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How to Install Reclaimed Wood Flooring

Learn how to install reclaimed wood flooring and give your home character while protecting the environment.
By Chris Peterson
February 2012 Web
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From plywood to hardwood flooring, to windows, doors, carpeting and more, salvaging building materials can save you thousands of dollars (and is about as green as you can get). “Building with Secondhand Stuff” is a hands-on, do-it-yourselfer's guide that shows you how to identify materials that can be salvaged efficiently and then gives you step-by-step instructions on how to go about doing it.
Photo Courtesy Creative Publishing International, Inc.
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Reclaimed wood floors bring a unique character to your home, but salvaging and installing reclaimed wood flooring can be a daunting task. In this excerpt from Building with Secondhand Stuff (Creative Publishing, 2011), author Chris Peterson offers step-by-step instructions, complete with full-color photographs, to make installing your own reclaimed wood floors easy. Learn about the nuances of wide plank flooring and find out how to mill your reclaimed planks to create tongue-and-groove flooring. The excerpt is taken from the chapter Reclaiming Heritage Wood. 

Reclaimed Wood Flooring

A home’s flooring is all about beauty and comfort underfoot. No flooring is more beautiful and comfortable than wood, and no wood brings a more unique character to your home than a reclaimed wood floor. Once you begin looking for just the right reclaimed wood, you’ll inevitably realize that the biggest challenge is narrowing down the amazing number of choices to find the best look for your home.

Old houses and other buildings yield a wealth of wood flooring that can be brought back to life in your home. These include the standard strip flooring harvested from more recent buildings being deconstructed, the plank flooring common to older buildings, more unusual pegged floors (which require special techniques to salvage and re-lay), and even end grain flooring, a tile-type of floor using “bricks” of wood. But older buildings also provide other elements, such as siding and paneling, which can be repurposed as new wood flooring. Even beams and other timbers can be milled to serve as flooring. You simply won’t find a larger selection of potential species, styles, and looks for a floor than among reclaimed wood.

There are two ways to get the flooring material you want in the amount you need. The first is to go to the source. Wood flooring is one of the easiest elements to salvage from a building. Removing elements like flooring during deconstruction is called “soft-stripping” for just that reason. Unlike structural members, flooring can be removed with relatively little expertise or effort. Even if you’re faced with converting square-cut siding or paneling to your purposes, you can turn it into flooring by milling your own tongue and grooves into the boards. Certainly, this is a lot of work and requires the right tools and attention to detail. But do-it-yourself milling can save you enormous amounts of money.

However, you may simply prefer to go the easier route and purchase reclaimed flooring in quantity from any of a number of salvage firms and companies that deal in reclaimed wood. Consider available stock carefully. Not only do you need to ensure that the amount of a given flooring available through the supplier is sufficient for your needs, you also need to know the flooring you buy is fairly consistent board to board. In most cases, the company will have removed all the boards as part of a single salvage project, so the boards were already fit together as a floor. Sometimes, a bit of mixing and matching does occur. But for the most part, suppliers will have grouped like boards, and many even pre-finish the boards, making installation even easier.

Generally, you’ll use the same process to install a reclaimed wood floor as you would a new wood floor. However, some techniques may differ, depending on the type of flooring you’ve chosen. For instance, if you’re installing an aged, exceptionally wide plank floor, you may need to face-nail—and plug over the face nails—to ensure against cupping or warping. The same is true if you’ve reclaimed a pegged wood floor and are re-creating that distinctive look in your new home. Complete the installation with the finish of your choice, whether you’re leaving the existing surface largely intact, or completely sanding down and refinishing it.

Reclaiming a Vintage Wood Floor

Reclaiming some wood building materials directly from an existing structure can be a challenge. Structural members such as timbers and beams must be extracted carefully to prevent wholesale collapse. Others, such as siding, are arduous to remove and will need exceptional amounts of prep to be reused. But wood flooring is one of the easiest and most rewarding materials to salvage. Do it right, and you may not even need to refinish the reclaimed flooring after you re-install it.

The process is fairly straightforward and is basically the reverse of installing a wood floor. Start by clearing the room you’re working in and remove shoe or other base moldings. Remove the first and possibly second row of boards on the tongue side of the floor. This may require destroying one or more boards to gain access. Do that by using a pry bar on damaged flooring, or a circular saw and pry bar, to cut into and tear out boards so that you have clear access for prying out the adjacent rows.

