A Guide to End-Grain Flooring

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“Building With Secondhand Stuff” by Chris Peterson is about making good decisions and learning specific techniques for getting unusable material into useful condition. Practically any material can be reclaimed using the tools and techniques you’ll learn in this helpful book, and all for a fraction of the cost of buying new materials at a building center.

When you build with secondhand materials, you save money and reduce pressure on your local landfill. You also help curb the consumption of brand-new materials that need to be manufactured from raw resources and shipped across the country or around the world. But perhaps best of all, when you use reclaimed materials to build your home projects, you get unique results and original outcomes that satisfy you in a way that new stuff just can’t. Building With Secondhand Stuff (Creative Publishing International, 2011) by Chris Peterson is a valuable resource for getting the most out of reclaimed materials. This excerpt about end-grain flooring is taken from the chapter “Reclaiming Heritage Wood.”

Spend enough time searching through old industrial buildings and once-grand turn-of-the-century homes, and sooner or later you will come across the interesting and potentially gorgeous wood flooring known as end-grain flooring. Also called “wood-block” flooring, end-grain floors are made of tiles cut from timber ends. Because the cuts are made across the board, the end grain is exposed on the face of the tile, just as it would be on a chopping block. And, as with chopping block, the surface of an end-grain tile is incredibly tough and durable.

That durability is why the first uses for these wood-block tiles were as a street paving material (and some of those streets are still in existence today), and as floors for industrial facilities. Chances are, you won’t find a tougher home flooring material.

But that toughness belies an incredibly beautiful side. End-grain pattern is more intense and visually dynamic than any other wood grain, and was stained, painted, and finished natural. The look of reclaimed end-grain tiles varies with the type of wood used and where the tiles were installed. Depending on the look you’re after, you can refinish the tiles to create a shiny end-grain floor that looks almost like polished brick, or lay a satin-finish surface with hypnotic patterns unlike any other type of flooring. You can also take advantage of the time-seasoned appearance of your reclaimed tiles, worn as they will be from many years of foot (or tire) traffic. Not only do the tiles present a vast number of potential surface finishes, the arrangement of the tiles can be varied from a simple brick pattern, to a herringbone design, to a more random pattern. You can also leave spaces between the end-grain blocks to be filled with flexible wood filler, or you can butt each tile up against the others to create a solid-surface appearance. Either way, the surface must be sealed to prevent dirt and moisture from penetrating.

The floors are laid somewhat like other tile floors, although the adhesive is different; the surface of an end-grain floor is either sealed with a clear polyurethane after cleaning and a very light sanding (if you want to keep the aged appearance) or it is sanded in much the same fashion as a hardwood strip floor is, if you’re looking for a completely new surface appearance. But given the potential complexity of the floor’s pattern and the work required for laying it, end-grain floors are usually limited to smaller spaces and those areas that don’t require complex adjustments to the pattern to accommodate built-in fixtures. Either way, end-grain flooring is more difficult to install than other wood floors, requiring patience and attention to detail. The result, however, is usually well worth your trouble.

End-Grain Tiles: Cut Your Own

You don’t necessarily have to purchase reclaimed end-grain tiles to have a wood-block floor; you can make your own. Use a bandsaw to cut inch-thick slices from a 2×6 or other piece of reclaimed lumber (such as the antique pine timber in the Image Gallery being sliced into 6″ x 6″ tiles)

How to Lay Reclaimed End-Grain Flooring

(Open the Image Gallery to view a photo of each step.)

1. Establish the overall tile pattern. Work the pattern out on sketch paper first, using the dimensions of the room to scale. Once you’ve figured out the pattern, dry lay the actual tiles to ensure that it works to your satisfaction.

2. Snap chalk lines to divide the space into four quadrants. Lay one quadrant at a time, starting at the center. Spread a bed of polyurethane adhesive, according to the manufacturer’s instructions, setting the tiles in place either butted up to one another, or using spacers to leave room for grout.

3. Cut tiles with a band saw or jig saw as necessary to fit around obstacles and at the outer edges of the design. Leave a 1/2″ gap at walls, and around obstructions such as pillars, to allow for expansion. Once all the end-grain tiles are laid, let the floor set for 24 hours, or as long as recommended by the adhesive manufacturer.

4. Spread flexible, sandable flexible wood filler into large cracks in the surface of individual tiles. If you’re refinishing the surface, sand with a drum sander equipped with 60-grit sandpaper. Sand across the grain to start with, and make a final pass with the grain.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Building With Secondhand Stuff, published by Creative Publishing International, 2011.