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Upper Hall Reno. Part 2 – The Floor.

The renovation of the upper hall floor was part function and part decoration. When I took possession of the house, the floor covering was some vinyl plank stuff, pretending to be wood. Vinyl isn’t in the spirit of era. Considering function, the floor was squishy/flexy-springy in one area1. And it needed to be the right height to match the top of the stairs. Only recently have I appreciated how perceptive humans are to slight differences in stair height and that it’s a safety risk. 

Matching the floors in adjoining rooms was also a consideration. One of the finished rooms has wide plank pine, and the other black and white mosaic tile (of the sort very common in bathrooms of the era). The other two have vinyl, which will be replaced eventually.

With aesthetic and functional requirements in mind, the next step was to choose from available options for a new floor covering. 

Sheet vinyl over another layer of 1/4″ plywood underlay was an easy possibility. This would bring the hall floor level with the existing stair top, provide extra stability and the vinyl could be era-correct for the pattern. However, lino wasn’t used in the upstairs hall back in the day.

In a house of this age, only the kitchen and bathrooms would have had something other than strip hardwood, 1 to 3″ wide. Strip, or groove and tongue hardwood is hard to find and expensive. Softwood would only have been used in the attic, but that is what the second floor in this house originally was. 

The closest to era-correct is pine plank. I’ve seen these in 6″ and 8″ widths. And, the addition of solid lumber might increase the resiliance of the floor. To work, it would have to be the right thickness to level with the top of the stairs. 

Not sure if there’s such a thing as a DIY breakthrough, but I had one when I realized the existing vinyl planks were thicker than I thought. This meant that the existing stair bullnose stood 1/2″ off the subfloor. Thus, applying a new 3/4″ floor covering over the subfloor would only raise the top stair 1/4″. Excited, I looked for a value for tolerance in stair riser variance – I find 3/8″ and 5 mm on two different sites – a difference of a factor of two. My instinct says 3/8″ is too much, but a 1/4″ (9.5 mm) seems reasonable. 

Now, I can consider using readily available pine planks. They would stiffen the floor better than 1/4″ plywood. At 3/4″ thick, they’d be ok at the top of the stairs. 

I went shopping, which lead me to not wanting engineered wood (basically veneered particle board) as it doesn’t look like real wood to me. Probably because the finish is so shiny and plasticy, or because I’m used to aged hardwood. Hard as it is, it gets worn after a while. Solid hardwood is also available at the big box store, in 3 1/4″ widths and also 3/4″ thick. It’s pre-finished and too shiny and perfect also. Seems to me if you are going to lay a floor, part of the joy should be finishing it. 

I wandered over to the pine and was pleasantly surprised to discover a product that might be perfect: 3 1/4″ wide, 3/4″ thick and groove and tongue. These are sold in 6 ft lengths. Since my floor joists are on 16″ centres this is going to make for a bit of waste, because I want butt joints to rest over a joist. The hall is roughly 50 sq ft., which will require 37 boards, assuming the usable length is 5 ft to ft between joists. But I’d found my flooring.

Next step: Pulled up the old vinyl planks – one good thing about them, it took about 4 minutes to rip them all up.

Subfloor is OSB2, with carpet glue, or something that was applied with a notched trowel, stuck to it. It was like hard foam, and scrubbing, scraping or sanding pulled wood chips from the OSB. Cleaned it up as best I could and then put two coats of semi-gloss, primer-sealer on it. 

Laying the floor boards: The stair bullnose was a focus, because it has an important role to play in safety. It needed to be the right dimensions and sturdy to support weight on the 1″ overhang (like the rest of the stair risers). The existing bullnose looked to be solid oak and I was concerned it would be difficult to remove, depending on how it was secured to the hall floor/stair frame. Had a good laugh at myself when I discovered it was attached with 2 finishing nails on each side.

To create the replacement bullnose, I started with a piece of flooring, so the tongue and groove would snug into the next floor board, integrating the bullnose into the floor system. I bevelled the end of the floor board, to mimic the curve of the rest of the stair risers. Worried that this piece of lumber was only softwood, I glued 1/2″ hardwood strip to the underside of the pine board for the part that overhangs the stair.

