Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

Restoring a basement floor

My house has an unfinished basement. I use it almost every day to walk out the back door to my driveway, and slightly less often for laundry, major projects at my fabulous new workbench that I built all by myself, and storage of basementy things. I keep the cats’ food and litter down there and they can access it with a pet door.

I really like having a basement, but it had some problems when I acquired the house. Some of them are low priority problems, like the plaster walls are getting a little crumbly and need some fresh paint in a few places, and the wiring in the ceiling down there is a little haphazard (but not dangerous). The appliances are old but do their jobs reasonably well.

The high priority problem has been the floor, which has 1950s-era checkerboard black and gray tile. Typically that tile had asbestos in the adhesive lining, and while mine has never been tested it was a good bet that they were asbestos-bearing. The tile wasn’t friable (breaking under the pressure I can exert with my fingers), but in some areas the tiles had broken off and been removed by the previous owner. It seemed likely that over time, more tiles would break, because the jagged edges were exposed and nothing was protecting them. The tiles were uneven and the floor contour was gently buckled in places, suggesting the tile was going to continue to fragment.

Asbestos removal is not something I particularly want to do in my home: disturbing the fibers is the best way to get them airborne and increase acute exposure, and the price of that kind of remediation effort would be extremely high. But I also wanted to slow the process of tile loss and prevent the backing from being exposed. In the meantime, I was nervous about ever sweeping or cleaning in the basement, even in areas where the tile appeared intact, because I didn’t know if there were fibers that had been mobilized in the past and that resided between the tiles. I really didn’t want to have to mop the floor every time the cats made a mess with their litter (wetting a surface is the best way to keep asbestos fibers out of the air, so wet cleaning was really my safest option).

After some helpful internet research about how to restore a floor with breaking asbestos-lined tile, I settled on the following approach:

  1. Remove all my stuff that could be reasonably removed from the floor. The work bench is too big and heavy to be removed, so I ended up moving it out from the wall slightly to access the wall edge, and doing the final step (painting) in two stages;
  2. Move cat accoutrements upstairs and lock cats out of the basement. They were not too bright about this and kept trying to get into the basement to see what was going on down there;
  3. Wet-clean the entire surface as well as I could, understanding that this is an unfinished basement, so it may never be perfect (and indeed, it was not);
  4. Apply a latex primer to the exposed concrete (or concrete + adhesive) surfaces and the edges of broken tiles;
  5. Use a premixed floor patch filler to fill minor holes and patch the smallest broken and/or exposed tile edges;
  6. Apply a self-leveling underlayment cement layer to all exposed concrete and broken surfaces to fill all gaps; ImageImageImageImage
  7. Paint the entire floor (tile and cement alike) with an epoxy masonry paint to seal up all potential dust from tile edges. The masonry paint was recommended by hardware store employees over standard basement floor paint because they predicted it was likely to bond better with the mixed underlying floor materials (the old vinyl tiles vs. new concrete underlayment). I cut in with a brush at the wall (thickly to fill all the grooves), and then I applied as a thick single coat to the rest of the floor with a semi-rough to rough roller on a pole for easy application from a standing position.

ImageImageImageThis turned out to be a pretty easy job that I could do over the course of just three or four days, including a weekend and a couple weeknights after work. In the end I did not scarify the tile surfaces to scratch them up to accept the paint better, because they were already pretty rough and I don’t want to damage asbestos-bearing tile any more than necessary. If that means the paint needs to be touched up sometimes, so be it–it’s easy to apply and I have plenty left over for that.

The texture of the masonry paint is softer and less glossy than a typical floor paint, but it seems strong. If the softer texture becomes a problem, I plan to topcoat it with polyurethane (and I still have a lot of polyurethane left from the hardwood floor restoration project, so I’ll just need a new applicator brush pad. And to remove the cats for another couple days). Overall, it is safer and also a big aesthetic improvement!

