The flooring hatchet was the beginning. Courtesy of Coley Armstrong and Pop.

Tools used for solid wood flooring installation sanding and finishing have evolved from the basic "manual everything" to air operated, precision adjustment, and electronic modulation of today.

Present day manual nailers.

Some of the History

Until 1964 the only flooring product allowed in the main rooms of the home to qualify for an FHA mortgage was solid wood flooring. This translated into a lot of wood flooring being installed. The name of the game was manual everything. Until 1950 many installers used a flooring hatchet to cut off strips, rip along walls, and hand nail flooring into place. The nails used were cut-nails and casing nails, some oval headed, some with a twist shank. The nails were placed in the pant cuff and nailed with a hatchet or hammer. The handles were often modified to hit at an angle to avoid bruising the edge of the flooring. As the flooring was blind nailed, the nails were set by hitting the corner of a nail set or holding the next cut nail horizontally to the flooring tongue over the driven nail.

Then came the Powernailer. Courtesy of Coley Armstrong and Pop.
The advent of the "Skill" saw allowed installers to cut off and rip with electric power. Between 1950 and 1960 manual "Powernail" flooring nailers began to appear. The "L" headed flooring cleat with edge serrations was created for these machines. The cleat was machine driven at a 45 degree angle and set by the driving ram in one motion. A few years later the companion face nailer was developed. This nailer nailed and set the cleats for the starting runs and finishing runs. These manual machines have remained basically the same with minor modifications until today. An exception was the ratcheting Porta-Nailer which allowed multiple blows to drive and set their unique "T" headed cleat.

Today's air nailer. Courtesy of Porta-Nails Inc.
The next innovation around 1980 was the air operated flooring stapler. Since then, the cleat machines have been designed for air and the stapler has options to retrofit for cleats.

The one manual operation that has remained the same is using the rubber capped hammer supplied with the original nailers. It is still required for positioning the flooring. The only change is that the rubber comes in non-marking colors. The cleats are the same and the nailers are much the same only air assisted.

Over the past 20 or so years support tools have been developed to help with those time consuming processes that require extra cutting, extra fastening, and where movement is limited.

Hammers are the same except for the non-marking rubber cups.
  • Electric jamb saws with carbide blades make precise repetitive clean cuts for cutting off door jambs and where under cuts are necessary.
  • Flooring jacks were developed to help to tighten the last board runs. Pry bars and or sharpened pieces of flooring were previously used to tighten these runs. They required the installer have a helper or be a gymnast to hold the pry bar, nailing machine, and hammer all at once.
  • The new vibrating saws have helped speed precision cutting, previously relegated to a chisel. These come in handy when finishing a cross cut across a cased opening since the circular saw cannot cut flush to the jamb or wall. They are also used to cut ends of a board repair.
  • Grooving bits for routers have been developed specifically for the flooring industry to groove blunt cut ends and edges. These grooves are then fitted with a slip tongue to give a continuous tongue and groove engagement at direction changes, reversals, and angled cuts. This not only eliminates the need for face nailing but provides the important stability from T & G engagement.
  • Epoxy adhesive cartridges are used to glue board repairs quickly. They have eliminated the need for noticeable face nail holes. The quick set epoxy allows sanding and finishing begin within 10 minutes of the repair.
  • Chop saws are now used extensively to cut square ends and make precise angle cuts.
  • Finally, where would we be without cordless tools--drills, saws, and lights?

The flooring jack for tightening the wall line is an 80's innovation.

Sanding Tools

Hand scrapers were the first tools used to smooth the wood flooring. Sanding began in the 1930s as portable drum sanders were made available. Basic sanding procedures have remained the same with three sanding cuts to smooth the flooring for finishing. To attest to the invention and the sander durability some of the drum machines from the 1950s and 1960s are still being used to sand flooring. Belt sanders were the next step. Belt sanders were introduced to the finishing trade in the mid-1970s. Today the belt machine is more popular than the drum sander because it is generally considered easier to set up and use. Another basic sanding machine is the edger. It was introduced in the 1940s.

The vibrating saw takes the place of the chisel.
One of the main innovations to sanding machines other than improvements to the basic nuts and bolts has been the introduction of better dust containment. Today's new machines and vacuum systems can effectively contain almost all of the sander dust generated. In addition to modifying the machines, advances in abrasive technology over the last 20 years have moved the sanding trade forward by leaps and bounds. These have created materials that last much longer and cut more effectively than the natural minerals and glues used in the older abrasives. This has allowed sanding contractors to sand more area with greater precision in a shorter time.

The basic sanding tool innovations have been-

  • Electrical transformer "boosters" to supply a strong steady current to the sanding machine.
  • Belt sanders since the 1970's
  • Improved dust containment on the machines.
  • Remote dust containment systems with more effective vacuums.
  • High tech abrasives that cut better and longer.
  • Buffer sanding systems with the different screens, pads, and sanding strips.
  • The use of the orbital sanding machines for fine sanding operations.

Accessories like the grooving bits create the quality installation by maintaining T & G contact and help eliminate face nails.

Finishing Tools

Rags and brushes were the first finishing tools. Though these are still used, the lambs wool applicator, and the "T" bar wand with appropriate synthetic pads increase speed and efficiency. In addition roller applicators are being used with some types of finish.

In closing, the dramatic increase in popularity of wood flooring in the last 20 years has created a need for increased speed, safety, efficiency and above all quality of application. The tool industry has addressed these issues with innovation. In order to be more competitive, today's flooring contractor should continually look for labor saving tool innovations. One of the best places to hear about, view and use new items, and to determine if they are for you is at the NOFMA/NWFA/MFMA Flooring Schools. Check the trade publications and NOFMA web site for scheduled dates.