Difficulty sanding hickory floor

Q: We are in the process of having our hickory floors oil stained with a water base finish. The contractor sanded to 100, water popped, then put on the stain. The application of stain has made the wood peel and separate. He tried to patch and re-stain which made it worse. He has now pulled out the board and put in a new board, sanded/stained – but it looks horrible as you can see overlap marks.

He went ahead with the 3 coats of water base finish over past couple of days. Now I am seeing more board split. This is a split in the board, not the finish cracking. What could be causing this and how can we prevent? I am also very unhappy with the amount of swirl sand marks and spots which appear to have too much finish or debris under finish. How do you suggest we handle these concerns? Am I being to picky, are these normal and to be expected? Thanks for your help!

A: Is this a new hickory floor, because it sure sounds like it. Hickory can react a lot to changes in humidity and temperature and some woods have a natural tendency to do things such as this. Not every board, but assorted ones, here and there. Other than dealing with the boards that this happens to, try to maintain a stable indoor environment. As to the swirls unfortunately everything involved with sanding and finishing wood floors involves scratching. Scratching the wood and then scratching the coatings. The key is to try to minimize those marks so they don’t show. Since he is using a water based coating he may want to try intercoat buffing with these new abrasive pads Norton came out with a few years ago, designed to buff water based coatings and not leave swirls.

Follow-up Q: Thanks for your response. The swirl marks are in the wood, not the finish, though around the edges of the finish he hand sanded and those are much more obvious. I have already discussed with him correcting the scratches in the finish, though my main concern was the swirls in the wood before the stain was applied.

Part of the floor is new and part is 10 years old. Most of the splitting is occurring in the 10 year old boards. The contractor has suggested cutting out the part that is splitting and filling with wood filler vs. removing the whole board. Is that a common way to correct this issue? We are the original owners of the house and never had any of the boards split previously. The contractor told us it was because we water popped and stained them where previously we had an oil base natural finish.

What do you recommend for “stable”? Our house is all electric so we generally don’t run heat or air unless absolutely necessary so we rarely maintain a constant 70 degrees. It may be 73 during the day and 63 by early morning.

Thanks for your help!

A: Hickory isn’t very common in Canada so I’m responding more from general principles and the knowledge of hickory I do have. Because this wood is so hard and dense it is quite a challenge. Extreme attention would have to be paid especially to the perimeter to remove edger scratches or reduce them to not obvious when standing up. For me that means strapping on knee pads with flash light in hand and using either an orbital or random orbital sander, crawl around the entire perimeter hunting down these scratches which hide until you apply stain. I use 80 grit for this. This is why I use a flash light.

So, it sounds like the contractor wasn’t able to see these marks or didn’t spend enough time hunting them down. I almost hate to say that given what he must have faced doing the work. Woods like this can be prone to splitting, especially if it is a lower grade. I understand it is difficult to season hickory. You may not have seen any cracks in 10 years but over that time this floor was likely drying and just waiting to be disturbed. To me, this splitting indicates drying issues, not too much moisture. So, he started sanding which not only creates vibration but also generates heat. Perhaps this is what has persuaded these boards to act up. I don’t think the worker can be blamed for that. I also don’t think water popping or staining has anything to do with it. He didn’t flood the floor, just wet the surface. Likewise, these stains don’t really penetrate beyond the surface. Using wood filler is okay for minor issues like small cracks and nail holes. Anything beyond that and I think the board should be changed. I don’t like saying it, but he is probably going to have to give this floor another go.

Related Q: We have several boards splitting after installation of new Hickory floors. I have been reading comments that these may have been present, but invisible, at the time of installation. Would this then fall into a manufacturing defect category since it would not have been visible to the installer and only appeared later? Would these boards have split regardless of constant humidity levels in the home?

A: I would consider them factory defects. By this I’m not implying somebody messed up in the process, but as you say the makings of the splitting were already inherent in the board but not yet visible. They were bound to appear sooner or later, especially with a species like hickory which, being a very hard wood has a tendency to move a lot.

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