As we celebrate 30 years of doing this magazine, we thought it would be interesting to examine what exactly has changed for wood flooring pros over those decades. We spoke to six wood flooring pros about different parts of the business to find out, and we were so interested in what they had to say we split this story into two parts. (You'll find Part 2 in the April|May issue of WFB.)
Exchanging our health for wood flooring
Ovi Ragalie, owner, Treadline Hardwood (Tualatin, Ore.)
I think in the wood flooring industry now we're finally thinking about our ears and our lungs and our fingers. It used to be the Wild West on a wood flooring job site. I learned from guys who were old-school, and safety just wasn't something they thought about.
When I first started, we weren't talking about asbestos or four-letter words like mold and lead—we weren't talking about safety in general. We didn't fear anything; I can't tell you how many floors I've sanded with paint in them. We're in a big Swedish finish market here, but we never finished floors with respirators.
When I was just a kid, one of the lead guys would smoke an entire cigarette while he was running the drum sander. He would light it up and fire the drum, then when he was done with the cigarette he would spit it out, throw it in front of the machine and run it over; the butt would go right into the bag. That's how the old-school dudes operated. I've seen guys do a board replacement with a table saw—they flipped it over and dropped the blade while it was running. There was just no consideration for safety.
With the electrical panels, I think it might be changing a bit today, but it used to be your badge of courage to pull the panel off and latch in with your alligator clips. When I started in my own business 10 years ago, I had guys shock themselves, and I said, this is crazy. Talk about OSHA issues! We've updated our contract regarding what we need to hook up electrical safely.
I think the next-generation guys, the ones in their early 20s, are hard workers—more like the generation before me—but they are all interested in a different quality of life, a better quality of life. Look at all the Instagram dudes. The older guys I worked with weren't proud of their trade, but the new guys are proud of creating something that lasts.
We do safety training at every Monday morning meeting. We start with who has broken tools, and I'll ask them about the their respirators—what is the condition of their mask, do they need new cartridges? We might have a short topic; maybe I saw something I didn't like. For example, I love it when people push their cords around with their Trio or their buffer. It's just a no-brainer that doing that is not a safe activity.
I tell my guys: You're not a tractor. I'd love to pour diesel in them and let them go, but they are human beings. One thing I'm always pushing is that when you get tired, it's time to stop. They want to get it done, but at some point when you're tired, that's when the accidents happen.
There are certain things that are mandatory. Knife safety is a big one; we require them to have retractable knives. I require work boots on demolition day. Safety glasses, hearing protection and knee pads are mandatory. Just like with respirators, we stock all of that stuff here. All they have to do is tell us it broke to get a replacement. It's a no-brainer: Why wouldn't you invest in your guys?
I'm a grown man, and I'll tell you one thing I won't do is carry a drum machine by myself. How stupid is it to pick up a Hummel and put it in the back of your van? It takes less than 30 seconds to break that machine down. I think about these guys, and what it costs over a lifetime. Taking 30 seconds to do that could save your back for the rest of your life. So the expectation is that the guys will break it down if they are alone.
I think about fall protection all the time. How many sanders have fallen to the floor below? Is it your duty to sand this floor without the rails and posts? What does it take to cleat in a 2-by-4 in there?
I do worry about OSHA, although I've never had an OSHA violation. I would be embarrassed. Forget about the fine or the slap on the wrist, but what didn't I think about that could have cost someone an eyeball or a finger? I want my guys to know I care about them and I want them to be around for a long time. It's also stupid to train someone for a long time and lose him. Safety is an investment, forget about the worker's comp. The point is, you've let that guy down.
Over the years I think we've trained our customers to be willing to exchange our health for their floor ... and it's just a floor. But I think that's changing in my guys. I'm 40 years old, and I'm deaf in one ear, even though I was born with intact hearing. I can't even tell you how much oak is still stuck inside my lungs. There's that saying that you'll spend the first half of your life trading your health for money and the second half trading your money for your health. I don't want it to be like that for my guys. I want them to get home, be safe and lead active lives. At the end of a day, a wood floor is just something you walk on, not something you should destroy yourself for.
