By John Mace
If you ask 10 people how to sand a floor, you’ll likely get 10 different responses, and they could all be correct. After two or three years, we each develop a personal sanding technique. It doesn’t matter if you own your own business or if you’re part of a crew. By now, you know your machines, your preferred sandpaper, your grit sequence, and what to expect from every floor you encounter.
Classes teach us how to run the big machine at seven degrees, clock the buffer for minimal swirls, and j-hook the edger. Throughout all those experiences, you may not have considered the one machine that is continually overlooked – the mind-body-spirit machine. All the latest high-end equipment is useless if the operator is in poor condition. If you regularly feel tired, upset, or worried, the outcome of your project will be uncertain. Even if you manage to pull off this week’s job, can you do it next week, and the week after, month after month, year after year, with the same level of quality and personal satisfaction?
You’ve heard it said that no two floors are the same, but is that true? I’ve sanded well over a million square feet of flooring, and much of it was the same. Waxy finish, loose boards, previous sander mistakes, and so much more exists from job-to-job. Most of the time, you have a technique to deal with it and you can control it. But what about the jobsite aspects that are beyond your control? What’s your technique for them?
Every day you encounter a myriad of details that confound and fluster even the most skilled technician. Here’s a short list: the weather, your vehicle, the equipment, other trades, the profit you hope to make, the decision-makers making poor decisions, the helper who didn’t show and didn’t call, your lower back starting to spasm, or the fight you had with your spouse. How you handle all of that affects the work you do every second of the day.
To do your best and keep your cool, it’s important to develop a philosophy that governs how you go about your workday. A good technique is to recognize that there are no arbitrary moves. Each effort informs the next. In other words, what you’re doing at the present moment affects what you will experience in the next. This approach is often described as mindfulness, and it begins with what might seem like insignificant actions.
For example, if you’re going out to the van to get a bucket of filler, grab the box of 60 grit belts and edger discs that you just finished with, and put them back on the van shelf. A maneuver like that, repeated and expanded on, will speed up the schedule by establishing a present moment that is also forward-thinking. This simple act is mindful of the immediate past (the rough cut), acting in the present (ready to fill), and cognizant of the immediate future (cleaning up before you leave). A practice of mindfulness will enable lasting mental and physical stamina, and if practiced regularly, will result in increased patience and productivity.
Sanding and finishing is a process involving a lot of steps. Along the way, it’s easy to get off course or distracted by the constant barrage of things beyond your control. This can often lead to frustration and dissatisfaction with your own performance. During the first few years of my career, there were many times I found myself going around in circles, stewing on some thought that I couldn’t shake, at which point my attention waned, and my patience evaporated. It’s important to get into the right headspace before entering the workspace.
To ensure that I continued to have enough energy to do each sanding project with 100 percent of my abilities, I developed a starting technique that I use on every sand job. This came about after a handful of troublesome jobs, when I realized I was using up my mental and physical resources at inconsistent rates throughout the day, which left me exhausted and disinterested in returning the next day. I call it the “Four Corner 45.”
Imagine this scenario: 1,800 sq. ft. of mis-milled new install with tons of over- and under-wood, and you only have two 50 grit belts. You’re already in a bad mood, because you got there late after the van didn’t start. The day is off to a rough start and could easily get worse depending on your approach. Start by clearing the room of anything you don’t need to sand. It’s just you, the machine, and the cord. You may not realize it, but you just cleared your mind. Put your headphones on with good music. Now you’re starting to calm down, and your blood pressure lowers. Pretend that time has stopped, and you have no way to check it. You’re entering the present moment.
Lighten the drum pressure and pick a corner to start. At a quick pace, and with a light touch, cross the floor at a 45. Don’t pay attention to whether that pass got out all of the over-wood, just keep going until you reach the opposite corner. Once there, point the machine toward the next corner, and do it again, 90 degrees to the last pass. Do this again at the third corner, and again at the fourth. Keep the pace quick, keep the music playing, and don’t think about what time it is. By the time you reach the fourth corner, the floor is flat, and only needs a light straight pass to clean up the 45. The belt is still sharp because you kept a light touch, and never let it heat up or dig into a high spot.
You’re relaxed, because other than making sure you didn’t run into the wall, you were spacing out and enjoying the music. You could do this all day, and what’s even better is the groundwork you just laid will make the next cut much easier and faster. No arbitrary steps; each one is executed to simplify the next one.
Combine this idea with another old one: “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS). Your sanding system will benefit in untold ways the less complex it is, and your ability to continue on will increase when you exert less energy on a single task. When these principles combine, you’ll find yourself at the end of the day, week, or month with a better appreciation for the work you did, and your capacity to do it again with the same level of proficiency. After a short time, this practice will insulate you from the reeling emotions that can accompany jobsite aspects beyond your control, such as the electrician who insists on leaving wire clippings for you to clean up. The operator is the most important machine onsite, and a few moments of mindfulness will help to keep it functioning smoothly and continually.
After a short time, this application will insulate you from the reeling emotions that can accompany those moments of uncertainty on the job, allowing you to maintain composure and professionalism. It will also boost your confidence as you make daily decisions, especially during those times when you may need to contemplate stepping outside of the “recommended” way of doing things.
As an inspector, I’m often tasked with determining fault when a flooring project isn’t performing as expected. My years of practicing mindfulness as an installer and finisher have become part of my interview process when talking to a flooring contractor. I ask a lot of questions, but there’s one that stands out, the answer to which will inform the outcome of the inspection: “Can you explain why you thought the actions you took, had a reasonable chance of success?” No arbitrary moves.
John Mace, an NWFA CWFI, CSF, and CI, has been in the wood flooring industry for 28 years. He is the former owner/operator of Birdseye Hardwoods and currently manages field product testing for Bona US. He can be reached at email@example.com.