A Wide Plank Floor: from cutting trees to installation

This is 13/16″ Hardwood Maple Flooring produced from trees on my land. I like the fact that I can actually see the tree in these boards. The dark area is the result of staining caused by different factors as the tree grew. This contrast will mellow out and become much less noticeable as the floor ages and is exposed to light. I’ve seen strip flooring with a mix of light, dark and a few knots sold in stores called Tavern Grade. Since my house is in the mountains and surrounded by hardwood forest, I decided to try my hand at making my own flooring.

It was not an easy project. To do it you would have to be in love with the idea of harvesting trees from your own land and making them into flooring. It’s very labor intensive and time consuming. In the end, the money you save is meaningless. I could have bought hardwood strip flooring off the shelf for around $5/sq. ft. and be done with it in 2 days. But I went another route and not working consecutive days this job took over 2 weeks. The motivation has to be something more than cost. 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 on the left and two Black Cherry logs on the right.

 When selecting a tree to cut down, you should look for one that is straight and big enough in diameter 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 or silver maple. Because of logging by previous owners of the land, there are not nearly as many hard maple as silver maple trees. 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!”

Bandsaw Bob’s 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 slices that up to individual one inch planks. 

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 drying process in a kiln. This slow drying helps prevent warping and splitting. Make sure you cover the top of the stack to shed rain. If you have high humidity, you could re-stack the pile 6 months in to prevent fungus from growing under the stickers. If left long enough, fungus under the stickers will grow deeper into the wood and create a permanent dark stain. Bandsaw Bob charged me $350 to cut this stack of lumber.

Dehumidifier Kiln with light bulb heater.

This is my homemade 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 and has a 4 ml plastic vapor barrier behind the visible OSB.  There is a temperature-activated cut off 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. After air dying the one-inch planks for a year it takes about 4 weeks to dry this stack down to less than the recommended 6% moisture content in this dehumidifier kiln.  I set the dehumidifier for constant the first couple of weeks, and then reduce it to a 2-hour on off cycle for the remainder. The electricity to run the kiln during that time cost me roughly $25 but that could vary 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 boards as wide as this tend to cup while drying because of the grain pattern. This cupping of the board is where your greatest planing thickness loss is. I usually set the Planer thickness to somewhere around 1-¼” to start. Run all your boards through at each planer thickness setting so that when you are done they all end up being the same thickness. Alternate sides with one full crank on the depth of cut gauge for each pass. I burned up a motor by forcing the material through the planer with too deep of a cut, which was a big hassle and cost me $175. So set the planer cutting thickness with consideration for what the noise of the motor is telling you. As you plane each side of the board one side tends to look more promising than the other, so after a few passes, pick a side and plane only that side till you reach your final thickness. Reduce your passes to ½ turns on the cutting depth, favoring the promising side. How much each board is cupped dictates how thick the plank ends up. I like my planks to end up at least ¾” thick and these ended up 13/16″.  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 plywood, 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.

Finding the widest usable edge.

In the past I used a circular saw and the straight plywood edge as a guide to rip along the widest usable part of the board. Later on I found some of the boards weren’t true because the blade of the circular saw would warp slightly from the grain as it cut, pulling the blade off angle slightly. This could create as much as a 1/8 inch variation in width. So then I bought a Dewalt, 15amp, 10 inch job site table saw. This gave me more power and higher saw blade RPM. The widest rip is 16” within the fence on this Dewalt. I make a 12” straight edge out of plywood and place it on top of the hardwood. Then I line up the plywood edge to within ½ inches of usable hardwood and using a screw gun, I slightly screw down the plywood to the board at each end. The plywood should then overhang the hardwood some and I place that overhand against the fence. I adjust the fence width to cut as close to the other plywood edge as possible without cutting into the plywood. It is hard to move big stock like this through a table saw and even more difficult with a big plywood straight edge screwed to it. I do this alone but would totally recommend a helper if you can find one. 
After ripping your first board, hold the straightedge up against it and check for straightness. It the edge veers off by more than 1/16” you should do it over. Sometimes you may need to cut a board in two because of difficult grain to make a straight edge. With stock this wide it can be hard to persuade a board into place with a slight crook, but the problem starts to compound–so be careful.

 
After you finish making your first straight edge cut on all your stock, evaluate each board 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. With this batch, I chose 10 1/2″, 9 1/2″ and 8 1/4″. When fastening them down you just have to keep all the planks in a row the same width. If you have nice logs you can probably make all the widths the same. Although different widths make the job more complicated I like the variety in the finished look.


This second straight parallel cut is the most critical part in keeping all the boards uniform. But it is also the fastest and the easiest part of the whole project. 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.

Tongue & Groove vs. Shiplap: Tongue & grove would be nice but it was too challenging and time consuming for me to handle with these big wide boards. I went with shiplap by using this trick; the bottom lap of the plank was nailed in normally form above. The underside of the floor below was exposed and so from below, I could use deck screws to pull down tight the top overlap edge. Unlike standard strip flooring, your main fastening method is from underneath. The headache of making these wide plank boards into T&G with my home shop router table was 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 have been better with T&G but I think this method was a reliable alternative.  If you want to do tongue and groove- go for it.

 

Setting the fence.

In making these planks into shiplap I used a three-step process. I pre-cut the boards with a table saw. The first cut is the face cut, which was just shy of 1/2 the plank thickness–in this case just shy of 3/8″ deep and ½” wide from the edge. 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 second cut is harder because the board is on edge. It was just shy of ½” deep and 3/8” inches 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!

Feeding the edge cut.

Peeling off the scrap.

Before the router work.

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

The Router.

 

The router needs to be set to the exact final cut size, the depth of which is 3/8” deep and ½” wide. You can go less wide if you are worried about the lap breaking off, none of mine did. 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. This is quick because you have already removed the bulk of the material. You could skip the table saw pre-cut part if you want. After testing that idea, I went with the table saw 3-step process.

Router set-up.

Testing the fit.

The Belt Sander

After the planks have been all milled, 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. The belt sander 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 planning, 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 backside, both edges and the top. The next day I used a medium grit paper with an orbit sander on the top surface. 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 3/8”. 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 ½” 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 fastner points.

Since this is hardwood, I pre-drilled all fastener points so as not to 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 critical since the boards are not tongue and groove. I sink this nail flush and leave it.

Countersink the nails.

Predrill 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.

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.

 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. If I had to do this job again from what I know now, I would of rented a floor sander and gone over the whole floor. 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.

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 looking 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.

5 comments

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

  2. 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

  3. This is great! I am remodeling my first home and have been looking for the best flooring for the best price. I thought about cutting down one of our pecan trees and just making the floors, but did not realize how involved it would be or how long it would take. Now I want to put any flooring down for a year or so until we can finish this project. It’s encouraging to see that it’s been done.

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