Customer expectations & misadventures in sanding
Lou LiCausi, owner/operator, Finishing Touch Floors (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The perfection people expect today was unheard of 30 years ago. I eventually worked for a high-end company, but what I learned when I first started was normal for our industry at the time. Here in New York a basic sand job depended on the homeowner, but it was basically a 40/80 cut with the drum and probably 40/80 on the spinner. If we were doing a rental, it could be 20 and 60, with one cut with 20 on borders, just to get the old finish off and new finish on. Sometimes we had one-cut jobs with 60. Everything back then was about "get it done." You were paid by the job, so if you got done at 1 p.m., you still got your pay—and the boss wanted to go home, too.
Back then you'd walk in, make a pass with the machine, and the customer would go, "Ooooo!" because the floor would go from being orange and dirty to raw wood. Now people are saying, "How come there's a crack in the floor?" and you explain there has to be some expansion in the floor or it will buckle. Back then we used to fill a little bit. Nowadays? I did an 800-foot apartment last week, and I was filling for hours.
Back then everyone was using a drum; there were belt sanders, but nobody used them. It's second nature for me after all these years, but if you don't know how to put sandpaper on a drum, it's difficult. They do have a template that makes it easier, but if you don't know how to get proper tension for the drum and it's too tight, it chatters ridiculously. You need to know how to cut your paper and fold it where it needs to be folded and tighten but not over-tighten. It also can't be too loose because it will chatter and blow off and go into the vacuum tray and fan, and then you have to take all that apart. If you're trying to put heavy paper on a drum, you have to hammer the paper. If it's 16- or 12-grit, it doesn't fit, so you fold it and hammer it to put it into the drum.
We were discing and screening (which was high-end for us to do then) back when some guys weren't even vacuuming. Guys out there were using a corn broom—that was considered cleanup! The things people got away with were unreal, like drum marks and floors ripping the socks off your feet. Some guys were just terrible sanders! We used to call the marks "snakes" when you hit a nail and then kept sanding over the floor. If you screened it and didn't screen out everything, you could see these terrible snakes, especially if you stained it.
It wasn't unheard of to put a screen on a floor back then, but to get all the marks out was unheard of for most people. We used a Clarke 16; we bought it with the hard plate and put sandpaper on the hard plate trying to get the chatter out, which didn't work because it still had wave to it. It was smooth but not flat. We did a lot of discing with a hard plate to 60/80/100 disc and then 60/80/100 screen, and then when you tried to put stain on, it wouldn't take because the floor was totally burnished. You would go to put poly on it, and it would push color right off the floor. Back then you tried to talk the customer out of a stain job. Nobody wanted to do stain because back then, who knew to water-pop the floor?
In the early '90s we were using backpack vacuums before anyone else was; before that we used a Eureka Mighty Mite vacuum. It was a little vacuum that would fit in a milk crate. Vacuuming, screening with a buffer and a brush on a vacuum—that was considered good compared to corn-brooming a job.
It wasn't until bleach and white became a trend that we used belt sanders. If we didn't, the chatter would be everywhere. If you got $5 a foot for a bleached/white floor with moisture-cure non-yellowing finish on a resand, that was good. Back then we were getting 75 cents or a dollar for three coats of natural. Our minimum was $150. Poly was $35/for a 5, and $50 for a 5 was the good stuff.
I used to tell customers, "The more dust I make, the happier you're going to be," because that fine dust is when you are screening. We did that for many years, and it was horrible. Now I have all dustless equipment—the edger, radiator edger and buffer. If you're going to do a high-end job, you need to be dustless. Today there's nothing to clean. Usually on the job site you can't even tell we were there—except the floor looks great.
See Lou LiCausi loading sandpaper onto his drum machine and using it to sand parquet:
Abrasives & sanding over the decades
Bob Goldstein, Technical Services, Training & Sales, Vermont Natural Coatings/Norton Abrasives
Sandpaper was invented in China in the first century using crushed shells and seeds bonded to parchment with natural gum. The next evolution was glass paper invented in England by John Oakley in 1833, and in 1834, Isaac Fisher Jr. patented the first process for mass manufacture of sandpaper in Vermont, developing adhesives to hold the mineral to the paper. By 1988, though, the abrasives industry still offered limited choices. There were two basic grains: aluminum oxide and silicon carbide. Both are black and are made into rolls, discs and belts. When it came to using those abrasives, drum sanders still dominated the floor sanding business, but belt sanders were beginning to gain in popularity.