Removing planks from that point is relatively easy. Slide the tongue of a pry bar under the tongue of the plank next to a nail, and pry the nail up. Do this at each nail location until the plank is completely loose. Then pry up and toward you to release it from the next row. Continue removing planks, taking care not to damage the tongues as you remove the boards. Remove all the nails as you work, and check boards for nails before finally placing them neatly in stacks separated by bolsters.

Salvage Wisdom: Acclimating Reclaimed Floors

Wood planks or strips that you reclaim should already be thoroughly dry, because they have likely been inside for decades. However, in some cases you will have rescued the wood from a dilapidated building so far gone that the floors were exposed to the elements for quite a while. In other cases, resellers may have stored reclaimed wood flooring outside. Wood flooring in these situations can absorb moisture. But even if it’s just a matter of temperature change, you need to give the flooring a chance to adjust to its new environment. That’s why, just as you would with new wood flooring, you should store reclaimed wood planks, strips or end grain tiles in the room where they will ultimately be installed for at least 24 hours prior to installation.

Milling Tongues and Grooves into Reclaimed Planks

1. Joint one edge of each plank using a jointer. If you don’t have a jointer, you can joint the edge using a table saw with a jointer jig. A properly jointed edge will be necessary for the boards to fit snugly together when laid as a floor. See photo of step 1. 

2. Use your table saw to rip the opposite edge of each board so that it is perfectly parallel to the jointed edge. See photo of step 2. 

3. Saw the grooves first. Set a dado blade to the appropriate height, and set the table saw fence so that the groove runs along the middle of the edge. Stack dado blades as necessary to cut wider grooves in thicker stock. Cut the first groove in a test piece. See photo of step 3. 

4. Reset the fence to cut the tongues. Use a short or scrap piece to cut the first tongue. Err on the side of cutting tongues too thick, because you can always cut more off, but you’ll be in trouble if the tongues do not fit snugly. See photo of step 4. 

5. Check the fit of the tongue into the groove, with both pieces laying flat. The fit should be snug enough that you have to apply some force to join the two pieces. See photo of step 5. 

6. Once you’re certain that the measurements are all correct, cut all the grooves first. Check each for fit, using the tongue on the scrap piece. Finally, cut all the tongues on the other edges of the planks. See photo of step 6. 

7. Check all the planks one last time, paying special attention to any burrs or imperfections in the tongues and grooves. Sand down any spots that might prove troublesome when installing the floor. See photo of step 7. 

Routing Tongue-and-Groove Flooring

Routing tongues and grooves into wood planks is a great alternative to cutting them with a table saw. The routing is done with special adjustable tongue-and-groove router bits—one for each function. The directions here describe using a router table, although you can also use a hand router with a special jig. The router table, however, is much quicker and easier (and safer) to use. Prepare the planks for routing by jointing and ripping them.

1. Set the groove bit into the router and cut a groove. Swap the bits and cut a tongue on a sacrificial piece. Check that the tongue and groove fit snugly together, and that the companion pieces sit flat when connected. See photo of step 1. 

2. Replace the groove bit and rout all the grooves first. Swap bits and rout all the tongues. Check that the tongues and grooves are all clean. Sand as necessary to fix any imperfections. See photo of step 2. 

Laying Tongue-and-Groove Reclaimed Plank Flooring

Perhaps the most common use for reclaimed wood is as flooring. And the most common type of reclaimed floor is a wide plank floor. In fact, the planks can be as wide as 10 inches. Although this means that the planks can be a little more cumbersome to handle than modern hardwood strip flooring, take heart: wide plank floors go down much quicker than their strip counterparts.

The look of a wide plank floor is impressive. It can make a space seem larger and a plank floor can visually anchor the room. Keep in mind that each plank presents much more visual area than a strip would. An oddly colored or patterned strip over the span of a wood floor would hardly get noticed; in a plank floor, an odd duck will stick out like a sore thumb. You can minimize the impact any unusual-looking plank has on the floor’s overall appearance by shuffling it to an outside edge of the floor. If you’re lucky, you may even need to rip it down to fit, minimizing its impact even more.

