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Filling the Gaps

January 19, 2014

My last house had hardwood floors in all the rooms.  The wood must have shrunk after it was installed because there were gaps between the boards.  The worst of these, and there were many like that, were 2 mm to 5 mm wide.  One of the previous owners must have had the floors refinished, which included filling the gaps with a compound.  That procedure didn’t work very well.  Every time I swept the floor, I collected fragments of the compound that had broken away.  The floors became an unsightly mess.

What could I do to improve this situation?  Maybe a different compound to fill the gaps might work.  I tried regular wood filler in one room.  It started breaking away almost as soon as I had finished that room.  The reason was that the floor boards moved slightly when I walked on the floor, and that was enough to crack the compound in the gaps.  I’d have to use something that allowed a bit of movement without cracking.  Strips of wood seemed like the best thing to use.

I decided to do the living room next.  I moved all the furniture out of there and settled down to the task of cleaning the remaining compound out of all the gaps between the floor boards.  Scraping with a chisel or a screwdriver worked pretty well.  I swept up the fragments with a brush and cleaned up the dust with my vacuum cleaner.  The floor looked even worse at that point.

To fill the gaps, I used strips of oak that matched the hardwood boards.  I used a friend’s bandsaw to cut these from thin oak boards that were intended for interior wall covering.  The strips varied in thickness so they’d fit in gaps that varied in width.  The gaps were generally widest in the middle and tapered at each end.  I shaved the oak strips down with a plane so that they fit each gap closely.  Then I put white glue on one side of the strip and pressed it into the gap.  The floor boards were interlocking in the tongue and groove style.  I was careful to glue the new strips only to the side of the floor board that had the tongue.  That way the boards would still be able to move slightly as I walked on them.  Early on I made a rule that I would only fill gaps that were 1 mm wide or wider.  Otherwise, I’d never finish the job.  I broke that rule a few times when I looked over the floor and noticed a few remaining gaps that stood out.  I had to force myself to stop doing that.

The strips projected slightly above the floor after they were glued in place.  I used a steel scraper to bring them down to the same level as the floor boards.  The floor was looking much better at that point.  Next came sanding and refinishing the whole floor.  I only needed to remove the old finish, probably varnish.  I should have rented a floor sander, but I decided to use a small belt sander instead.  I spent days on my knees, swinging the belt sander back and forth.  It was a big room.  Progress was slow.  I should have rented a floor sander, but I’m stubborn.  Eventually I had the whole floor sanded to my satisfaction.

Urethane was next.  It needed two coats.  I was on my knees again with a can of urethane and a large brush.  I started at one corner working my way across the living room.  By the time I got back to where I’d started, the finish was almost dry.  I’d have to work faster.  I was slapping it on.  It was exhausting.  The last strip closed off my access to the kitchen and the back door.  When I finished I was confined to the bedroom and bathroom.  It was time for a coffee break while the urethane dried.  I had already put everything I needed in those two rooms, or so I thought.  I had to climb out the bedroom window and go in the back door to the kitchen to get something I’d missed.  Fortunately I did have that escape route.

Finally came the second coat of urethane.  I knew what I was doing for that one.  It also didn’t dry as quickly.  The living room floor looked really good when I was done.  It looked really good the next morning too.  I was reluctant to put all the furniture back there.  I laid down old towels when I walked over the new floor.  I wanted to be certain that the new finish was properly set and that nothing would damage it.  Finally, I gave in and put the furniture back.  I was careful to put felt discs and strips on the bottom of all the furniture.  The living room looked really good.

That was tedious work, almost all of it done while I was on my knees.  I wasn’t going to do that again.  That’s my usual learning experience.  It was a good idea and was successful, but was way too much work.  My next house also had a hardwood floor, but this one was properly installed.  It didn’t have gaps between the boards.  I hired a floor specialist to sand and refinish it.  He did the whole thing in about two days.  I was happy to do it that way.

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