nice movies over a mug of hot cocoa.

That is not what happened.  Instead, I had a Friday off - I spent all day removing brad nails.  Ditto Saturday.  Sunday morning I woke up with the flu.  I had been exercising more, eating better, and getting a lot of sleep.  I hadn't even been around anyone who seemed sick.  I considered it a grave injustice. Sunday I basically slept.  But after that, I decided I couldn't waste my precious leave days.  I returned to the floor.  I was too weak and pathetic to put in six or eight straight hours as I had been doing, so I worked until I was totally exhausted (an hour or two) and then retired to the couch for a DIY show.  Then back to the kitchen.

A few days into that week I had finally removed all the brad nails.  While that was grueling work, it was strictly anaerobic exercise - hand muscles only.  The next part was removing the filthy tar.  That required vigorous scraping - which is upper-body exercise.  A good workout.

My first morning of scraping, I was out of breath so fast that within five minutes I started to feel dizzy.  At that point I think I started crying.  It was pathetic.  I had two full days left before I had promised myself I would knock off for Christmas, and I was too physically weak to get the tar off.  I did as much as I could that day, but I made very little progress.  My DH was working fourteen-hour days and had no time to help.  That evening, I rallied myself for one last, tiny spot of progress.  My preparation consisted of taking an old towel, laying it over a section of floor, and soaking it with boiling water from an enormous pot I had going.  I would wait around an hour, go back and remove the towel, and scrape off what was under it.  With my DH already asleep, I got through half of my pre-treated spot and was totally worn out.  I went to bed.

The next morning I got up, had breakfast, gathered my courage, and checked under the towel.  I figured it would need to be re-soaked with boiling water and started over.  And I was supposed to finish that day and turn my attention to cleaning the whole house and baking cookies - Christmas was five days away, and I had no cookies to offer!  But when I pulled back the towel over the un-scraped section, I discovered a Christmas miracle.  The tar had loosened completely.  I could have removed it with a sponge.  A few tiny spots required scratching at with a scraper, but 95% just gave up the ghost.  Apparently, what it needed was about 12 hours of soaking.

I was feverish, but no fool.  I gathered every one of our older towels, put them all over the floor, and soaked the entire mess with boiling water.  (It was highly entertaining to walk on.)  I'm sure this is what all your floors looked like a few days before Christmas, too:

I only had enough towels to do half the floor at once, so I soaked half the floor all day and scraped in the evening.  The other half soaked overnight.  Miraculously, I woke up that Saturday feeling healthy and with a ton of energy.  I started out scraping the tar off and didn't stop moving all day.  Which was a good thing - I hadn't cleaned anything in my house probably the whole month of December, and my sister was arriving the next day.

After that round of scraping, all the tangible matter was off the floor, but it was by no means clean.  Oddly, I don't seem to have a picture of this, but the tar left behind a white slime and black staining.  When the slime dried it was powdery - so, harmless - but hideous.  And that is what my kitchen floor looked like for Christmas.

My brother came down later that week; he and my sister both left the Friday after Christmas.  Within an hour I was at the big orange store, renting a walk-behind random orbital sander.  The thing was a monster, somewhere in the 150-200 pound range, and was strong enough to drag me across the floor.  (It's supposed to work more the other way around.)  My DH's interest was suddenly piqued now that the project involved a large, very loud, apparently dangerous tool, and he knocked out half the sanding in about half an hour.  Then I took over and finished about two hours.  We spent the rest of the day cleaning sawdust, because the next morning a friend from out of town came to stay with us.  (We offer the very finest in hospitality.)  He left Sunday, and I immediately fetched out the hand sander to touch up all the spots the big sander missed.  Here is the floor post-sanding:

You will note that I did not bother to get all the black staining off.  (You can see several spots and one stripe in that picture - the floor really looked like that.)  I figured that if it really resisted coming off, it should be left alone.  The floor is 115 years old this year, and I actually wanted it to look its age - well-preserved, but decidedly not new.  I did, however, patch the missing spots:

It would be fair to ask at this point why I did not realize that I had picked the wrong species of wood with which to patch.  (That's select-grade white pine.)  The wood in the store really looked like the image of the flooring in my head.  But when I bought it, I had just started the demolition; I hadn't seen much of the real floor yet.  And when I laid it, I attributed the color difference to age and stains from the tar.  It did not dawn on me until I washed down the floor with water (to get rid of any stray sawdust right before I stained) that the grain in the new wood was different, and the color was really wrong.  White pine is white and yellow.  My floor was (in the wood's inherent tones) yellow and red.  I'm pretty sure pine does not come in red.

