A Floor For the Trailer

This past winter was an unusually mild one for my area, and not very snowy, so there were a few days where I could go outside and chip away at the trailer job. I was only working part-time, so I had plenty of down time. The problem was, the trailer demanded more than time, it also demanded skill, i.e. someone who knew what they were doing, i.e. not me. But I refused to be intimidated. Like I said, when I got it, the trailer was basically a box on wheels: no windows, no insulation, and a nasty, warped plywood floor. First, I had to take off the panels that came with the trailer. This was a process that took several weeks, as I could only work outside for 10-15 minutes at a time before my hands would start to go numb from cold. Also, the panels were held on with about 5 different kinds of fasteners, some of which were almost buried by a sloppy coat of paint, and some of which had to be cut with a hacksaw. My friend Tommy and my father were recruited as (occasionally reluctant) help and/or moral support.

Finally, all the panels came off, and we unscrewed the giant eye-bolts from the floor. The floor was not particularly pleasant. Full of small holes and splinters, it was also covered with a layer of rough black paint that would have been miserable under bare feet. I weighed many options for flooring before finally settling on tongue-and-groove hardwood floors. There’s several reasons I chose wood floors: I worked for a flooring installer for a summer, so I knew the basics of installation; I liked the look; and wood has a respectable R-value, so I would be providing a measure of insulation in my floor without sacrificing height-my trailer is short on the inside even for me! Plus, wood flooring is pretty durable and fairly easy to clean. The problem is, new wood flooring costs $2-$5 per square foot, meaning I would be paying at least $140 for a floor in my tiny space! Seems minor, but my inner tightwad found it unacceptable. So I turned to Craigslist to search for used flooring. I had almost given up when I looked in the “free” section on a whim and found someone offering over 120 square feet of used red oak flooring for free! I contacted the seller, and she explained that she was renovating a house she was moving her family into and wanted to re-use the floorboards she’s ripped out, but between caring for her children and running her window-washing business too, she didn’t have time to prep all the flooring. I felt like it was my lucky day. I climbed into my ancient Civic and drove halfway across the state, winding my way down 9 and weaving through wrong turns and roundabouts. When I got there, Melody, the craigslist poster, was waiting for me at the house. We laughed when we saw that we were wearing identical brown Carhartt jackets and work boots. It’s not often I meet other women who get enthusiastic over the prospect of recycling moldy old floorboards, so it’s pretty awesome when I do.

You wouldn’t believe how much flooring I managed to cram into a little car approximately the size of a loaf of bread, but I got all 120+ square feet of flooring home safe and sound (even though it took 2 trips.) Next came the step of prepping the flooring.

It was full of scary-looking nails, and in some places it was split, cracked, or eaten with mold. The first step I took was to remove the nails, which turned out to be more of a chore than I had thought. If you’ve ever installed tongue-and-groove wood flooring, you’ll know that one side of each board has a thin strip along the side that sticks out-the “tongue”-and fits into a slot on the side of the next board-the “groove”. There’s also a tongue and groove on the end of each piece.

tongue_groove1<—like so.

To attach the flooring to the subfloor below it, nails are driven through the tongue at a 45 degree angle, and the heads countersunk (made flush with the surface of the wood.) That way, the groove of the next board fits neatly over the tongue and the nails are hidden. But the tongue is very fragile and splintery, so you can’t really pull nails with a large head out. What I did was cut them off at the back and pound the stubs down flat. For those of you who want to experiment with reclaiming wood flooring, the best way to get the nails out depends on what type of nails were used. For nails with very small heads, just pull out through the back with pliers, using a small wood block for leverage if needed. For flat nails with an L-shaped, large head, or other nails with a large head, it’s best to cut the nails off very close to the back side of the board with a pair of bolt cutters and pound the stubs down. Try not to pound the nails back THROUGH the board, or the heads will pop out the other side and make it difficult to set your flooring flush against the neighboring piece. The process of removing the nails only took 4-5 hours of work, spread over several days and aided occasionally by my dad. The next step in prepping the flooring was to cut out damaged sections. Since the planks were very narrow and not too long, I did most of this on my dad’s tag-sale-acquired table saw, which didn’t see much use otherwise. Any piece with cracks, splits, broken tongue or groove, or mold or water damage was marked and cut to save the good sections and discard the damaged sections. If you don’t have access to a table saw, using a circular saw can be a cost-effective and space-efficient alternative; just make sure your flooring is secured and supported while you cut it. Also, make sure your cuts are square, not angled. Wear eye protection, and be very careful to avoid cutting through nails, as this will dull the blade very quickly and may cause the wood or the saw to “kick” back, which is dangerous

oak flooring    The finished result.

