To figure out how best to lay down my flooring, I started by measuring the overall width in the saloon from several different locations. It is important to calculate and mark a line running from stern to bow that will keep the planks parallel from one side of the saloon to the other. I also calculated the size of my finished bilge hatch, then subtracted that number from the total saloon width. I also subtracted 1/2in on either side for the small gap needed where the flooring was to abut vertical bulkheads and furniture. I measured the width of a single piece of flooring, then divided my total floor width by that amount. I now had an idea of how many pieces it would take to span the saloon.
I wanted it to look like the bilge hatch was cut out of the finished floor. The conundrum was how to do that without actually cutting in situ. I also didn’t want the edges of the hatch to coincide with the edge of any flooring plank, as this would leave an exposed plank groove on one side (though the opposing tongue would be easy to trim off). Fortunately, the hatch was just about four planks wide, so I could offset the planks to be sure the hatch edge fell in the middle of a plank on either side. When integrating a hatch into a flooring pattern, remember that the width of the saw blade used to cut your stock will determine the size of the gap around your hatch. I was fortunate enough to have access to a band saw with a blade thickness of less than 1/16in, which kept the gap very small.
Dry Fit and Installation
I made a sketch of my plank layout, calculating the exact width and length of all the pieces that would comprise the hatch and adjacent flooring. After cutting my pieces on the band saw, I returned to Orion to dry-fit the floor. In preparation for this, I first brought in a 4ft straight-edge and checked the pan. I found there was a pretty serious deflection across the saloon, from one side of the bilge area to the other. When installing a plywood sole or vinyl sheet flooring this is no problem, but if you’re installing solid material, even composites, the substrate needs to be as flat as possible.
I used Bondo to build up the low spots on the gelcoated fiberglass pan. This product is not suitable for topside or hull repairs, but it bonds well to fiberglass, works easily and sands like wood. It was perfect for this job. Now everything was ready to go.
I decided to use adhesive instead of screws to bond the flooring to the fiberglass pan. I was nervous about using screws, since parts of the floor pan were tabbed to the hull. Adhesive has other advantages. Once cured, it stays flexible, which is not a bad thing in a sailboat. You can also trowel it on in varying thicknesses to compensate for slightly uneven substrates. This served me well when working in the aft section of the saloon where the narrowing of the hull forced the sole into odd shapes.
The end result of my labors was beyond all expectations. The transformation belowdecks on Orion is nothing short of amazing and is now a source of joy every time I step below.
Tips and Tricks
- If you plan to renew an old plywood sole, try to remove the old sections intact so they can be used as templates for the new plywood sole. But if you plan to use some type of solid stock, as I did, there's no need to be kind to the old sole.
- If possible set up a workstation right on your dock with sawhorses, a piece of 3/4" plywood for a top and a 10in miter saw. I put some plywood between my cockpit seats and set up my miter saw just outside the companionway hatch. Other essential power tools are a jigsaw, a belt sander, a Dremel tool and a good coping saw.
- Buy a flooring installation kit if you’re doing a solid installation like mine. These contain several plastic shims, a plastic block and a metal angle bar. The shims are used to maintain alignment at any adjoining vertical surface. The block is used in conjunction with a hammer or rubber mallet to tap the planks tightly together. The metal bar is used to tap the pieces tight at the end joints. You can also use cutoff pieces of flooring as tapping blocks.
- Stagger your end joints. It is bad form to put two end joints side by side. Best practice is to calculate end joint locations that utilize most of your stock.
- It typically takes 30 minutes or longer for hardwood flooring adhesive to get tacky. It is best to trowel adhesive on to a long narrow strip of substrate, then let it get tacky before putting flooring down on it.
- Working in small spaces can be awkward if you don’t leave room to maneuver in a dry area. At some point you’ll have to work from freshly laid flooring. Even after waiting 30 minutes, the adhesive can still be wet enough for newly installed pieces to shift position. Check and re-check your layout as you go and readjust as necessary.
- When cutting odd-shaped pieces, use a piece of construction paper to cut a pattern to work from, pressing it into the void where the flooring will go. Cut along the creases thus created with scissors. Lay the paper pattern on a piece of flooring and trace out the shape with a pencil.
- Finally, be clean! It is not hard to spatter both yourself and your new floor with adhesive. Scrape and clean all surfaces with a recommended solvent whenever you see any excess. Clean up all tools after every work session.