Installing a Rustic Plywood Plank Floor

This has to be said, even though it's an uncomfortable truth: wall to wall carpet is disgusting, unsanitary stuff. No amount of shampooing and vacuuming will ever get it clean, especially when living with kids and pets.

When it was time to coat over the also awful (but not unhealthy) offwhite / eggshell walls with brilliant pure white semi-gloss paint, it seemed like a good idea to finally replace the old carpet with something else - anything really, we hadn't decided yet, but not more carpet. In the next picture, during the repainting, the icky pile had already been taken up from half the living room and tossed.

We put up with the dirt and germ catching floor covering that came with this place for way too long, but other money-magnet things always needed doing instead. It was an incredibly joyous event when it all went out the door. If we'd waited two or thee more years, it would have grown legs and walked out by itself.

When we did this a couple years ago, there wasn't much interest in cut plywood floors then. If you google "plywood plank floor" now, you'll find tons of info.

By the time we'd gotten the floor down to a swept and vacuumed, staple and nail free particle sub flooring, without rusty and dangerous carpet tack strips (big job in itself), we had decided on the idea of ripped plywood planking, and got started right away. We went to Mike's Discount Lumber in north Eugene and picked up 7 sheets of 1/2" A-C sanded-top fir plywood, and some 2x4s. Also stopped at Jerry's Home Improvement and got a Kreg Rip-Cut saw attachment and a new carbide tipped blade for the vintage 1980s USA Black And Decker.

On the side deck, which also needs replacing or sanding and staining, an impromptu ripping jig was set up with the new 2x4s, basically cut in half and screwed down to the deck boards:

It took a few minutes to figure out how to attach the Rip-Cut to the saw, and set the rip width. I settled on 8" cuts, for a real "plank-y" look, like what thick solid wood floors in old warehouses and grain mills look like. Due to the width of the blade cuts, this made five 8" planks, and one 7 3/8" plank from each sheet of plywood. Three narrower rows of planks were interspersed through the room, and aren't very noticeable.

Each sheet was held onto the jig by a really simple method. A 1 1/2" wood screw was driven down into the 2x4 right at the edge of the sheet, with the counter-sunk head of the screw about half way down the thickness of the sheet. Then, a moderate tap of the hammer on the opposite side of the sheet dug the plywood into the head of the exposed screw, gripping it well enough so the sheet didn't move while running the saw+Rip-Cut assembly down the length of the plywood. See below at the front left corner, near a made in Switzerland Bosch drill-driver:

After a plank was ripped from the sheet, the remaining plywood was moved over to the edge of the jig, and the securing screw was moved to its new location next to the sheet.

The saw blade was set for about a 5/8" cut depth, and down the sheet we went - really slick and very accurate cuts, every time. It's best to not stop during the length of the cut, just one long sweep at a constant rate of travel. It really helps to have a brand new, super sharp blade, too.

Here's a picture of the very end of a long rip. In this case, we're doing a much narrower cut, essentially re-ripping previously cut planks, to fit the space between the next to last row of planks, and the "far" wall - more on that later. I was on the deck to take this photo, but I always stood to the left of the saw while walking it down the plywood.

After ripping each plank, it was put on a pair of sawhorses, and sawdust was brushed off. We piled up two sheets worth of planks - 12 - here at a time, before going to the edge sanding stage.

While on the horses, any thin un-sawn bits were removed with a new blade in a Stanley knife.

It always helps to have willing and conscientious help. Here's our 17 year old doing all the edge sanding - creating even and consistent rounded chamfers on all edges. He also did a once over on the top surface, removing any burrs and micro splinters, to ensure max smoothness.

Pro tip: if you pay by the hour, not by the piece, you'll end up with better results. We both agreed to $20 an hour (wages in your area might differ), and not be in a hurry, taking enough time to get the job done well. End of job bonuses are always appreciated, too.

In the photo above, you can see the ripping jig on the old deck. Alternately sharing the working space turned out well for both workers - while I was ripping planks, The Kid had a break, and when he was sanding, I did other things, like messing with a then current guitar project.

