If there were any questions about my latent adolescence, they’ve been pounded away with the mallet I’ve been using to install hardwood flooring.
Whatever love I have for Legos, for videogames, for Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, for board games, for typing “KILL TROLL WITH SWORD” in Zork I1 — those have all taken a back seat to the life-sized adult puzzle of weaving pieces of white oak into an old floor to make a seamless patch in a hundred-year-old house.
At least, it will hopefully be seamless.
I’m back to work on the long-neglected Krakhaus, a little place we’ve saved from demolition in our neighborhood. Long-time readers will remember this lively little home tour. The house has been sitting idle for almost three years while we dealt with a long litany of other things. But we renewed work with earnest in the fall. We found a contractor we trusted willing to tackle the job of reframing a bit in the back to let us reclaim a 30-square-foot portico as interior space. We also got a 5-foot chunk of rotten floor sill replaced where a leaky kitchen faucet had wreaked havoc for godknowshowlong.
Oh, and we removed four coal-burning fireplaces2 and their accompanying hearths.
The oak flooring in most of the house is in great shape, despite being used as an interior wading pool for at least some of its history. But all combined, covering the hearth-holes with oak, repairing the floor in the kitchen and adding oak to that former outdoor space meant laying down around 200 square feet of floor. I had my work cut out for me.
No one wants to hear a play-by-play of how this all has gone down. But I’m nearly done, and here are the lessons learned, to date:
- Hand tools frickin’ rock.
- Oak when combined with water, over time, can defy the laws of physics. It’s like the Star Wars bread from “The Force Awakens,”3 only sometimes in reverse.
- Floors, like people, are more interesting with flaws.
- 2¼-inch tongue-and-groove flooring is amazeballs. More specifically, it is an unchanging marvel of engineering.
Nailed it with hand tools
Hand trades are going by the wayside. But then, home architecture has, too. And so have, apparently, installation techniques.
I’ve resisted buying a nail gun for my entire adult life. It’s not a cost thing, but a desire to avoid accumulating the stuff that goes with it. Mostly I’m talking about an air compressor that I’d have to store somewhere so that I’d have the tool that I’d use maybe once every few years. And nobody got space for that in Bibb City. I thought about renting a rig, but the last thing I wanted to do with this flooring job is feel rushed to finish, while learning how to do it and retrofitting pieces. By the time I’ve paid for two days’ rental, I’d be approaching the cost of purchasing.
So I found a used manual flooring nailer online. It was old. It, in fact, came with instructions on videocassette. Thank the heavens someone put that up on YouTube so I could actually watch the happy couple therein, decked out in “Mork & Mindy”-style apparel, painlessly install wood floors. This thing worked like a charm, though. Only later did I find out that many pros feel manual nailing is superior to pneumatic, as the 3-4 strikes per nail tends to set the floorboards tighter than other methods. (They don’t actually use this method, mind you, because it’s slower.)
I didn’t totally avoid power tools. There were probably 30 boards where I had to create new butt joints in the old floor to avoid removing 5-10 feet of perfectly good flooring. I started that process by hand, with wood chisels. I did this successfully on a much smaller job in another of our houses. But after about the fourth board, I bought an oscillating tool that let me do 90-degree plunge cuts, saving me a lot of time and my elbow a tremendous amount of wear.
Gaps and flaws
In some places, that tight flooring caused issues, particularly in places that suffered some water damage in the past. It was like the floor swelled and created new space, and when the wood dried, it shrank back smaller.
I can’t explain it, but in one section in particular, there are quarter-inch gaps in the flooring that was once set tight. Patching these areas required a lot of face-nailing to keep the lines of the new wood running straight. So yeah, there are some holes and gaps. But there are gaps and flaws in our house, too. There are gaps and flaws in everything. The world is an imperfect place.
Experts use a variety of methods for getting those most egregious problem children in line. There’s Tom Silva’s rope trick, there’s putty, there’s wood shards and glue, there’s epoxy and sawdust. I aim to try them all and will report back, but the early results are promising.
And it doesn’t have to be perfect. A house that shows its scars is inherently more interesting than one that doesn’t, in my opinion.
So, this job has given me a close-up view of a lot of oak flooring. And that view has given me an appreciation for the ingenuity of the profile of the boards. Here are a few gee-whizzicals about them:
- The profile hasn’t changed in at least 104 years. I was skeptical when I ordered my batch of new white oak flooring that the tongues and grooves would precisely line up. They did.
- The boards have tongues and grooves on the butt ends as well — both on the new pieces and the 1914 boards. This locks them down super-tight on these otherwise vulnerable ends.
- The boards are milled so that the width of the top of the board is slightly greater than the width of the bottom of the board, under the tongue. This ensures the top locks flush with the board it’s being installed against.
The floor work is nearly done. I’m only waiting to borrow a buddy’s table saw to mill a couple of custom pieces. The place is really starting to take shape, even though it’s still down to stud.
I’ll sell the flooring nailer and possibly be out zero bucks for use of the tool and just $15 for the special T-nails. I’m keeping the oscillating tool, which is kickass.
And we’ve decided the place is going to be too nice for the name Krakhaus, what with it’s two bedrooms, two full baths, large kitchen, washer/dryer nook and that must unusual of features in Bibb City: a hallway. So we’ve renamed it.
We’re calling it the Wendell Gee, as an homage to both R.E.M. and poet-farmer Wendell Berry.
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1 True story: I just sold a big Lego kit and a copy of “Compute!’s Guide to Adventure Games,” which I’ve owned since 1984, on The eBays. I gave my Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots to Goodwill a few years ago. It wasn’t vintage, but it was exceptionally handy in serving as tiebreaker at a deadlocked chili cook-off I used to host annually.