(I am still not sure what the floor is, by the way.  It doesn't look quite like oak to me, and everything else I can think of that comes in red is high-end hardwood, which would never have been used in a kitchen 115 years ago.) 

By the time I figured this out, I was about to open my can of stain, and had no interest in backtracking.  I figured I would replace the patches later if I could ever identify the wood.  I used Varathane's "American Walnut" (which I found at the local ReStore for $3 a quart!), and, per the directions, I did not pre-treat.  (I now think this was a mistake.)  The directions also say the stain dries in an hour, and it sure did.  But if I had read the directions on the varnish as well (I've used it lots of times, so who needs directions?), I would have realized that the stain should have dried for 72 more hours before adding water-based polyurethane.  My brush pulled up a lot of stain as I applied that first coat of varnish.

These are merely notes for anyone else who might want to do this.  I have no complaints.  While I loved the tones in the American Walnut, I knew it was too dark and actually wanted to tone it down, so I wiped it off within 60 seconds of applying.  (Even though I know very well that most of the color goes in in about ten seconds, for some reason I thought this would help.)  But, probably because I started adding varnish within a few hours, the stain lightened considerably.  I applied five coats of satin-sheen varnish.  And now the floor looks like this:

No, for real.  That is THE SAME FLOOR as in the pictures at the beginning of this post.  I wouldn't believe it either if I hadn't seen it.  Here it is again:

(These pictures also document the pressing necessity for me to add baseboard, which I am well aware of, thank you very much.  It has always been scheduled for after the floor.  I've pre-painted it, and it goes up tomorrow.)  You can also see the patches in the above picture - they're in front of the door and right in front of that radiator pipe.  The stain actually did an amazing amount to conceal the differences in the wood.  And here's a close-up:

The color and sheen in that are pretty accurate.  The stain took completely unevenly - the wood was naturally red in some places and yellow in others (and let's not forget the black stains), and the stain failed to take in some places and came up in others.  So it actually looks really, really old.  If you look closely at the new wood I used for patches, there's just no comparison.  You could never fake that look of age with new material - I don't know how, anyway.  If I had had to describe the effect I wanted, that's exactly what I would have said - but I couldn't actually picture the result in my head.  I just did the next best thing I could think of to do, and hoped for the best. 

I know it's tiresome, but I still can't believe that all that sawdust and hideous linoleum and disgusting tar and evil brad nails later, that's my kitchen floor.  And it has always been there, and this time, it's never getting covered up again. 

(I am sharing my great flooring adventures at Susan's Metamorphosis Monday.  And now at Victoria's "made with love" link-up, because I'm not about the love in the stuff I've made, but this was a labor of love if anything ever was.) 


  1. Love the floors. I'm glad you were able to find this beauty under all of the other stuff.

  2. You are my hero. That floor is gorgeous.

  3. Oh, and I left you a little love in my latest post. :-)

  4. Stunning. I'm as impressed as if you'd saved a life. Which you sorta did. And if loving hardwood floors that much is wrong, I don't wanna be right. They look GORGEOUS. I will seriously pay you to come work on my house. You have a gift, my friend, a gift!!

  5. The floors look great. I thought of you when I was watching HGTV DIY show and they were doing the same except that all they needed to remove was carpet and nails.

  6. God bless you- doing all that work by yourself while sick. You deserve a medal! That floor might be prize enough, however. It looks great. We recently redid our kitchen floor and found many of the layers you did. Unfortunately, at our house there was not hardwood underneath. You are fortunate. Here is a link to our project.

  7. Laughing—“these are brad nails. Do not put them in your floor.”

    I CANNOT believe how well that turned out… I think you win for the love (or irritation) that went into that!!!