Tuesday, December 15, 2015

DIY Hardwood Mahogany Floor: A Work of Art

Early on in our musings about how to make the space our own and give it a personal flair, Brian hit upon the idea to do hardwood floors throughout our new open plan kitchen and dining room. Sure, I thought. That'll look nice.

Turns out that when Brian mentions hardwood floors however, he doesn't envision a trip to Lowe's like the rest of us. He means purchasing raw lumber, milling it himself, routing in the tongue and groove, installing, sanding and finishing it ourselves!

After some foraging around the internet, Brian scored a great deal on several pallets of mahogany boards from an eBay seller who had acquired a hardwood floor warehouse with some lumber still in it. This was fortuitous because we were able to get a stunning red mahogany floor without sending any cues to the forestry marketplace demanding additional harvest of high value but vulnerable tree species.

Here is what Jan and Carl's basement looked like after the Santos Mahogany and African Mahogany was delivered. The wood in the front is salvaged maple gymnasium floor boards because hey, surely we can do something with that too, like build the cabinets from scratch!

Below is a cross section of colors in the mahogany ranging from browns and tans to oranges and reds. The first step was to separate the heartwood (red colors) from the sapwood (the lighter colors) as we really only wanted to use the heartwood for the floor. 

Below, Brian uses the table saw in Carl's basement to straight line rip the boards on a jig he made. We found this process wasted too much wood so most of the boards were processed on the joiner and planer to get straight, flat, square boards. We then separated those into 1/4 inch width increments and planed them to the standard 3/4 inch height. It sounds simple, but moving the huge piles of wood through all of these steps took us several months as we could only ever devote a few hours at a time to the task.

Here I'm using the crosscut saw to ensure the edges are straight and the corners are a perfect 90 degree angle.

Having processed each and every individual piece of wood, we got to know it rather intimately. This was one of my very favorites with a stunning swirl pattern at the end.

While we were finishing up the wood processing, we had to start thinking about prepping the existing underfloor for its new covering. Using a laser level, I mapped the somewhat uneven floor's peaks and valleys. We might have taken a few breaks to play with the laser level.

This was an important step because hardwood flooring can be laid over a subfloor with a variance of less than one quarter inch over an eight foot area. The floor doesn't need to be perfectly level, but it does need to be flat. If left uneven, you're more likely to end up with squeaky floors where the boards flex over the sunken areas.

Here's the completed version of my measurements that allowed us to see those differences of more than a quarter inch.

Brian then input these measurements into Excel in order to create a visual guide to the peaks and valleys in the floor. This is the map of the 400 square feet of floor we were working with. If you hadn't noticed, I'm married to a software geek and data junkie.

Using this map and a long straight edge, Brian fills in some of the low spots to make the floor flat over each eight foot span.

Meanwhile I was trying to figure out paint colors for the walls...

...and anticipate how the colors might look once the floors were installed. I must have put dozens of varieties of beige and sage green on various walls. I'm so thankful to have an extended family member employed by Sherwin Williams - thanks Barbara!

Back in the workshop we put on the final touches by using the router/shaper to cut in the tongues and grooves.

Once the wood was finally all processed, it was time for it to move over to the house in order to acclimate to its climate and humidity for several days before installation.

Before the floor boards can be installed, a moisture proof barrier has to be rolled out and tacked down.

Then the process of "racking" the floor boards begins. We had boards of varying widths, from 2.25 inches to 4.5 inches so we had to compile rows of alternating widths that looked good while making sure that the color variation also worked and that seams didn't fall in stair-step or H patterns.

The kids were mildly interested in the process and helped a little bit with laying out some of the boards.

Riker tries his hand at pounding some of the boards together using a grooved block so as to not damage the tongues by hammering directly onto them.

Brian prepares his big floor nailing guns.

We'd rack several feet of flooring and then go back and nail it down before moving on and racking several more feet of floor. Here it is about 80% installed.

And this is all that was left after all the boards were laid! We were pretty worried that there wouldn't be enough and we just couldn't bring ourselves to think about heading back to the wood shop to process more boards!

Then there were a few specialty pieces that had to be made at the end of the installation. The stair nose piece to the basement, the fifteen foot long rounded piece before the step down to the living room and the transition piece to the front sitting room all took a significant amount of time to make.

Once the boards were installed, we had to figure out the process for sanding and finishing. Here I'm using a rented drum sander to even out the slight variations from board to board.

The floor boards coming out of the planer are glassy smooth and so it was disheartening to use a big drum sander to even out the floor once installed. It could never leave the boards as smooth as they were upon installation.

So, we learned how to use card scrapers to get a super smooth finish. And aren't the shavings cool?

These card/cabinet scrapers are awesome tools, but they have to be filed and burnished regularly so we bought a stack of them to rotate through. I sharpened while Brian scraped - a finger straining experience to say the least! If we were to do it again (HA!), Brian would use his newly acquired Stanley #8 joiner hand plane. (He assures me hand tool aficionados will appreciate the reference.) This would have saved us from some troubles we had using the power sanders, which were prone to leaving gouges in the wood.

Here's what the floor looked like once it was sanded and scraped and awaiting a finish.

We decided to use three coats of water based polyurethane to seal and protect the wood. The mahogany was such a stunning color that we didn't need to use any stains and just wanted a clear finish with no tint. It took us a while to get the knack of applying the product and then we had to climb out the window after the final coat so as to not mar the finish!

And here's what it looked like after the final coat....

And here are two close ups to show the grain and color variation.

Isn't it stunning? What an unbelievable amount of work we've put into the project but our floors are quite literally, a work of art.


  1. Truly a work of art. Love the progress pics and explanations!
    Gerry K.

    1. Thanks for reading and appreciating the countless hours of work!