A Wide Plank Floor: from cutting trees to installation

 

This is 3/4″ Hardwood Maple Flooring I’m using for a job in progress. I like the fact that I can actually see the tree in these boards. The dark area is called “heart wood.” Usually,  Hard Maple Strip flooring is sold with the heart wood cut out of it, and all you see is the light part or what some people call “sap wood.” I’ve seen strip flooring with a mix of light, dark and a few knots called Tavern Grade, sold in stores. Since my house is in the mountains and surrounded by forest, I decided the tree look was appropriate. Finished photos are at the end of this post.

This is not an easy project. It is very time consuming and in the end I don’t know how much money you would save. I could have bought hardwood strip flooring off the shelf for around $5/sq. ft.  and done this same job in 2 days. But I went another route, and when it was all said and done, this job will take over 2 weeks of my time. The motivation has to be something more than cost, I think: You have to be in love with the idea of taking trees from your land and making them into flooring. I really don’t expect anyone will take on this project. But if you do, I would love to hear from you.

 

Hardwood Maple logs.

When selecting a tree to cut down, you should look for one that is big enough to give you 1″ x 12″ x 10′ planks. I like maple and have lots of it on my property. As it turned out, these were not the best logs in the woods–but unfortunately you can’t always tell until you cut into them. Two cherry logs are on the right–destined for other use. These logs are not hard maple, they are  considered soft maple. Because of logging by previous owners there are not nearly as many hard maple trees on my land as silver maple. I asked a friend of mine, Danny Hicks, who owns a furniture factory back home, about the difference between hard and soft maple. He said, “They are both pretty damn hard!”

Wood Mizer band saw mill.

I hired a portable band saw mill owner who first trims the log into a 12″ x 12″ x 10′ beam

–and then the individual 1″ planks come next.

Air drying the planks.

You need to stack and sticker the wood in a place where there is summer shade. The stickers allow air to flow through the pile and let the planks dry. The wood should air dry for at least a year before you complete the process in a kiln. This slow drying helps prevent warping and splitting. If you have high humidity, you could re-stack the pile 6 months in to prevent fungus from growing under the stickers. Make sure you cover the top to shed rain. The band saw mill owner charged me $350 to cut this stack of planks.

Dehumidifier Kiln with light bulb heater.

This is a homemade light bulb kiln. It consists of a light bulb heater and a dehumidifier. The dimensions of the kiln are 4’x 4’ x 16’. It is insulated with a 4 ml plastic vapor barrier behind the OSB.  There is a temperature-activated cut out switch for the light bulb heater, which is  set for 95 degrees. The dehumidifier drains outside through a plastic tube–necessary and convenient since I am away for extended periods. It takes about 4 weeks to dry this stack down to less than the recommended 6% moisture content.  The electricity to run it costs roughly about $25, depending on the outside temperature. I usually have a bigger stack than this. The cherry is on the bottom.

Planing

Notice how the plank is cupped.

The next step is to plane all your lumber down to a uniform thickness. Most wide boards tend to cup while drying because of the grain pattern. This is where your greatest loss is. I usually set the Planer thickness to somewhere around 1-¼” to start, alternating sides with one full crank on the depth gauge for each pass. I have burned up a motor by forcing the material through the planer too fast, and it cost me $300 and a big hassle. So feed it with consideration for what the motor is telling you. One side tends to look more promising than the other, so pick a side and, towards the end, reduce your passes to ½ turns on the cutting depth, favoring the promising side. I like my planks to end up at least ¾” thick.  Check each plank for thickness so they match.

Smooth plank with no good edges.

The most critical part of the process is to make planks with uniform, straight widths. A board can be warped or bowed slightly, but it can’t have a crook, (left to right bend). The edges must be straight and parallel. You can have a variety of widths, which I will talk about later.

Find a reliable straight edge–I like using OSB or plywood as a straight edge, sometimes joining two pieces together to make it long enough. Pull a tight string to check it. My straight edge is seen here on the right.

Marking the narrow point on the plank.

Lay your straight edge down along the edge of the board and mark the narrowest usable part. Then mark near the two ends.

Circular Saw Fence marks.

Fence distance block.

You are going to rip along this line, but you need to account for the distance between your fence and the inside of the blade. All circular saws vary in regard to the fence-to-blade-cutting distance because of, among other things, the saw blade thickness. I cut this block to represent the fence cutting distance, and used it as my guide.  Line the block up with the two marks you placed at each end of the board, and make new marks on the other side of the block. Position your straight edge on these new marks to guide your cut.

Straight Edge aligned for rip cut.

With the straight edge aligned along the transferred marks, you are ready to rip. I use a Quick Clamp for one end and since the lengths are variable, a weight on the other. This is a 55 lb elevator weight I found while dumpster-diving in NYC.

