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what lies beneath…

When we bought the house there was carpet on the stairs and landing, as well as in the back bedroom and our upstairs study. At first, the carpets didn’t bother us: in fact, when we first viewed the house (O the romance of house-buying!) they even looked all right, certainly acceptable. However, after looking at them for days and weeks on end, we started to hate them (I did, at least)! Especially the salmon carpet on the stairs and landing.

At least the carpet sort of matches the lovely encaustic floor tiles. Otherwise, it was an eyesore.

It had to go. As did the one upstairs in the study.

I feared the worst: that the stains you see in the picture (and which the flesh of my feet have touched) could be wee.

By the time we got round to taking the carpets up (all apart from the one in the back bedroom), we had been living in the house for about 6 months. The decision was impulsive. What started as ‘taking a peak’ at the state of the floorboards beneath the carpet quickly became a full-on rip-fest. At the end of an hour, we had pulled up all the nasty carpet, cut it up into squares for disposal (this is filthy, dusty work, made yet more unpleasant by the slightly moist under-carpet padding; it was like handling dead flesh) and were then on our hands and knees removing hundreds (yes, bloody hundreds) of nails and tacks.

Finally, we could see what we had to work with. The floorboards in the upstairs study were not as bad as I had imagined they would be: some staining and old paint marks.

Not a bad canvas to start with... The brown hearth tiles we found when the carpet came up -- I'm not sure if they are original or not.

The landing and stairs, though, looked disgusting. There was an unpainted strip down the middle, presumably where there had been a carpet runner. In 106 years, no one had bothered painting it (for which I’m immeasurably grateful).

Not a pretty sight! The under-carpet padding had left a film that makes the exposed wooden bits look wet. The landing was definitely in need of some TLC.

But the edges (of the stairs and some bits of the landing) were covered in (what I later found out to be) layers — at least 4 — of some of the most recalcitrant paint I have ever scraped.

These stairs would become my nemesis over the next week and a bit!

It all had to go, and I thought hiring some electric floor sanders was the way forward. Surely I can bring these floors back to their natural, unpainted glory. Surely I can do that in 2 or 3 days. Surely I was out of my flaming mind!

Ripple-dissolve to about a month later. Sanders had been hired. I had watched countless You Tube videos showing how to operate them. It all seemed piss-easy. Spouse had vacated the house for 3 days (timeframe pre-agreed based on my totally unrealistic calculations). In my sanguine pre-sanding state of mind, I thought it also a good idea to sand the front room (currently in use as my study: see ‘why don’t we have a “front room”?’) as well. So, in total, I was geared up to sand:

1. Front room — floorboards (which started white) were to be sanded and varnished

2. Upstairs study — dark, paint-splattered boards were to be sanded and varnished

3. Landing and staris — were to be sanded and varnished

At about 10.30 a.m. on a Monday morning the sanders turn up, along with papers of assorted grits. One is an upright drum sander, which looks and works rather like a lawn mower (I’d prefer a ‘riding’ one). The other is a ‘hand-held’ edging sander, which weights about 5o lbs and is designed principally to break your back. I decided to begin downstairs in the ‘front room’.

Front room (i.e., my study) prepared for sanding. It looks even bleaker in the weak early morning light.

All the furniture had been removed from the areas to be sanded, so all I needed to do was plug in and begin making some tracks. I spent about another hour reading saftey information and operating instructions (either supplied with the machines or available online) and figuring out how to attach sand paper sheets to the machines. That was a comparatively straightforward task. Then I was really ready to make tracks. Gloves on. Mask on. Goggles on. Ear plugs in. (Ain’t I glad I’ve taken down the curtains so all my neighbours can walk by and have a good look at me in my ridiculous get-up?) I tilted back the sander — which has been fitted by me with a coarse sand paper, P24 to be precise — and powered it on. A reassuring death-grind sound. I put the drum in contact with the floor and walked forward slowly. As I reached the other side of the room I saw that I had very much ‘made tracks’: 2 pale yellow skid marks where the machine had sanded through the paint along the ridges of 2 boards — not, as I had expected, a smooth single swathe of even-sandedness. This, I saw, was going to take longer than I had anticipated.

