Saturday, April 02, 2005

On laying hardwood floor

This is a special kind of torment.

We fell for the house from the start, but varnished particle board wasn't really a floor surface we loved. It's not just that it's downright ugly, it's also cold to bare feet early in the morning. So we figured we'd bring a little added value to our lives with a smart polished wooden floor.

We thought about having someone come in to do this work until we saw their $10 000 quote and decided that it couldn't possibly be so awkward to do and we'd do it ourselves. We chose a timber called blackbutt ( Eucalyptus pilularis) and had a load delivered to the house. I read somewhere that you have to bring it inside the house to let it acclimatise and get used to the different atmosphere and temperatures.

And then we found out that if you walked too heavily at the end of the hall, one of your feet would be in the crawl space under the house, and that the cupboard in the back bedroom smelled like something slimy with a life of its own had died in there, and that the floor under the snot-coloured bath in the bathroom had all the strength and consistency of wet cornflakes.

So we hauled the bath out and knocked down a wall and built another bathroom and marvelled at how expensive plunbing can be.

And we picked out way arpund the flooring timber piled up in the living room because that was the only covered space big enough to store three and four-metre long planks..

The theory was that this timber would be stuck to the particle board with a special flooring glue, supplied in squishy plastic sausage-like containers about 300 mm long and shaped like, well, a sausage. I asked at the timber yard if there wasn't a dispenser that would take these and was told that there certainly was, but I wouldn't want to be bothered with it.

Clearly only sissies and namby-pambies lower themselves to using the dispenser. Real men eat their quiche bare-handed and do without.

So I meaured and cut the first boards, and took the sharp Stanley knife to the sausage full of glue.

The first surprise was that this particular glue reeks like, and quite likely really is, the effluent of an East European chemical plant dimly glimpsed through a lowering rainstorm somewhere between Bucharest and Bratislava. It's concentrated industrial bad smell. Probably the raw material for a weapon of mass destruction. Perhaps it's made out of rendered-down WMD. If you could stay alive long enough to sniff it you would get high, but the top of your head would come off.

Taking a pause to drive into town and pick up a respirator at the hardware store provided exactly the right amount of time for the glue in the open sausage to set to the consistency of very sticky porridge. Apart, that is, from the quite large amount that had leaked out onto the new hardwood flooring and set into a light brown substance with all the characteristics of granite, which put up a spirited resistance to being sanded off. And the thin coating that had got onto my hands and clothes, and defied every attempt to scrub it off. Some of it is still there.

So I casually tossed the first unsuccessful sausage aside. It immediately stuck itself to the decking and had to be chiselled and sanded off later. I put on the respirator and carefuilly opened another sausage. This time I was able to spread what looked the right amount of glue on the floor, placed the first row of timber, and started to position the second.

Nowthe theory of a hardwood floor is that the timbers have a tongue-like projection, called "the tongue", on one side, and a groove, called "the groove", on the other, and that the tongue is pressed into the groove so that adjacent timbers are locked together.

All the books and downloaded texts about laying hardwood floors skate over this point. They make a great feast about lining everything up according to the starter line you've marked on the floor and about allowing for expansion by leaving a little gap at each end. What none of them even hints at is that the tongue has no desire or intention of fitting into the groove. It's as if the grooves are cut in imperial and the tongues are shaped in metric and are minutely, but seriously, a millimicrosmidgeon too big to fit.

Either the grorves are too small for the tongues, or the tongues are too big for the grooves. it doesn't matter because they still don't fit together.

You can edge one end in, and then as you try to encourage the two pieces to mate, the end that was in will pop out and the two boards will lie there, expensively, not joined, separated, unready, and sitting on a bed of rapidly setting glue. You may find that you can get each end in positon, and then the board bows and the centre simply won't slot in no matter how big a hammer you take to it
nyway you can't hit them with a hammer because you'll dent the surface, and it will be obvious to any casual visitor that that this floor has been laid by a person so incompetent that he put a ding in a $30 floorboard because he belted it with a club hammer.

The good news is that eventually I found, by trial and error and yelling, that thumbs and fingers are a perfect protection for the expensive hardwood boards, and the fingernails will grow back eventually.

By this time the glue will have set enough that after two hours you will have laid two boards, that the groove of the second board is entirely free of any taint of the tongue of the first, and that anyway the first board you laid earlier has shifted slightly while you were hammering your fingers and then dancing around the room on one foot rehearsing your knowledge of reproductive language.

The setting process for this kind of glue is called "curing", and this is a chemical change that happens very suddenly at just about the same moment that you realise that the first board you laid is out of line and needs to be moved, and has to be jimmied up off the floor and slowly and deliberately fed into the woodchipping machine.

All of a sudden $10 000 looks like the most reasonable offer you've seen all day....