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Today’s consumers continue to demand one-of-a-kind installations. In response, creative installation technicians have started adding unique accents to their projects, combining North American hardwoods with contrasting materials like ceramic tile, slate, marble, and other stone products.

Ceramic tile, marble, slate, and stone, as well as some other materials, can be installed on or over most surfaces, providing the material is solid, clean, dry, and flat or plumb. This allows for the creation of interesting, unique inlays in a variety of locations.

Regardless of the materials involved, or the size of the project, planning the inlay installation is the most important step. Be sure to take exact measurements, and design specific plans, before beginning the installation.

In Image 1, a 2-inch-square ceramic tile is installed 45 degrees off-center (diamond style) in the middle of the room, and surrounded by a hardwood floor. The room is 12-feet-by-12-feet, with a ¾-inch plywood subfloor. The hardwood flooring is unfinished, ¾-inch thick, 2 ¼-inch wide, select red oak. The medallion is made of four, 12-inch-square, hand-painted ceramic tiles, ¼-inch thick. Since the ends of the hardwood flooring abut the secondary material, the flooring will have a “fanning” effect as it works out from the medallion.

Each building material is unique, and many factors dictate which material is installed first. Working drawings, building schedules, and finishing materials must all be thought out before starting the installation. In this example, the ceramic tiles will be installed first because it is easier to work around the smaller inlay. Since the tiles are ¼-inch thick, a 2-foot-square piece of ½-inch plywood will need to be added under the medallion inset, in order to make the two materials level.

Finishing Guidelines

Once the plywood lift is anchored, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to install, grout, and finish the tile, allowing the necessary drying times.

It’s important to finish each material as it is installed. Since the tiles were the first to be installed, they should be finished before moving on to the hardwood flooring. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when finishing and cleaning these secondary materials, as some of them are pre-finished.

Remember that most secondary materials are cleaned with water, which can damage the neighboring hardwood flooring. To protect against moisture damage, thoroughly seal the sides and bottoms of any hardwood to be installed next to the medallion (for more information, see “Hardwoods in the Bath: Finishing for Wet, Humid Environments” in the March/April 2001 issue of FCI).

Hardwood Flooring Direction

Once the tile have set completely, carefully cover and mask off the medallion for protection while working on the hardwood flooring.

Begin installing the hardwood, following the appropriate guidelines with regard to the normal expansion and contraction experienced in this product segment.

For each side of the diamond, start in the center and used a slip tongue for reversing direction at the mid-points of the walls, where the 45-degree miters are aligned with the diamond points. Remember to join the hardwood and ceramic tiles with a flexible grout, leaving between, in this case, 1/8-to-1/4 inch for the wood’s expansion.

If the flooring is unfinished, make sure the secondary material is still masked off before applying any stains or finishes.

Cleaning and Maintenance Techniques

Proper maintenance is critical to the success of a multimedia installation. Hardwoods and secondary materials usually require different cleaning aids that are detrimental to each other. Ceramic tile, marble, slate, and stone are easy to maintain, requiring routine cleaning with a damp cloth or mop. Avoid soaking the area, as excess water may harm the grouting, adhesive, and neighboring woodwork.

Day-to-day hardwood maintenance will depend on the floor’s finish. In most cases, sweeping, vacuuming, and/or dusting at least once a week will keep the floor free of dirt and dust that may damage the finish. Use cleaning and maintenance products recommended by the finish manufacturer. Quickly dry any standing water and other spills, and avoid using harsh cleaners.

When a hardwood floor needs sanding, recoating, or refinishing, carefully mask off the secondary material, and sand around the inset by hand. Take the same precautions when applying the new stain and finish, making sure not to spill anything onto the secondary material.

Stone materials sometimes require a thorough cleaning the can be dangerous to hardwoods. Oxalic acid is the primary chemical employed to clean most stone surfaces; it will also bleach hardwoods.

Be careful to mask off the adjoining materials during any intensive cleaning procedure, to protect the hardwood from discoloration. If any harmful liquids are spilled, quickly dilute the spill with the proper thinning agent, and thoroughly dry the area as quickly as possible.