Wednesday, October 7, 2009


So far, the biggest hurdle in the finishing process has been the earthen floor. To make a long story short: we poured a shiny, smooth, level, gorgeous floor 3 weeks ago. The following morning, it was depressingly full of cracks. Various efforts have been taken since then to return the floor to its original glory, but the cracks kept coming back.

We fixed the floor on at least three different occasions, and it wasn't an easy process. A floor-fixer must "float" himself out across the floor on a pathway of boards and insulation foam - this is to spread out his weight so that he doesn't leave deep impressions in the new and malleable earth. He must start at the side of the room opposite the door, and then work his way back, digging out, filling, and troweling cracks as he goes. Most of the work is done in a squatting position. He travels with a bucket of floor mix, a bucket of water, a trowel, his patience, and deep chest strength ("core" strength, if you will). Despite his best attempts at spreading his weight, it's near to impossible not to leave impressions from the boards he is standing on - so in addition to cracks that he's fixing, he must trowel over all of the board marks he leaves.

Mike claimed to like the process, but he is into yoga. I found it tedious and awkward.

Below are the infamous cracks. It is interesting to note that the floor was consistent in its cracking. It was always the same pattern, never any cracks in new locations.

I started thinking that maybe the problem was that our repair process was just covering cracks that still existed beneath the surface. In theory, as the floor continued to dry (and the clay to shrink) the buried cracks would continue to widen, pulling apart the material directly above them and causing new visible cracks in the same spot.

We finally decided to just add an entire new layer of floor. A very thin layer, about 1/4" thick. Again, it came out looking spectacular. A day after this, Mike left for New York and I left for a week to visit my family in Durham. Upon my return to the cottage, I was confronted with the same cracks in the new layer.

I decide that maybe downward force was the best solution, because it would potentially compress material into filling each entire crack while simultaneously allowing me to release my aggression upon this unruly beast of a problem. I took the hammer to a crack, troweling over the hammer marks to smooth it back out. This ended up working surpisingly poorly, as the crack came back within half a day.

This past monday, I decided that I needed some sort of blank slate for this floor process, and so I ripped up entirely the newest 1/4" layer. My intention was to get down to the first layer, fill whatever cracks were there with sand (because by this point the original layer was dry, and so the cracks were done expanding), and reconsitute and re-install the top 1/4" layer.

I dug it down to this:

And I liked the look so much - mottled and rough (and relatively crack-free) - that I decided that it should be celebrated as the final floor! The appearance was refined a bit with a session of hard-troweling:
The hard troweling is just what it sounds like. Taking a trowel (and in this case a little bit of water, because the floor was so dry by this point) and giving the floor all hell. It really helps to use two hands, and allow your body to fall into the sweeping motions, aggressively putting all of your weight behind it. What happens is that material is being moved, and molecules aligned, resulting in a surface quality that is smoother and sealed.


After:In the second photo, you can see that the general surface is smoother. Some sand and fiber particles have been pushed out, and are now laying on top - this is fine, because they will just be swept away before the floor is finished and sealed with a treatment of linseed oil and beeswax.

What a relief to have a beautiful, dry floor.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if tamping it hard soon after laying it would have helped?! I bet it would have. Like, work some boards backwards the way you'd trowel another layer, but instead, stand on the boards to distribute weight and smack the hell out of it similar to the hammer method. Then do a quick wet trowel of the top to smooth it out again. That'd be my vote for ... my floor! :-)