The finish you choose may affect how you work with the wood during installation. If you’re planning on sanding and refinishing the floor entirely, you can proceed to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, if you’ve chosen your planks for their historical finish, you’ll want to work with soft gloves and be as careful with tools, such as power nailers, which sit right on the surface of planks. Also be careful in moving planks around as you pull them off the stack. Any noticeable scratches will probably rule out keeping the vintage finish.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to face-nail and plug wide planks if they were previously pegged, or if you expect that the space will experience regular variations in temperature. A cupped or warping plank floor will not be the showcase for which you chose reclaimed wood in the first place.

1. Measure the room and double-check that you have all the planks you’ll need to cover the surface and account for waste. Make sure the subfloor is clean and free of loose nails or other debris. If the boards have a distinctive pattern or coloration that will affect positioning, decide on the positions and number the planks. See photo of step 1. 

2. Roll underlayment out to cover the subfloor surface. Staple it to the subfloor with a staple gun. Overlap each strip by several inches, and cut as necessary with a utility knife equipped with a new blade. See photo of step 2. 

3. Locate floor joists, nail a brad at each end, and snap chalk lines over the centerline of each floor joist. Nail and snap another chalk line perpendicular to these lines, between 1/4" and 1/2" from the edge of the starting wall. See photo of step 3. 

4. Drill pilot holes every 8" to 10" along the length of the planks that you’ll use as a starter row. Drill the holes in the face, along the inside groove edge that will face the wall. This is to prevent any cracking or damage during face-nailing of the first row. See photo of step 4. 

5. Ensure that the first plank is properly positioned with its inside edge along the starter chalk line. Hammer finish nails through the pilot holes, until the heads are just above the surface. Sink the nails using a nailset. See photo of step 5. 

6. Drill pilot holes in the first plank’s tongue, every 8" to 10" along its length. Drill at a 45˚ angle into the joist locations. Blind nail a finish nail into each hole, and use a nailset to sink it. See photo of step 6. 

7. Snug new rows in place with a scrap piece (milled with a groove slightly larger than the tongues on your planks) set against the tongue. Tap the piece lightly with a wood mallet until the new plank is tight against the existing row. See photo of step 7. 

8. After the first row, nail planks into place with a power nailer. Position the lip over the edge of the plank, and hit the strike button with a rubber mallet. See photo of step 8. 

9. Stagger the planks to create a brickwork pattern. Cut planks face up, using a miter saw equipped with an 80-tooth blade. Saw end planks so that the cut end will face the wall. See photo of step 9. 

10. If you encounter a plank that is bowed or warped and won’t easily snug up to the preceding row, make a wedge from a scrap 2 x 4 by sawing diagonally from one corner to the other. Nail a 2 x 4 scrap to the floor, and tap the wedge into position to force the plank into place for nailing. See photo of step 10. 

11. Rip final-row planks to the width necessary to fit them between the next-to-last row of planks and the wall, leaving an expansion gap of between 1/4" and 1/2". Pull the plank into place with a pry bar, and then face-nail using the same process you used on the first row. See photo of step 11. 

12. Sand and finish the floor as desired, or leave a pre-finished or distressed surface as is. Stain or finish shoe molding as necessary, and nail it into place around perimeter of room. See photo of step 12. 

Salvaging Pegged Plank Flooring

1. Remove the first two rows of planks, as you would to begin reclaiming any wood flooring. Using a spade bit one size smaller than the pegging plugs, drill out the plugs in the face of the boards, exposing the face nails. See photo of step 1. 

2. Slip the point of the wrecker’s adze under the edge of the board at the position of one set of face nails. Tap the butt of the adze lightly with a hammer to wedge the adze under the plank. Lever the handle back and forth to loosen the face nails, tapping the adze further under the board as necessary. Continue working the handle until the plank under it can be pulled free without causing damage to the wood. See photo of step 2. 

Laying Pegged Plank Flooring

1. Lay the flooring as described in “Laying Tongue-and-Groove Reclaimed Plank Flooring.” Clean out the peg holes with a small chisel, and hammer 8d finish nails through the holes in the face. If you want to add the peg look to plain plank flooring without face nailing you can also use a spade bit to drill peg holes in the face. See photo of step 1. 

2. Once all the planks are installed, cut the pegs with a drill press fitted with a plug-cutting bit in the correct size. The plugs can be a contrasting wood, or the same wood stained a different finish. Fit the pegs in the holes after coating them with carpenter’s glue. Use a pull saw to cut the plug off even with the plank’s surface after the glue dries, and sand lightly until smooth. See photo of step 2. 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Building with Secondhand Stuff, published by Creative Publishing International, Inc., 2011. 


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