By about 5 p.m. or so I had done it. The floor, which had started out with a dingy, chipped white paint, was now more or less wood-coloured. I had been obliged to make many of the first passes with the upright sander diagonally to even the boards before running up and down them. And of course I had to change grades of sandpaper several times: from P24 to P40 to P80 to P120. After finishing with each grade on the upright sander, I used the same grades in order of increasing fineness on the edging sander to get up against skirting boards, into corners and beneath the radiator. It turned out okay, I thought, apart from the permanently white bits where some previous owners (they were duly cursed) had plugged holes with white filler. (What did they care, after all, they were going to paint the floors white!) So, then, rested, rehydrated, and dusted down (and don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t about the dustiest job on earth) — I was now ready to varnish. Well, first I had to hoover and mop the floors to get rid of the sawdust. Then 1 coat of  clear satin polyurethane varnish applied with a paintbrush (this is quick work and quite satisfying). Fours hours drying time (recuperation for me). Then I lightly sanded the floor by hand with P120 (or possibly an even finer grain of paper, though I can’t quite remember now). I repeated this process for coats 2 and 3. By early morning (i.e., after midnight) I had finished!

Done. Finally. A silent edging sander can be seen resting forlornly on the hearth (top left-hand corner of photo). It was stranded there till the varnish dried 4 hours later.

Next day, the upstairs study. That got off to a slow start. Something kept destroying my paper on the upright sander. I couldn’t find any obvious culprit (I had pulled up all carpet tacks and staples, and I had used a nail punch to drive rogue nails below the surface of the boards).

Here you can see the big upright sander.

In the end, I decided not to use the P24, but moved instead directly to the P40: this strategy seemed to resovlve the problem. Possibly the very coarse stuff was getting caught awkwardly in the wood grain, causing the paper to tear. I’ll never know. After that, this room succumbed pretty quickly. Not even a day’s work. And the finished result was even better than downstairs!

A thing of beauty -- well, certainly an improvement.

The rest of the job… Now, I’m not going to do a day-by-day account of the remaining work (landing and stairs) because that would be too tedious, and I don’t ever want to relive that agony. Put simply, the rest of the job took over a week and a half. Why? Well, because both electric sanders turned out to be almost totally useless. I couldn’t use the upright one on the stairs for obvious reasons, and I couldn’t really use it on the landing either because that would have meant sanding across the boards (rather than in line with them as advised). The edging sander was about as useful as a photo of an edging sander. In fact, I think a toy R2D2 with sand paper taped to its ‘legs’ could have been more of a help if I’d just wound it up and let it sand down the floor by making erosive passes while gurgling and beeping at me (mad thoughts such as these did occur to at the time). To be fair to the sander, though, the problem was not so much it (or its sanding pads to be specific) but the paint it had to contend with. That stuff (probably lead-based and toxic, certainly as hard as concrete) simply refused to go quietly — or rather, without the high-powered sander with its high-pitched electric whine, quietly (and so effing slowly) was the only way it would go. Whenever the edging sander came into contact with this infernal paint it wouldn’t so much grind it away as heat it to the point that it liquified and bonded with the sanding pad. These paint deposits would go black with heat (there was a reassuring burning smell to alert me) and that blackness would transfer onto the floor as I sanded. I had to give up using the edging sander, but not before I sacrificed several sanding pads in the hopes that at some point it would start working! Bastard machine.

So, it was to be by hand. This took next to an eternity. In some places, using sandpaper and chisel-like paint scrapers, I was averaging 2 hours per board. One section of landing took me 12 hours straight. I came as close that day to Zen trance as I’m likely to come. The result, however, was well worth it.

I spent a 12-hour day in this confined and dusty space...

...And it was worth it!

Warm, rich and natural -- well, 'natural' plus 4 coats of clear satin varnish.

The stairs were even more of a pain than the landing. They took over a week in total, by which time my wife had returned, and I had to fit the job in while she was out of the house. All of it by hand, I remind you. There were some experiments with chemical paint strippers and a heat gun, with mixed results. In the end, though, it was just lots of scraping and sanding.

This tread's had the heat gun treatment.

Surveying the damage...

Done!!! After more than a week of chemicals, heat blasting and scraping.

In the end, it was all worth it. I think I may have permanently damaged my right thumb joint, but I’m pleased with the finished product. And, what’s more, so is my wife! At some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll probably install a carpet stair runner. The varnished stairs are super slippery. They feel good beneath the foot, though, and there’s a great lustre to the wood. I’m certainly glad I did it — but never again!


the project

As snapped by the estate agents -- this is the first we ever saw of our home...

How can we take a two-storey mid-terrace house, built in 1905, and turn it into a home? This blog documents parts of that process. We started with a good house, and our aim was (and still is) to make it better . . . that, and to keep me distracted while I work from home.