ETA: After a couple days of walking on it, I’ve decided in favor of the poly topcoat. I’ll update with the final result sometime next week…


Update: Baseboard molding

I never posted about my other winter project: installing base shoe molding throughout the house! So here is a quick overview:

The previous owners had ripped out (in some cases, apparently violently) the baseboard shoe molding through the entire house. This did make it relatively easy to refinish the floors, because there was a little border around the edges of all the rooms where the floor did not have to look perfect. But I did eventually need to replace that molding for a finished look that did not include big gaps under my walls.

I ended up deciding that I do not need to be a pure DIYer: painting 300′ of molding by hand would have taken me forever and barely saved me any money. So I bought prepainted base shoe molding at Home Depot. The price was reasonable and that meant all I had to do was measure it, cut it, and install it in the house.

Measuring: I started with a measuring tape and writing things down on a piece of paper, but ended up just lining up the molding around the whole house and marking it with a pencil. Easier to keep track of where all the pieces had to go, and very easy to mark them correctly that way.

Cutting: I did not have a miter box, and when I borrowed one from my parents, I discovered that it was very difficult to anchor the box firmly enough to use it properly (since it wasn’t mine to install anywhere permanently). I did not at this point have the workbench constructed, so I did the next best thing: mount my little portable table vise to my dining room table (with padding to prevent scratches), cover the surrounding area with newsprint, and go to town with a hacksaw. I lined up a protractor with the pieces that needed to be cut on an angle (like in the corners) and carefully marked the angles, and tried (with reasonable success) to keep the hacksaw on those marks. I was able to cut all the molding for the whole house in two nights.

Installing: I rented a nail gun from Home Depot. Nail guns are really fun for humans, but they terrify dogs, so maybe wait for a nice day and put the dog outside while you do this. Overall this was really, really easy, but 1) use a knee pad, and 2) it is a little tricky if the baseboard molding behind the shoe molding isn’t flush with the floor, such that you are nailing into a gap. It takes some practice to angle the gun correctly to nail the shoe molding in that circumstance.

When I have a chance to refinish the replacement floorboards, I’ll have to do this again for the few areas that need those floorboards (I couldn’t install the molding without floorboards). More fun with nail guns in my future!

Winter projects

I may have built a fence in the winter, but it wasn’t planned that way. My other winter projects are warm and indoors.

First: cutting and installing new base shoe molding throughout the entire house, including closets. I saved myself some energy and after I went all around the house with a measuring tape and added up the amount I needed (several hundred feet), I bought it pre-painted from Home Depot. Lazy, maybe, but still reasonably cheap and I had enough else going on. I measured out each piece and manually cut them all using a borrowed hacksaw and a small portable vise on my dining room table. It took about a week of work in the evenings and on weekends. Also it was fun. I haven’t actually hammered them in yet, though. When I do, I promise pictures. It will just look like normal rooms! You won’t even notice!

Second: so that I no longer have to vise things to my dining room table, I purchased lumber and a kit of table legs to build a work table in my basement! Now I no longer need to have all my tools and things laying around on the floor across the basement. I used the 2×4 Basics workbench with shelves kit. Here it is, nearly finished and before adding shelves (fluffy cat for scale):

Work table!

It’s a table!

And here is the finished product:

It's a table!

Look how fancy it is!

My review of the kit is that overall, it’s really nice. I was one screw short for the shelves but have plenty of my own to supplement, so that wasn’t a problem. The screws for the base are very long, though, longer than my drill bit, so it was hard to drill long enough pilot holes, and far too hard to screw them in otherwise. The holes in the hard plastic legs to guide the screws were also very short, so they were poor guides when it came to angle: A number of the screws went in a little too perpendicular and ended up poking through the back, and my parents and I had to try to cut and file them down after the table was built. That said, the instructions about how to measure out the lumber I needed and how to assemble the basic table were clear and easy to follow. The instructions for the shelving were less clear, since they had to be modified for this table assemblage and were not as clearly laid out, but I figured it out after a few minutes. Overall a good kit, and I’m very proud of the finished product!

