Plank Flooring for Any Budget
Hanky Planky - (I wrote this article on plank floors 5 years ago and am still getting requests for it every week, so here's the original text plus some additional photographs.)
As I approach the cusp of middle age the closest I’ve come to having any design allegiance is that my furniture is the same stuff I had in university, placing me in the Early Student school of décor. The one exception is the bedroom, where I have a high-end mattress, but only because my futon got so compacted it was about to become the next black hole.
So you probably shouldn’t take my decorating advice. Unless you have the problem I’m about to describe, or you have hardwood tastes on a paint budget.
Here’s the situation. I ripped out my old, musty carpeting. This revealed a plywood subfloor, the perfect
base for laying a hardwood floor, or even installing reclaimed pine flooring,
available from salvage supply places. But it’s going to cost thousands of dollars for either hardwood or the
reclaimed pine, even if I install it myself. Plus I can’t decide which wood to choose, and anyway, delivery takes
five to seven weeks.
So, I wisely think, why make an expensive mistake now when I can make a much more expensive one in years to come, after lumber prices have gone sky high? Let's just blunder cheaply now, and save the really high-cost errors for later in life when I’m cresting the richly emotional foothills of peri-menopause.
That decided, I filled the plywood’s knots
and seams with a fantastic floor leveler product called Poly Underlay Plus,
made in Canada by the LePage people. (If you live in the U.S., DAP makes a couple of similar products called Floor Leveler (in powder form) or Flexible Floor Patch and Leveler (ready-mix).
A floor leveler like Poly Underlay Plus is
a cement-based product that you trowel on. Happily, it has an extremely low shrinkage rate so you need only one
coat, plus it’s flexible when cured, so it won’t crumble if your floor is a bit
spongy. Poly Underlay Plus is paintable after
an hour or two. The only trick is that you have exactly ten minutes working
time after you’ve mixed the stuff. If
you’re not an Olympic class troweller, mix small batches and don’t pause for
snacks. I mixed a huge batch and it set
before I’d used a quarter of it, so now I have a giant, pail-shaped plug as a
souvenir of my modest trowelling skills.
Tip: Use a wide cement-finisher’s trowel. It moves faster and feathers edges nicely. Oh, and two words: knee pads.
After the Poly Underlay Plus works its magic, scrape off any bumps or ridges. To save chipping problems later, prime with a good acrylic primer. Then choose an appropriate colour of Porch and Floor paint for the topcoats.
By way of honesty, it took me five coats
because I kept selecting (*oxymoron alert *) “playful neutrals” and then having
to cover them with another shade, which would turn out to be more ghastly than
the last. After a pathetic parade of
disappointments I marched to the paint counter and confessed to having no
design sense. The nice lady pretended
she didn’t feel sorry for me and picked a fine colour.
Moral: Always get a second opinion if your paint has a name like “Inner Fear” or “Disputed Phlegm”. Oh wait, they all have names like that. Get help.
Just before the final coat of paint, carve floorboard ‘cracks’ using a Dremel fitted with a stone grinding-wheel. Start by measuring and marking plank lines on the floor using a longish 2x4 board for a ruler. You can create random or regular board widths. I did 7”-wide planks but occasionally threw in a 4” or 10” spacing to incorporate existing plywood seams, which look goofy if they fall in the middle of a ‘plank’.
Wearing safety glasses, ear gear and dust mask, cut v-grooves along the lines. Vary the depth between 1/32” and 1/8” to forge different degrees of settling and wear. Freehand the carving so the lines are mildly irregular and wobbly, which is how real painted planks look.
Note: I originally intended to use a circular saw or a router to cut the shallow lines, but it's tricky when you get close to the baseboard, plus I realized the effect would be too tidily linear for my tastes. Plus the circular saw tears up plywood, where the Dremel just carves a very pretty line.
Using a Dremel will make you feel like some kind of a god. This was absolutely the most fun I’ve had since I tried to get the cat to use a pencil. (You just don’t appreciate how good life is ‘til you’ve watched a furry dork with a grossly inflated ego and no opposable thumb.)
Once you’ve finished carving, vacuum and give the floor a final topcoat. Depending on the colour you (or the paint counter lady) chose, you could use a contrasting shade - say “Incandescent Filth” - and rub it into the lines to emphasize them. Cover the whole surface with a couple of coats of water-based urethane for a long-lasting finish.
This floor treatment satisfies tight schedules and taut purse-strings, plus it really fools the senses. Here’s proof. My brother-in-law Bill, who’s a specialist in restoring antique houses, absolutely couldn’t tell the floor was plywood. He was completely convinced we had a real painted pine surface. I assured him it was just plywood, but I was dead smug about it. Total cost of doing one large room, including Poly Underlay Plus and paint: Under $100. Sweet.