The first straight rip.

Fence block marks.

When ripping, hold the saw level, moving it slowly and deliberately along the guide. The grain will want to twist the cutting blade–  you can hear and feel this, so move slowly or your cut will go off-line. When I am done with this cut, I run the saw along the guide once more–but quicker–and then slowing when I feel the blade cutting.

Making a mark.

In doing a project like this, it is critical to get the marks right.  You need to be consistent–keep a sharp pencil. You can even use a light finepoint pen mark, since you will be sanding the board. Then place your straight edge down on the mark in a consistent manner.

 

 

Checking for straightness.

It is a good idea to check for straightness. If the edge veers off by more than 1/16″, you should do it over. If it keeps happening, the grain is probably the cause. You can trim the board– or set it aside and move on. The wider the board, the less this happens. You can persuade a board into place with a slight crook, but the problem starts to compound–so be careful.

Select a standard width.

After making your first straight edge cut, evaluate the best face or which side you want up, and then for its widest potential. The widest potential is the narrowest point at which you cut the sin off in order to make a straight, parallel 2nd cut. I like to work with no more than three widths. With these, I chose 10 1/2″, 9 1/2″ and 8 1/4″.

Measuring the 2nd straight and parallel cut.

This second straight parallel cut is the most critical operation of the whole project. If you have a 10″ table saw I would say go ahead and use it. It is much faster. Set up a long fence to help guide you in this–any waggle left or right will throw off your cut.

It is hard to move big stock like this through a table saw. I simply add the fence cutting distance to my width, measure, mark the board, line up my guide and rip slowly. Check the width when done. Any variation will cause a gap when installing the plank and you need to decide how much of a gap you can live with. Consider the overall look of the floor when it’s installed–you can live with a certain amount of gap, you just need to decide how much. There are other ways to make the second cut faster but I find this the most reliable. The saw travels and not the stock.

Tongue & Groove vs. Ship lap: For this type of application, tongue & grove is not necessary because, unlike standard strip flooring, your main fastening method is from underneath. The headache of making these wide planks into T&G with your home shop router is not worth it. I made some Ash, 3/4″ x 6″x 4′ boards into v-groove, T&G for a ceiling, but the router work was very difficult just with these smaller boards.  It would be better as T & G but I think I have found a reliable alternative.  If you want to do it, go for it.

Setting the fence.

To speed up the router process I pre-cut the boards with a table saw. The fist cut is the face cut, which is just shy of 1/2 the plank thickness–in this case 1 mm and just shy of 1/2″  wide. Cut one side then flip the board and cut the other. This cut is not that critical because you are going to finish it off with a router.

The face cut.

The edge cut.

 

The edge cut is 1 mm deep and 3/8″ wide. Feeding the stock through consistently is more demanding than when doing the face cut and if you want to use a feather board it is recommended. Since you are making these two cuts  smaller than the final size, they don’t have to be perfect.  Flip the board over and cut the other side. Don’t get your cuts mixed up, one lap is on top and the other the bottom!

When you have completed these two cuts, just peel off the scrap. The scrap make excellent kindling.

Feeding the edge cut.

Peeling off the scrap.

Before the router work.

Notice the variation in the plank thickness in the left photo. This is called “snip” and is caused during the planing  process. Read the planer manual for more info. If it isn’t too bad (and depending on where the plank is going to be installed, like along the wall), you can sand it down. Otherwise, cut it off.

The Router.

The router needs to be set to the exact final cut size, the depth of which is 1/2 the plank thickness and 1/2″ wide. You can go less wide if you are worried about the lap breaking off. When you look at the grain pattern by the edge, sometimes you may wonder if in time it would break, but keep in mind this is hardwood. Go ahead…try and break it! The lap is also supported by the opposing lap underneath. I run the stock through twice to clean up the cut.

Router set-up.

Testing the fit.

The Belt Sander

After the planks have been sized, you need to polish them up.  But first a word about belt sanders: Be carefull!! They are more dangerous than they seem. Treat them just as cautiously as you would a circular saw. I have pinched a finger in between the belt and the guard and lost a nail. Very painful. The power cord can easily get sucked up–along with gloves, rags or anything else. This one pictured above had the annoying habit of self starting and jumping off the table. After that happened a few times, the drive axle bent and I had to get it rebuilt. Now it works great and I am very happy with this 21 x 3″ Porter Cable. If you don’t own one now, I would recommend a 24 x 4″ Porter Cable for this kind of work.

Beveling the edge: a dust mask is recommended.

The planks are pretty smooth after planing, but there are, invariably, marks you want to smooth out. I use an 80 grit medium belt. I like a beveled edge and accomplish it by lightly running the sander down the edge.