Remaining winter tasks are to permanently install all the base molding, and to finally replace the floor panels we had to remove during carpet removal because they had been so badly damaged by the carpet installers. Thanks again to craigslist magic, I have acquired old oak panels of the right height–no easy task! They all need to have nails removed and be sanded and refinished. I plan to do that job ON MY NEW WORKTABLE.

How to install a salvaged wrought iron fence

So, I mentioned a few posts back that over the summer I was lucky enough to acquire a wrought iron fence from craigslist. It was about 80 feet of three-foot-high fence, not including gates; I later managed to find two of those separately on craigslist, too. They didn’t match the design but it’s a simple enough fence that they look good with it anyway.

The fence had been installed previously on a slight incline, so most of the sections were also slightly inclined. It had been removed by cutting the sections apart from each other at the posts, and then by cutting the posts off at the base. I had ten ~8-foot sections, with effectively no posts to mount them.


Closeup of one of the gates I found, in front of the stack of fence sections.


Two and a half sections that I actually didn’t end up using.

To get the parts I needed to actually install this fence, I wandered around hardware stores, chatted with store employees, measured things over and over, and shopped online for many, many hours (two recommended parts sites are here and here. The Metals Depot site was particularly great for pricing and raw materials).

My township restricts residents of corner lots from installing fencing forward of the front edge of the house, and in my neighborhood, the road right-of-ways extend beyond the sidewalk a few feet into our yards. I had full freedom to extend the fence as far back on the property as I wanted, but I decided to stop it at the edge of the driveway, beyond which the yard is much narrower. After acquiring the township permit and marking the measured fence dimensions with marking paint, I confirmed with the state’s dig service that there were no buried lines to worry about.

Once I knew where I wanted it, I installed the fence over the course of several months using the following method:

  1. Buy plain steel rebar of the same dimensions as the existing posts (1″x1″ square). I purchased them wholesale online–much cheaper than, say, Home Depot, which didn’t have enough posts for me anyway. The one caution I have about using steel is that it’s more flexible than iron, so it might feel a little flimsy when it’s in the ground. It is actually very strong, though–some flexibility is okay.
  2. Paint the new posts black, just well enough to keep them from rusting during installation and through the first winter.
  3. Measure fence section intervals and dig post holes with post hole digger. For a 32″ fence, the goal was to get 18-24″ deep, with deeper holes higher priority at the corners. Where the ground was really clay-rich, digging was extremely difficult, though, and there were also a lot of big stones in my yard fill that were very hard to remove. An iron digging bar was probably one of the best investments I made for this project: it loosened the soil faster than anything else during the post hole digging, and it came in handy later when I had to pound a few extra posts directly into cold ground to finish the last pieces of the job.
  4. Mount painted steel posts in the post holes, using the last of the leftover gravel and concrete. This took a few bags of concrete overall, some good measuring technique, a plumb bob to ensure the posts were vertical, and some bricks to brace the posts for a few days while they dried (to be on the safe side). Once I got the hang of it, I was able to mount most of these on my own with no help. The trick was to place the post exactly where I wanted it (I was a little off for some of these, so the fence is a little uneven, but it’s not really a structural problem so much as a minor aesthetic one), hold it with one hand while dumping some gravel in the hole to brace the post, then pouring cement until the hole was mostly full. I found it easiest to mix up about half a bag of cement at a time, using a watering can while stirring to get to the right consistency, and then to scoop it into the hole using a big plastic scoop. I’d make sure the cement was wet enough to fill in crevices pretty well after pouring. That way I could use the plumb bob and adjust the post orientation to get it just right, then the cement would flow with it to hold it in place, then I’d carefully brace with bricks until it dried a few days later. After they were all dry I filled them back up with dirt left from hole excavation. Note that I always had to spray down the wheelbarrow and plastic scoop really well with the hose as soon as I was done so they didn’t permanently have cement stuck to them.
  5. Purchase large steel bolts long enough to extend through a coupled pair of an old iron post alongside a new steel post. For strength and appropriate length, I ended up settling on 3/8″ wide, 3.5″ long carriage bolts, despite the square part for wood.
  6. Line up each fence section in its appropriate location and mark both its height on the new post and exactly where it needed to be trimmed to fit perfectly between mounted posts. This takes several people: wrought iron is heavy, and you need a free hand to make the marks.
  7. Trim the edges of the fence sections to marked lengths so they fit perfectly. Because of mounting on a slope, in one area we also cut a section into multiple pieces to step it down the slope (I had installed extra posts in that area to make this possible). Trimming and cutting were done with an angle grinder. (Always wear safety goggles with full coverage when cutting metal with an angle grinder!)
  8. Drill 3/8″ bolt holes through new and old fence posts at appropriate heights to ensure fence stability. I put two bolts through each post pair for strength and stability. This was the hardest part of the job: the holes needed to be lined up very well for the plan to work, and the drilling was physically difficult, even with cobalt bits, which dulled quickly. It took weeks and several helping hands. To ensure the holes lined up reasonably well and for stability during mounting, the top sets of holes were drilled first. It is easier and safer to stabilize a section from the top down.
  9. Drill additional bolt holes through new fence posts in places where a neighboring section did not have an old post (each section had an old post on only one side, due to how they had been cut). Each of these locations would get two holes (one top, one bottom), and each hole would receive a bolt, some of which needed to be trimmed with the angle grinder to fit the fence geometry. The neighboring section would be balanced on top of the two bolts using the top and bottom horizontal fence bars (and tightened up later: more stable than you might think!).
  10. Mount all sections. This had to be done in sequence: to make sure the drill holes were lined up, all bottom holes were drilled after a section was mounted and bolts tightened up at the top. It took several weeks of working (around my full time job!) to finish mounting the sections. Use the angle grinder to trim down the new steel fence posts to match the height of the old iron ones. I then hammered in simple, black plastic caps designed to fit the steel fence posts.
  11. Where sections were balanced on bolts because there was no old post to pair with a new one, U-bolts were added to stabilize and tighten the joins and make sure nothing could accidentally knock the fence down. All of the U-bolts were purchased wholesale for cheap (after some intense online shopping). This is probably the most amateurish-looking part of the final product, though it’s helped considerably by a black paint job. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a way to bolt these areas with something that makes a slightly snugger fit, so it is less noticeable.

