Monday, September 22, 2014

Old School Hardwood Floor – ReSource

Location: 6400 Arapahoe Road, Boulder, CO 80303, USA
The reclaimed wood floor adds character to the room
A few years ago, I seized the opportunity to reclaim a hardwood floor. It was the old performance stage from Broomfield Heights Middle School. The contractor was cutting the floor along with the plywood sub-floor and stacking it up outside. I asked the Project Manager and Job Superintendent if I could take the material, so that they didn't have to pay to haul it off. They said that they wouldn't do any extra work to preserve any of it, but I was welcome to take it after their shift was over so that I wouldn't bother the workers, which were on a tight schedule. I agreed.

For the next three years, this whim of an idea, gradually evolved into a hobby, then became an obsession, ultimately occupying much of my free time as a driven mission, until it was complete.

First, I hauled it up to my home in five trips using the back of a Jeep Wrangler. They were large squares roughly one meter on each side. I felt good about rescuing this beautiful old material from the landfill. But then, it sat stacked-up on the side of my garage for several months before I took the time to address what to do with it. Every now and then, I would grab a square and carefully pry the oak plank away from the plywood backing. Then pull out each nail individually. This took about a year, but each square meter was randomly done in my spare time, so it didn't seem like work that took away from my lifestyle.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Wood planks before routing,
2. Filing 'goop' from the edges, 3. Finished planks, 4. Routing jig
As the pile of square meters shrank, the pile of stacked tongue and groove oak planks grew in my garage. As I came across damaged, or cracked boards, I'd add them to my stack of firewood. My seven year old daughter and I made a game of sorting the planks into four categories: boards with a tongue on one end but no groove on the other, boards with a groove but no tongue, smaller boards with a tongue and groove, and one meter boards with no tongue or groove.

I borrowed a planer from a friend and spent a solid month, planing off the surface coating from the top of each plank. Again, discarding bad boards into the firewood pile. After this much time working with the wood, the boards began taking on a personality of their own – the particular way old wood smells and feels.

My intention was to write a note underneath the floor, stating that these boards came from Broomfield Heights Middle School so that someday someone would find it. Then add the front page from The Mountain-Ear describing the 1,000 Year Flood of 2013, and two crisp $100 dollar bills that I won playing roulette in Black Hawk.

The next step was cutting off damaged ends and routing in the necessary tongue or groove. I sanded all six sides of each board and removed the occasional goop that had embedded into the seams of the original floor over the years. I needed to have clean edges for a tight fit, but I wanted to show the history by retaining the scuffs, divots, scratches and imperfections. Each board was revealing its character – perhaps a mark made by a student dropping a trombone or a scratch from moving a set from the school musical. I also kept some of the burn marks from the planer to show that it had been recycled.

Wearing the ear protection and the muffled sound of the sander in the background, is sort of like a sensory deprivation chamber. I mentioned the effect of working with wood in an article about the Carousel of Happiness. In my mind, I wondered what would be the point of writing the story of these oak boards underneath the floor, only for it to be found decades later. It needed to look like it was reclaimed to anyone who walked on it, but also had to be done well and not look too shabby. It had to be subtle. Leave a few indications of nicks and scratches, but cut off bad sections. These are the things going through my mind as I spent hours sanding boards. 
[Related StoryThe Carousel of Happiness]
Manually installing the wood planks
Then, I had a great opportunity to get some more, newer recycled oak boards which were also a bit longer. I used the two different batches of reclaimed wood and randomly mixed them together to create a patchwork mosaic pattern. This highlighted the fact that it was reclaimed wood without looking like just another old nicked-up floor.

I rented a manual nailer from the Boulder ReSource Tool Library for $4.50/day. (The pneumatic one was already rented out) The Boulder ReSource yard is incredible, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. Simply walking among all the recycled materials rejuvenated my energy to complete the hardwood floor, so I could reuse another material.

Installing it 'Old School' style:

Luna the Green-Eyed Feral Cat
With all the work that this wood had gone through, installing it manually seemed to be an appropriate application. Whoever invented the tongue and groove process was a genius. The whole idea of nailing boards down in a way that buries the nail below the surface is brilliant. The inter locking nature of the system, so that individual boards don't pop up over time, was a profound idea, and it has been used the same way for well over a century.

By this time, even Luna the cat knew that I was becoming obsessed with this floor – where it came from, how it was installed, the texture, the smell, even the way that it blended with Luna's color.

The people at the Boulder ReSource Tool Library are very supportive, and when I returned the nailer, they recommended to rent a floor a sander from Sunbelt Rentals in Boulder, which I did. The attendants at Sunbelt were helpful as well. I could have sanded it completely down, had no evidence that it was reclaimed wood, and it would have looked like a new oak floor from Home Depot.

'Before' and 'After' finishing reveals the character marks
It would have been much, much easier to just get the boards from Home Depot in the first place. That would have been a bit more expensive for materials, and not really add to the character of my home. So, I sanded just enough to smooth it out, but kept the charm and charisma of the nicks and scratches.

The purpose of finishing the floor with polyurethane typically seals and protects the wood, but also has a way of really bringing out the natural wood grain. Here too, the dings and scratches are enhanced, providing the character and history I was looking for. Maybe I'm the only one that will ever notice. Maybe we're starting to see an architectural style of reused materials with its own look, which makes a statement about valuing recycled materials as a society. In the past, homes made of recycled tires or bottles have been unique, but now with the ReSource yard, perhaps reusing materials may become more mainstream.

The whole process of getting to know the wood and installing it, was a rewarding experience that subtly changed my value system, and gave me an appreciation for the recycling efforts in our region. If we, as a community are to achieve our zero waste goals, we will need to make a little cultural shift toward the artistic appreciation of reused architectural elements.

Then to come full circle, I dropped off some materials that I no longer needed, at Ned Clean-Up Day. The Center for ReSource Conservation was at Ned Clean-Up Day to salvage my things and categorize them in the ReSource Yard for someone else to reclaim and use for their home. Hopefully, they won't sand it completely down, but leave a few of my nicks and scratches to proudly show it was reclaimed.
[Related Story: Ned Clean-Up Day]

[Here is a Video Valediction] This is Steely Dan (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) performing My Old School (looks like the American Bandstand studio) but was originally recorded at Caribou Ranch  in Nederland (1973) on their Countdown to Ecstasy album. [What is a Video Valediction?]
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