I wanted to draw your attention to the lovely dust mask that you saw me wearing in the floor sanding post.
Yeah, that one.
P and I were quite familiar with the dangers of lead paint. We hadn't realized, until we began researching this project, that some older floor finishes also contained lead. We nervously picked up a home lead test kit from Home Depot, not sure what we would do with the results. I don't mind the idea of working around some leaded paint, but sanding floors generates such a large quantity of dust, that I wasn't sure I wanted to undertake sanding lead floors myself. On the other hand, hiring someone equipped to take the right precautions would be pretty expensive....
Luckily, our test strip came back negative. Honestly, we weren't sure how much stock we should put into this result, we we hoped that it at least meant that the lead content of our floors was low (if not actually zero).
So we went into this project with two presumptions: 1. all dust is bad for you, and 2. this dust might be a little worse than average. Prolonged exposure to wood dust can eventually lead to emphysema and other respiratory problems. Since P does a lot of woodworking, we try to be fairly conscious of dust exposure, since the amount he's exposed to over a lifetime could be quite significant. We keep a large stock of semi-disposable dust masks around
Like all one-size-fits-all options, they don't fit me very well. My face is narrower than the guys they design safety equipment for, so I end up with a significant gap around the bridge of my nose. When I inhale, a good portion of the air will get sucked in that gap, rather than being filtered. So, when we're doing more seriously dusty jobs like floor refinishing, or I'm sanding down old paint that could contain lead, I get to wear our lovely plastic mask with replaceable filter. It's not a ton of fun--on a warm day, I'll start to sweat where it's touching my face, and it's a fight to keep it from slipping off. But it's definitely an important safety precaution.
A few other notes on dust management: we had heard such horror stories of the amount of dust generated by sanding floors, that we had expected it to be a bigger problem than it was. We had initially used plastic to seal off the doors leading to the areas of the house we weren't working it. This turned out to be completely unnecessary overkill. We were glad that we had turned off our central air, and sealed all of the floor vents and air return with plastic. This is definitely a good fall/spring job, when you don't mind just opening the windows during the day, and using an extra blanket at night. If the dust were to end up in the air system, it would create quite a mess everywhere (and be an inhalation hazard).
Finally, this is definitely a job you want to undertake with earplugs--the sanders are quite loud, and they're running for a lot of hours. It makes for a pretty boring job--between the earplugs and the sander noise, there's no possibility of using an iPod, radio, or conversation to pass the time. But it's worth it in the long run.
Sanding our floors took a significant portion of three weekends. At times, I thought we would never get the floors done.
Perhaps this was to be expected: in seventh grade, I won the "golden nail" award for the best tech ed student. No one was more surprised by this than I was. (And believe me, every seventh grade boy was pretty surprised and pissed off. Seventh graders are not exactly known for their enlightened views of gender roles.) My main project for the semester had been a napkin holder. I had adapted the design from a book, and ended up with a napkin holder that was 9" high to hold 6" napkins. Hmm. It took me a few days to cut it out, and every remaining spare moment of the semester to file, plane, and sand sand sand it. Long after other students had declared their projects completed and moved on to learning to make pens on the lathe, I was still sanding. I figured the shop teacher must have respected my determination and perfectionism. And ever since then I've enjoyed sanding. When P takes on major woodworking projects, it's the one step I'll help with.
So, sanding was the one part of the floor refinishing I was eager to take on. (By contrast, I dreaded the applying of polyurethane, and spent weeks begging P to please just hire someone to do the floors, or at least that one step.) The problem is, my history shows that I'm good at undertaking sanding projects, and bad at knowing when they're good enough, and moving on to the next step.
We couldn't decide amongst ourselves which floor sander to use, the drum sander or the random orbit. So we did the scientific thing, and rented both, and experimented with their various strengths and weaknesses.
