Installing Rustic and Hand-Scraped Wood Flooring
March 7, 2011
Rustic and or hand-scraped flooring is in the eye of the beholder. In today’s wood flooring market this look is the “in vogue” look. The definition or perception can mean 10 different looks to 10 different people.
What do we mean by “Rustic” or “Hand Scraped”? Rustic can simply be character grade flooring such as a #2 Common grade or equivalent. It can mean wide planks and long length. It can mean knot holes and discoloration from mineral streaks and stains. It can mean a floor that is worn from years of traffic. The variations within each of these descriptions can be endless.
For hand-scraped flooring the variations can be just as varied. The words mean someone has actually scraped the flooring with some kind of scraping tool. In today’s world this can also mean that a machine is used to impart the scraped look to the flooring, thus “factory finished hand scraped” flooring that is machine scraped. Also, even a factory can employ laborers to hand scrape flooring. Much of the custom hand-scraped flooring is site scraped to the particular wishes of the consumer. With any custom floor setting customer expectations are critical. Samples of the finished product are generally needed to illustrate the look. And since the product is hand worked you must explain to the consumer all variations produced may not be shown in the sample but the sample is representative of the look. As the following descriptions show, the costs associated with this custom made product can be all over the spectrum from $10 to $20 per foot to $100+ dollars per foot. The more hand work and custom experience the higher the cost.
First is the rustic floor associated with the character marked grades of flooring. Our choices are endless. There can be wide plank which includes flooring from 3” to 10” even 12” wide. Widths can be randomly distributed, a repeat pattern, or all the same width. Performance of the wider widths will be a critical issue. Most customers can understand the seasonal gapping associated with plank flooring but refuse to accept cupping. Eased edges also help to camouflage the seasonal gaps and any board to board unevenness associated with the extra wide widths. All the directives for strip flooring should be followed with great attention paid to moisture issues both of the site and the flooring itself. Proper environmental conditions and associated acclimation is critical. Moisture gain and related expansion after installation will likely result in cupping or buckling, so err on the side to allow field spacing. Also, be sure to back seal wide plank flooring after acclimation to help prevent cupping related to moisture differences between back and face.
Wider planks will generally require extra fastening. Screwing and plugging can work and be hidden using plugs mimicking the face grain of the installed planks. Inform the consumer the technique to be used so there are no surprises. Trim screws can also work and be hidden by the particular area of grain and proper fillers. The wider planks may not be end matched so grooving and inserting a spline will likely be needed to engage the ends. In addition, blind nailing at ends can firm end joints and keep them from moving. Also, gluing ends or along plank edges may also be a fastening choice. Just remember that any repairs will be more difficult and may require subfloor repair as well. It is important with rustic flooring not to install defective pieces. Splits and larger cracks can be filled with clear epoxy. This not only fills the opening but glues the wood so a larger issue doesn’t develop. For those planks with splinters and splits that can develop into splinters, these may have the rustic look but can become safety issues so cut them out. Another issue: large knot holes that can become a tripping hazard for small heels. These knot holes can also be an extra character feature but safety is the primary issue to avoid liability. Either cut the area out or fill the hole with epoxy compound which can stand the expected traffic.
The custom hand-scraped floor
The choices for the hand-scraped floor are as varied as the number of contractors that do this type of work and can vary even from mechanic to mechanic in the same company. Here it is very important to set the customer’s expectations with a sample board or finished sample area of the floor (Photo 1). The procedures for the job must be the same as the sample presented. These floors are generally high-end floors that require extensive hand work. Be sure not to sell your talents short and wind up working for minimum wage with these custom floors.
Many floors begin with an exotic or specially cut flooring species. Often the planks are prepared in the shop by pillowing or easing the edges. This is all done by hand with a small side wheel grinder and sanding wheel. The object is to not have a perfect factory like bevel but one with variation. The contractor may even want to bench scrape the boards before delivering them to the site. I can’t say it often enough, but moisture readings of the site and flooring as related to acclimation must never be overlooked to determine if everything is acceptable.
Hand scraping often follows wetting the surface of the flooring. This wetting process can also be part of the coloring process to give a special antiqued look. A “French bleed” using water and vinegar with steel wool to wet the surface and allow the solution to react with the tannins in the wood and impart the desired color can be one process. Bleaching can also be done and adds to the old distressed look. Analine dyes and trans-tints mixed with water or alcohol for overall coloring are also used. With the wetted fibers the scraping can go somewhat easier. A good scraping tool and technique should produce thin shavings or curls 16” to 24” long (Photo 4). But, remember there is no such process called easy scraping it’s all hard work. During the process you can work the grain to dish it out and you can scrape aggressively around knots to high light for the raised effect (Photo 3). Wire brushing can also be a procedure used to give a worn appearance by removing the soft grain. There are sanding machine attachments that can give the wire brushed look. You can also distress the flooring by adding worm holes with a board and protruding nails, add nail holes for the reclaimed look, and use a dremel tool to custom distress areas. The overall look should be uniform with a random pattern and areas that are not prominently different from other areas.
Finishing is next. With distressed and hand scraped floors they have to be prepared for the finish; just finishing after the scraping process will give a very uneven finish. Don’t use a screen or sanding disc on a hand scraped floor. Hand rub the entire floor with fine paper stick-it strips on a fiber pad. Use a buffer with a steel wool pad or a softer type driving pad and the stick-it type strips. Using a sanding disc or screen will remove much of the hand work you just created. Even the application of the finish is best accomplished by hand rubbing. The antique look often desired is best accomplished with a penetration type finish. These finishes are referred to as hard wax oil finishes. They have the natural oils similar to the tongue oils but with resins that add a hardener to give more durability and protection from water events. Apply by hand rubbing and wiping away the excess. Two applications may be necessary to get the optimum protection and the desired patina. Shellac (universal, dewaxed, waxed) are frequently used for finishing these floors. After drying is complete an application of wax is normally used to complete the look with a satin like luster. You can use either a paste wax or liquid wax colored or neutral but be sure the final wax application is with paste wax to avoid scuffing. Since these custom floors are found in high-end homes maintenance is done by a cleaning contractor or site maintenance personnel. Be sure to educate them on the proper maintenance of the floors.
Remember these are custom floors, unique, one of a kind. They are expensive and the owners expect the best and pay for that expertise. You don’t just decide to go out and bid a hand scraped job without special training. Your best training opportunity is to attend one of the expert classes specifically directed to the hand scraping techniques. Then, if you are lucky, try and work with an artisan that does these floors regularly. In any case after you attend a class make up some large panels at you home shop and practice and perfect your technique before attempting a job (Photo 2). These jobs can be an opportunity to set you above the competition and allow you to step to the next skill level as well as monetarily. I would like to thank my friend Daniel Boone for the hand-scraped photos shown with this article.