Planed and sanded a curve to the edge and the new bullnose looked kinda like the old one. Sure to blend in once the staining and varnishing are done.

The bullnose was the first board of about 40. The first row is the most important, because it’s where to correct if the room isn’t perfectly symmetric. Otherwise, the entire floor may end up at an angle to the far wall. This hall is a little over an inch wider by the stairs than the far end. To compensate, the 1st board was planed down at the narrow end of the hall, leaving only 3/8 inch different in the rest of the hall width. This should be hideable under the baseboards. 

The boards are laid lengthwise in the hall. Not sure if this is the most aesthetic approach, but they lie perpendicular to the joists, seems best for stability. 

Next task was to cut the other 36 boards. The biggest challenge was to stagger the joints, yet have them butt over a joist. I found the easiest way to do this is by laying out the boards as they were cut.

Cut about half the boards and then installed them. This way, can do a reality check to make sure they’re going straight enough to compensate for the crooked hallway. 

On a previous floor install, I regretted not staining the tongue and groove part of the boards before installation. Using ebony stain on pine, anywhere the stain isn’t, looks like white on black. Despite rubbing the stain onto the installed floor with a rag, and then trying to get to the edges with a small paint brush, when the wood contracts in the winter, there are visibly unstained areas. 

This time, I decided to stain the sides (tongues) of the boards before installing. Didn’t want to stain the entire boards, because the installed floor would be sanded before staining. Discovered this is a messy thing to do. The boards want to suck up the stain. Because of the dark colour, a few molecules on the surface of a board stand out.

Installed the floor by screwing through the OSB subfloor into the joists. Predrilled diagonally through the top of the tongue and used GRK trim screws. Had a bit of angst installing this way, because the internet was all about nails and debate about whether another layer over the OSB subfloor was necessary. I understand that the time it takes to pre-drill and insert screws, making sure each is sunk far enough to not interfere with the groove of the next board, not to mention the cost of trim screws vs nails, is prohibitive to professional builders. I’m doing something different than the pros. Think it’s ok, as I’m not compromising the integrity of the job, just taking extra time and money. Screwing through the OSB to the joists should alleviate worries about the OSB not holding nails, which leads to flex and squeaks. 

Finishing the floor happened without incident. Used a stain product that ‘covered in one coat’. Conventional wisdom about stain is that wood will only take one coat, but my experience tells me different, so I was ready to buy this product. It covered well in one coat. Prior to staining, I sanded with 120, 150 then 180 sandpaper, wiped with mineral spirits (mostly because some of the boards were dirty) and used preconditioner for staining. I’ve done trials to convince myself the preconditioner makes a difference to how blotchy the wood stains. Besides, I have a big tin of it, so I might as well use it.

The day after staining, I applied top coat. I wanted to get it done fast, to protect the wood and get the use of the hall back. Previous experiences with water-based polys have made me wary. Not convinced they are as durable as old-style oil-based products, but the lack of stink, drying time and ease of clean up are hard to resist. After a spot test on a piece of scrap lumber (surprising how few ‘inconspicuous areas’ there are in a hall) to confirm the finish wouldn’t cloud, I did three coats, an hour apart, sanding with 220 G in between. 

Then I rested for a week. To let the floor top coat cure, or have only light traffic3, or because I had to work, or something like that. When it was Saturday again, I started Part 3: New trim: baseboards and door casings.

1 I wasn’t sure I would know the cause even after taking the floor covering off, if the cause was under the subfloor. As t turned out, I had the opportunity to re-secure the subfloor to the joist in two areas where it was squeaky. A couple of 2″ construction screws, straight down beside the squeaky nails did the trick.

2 My Daddy taught me to call this chip-board. He was an early adopter, in the’70’s. Chipboard seems like an accurate description to me. It looks like disoriented strand board.

3 Pretty sure the cat padding across the newly finish floor is light traffic, and having movers make multiple trips to carry your worldly possessions, including Grandma’s china, through the hall is heavy traffic, as would be a dance party. In between, IDK. We went about regular use of the house, but didn’t do anything that required spending time in the hall.

Thanks for reading.

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