P wanted the drum sander. This is the more traditional way of sanding floors. A band of paper is attached to a rotating drum. The drum sander is the fastest option, but it's also difficult to use. You need to be sure to continually keep moving, or the sander will quickly eat into the floor. Using a drum sander improperly can lead to floors that look worse when you're done with them than they looked to begin with. The other difficulty with the drum sander is that, because it takes off so much wood with each pass, it's very important to run it in straight lines--diagonal across the grain to remove the most wood and finish, straight along the grain for a smooth final result. All of these sanders can have their own mind about exactly where they want to go, based upon the roughness of the surface, any slope to the floor, etc. They take a good amount of strength to wrestle, and the consequences of losing control of a drum sander are serious. I refused to touch the drum sander. P is really good with this stuff, but even he put a few unfortunate marks into the floors with the drum when he was first figuring out the best way to use it. (But nothing we couldn't remove.)
I was best buddies with the random orbit sander. This is a much newer way to sand floors. Instead of having one band of sandpaper that runs in a single-direction loop, the orbit sander has four round sandpaper pads. Each oscillates independently of the others, and in a randomized pattern that prevents it from leaving significant tool marks in the floor. You can run a orbit sander across the floors in any direction you like, and don't need to pay attention to the grain. (This makes orbit sanders that best choice for ornamental floors that have the grain running in multiple directions, such as parquet.) The orbit sander also takes some strength to wrestle across the floors in exactly the direction you want it to, but it doesn't matter if you occasionally veer off course. To paraphrase our favorite book on wooden floors, it might be possible to ruin a floor with an orbit sander, but you'd really have to try. The other benefit of the orbit sander is that it can work right up to the edges of the room, while the drum sander can only get within a foot or so of walls.
The downside of the orbit sander is that it takes longer to take the finish off the floors than the drum sander does, and much longer to level uneven boards, or elevation differences between neighboring boards. This turned out to be a major consideration for us, because our floor were finished before installation. We were really surprised to discover this when we pulled up the carpets--we had thought that prefinished floors had begun to be used only in the 1980s or 1990s, long after our floors were installed in 1954. Turns out we were wrong there.
No matter how level the subfloor, there will be some subtle differences in elevation between neighboring floorboards. Traditional floor are sanded after installation to even out these differences. Prefinished floors have slight downward bevels on the edges, so that the direct connection between the boards is about 1/8" below the level of the floor. This way, you don't notice if the joint is not exactly lined up.(These bevels present some challenges for refinishing floors, which I'll discuss later.)
We had thought our floors were nice and level, until we started sanding. Then we discovered those subtle differences in elevation. Higher floor boards had to be sanded down, so that the finish could be removed from the surface of their lower neighbors. It would have been possible to do this with the orbit sander, but it was far faster to do it with the drum sander. So the drum sander became our workhorse for the initial removal of finish.
The drum sander and the random orbit are generally presented as an either-or choice, but we discovered that they work really well together. Traditionally, when you rent a drum sander, you need to rent two additional tools to go along with it: the floor buffer and the edger. The edger does the foot or so around the edge of the room that the drum can't access, and the buffer does the final smoothing of the floors. Instead, we used the random orbit to do both the edges and the final smoothing. Actually, the orbit sander is so good at yielding a smooth finish, that we only did the roughest grits with the drum sander. (More later on my discovery that I HATE floor buffers and why I'm really glad that we didn't use one at this stage.)
The whole process of sanding took us three separate 24-hour rental sessions to do about 800 square feet of flooring: the first time, we rented both the drum and random orbit, figured out what we were doing, and began the process of taking the finish off of the floors. The second time, I was out of town, and P rented the drum sanding to complete the removal of the finish (24 grit sandpaper to remove finish, and 36 grit to do some initial smoothing). The third time, we picked up the random orbit, and finished sanding the edges of the floors (with 24 grit) and smoothed all of the floor surfaces (progressing from 36 grit to 80 to 120). If we were to do this again, with this experience under our belts, we could probably complete the process more quickly, but I doubt we could have compressed it so much as to only have two rental sessions.
Then again, maybe if someone who is better than I am at knowing when a sanding job is "good enough" were to do this job, it would be faster.