After edge sanding, each plank was taken indoors and stacked in the living room, out of the wet western Oregon night dew. Most of the stacks were for full width 8" planks, and one had the narrower ones.

After de-carpeting the floor, we moved a few things back into the room, and hung out on a rug sitting on top of the particle board. At this point the kitchen was full of stuff like the piano, TV, guitar amps, and other oddments.

Before laying down the planks and fastening them to the existing layers of sub-floor, we did a test fit, to see how close we were at estimating how much space would be left over at the far wall, for the narrowest row of planks. It ended up being around 6", but since no room is exact dimensionally or perfectly rectangular, each of the planks along the far wall was individually measured for width and re-ripped - see the 7th picture, above, of a plank getting cut down again.

Note the totally weird fake fireplace in the photo above. Not 100% phony - it's got ceramic faux logs with gas burner jets, and an electric ignition switch on the wall. We covered it up with a piece of paneling, painted that gloss white, and put the piano in front of it.

Below is the only picture I took of the big 10" cut off saw that friend John loaned us. It was used to - guess what? - cut off the planks into shorter lengths, as needed to create a random appearing plank laying arrangement. Even though I put a brand new fine tooth blade on it, the first cut was jagged and splintery - very discouraging.

I remembered about putting masking tape on the tops and bottoms of the tuner holes in guitar headstocks, prior to reaming them out to a larger bore to fit cast tuning machines, to avoid splintering the finish. So we tried making a cut with tape over the penciled in cut lines, and hooray - that also worked on plywood planks:

After each length cut, I did rounded edge sanding on the ends of the planklets.

One great reason for doing projects like this is getting to use tools that you normally wouldn't - I'd never handled a cut off saw or a pneumatic nail gun, and it was fun learning new skills.

We were going to rent those tools, but friend, expert tool guru, and all around nice guy John insisted on loaning them to us, and was on hand for some quick and deep instruction. He actually laid the first row of planks, describing each step and tossing in helpful tips. Plywood planks were a new concept for him too, but he'd had a lot of experience with other materials.

This a good time to describe this room, which has an unusual layout: basically 17' square, there's a quasi-hallway running down one side of it from the front door and stairway, back to the kitchen and rest of the bottom floor. This semi hallway is separated from the rest of the room by a strange 1/2 height wall, with a 6' wide doorway/opening in the middle, leaving a 13' wide by 17' long livable space.

The first plank was placed in front of the "doorway" to the room, and centered in the opening. Then, two other planks were cut down to fit on either side. Each plank got a good squirm of builder's adhesive on its bottom side, then laid down and nailed in place. Starting with the second row, a 16 oz hammer knocking against a short piece of 2x4 was used to bend the plank sideways to ensure as tight a fit as possible against the previous row - then, stepping on the new plank to hold it in place, pin nails were shot to secure it.

In the picture above, you can see the still-okay '80s vinyl tiles covering the "hallway" part of the room. There was an evil looking trim plate covering the transition between the tiles and the carpet - that was tossed. After the planks were laid, a 4 1/2" wide piece of hemlock moulding with one radiused edge became the new transition plate, covering the jagged edge of the tiles nicely. Also note the stains on the particle board sub-floor; part of our philosophy here is clean and sanitary new materials and paint totally covering up old sins.

Below, there's already six rows of planks laid, with the 7th row started. I would talk about the process of randomizing the plank pattern, but I actually shut off my mind for this step of the installation. Doing a balancing act between esthetics and the need to minimize cutting to avoid having too many short pieces toward the end of the project, I sort of entered a zen like mental space. It was like one long improvisational guitar solo, with the only contact with real time being the interface with the tools, doing steps in order, and working safely. Having a couple extra sheets of plywood would have ensured having fewer left over small pieces, but it was more fun this way.

Also fun was, toward the end of the plank laying, bringing in some furniture and having a place to relax and scope out the scene. Notice the white painted piece of paneling I'd mentioned earlier, that eventually covered the fake-o fireplace.