Flash forward 30 years, and you see radical changes. Today, belt sanders dominate the industry and high-tech manmade ceramic grains are prevalent—but the old standby, black paper, is still available. Modern big machines have a lot more moving parts and require high-tech abrasives that will run cooler, track properly, last longer and not build up static electricity. The new grains coupled with tremendous strides in backings offer more consistent scratch patterns, allowing aggressive cutting without removing too much wood.
Abrasives today last longer partly due to how the grain fractures and wears during use. For example, silicon carbide grain macro-fractures, so once it begins to break down, the cut is less consistent, and it wears faster. Today's ceramic grain micro-fractures, leaving the grain sharp to the end. There are differences in how grains are utilized by different abrasives manufacturers, but most of the "ceramic" abrasives are a mix of different grains, not all of which are ceramic. Only a few use 100 percent ceramic alumina gel grain, which makes a huge difference in the scratch pattern as the different grains fracture and wear.
Early on, when sanding decorative floors like parquet, herringbone, borders and inlays, the finish sanding was done using a buffer and sandpaper. Early hard plates were bolt-on, and sanding progression was very important. Learning early on to "clock" the buffer so the cutting area was appropriate for the direction of the grain of the wood, never skipping grits and concentrating on blending in the perimeter (edger work) with the field were skills that took practice and concentration.
The introduction of multi-disc sanding machines has simplified the process. This is important, because customer expectations have changed so much over the past 30 years. The prevalence of factory-finished floors with their "furniture" finish look has forced job-site sanding to another level. While getting a floor completely flat, including uniformity across spring/summer grain, was achievable with the old hard-plate technology, multi-disc options make it easier today. Whether it is a power-driven machine like Lagler's Trio, American Sanders' 3DS, Bona's PowerDrive or simple multi-disc plates like the American Sanders HydraSand that can be used under any standard buffer, this has removed some of the learning curve that was required before. With these machines, clocking the buffer is not necessary and the direction of the sanding process doesn't matter. Simply knowing the proper grit progression and taking the time to allow the machine to do the work has changed the industry. And now, multi-speed buffers like American Sanders' Epoch allow more sanding options and burnishing techniques that were available only with high-speed burnishing machines in the past. Today, contractors with fewer years on the job can produce work that was seen only from very experienced journeymen in the past. Overall, this is a good thing for the industry.
Let's compare a typical re-sanding job procedure in 1988 to the techniques used in 2018.
1988: Some things never change! Do a floor inspection, determine what the existing coating is (wax, OMU, conversion varnish), set nails, look for damaged boards, stains, etc. Do the first cut with 36-grit paper (a.k.a. 2), vacuum, then cut with 80-grit (a.k.a. 0). Edge with the same grit sequence, then hand-scrape corners and other areas the edger can't reach. Hand-scrape and hand-sand the entire perimeter, then screen with 80-grit or hard-plate with 100 or 120 (2/0 or 3/0). As a lot of the big machines were drum sanders, it made sense to pre-cut your paper and shims at the shop and cut enough edger discs with a disc cutter with the right size hole for your edger. Coating options were varied from wax, shellac, oil-modified, moisture-cured, conversion varnish and some water-based products, but the most popular was oil-modified applied with a brush and lambswool block applicator.
2018: After inspecting the floor, determine the grit to begin with depending on the condition of the floor, the type of finish to be removed and the species of wood. Always begin with the finest paper that will do the job efficiently. Never skip more than one grit in progression, and vacuum between each sequence. Depending on the design of the floor, stop at either 80- or 100-grit on the big machine, then finish sanding with some type of "hard-plate" system like the multi-disc options I mentioned earlier.
Sand until the floor is completely flat. Because much of the new equipment available gets close to the walls, edging is easier. Follow up by sanding corners with a corner attachment, vibrating triangle or hand-scrape. Remove all scratches with an orbital around the entire perimeter, making sure to blend into the field. Screen the entire floor to make sure the scratch pattern is uniform throughout. Coating options are varied depending on where you live, from hardwax oils, oil-modified urethane, conversion varnish and the new generation of water-based finishes. Some still prefer wax finish, and there are still states that allow the use of moisture-cured urethane.
Even though the old two-cut-and-coat system may have been faster and used less sandpaper, the paper didn't last very long, and changing paper was time-consuming. The abrasives made today outlast the old mineral grains used in the past by far. The bottom line is that customer expectations have changed radically over the years, and what was acceptable 30 years ago won't get you paid today.
See more on this topic: Wood Floor Sanding