By then it was so cold that I could no longer do the finishing touches. So once the weather is warmer, here is the plan:

  1. Install the gate latches. They could not be placed until the rest of the fence was in place and gates mounted, because the latch has to be carefully positioned. One of the gate latches also requires mounting a piece in the ground, and I’d like to do it with concrete. It’s been either too cold or too wet for concrete (if not both), so this is on hold.
  2. Paint the bolts black. I did a quick and dirty job of this so it was nicer to look at for the winter, but I’ll be redoing it once it’s warm enough for paint to properly set.
  3. Remove all rust and repaint the whole fence black, too. It’s really in reasonably good shape for a salvage iron fence, but there are rusty areas and it needs touch-ups and a fresh coat to look done.
  4. Finish edging around the bottom of the fence, so there aren’t big gaps and holes. I have started this process but cannot finish until the weather is warmer and the ground has thawed for real.
  5. Reposition the stones I used to shore up the slope, because many of them had to be moved during the installation of the fence.
  6. Plant/replant areas that were disturbed by the fence installation.
  7. Finish the whole side yard project: remove the little strips of grass from the slope that are difficult to mow and replace them with plantings that are easier to maintain.

In the meantime, it looks pretty good, if I may say so!


It snowed right after I finished most of the installation. So pretty in the snow!

Yard attack 2: Bricks and stones

Through the magic of craigslist, I was able to acquire nearly a third of a pallet of flagstone, about twenty largish blocks of local schist, and ten 8-foot sections of minimally rusted, salvaged, wrought iron fencing. I accumulated other pieces of stone for the yard from waste piles at work (a perk of being a geologist), and liberated brick pavers from now-unnecessary borders around my yard. I also obtained an iron and wood outdoor bench off craigslist, and repainted it red, and purchased an iron bistro table, patio umbrella, and solar lighting. Once most of the gravel had finally been removed and I had loosened some of the packed soil, I began installing stone paths and garden beds:


Bench and new stone path, with small pile of remaining gravel to the left.