Since we were refinishing floors that had been carpeted, there was some measure of repair necessary.
First, we pulled off all of the baseboard molding. This would allow us to get right up to the edge of the floor with the sanders and floor finish. Conveniently, we also decided that we didn't like the molding very much so there was no point in trying to preserve it to reattach when the job was done. It was much easier to remove without caring whether we splintered or broke pieces of it.
Once the molding was no longer hiding the edge of the flooring, we discovered such charming details as this:
This method of securing the flooring was surprisingly common in our rooms. While the original carpenters might have thought that this was a good way to secure the flooring, it wasn't going to fly with us. So out came all of those nails.
We also had to remove nails that hadn't been driven all the way into the flooring, or had loosened over the years. The easy thing to do would have been to sink the nail in the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the carpenters had used some ill-advised nails with inappropriately large heads:
As you can see, the floor boards are cracking around the nail head, and driving the nail the rest of the way in further propagated these cracks. (Which I know, because I had to try it once or twice for myself before I would believe P that that much longer process of nail-pulling was truly necessary.)
So, once all these nails were removed, we had a lot of floor boards that were no longer actually attached to the floor. P went around, taping on all of the boards bordering walls with his hammer, and whenever he saw any movement, he drilled a pilot hole and then drove in a new nail. (The pilot holes and better nails prevented any new cracks in the floor boards.)
Rolling up the carpets and the carpet padding was the easy part. There was a lot more to do before we were ready to start the refinishing process. First of all, the carpet was held down by these strips of tackless lining the walls:
The guys who installed the tackless were scrupulous about making sure that it was well nailed down. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how to approach it--we didn't mind destroying the tackless (and we did turn much of it into splinters), but we wanted to make sure that whatever removal technique we used didn't damage the floors. All of the pry bars and nail pullers we had were too bulky to slide easily under the nails or between the tackless and the floor. The trick turned out to be running to Home Depot to buy this little guy:
Most of the time, I complain to P that we have too many tools already, too much of our budget goes to tools, and couldn't we please use something we already own? Indeed, I tried that approach with this little guy, but I was a quick convert. In fact, I'm surprised we didn't go back and buy a second one--we were both constantly reaching for it and trying to take it from each other. "Can I use the magic tool now?" Home Depot sells several sizes--this is the smallest one they sell, and it was perfect for this job--the edges were fine enough to slip under almost any surface, but rounded enough to not easily damage the flooring. I preferred using the flat end to slide under the wood and pry it up, P preferred to use the nail puller end to grab nails from the top.
Not pictured are the thousands (I don't believe I'm exaggerating here) of staples that were used to fasten the carpet padding to the floor. Some rooms had been carpeted more than once, so there was more than one iteration of staples that needed to be removed from the floor. I generally used a painter's tool to loosen the staple and a pair of pliers to pull them out. P later convinced me to use a pair of shoemaker's pliers--most staples could be pulled directly with these, with no need for prior loosening. They're more ergonomically suited to the task than regular pliers, and much easier on the hands. However, I had to be careful to use a light touch, or I'd easily slice through the top of the staple and leave the legs in the floorboards. (This is bad because 1. we don't want to be able to see those tiny bits of metal when we look at our finished floor, and 2. as we sand down the floor boards, the tops of those legs would become exposed, and quickly wear out the sandpaper.)
I finally got fast at this when removing the staples from the OSB subflooring in the master bedroom. Here, it didn't matter if the flooring was scratched slightly in the process. The staples were held high off the floor by the relatively newer (only 20 years only) plush carpet padding, and I intentionally tore the padding around the staples, leaving a nice wad of pad stuck under each staple. Grab the magic tool, wedge it into that bit of padding, hit the other end with a hammer, and wham! the staple would fly out.
Important tip: wear safety glasses during all staple and tackboard removal. One errant staple could spell disaster.
One of the most glaring cosmetic issues with our house was the carpet. Except for the bathrooms and kitchen, the whole house was carpeted. (Actually, even the master bathroom had a carpet scrap sitting on top of the vinyl flooring.) We're not carpet people. Much of the carpet was somewhat worn, and the colors were not to our liking.