To install my flooring, I had to use a different method than what I had learned working for Floor Guy. Usually, wood flooring is installed over a plywood subfloor, with a layer of tar paper between acting as a vapor barrier (to keep moitsure out). My trailer floor was made of 5/8″ plywood, like a traditional subfloor. I also had a roll of tar paper I stapled down to cover the floor. But unlike a house, my floor had no joists under it. Joists are part of a house’s frame; they support the floor, and when installing wood flooring, you drive the nails through the flooring, through the subfloor, and into the joist for an extra secure anchor. I also didn’t have the specialized nail gun professionals use for installing wood floors. A flooring nail gun uses compressed air to drive nails into the tongue of a floorboard at the correct angle AND properly countersink them. I didn’t have the skill to do that by hand, and my floorboards were made of oak-a hard wood that’s difficult to nail into for a beginner like me. So instead of nailing through the tongue of the boards into joists and having the nails be hidden, I decided to use screws and go through the “face” (visible side) of the floor boards. Screws have greater holding power than nails, thanks to their threads, so I didn’t need joists to anchor my floorboards. And it was easy even for me to drill pilot holes through the tops of the boards, then screw them down. If you do this, be sure to use wood screws, not drywall or any other type of screws, and look for screws that are finished for outdoor use so they do not rust-you’ll be tracking a lot of dirt, moisture, etc. on your floor even if you don’t intend to. 0223161030-00

Here’s the first 4 “courses” of my floor laid out.


Here’s the start to finish steps I took to install my floor:

  1. Prep the subfloor. In a trailer, this is just the plywood floor that was put in the trailer by the manufacturer. Fill any small holes, patch larger holes, sweep debris out, remove any bolts, screws, etc. that are sticking up.
  2. Staple a single layer of tar paper or other vapor retarder over the subfloor. Make sure it’s even and doesn’t bubble up or gap anywhere.
  3. Snap a chalk line to mark where you’re going to lay your first line of floorboards (I started about 1″ from the wall; most people start in the middle of the room, but I’m just a weirdo)
  4. Stretch your chalk line along the line you snapped, lowering it until it’s barely touching the highest part of the floor. If there’s gaps between the floor and the line, the floor is warped; put down an extra layer of paper in low spots, or for extreme cases, shim it with really thin plywood. Repeat across the room to make sure floor is not warped (ok, maybe I fudged this bit a little.)
  5. Start by laying first course of flooring-AKA, the hardest part. Line floor boards up along chalk line, drill pilot holes through the “face” of the board about every 16″-24″ (depending on board length-some I used were very short). Screw them down.
  6. Lay out the second course of flooring next to the first; make sure that the gaps between board ends don’t line up next to each other. Make sure the second course is flush next to the first course, with no gaps/cracks. Sometimes it will need a little encouragement-take a scrap piece of flooring, fit the groove over the tongue of the good piece, and tap on the groove of the scrap piece with a hammer until the good piece of flooring scoots over and closes the gap. How close to the wall should you go with the end of each flooring course? It helps if you know what you’re using for trim. you want enough of a gap to allow for expansion (or installing wall paneling if you haven’t done that yet) but you want it small enough so it will be covered by the baseboards. I had a gap of about 3/4″.
  7. Proceed with installing your flooring across the room. when you reach the last course, next to the far wall, use a flat bar to shimmy the pieces in next to the second-to-last course. You may need to “rip” (cut lengthwise) the last course to fit it in.


The flooring install itself took several weeks, but probably only 10-12 hours of actual labor. Mostly it was still too cold outside to work. The sanding and finishing actually ended up taking almost as long; my friend Tommy, a professional house painter, brought over 2 orbital sanders and we spent almost 6 hours sanding the old finish off the floor. If you reclaim wood flooring that’s finished and the finish is in poor condition, it’s best to sand it off and put new coats on. You don’t have to sand off all the finish either-just the damaged layers. Still, it’s hard work, so recruit a friend with promises of sandwiches or beer or whatever it takes. First, we sanded twice with 60-grit to remove the scratched finish layers, then with 80-grit to remove the swirl marks left by the coarser sandpaper. Finally, I made a few passes with 150-grit, lightly hand sanding the floor to make it extra smooth. Most floor finishes are not something you want to breathe in, so wear a mask while sanding, and preferably eye protection too. This is not something you can do by hand; if you don’t own a power sander, consider borrowing from a friend or renting one from a tool rental business. For most tiny homes, you can use a relatively small, inexpensive one. Be sure to use a bag on the back of your sander to collect the dust.

I finished my floor with polyurethane because at the time I didn’t know any alternatives; it’s durable, water resistant, and displays the natural wood grain really well. But unfortunately it’s also nasty, toxic and persistent; and burning polyurethane produces dioxin, one of the nastiest and most persistent toxins out there. In addition the fumes are irritating to your eyes and lungs (don’t have to tell me that twice!). But it IS readily available, durable, and fairly easy to apply. If you want to go the polyurethane route, make sure the floor is ABSOLUTELY CLEAN first. Avoid dust and debris, take off your shoes, wear clean clothes, etc. and apply thin coats with a brush or lambswool applicator. 2-3 coats should be good. If you want to avoid poly, there’s alternatives-I’ve finished other wood surfaces in my trailer with a 50-50 mix of tung oil and citrus solvent sold by the real milk paint company and loved the results. 0317160841-00

And here’s the finished product! In all, my reclaimed floor took about 35-40 hours of total work, and cost about $60, between fasteners, finish and gas I burned picking up the flooring. If you’re interested in reclaimed flooring, look in the Materials section of Craigslist, your local Freecycle website, or ask someone who renovates homes (helps if you know them well first.) And last but not least, DON’T BURN SCRAPS OF FINISHED WOOD! your lungs will thank you.



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