Main flagstone path immediately after installation. Patio area to the left still contains gravel.


Primary stone path, viewed from the back of the yard.


Main stone path continuing toward the back steps and driveway. While the majority of the side yard was rather sterile and filled with gravel by the previous homeowner, this area is so densely planted that it’s like trying to manage a (beautiful) waist-deep jungle.


Rear steps down to the driveway. These replaced unstable, unopened bags of gravel.


Final stone path installation in what used to be the patio area, with new raised double keyhole garden beds.


Raised, double keyhole garden beds


New patio area, with new iron bistro set, patio umbrella, and solar lighting.


Looking back at the yard from the rear driveway area, after full stone path and garden bed installation.


Stones installed to shore up the eroding slope


Stone installation to shore up eroding slope, following tree removal.

How to finish a floor

The hardwood floor was fully sanded and ready to go. What came next was a lot of crawling around and kneeling on hard wood surfaces. This job is very hard on the knees. Knee pads help, but we were still pretty sore.

To do this right, the floor needs to be really clean. Anything left on the floor becomes part of the floor once the finish is down, so you want the surface to be smooth and free of dust and particles. After all the sanding, sweeping, and vacuuming, any remaining sawdust and other particles need to be removed–twice, leaving about a day in between cleanings for any suspended particulates in the air to settle.

The cleaning is done with tackcloth. Tackcloth, it turns out, is sticky and gooey and kind of gross to handle: the adhesive that makes the cloth tacky comes off the cloth and attaches itself to your fingers, making your hands tacky. We solved this problem by wearing disposable gloves. (Note that latex gloves turned out to be a pretty dumb idea, because of course, latex dissolves in oil-based solvents like stains and polyurethanes. Learn from my mistake: use synthetic disposable gloves.) The other thing about tackcloth that took some time to learn was that it unfolds into much bigger sheets than we initially realized. It’s actually cheesecloth, but the adhesive makes it very difficult to open it all the way. Opening it all the way increases its surface area so much that you’ll need significantly fewer cloths to clean your floors, though, so it’s worth fighting to get them fully unfolded.

So, if you’re refinishing floors, plan for many hours on your knees, using sticky cloths to wipe all the dust off your floors. Do this, of course, from the outer edge of a room backing towards the doorway, so you don’t back yourself into a corner. Bring something very padded to kneel on, and expect sore knees nonetheless.

The cleaning is followed by staining, which is also best done kneeling, using gloves and clean, lint-free cloths to apply the stain. Because my floors had the previous stain only mostly removed, and I was going lighter to brighten the house, a traditional stain was a bad idea: it would apply unevenly and look bad in the areas that still had the old stain. Instead my local hardware store sales rep recommended a less absorbent stain that sits more on the surface of the wood–something not unlike the MinWax Polyshades line, but just a straight stain. This property made it coat over both the prestained and fully sanded wood more similarly. I went with the “honey walnut” shade, which I love: it’s a relatively light tone, but still warm. The outcome was a variegated but nice look to the floor overall. There was ultimately nothing I could do about the two dark water-stained areas without replacing the panels, and for now I decided to just live with those dark spots. It is (I have discovered) difficult to find old oak paneling that’s the same width and thickness as my floorboards, so replacing the panels would be tricky, and the spots aren’t so severe that it was worth trying to do that.