We peeked under the vent covers, and discovered that the original hardwood floors were still under the carpets in the 1954 portion of the house. In the 1990 addition (the back 1/3 of the den, and the master bedroom), the carpets were laid directly on top of the OSB subfloor.
We decided that refinishing the hardwoods was our first home improvement priority. If we could get that done before we moved much furniture into the house, it would make our lives much easier--not much stuff to work around, and we wouldn't have to worry so much about the sanding dust getting into things. We will eventually lay new hardwoods in the den and the master bedroom, but that project is lower on our priority list. So until we get there, we're just going to live directly on the OSB subfloor. Because we hated the carpet that much, and were that eager to get rid of it.
P had to go back and finish his afternoon at work after closing. I swapped out the locks on the doors, and then couldn't resist removing a test strip of carpet. We knew there were hardwood floors under there, and that they had probably never been refinished--leaving us plenty of wood to work with. (Hardwood floors can only be refinished a hand full of times before needing replacing, since you sand off part of the floor boards and lose thickness each time.) But we didn't know whether they were in good enough condition to be worth keeping. Had there been accident-prone pets in the house? Sloppy housekeepers? Could we really assume that the floors were in good condition 55 years after they were first installed?
So I jumped the gun, and without waiting for P on this momentous occasion, grabbed the carpet knife and started slicing out around a vent. Once I had a bit of wiggle room, I pulled the carpet several inches off the floor, and started slicing toward the wall. I didn't know how much carpet padding had survived the years, and I didn't want to risk scoring the floor boards.
Much to my relief, the floors were in good condition! The finish was a little worn and had carpet padding had left marks in it, but we had expected to find as much. There was a bit of water damage around the front door and near some windows (probably where plants were kept), but nothing that wouldn't be easily fixed by a basic refinishing.
So, when P got home, we got down to work:
We try to be pretty scrupulous with health and safety, and 40 years of under carpet dusty is just sketchy. Especially in the living room, where the carpet padding had nearly completely disintegrated, and looked like this:
So we wore dust masks, and gloves to protect our hands from errant staples, etc.
And, several hours of work later, we had entire house full of carpet out at the curb. We were very fortunate--our town does an extra household trash pickup once a year for old appliances, remodelling debris, etc. And it was scheduled for a week after closing. They'll take one pickup truck load from each household--and that's almost exactly the amount of carpeting that was in our house.
It was pretty miraculous to come by later that afternoon, and see that the whole pile had magically vanished.
On March 31, we closed on our first house. It's a 1954 ranch (with an early 1990s addition, that looks like it was designed in the late 1970s). It is in good condition structurally--the last owners put their money into important things like insulation and seplacing the original signle-paned windows with double-paned. That's just what we were looking for in a house. The cosmetics need some updating, but that allows us to put our time and money into customizing a house that really meets our needs and tastes--instead of paying to buy someone else's idea of an attractive home.
My husband, P, is an accomplished woodworker, and generally handy guy. He's helped family members improve their homes, and is eager to start work on ours!
I come from a family that's generally mystified when it comes to mechanical things. The second time I took P home to meet my family, he and my father went out to spend some quality time with the chainsaw. Half an hour later, they were back at the house, announcing, "The chainsaw broke." My mother and I nodded. That was our chainsaw's usual state.
"So we're here to get tools so we can fix it," declared P.
Mom and I nodded, and as soon as the men left the room, she looked at me and said, "Well, those are words that have never been uttered in our house." And what do you know, fifteen minutes later we once again heard the sounds of chainsawing coming from the other side of the yard.
The next time P visited, he fixed the dishwasher so it no longer made annoying noises. My mother declared him her adopted son.
All of this is to say, that I'm working on learning how to do more renovation work myself. Still, my default state is, when the going gets hard, to wait for P to come over and turn the job over to him. Unfortunately, his to-do list is now months long.
Anyway, we've been busy in the nearly three weeks since we closed on the house. More on that in the next post!