After sanding, I varnish the back side, both edges and the front, then a medium grit orbit sander job on the front when the varnish dries. The varnish on the back helps to stabilize the plank from environmental impact, humidity or water spills. Now you are ready for the fun part.

Wide plank flooring installation.

The planks require lap joints at each end. I make them 1/2 inch wide and the same depth as the side laps–or 1/2 the thickness of the plank. You could use a router– but you are working with end grain and disaster could strike when a big edge chunk goes flying. I make a 1/2 inch template block and align it with the end of the board, marking a line along the other edge. For the bottom lap, I cut on the inside of the mark. For the top lap, I cut through the mark. Thereby the top is a hair longer and the bottom cut a hair shorter, which allows for any variation and a tight fit. I run my circular saw over the wood multiple times and then smooth off the cut with my belt sander.

Cutting the end lap.

End lap before sanding.

Pre-drilling the fastener points.

Since this is hardwood, all fastener points need to be pre-drilled or else you risk splitting the wood. Use a small bit first to accommodate whatever size fastener you use, then a larger bit to countersink the head–being careful not to go too deep. At the end lap, I use  screws so a larger bit is required there.

Driving the nails.

These are 2 1/2″ spiral shank, galvanized deck nails, with about a 4″ nail pattern.  In the above photo, notice the finish nail in the foreground of the nail I am driving. This is a 2″ finish nail I use as a guide to find the edge of the next overlapping board when I go downstairs and screw it in from below.  Knowing where this edge is is critical since the boards are not T & G. I sink this nail flush and leave it.

Countersink the nails.

Pre-drill the screw holes.

Pre-drill the underneath screw holes to avoid splitting. I don’t know for sure what would happen if you didn’t pre-drill the holes–but I don’t want to find out five years from now. My screws are   1- 5/8″ exterior deck screws for extra strength. You need to fasten these at an angle for two reasons: one–they are too long for the 3/4″ plywood sub floor and the 13/16″ plank; and two–the angle gives them more holding power.

Setting the deck screws.

This is an edge screw and you want to set these at an angle that will pull the board down tight on top of the bottom lap and towards the adjacent plank. You need to find your locater finish nail and mark a line along these points between the floor joists. Observe the spiral-shanked flooring nails penetrating the sub-floor–these also help guide you.

110lbs pushing down the edge.

If the plank is bowed, I take two of my 55 lb. elevator weights and set them on the bowed edge, of course do this before you set your underneath screws. It would really be nice to have a helper up top–standing on the edge and giving you feedback. Most spouses don’t consider this quality time spent together, so I have to use the weights. The center screws are set at random angles.  Fastening from below is what makes this type of installation of wide plank flooring possible– so do an excellent job here.

Sanding any ridges.

When you are done, there may be some edges or joints you want to sand. If you didn’t pre-varnish, you may want to rent a commercial floor sander and go over the whole thing. If not, you can take your belt sander and hit the objectionable spots. I will finish this floor with a total of 3 coats, (including the one already applied),  letting varnish flow liberally into any gaps.

Finished wide plank floor.

Over a year ago I did this type of installation in a smaller room. To date there have been no signs of cupping or distress. This is an unheated living space when I’m away, so it goes through quick and wide temperature changes when I fire up the wood burning Hot Blast furnace. It never gets that humid here for long periods in the summer and I don’t use air conditioning. I will be taking humidity readings over time and record the variation. The problem with wide plank flooring is cupping and fastening. I think I have found a good solution to hidden fastening but don’t know yet about the cupping. If it does happen, I don’t think it will ever be severe enough to require replacement–unless there is somehow extended water damage. We had water damage in our NYC apartment from a neighbor’s flooding. The water saturated many of the 3/4″ oak parquet tiles in our bedroom and they warped noticeably. I waited for the winter heating to drive out the moisture and by the time I got around to sanding and refinishing them again,  the tiles were mostly back to normal. They needed refinishing anyway and now they are fine.

Finished Wide Plank Floor composite photo.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about making and installing Wide Plank Flooring.

3 comments

  1. Wow, excellent job. Your description on how to do this is very well done. Lots of photo’s. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very instructive and useful information presented wonderfully.

    Thank you!

    Wish you will enjoy this one of a kind floor for many years !

  3. Wow, great job! This post is very inspiring and informative. I love seeing new flooring being locally sourced. Even if you purchase the wood, it helps save on the energy spent during transportation and supports the local economy.

    If you’re having problems with the planks shifting (cupping & crowning) have you considered face nailing them? You can always do this anytime after installation. This will add extra reinforcement to your floors and give you a classic antique look. Check out a few pictures on our website to see what it would look like.

    All the best!

    NWCF CORP
    http://www.nwcfcorp.com

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