Finally: the finish. After the stain had dried, we tackclothed the whole thing one more time, and then I applied a water-based, semi-gloss polyurethane intended for flooring. After the first half of the first coat, I abandoned the recommended technique of first using a hand brush to apply the polyurethane near the walls followed by a brush applicator on a pole to apply it to the interior of the rooms. The reasoning behind the hand application near the walls is that it will help you avoid polyurethaning the walls. But my walls had no base shoe molding left, and instead there were holes and gaps around the edges of all of the rooms and hallways. I knew I was going to have to install molding later anyway, so for the rest of the job I used only the applicator with the pole. This made the applications lightning fast and much easier and more comfortable than the previous work. I was also able to avoid the headache of trying to brush on the polyurethane with hand brushes without creating a lot of bubbles, which would give the finish a rougher, more milky surface. At first my feathering technique was pretty poor, and there are one or two places where I failed to apply perfectly with the grain of the wood and it looks a little funny when it catches the light. But with furniture and rugs on it, even I have a hard time noticing those details.

I intended to do three coats but ran out of time, because the polyurethane needed to dry for several days before I could put furniture on it and moving day was approaching. So in the end I got only two coats down. That might mean that in the long run it stands up less well to scratches and nicks, but so far, one year later, it’s holding up well. And I think it looks great!


Refinished hardwood flooring (oak with honey walnut stain) in the dining room.


Another view of the dining room, with additional lighting.


Refinished floor in the living room.


Refinished floor in the third bedroom/office.

Next time: adventures with landscaping!

Lessons in floor sanding technique

This is what I have learned about sanding floors:

  • The orbital U-Sand sander is too heavy for me to lift by myself.
  • If you are a petite person, you do not drive the U-Sand. The U-Sand drives you. And odd, rarely used muscles will be very sore.
  • It makes a giant mess. Face masks, goggles, and vacuum cleaners are your friends. So are strong friends.
  • Before sanding, read tips on various websites first, or else you might not know that it’s a good idea to cover your vents with plastic bags before you begin sanding. That said, I promise that your vents will only put a little bit of sawdust back out at a time, and after a month or two of occasional vacuuming, your vents will be done putting out measurable sawdust.
  • Sanding an entire small house, first with a coarse grit and then with a finer one, will rapidly use up all of the sanding pads provided with the sander rental for the grit sizes you want.
  • I do not have it in me to sand an entire house more than twice over in the span of a couple days. But that didn’t matter, because it turns out that twice is sufficient to do a good job. I recommend a first pass with a coarse grit (80 or 100 work fine), followed by a finer one several steps up, but not by any means the finest in the box. That kind of polish is unnecessary.
  • Uneven floorboards mean you will probably never get them sanded down quite far enough to remove every last bit of old stain. If you don’t make peace with this in advance, you will quickly do so once you can no longer move your arms from the pure sanding exhaustion.
  • Any nail sticking up even slightly or staple you missed pulling out will instantly shred the sanding pads as they pass over it, and you will probably be unaware of it for a minute or two. In the meantime, the exposed surface will make a couple black scuffs on your floor that you’ll have to go back and sand back out. After a while you’ll start tipping the sander over to check the pads every five minutes, and usually you’ll replace one or two of the pads almost every time you do so. Protip: do not skimp on the pads. It will just prolong the inevitable and make your job take longer. Also, check the pads every five minutes.
  • Likewise, as a non-pro, DIY sander, it’s unlikely you’ll sand perfectly. There will be some slight ribbing cutting across the grain. This is probably the biggest reason that amateur orbital sanding will almost always look a little amateur. That said, a new finish job of an old floor is still a million times better than what was there before. You’ll probably still love it, ribs and all.

After all of these lessons were learned, my family and I spent an additional day touching up everything by hand. We managed to assemble three hand sanders to work with, using a proper palm sander plus sanding attachments for a power drill and a little dremel. We sanded down every speck of white paint that the previous homeowners had splashed on the floors while painting the walls, every surface of the stairs, the side molding along the staircase, the edges and corners of every room and hallway and closet, and the worst parts of the uneven floorboards that the orbital sander couldn’t touch. We hammered back down all of the loose panels, including a couple that had been damaged but hadn’t needed replacement. We removed a few panels that were so damaged they couldn’t be repaired.

We thought those little odds and ends, with multiple people working and many sets of tools, would take just a couple hours. Instead it took a full day, and we were all exhausted. But in the end I had a bare, fully sanded floor, ready for finishing!

Next time: the value of knee pads!