A 10 oz trim hammer was used periodically to drive any pin nails that didn't get down at least flush with the plank tops. Pins that haven't been driven deep enough can be found by running your hand lightly along the plank surfaces.

Same exact time, a view in the other direction. We're almost out of planks at this point. And yes, we have an old fashioned land line telephone - the wireless signal here in the South Hills can be bad sometimes.

Next photo - here's some left overs from intentionally cutting out the "footballs" (wood knot covering plugs) from the planks. Highest quality A - C grade plywood has few to none of these plugs on the top surface, but the stuff we got from the discount lumber place had a bit more. Luckily we had enough planks clear of footballs to get the job done.

You can also see in this picture how tightly we were able to get the planks to fit together - a testimony to the accuracy of the Kreg Rip-Cut and new blade on a high quality vintage saw, and also a great edge sanding job by The Kid:

The only ply plank floor I'd ever seen was at a fixed up old farmhouse south of Creswell, Oregon. The owner had ripped 3/4" coastal Douglas fir plywood planks, and laid them down without bothering to round off the edges or getting a tight fit - there were a lot of gaps, really rustic. Then, he had painted the whole floor high gloss white, and the end result was beautiful; it was hard to get my satellite TV repair service call done, I kept looking at that wonderful floor.

We considered painting our own plywood floor, but settled on using plain old fashioned clear shellac. Totally natural, non-toxic, and dries really fast - all important attributes for us, and we also needed to get back into the living room quickly, since rain was in the extended weather forecast.

Here's a picture below showing the difference in coloring between a row of planks already shellacked, and bare uncoated wood. Even though the shellac we used was clear and not the unfiltered amber variety, it really knocked down the naturally pink cast of the western red fir plywood:

All three of us here shared the shellacking process, and we got each coat done fairly quickly.

The floor after one coat of shellac:

Another view:

Here it is with two coats of shellac:

The plan was to have at least three coats of shellac, preferably four, but time was running out due to the weather changing. Two turned out to be enough, since most of the traffic areas are covered with wool rugs.

Sometime during the flooring job, a total eclipse of the sun occurred. Here's a picture of how the sunlight looked on a plywood plank, filtered through the leaves of an oak tree while the eclipse was happening:

After giving the shellac three days to dry, we put on trim moulding around the walls, on top of the plywood flooring. This is pine trim stock; it's usually painted, but its varied color fits in nice and unrefined with the rustic floor.

Note the light in this photo - the sky was full of dark and swiftly moving clouds. Rain was coming in, and I was working fast to get all the outside steps done before it hit. I didn't stop and take any pictures of the moulding installation, and it was well after dark when the last trim nail was in place.

Not too late to take a well deserved break, open up a beer, and set up a place to sit and soak up the new atmosphere and ambience, while listening to the rain on the high ceilinged roof.

In total, after purchasing the paint for the walls and some brushes and new rollers, seven sheets of plywood and a couple 2x4s, nine 8' strips of pine moulding, some hand tools, the Rip-Cut attachment and new blades for both saws, some clips of pin nails and a few tubes of adhesive, 2 1/2 gallons of shellac, well earned pay for The Kid and a quantity of micro-brews for John, we spent a bit more than $600 on our living room renewal project. We could have saved a bit here and there, but that's still a whole lot less than it would have cost with almost any other sort of flooring.

A couple weeks later, we got two very hand-made-ish looking low pile wool rugs, one 8' x 10', and another 5' x 8', to suit various room arrangements. To get some sense of scale here, the 1963 Flexsteel sofa below is 7' long.

We installed a long curtain rod along the front window wall, and put four panels of semi sheer white gauzy looking curtains on it.

After a month passed, the new plywood plank floor didn't seem new anymore. Three months on, we had forgotten the old carpet ever existed, and having a nice, fresh and sanitary living room felt normal.

On Christmas Eve day it snowed. Unusually for this part of Oregon, Christmas morning was sunny, with lots of light coming in reflecting off half a foot of new snowfall outside, and we had a happy, bright, and cheerful holiday.

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