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August 02, 2007

Plank Flooring for Any Budget

Hanky Planky - (I wrote this article on plank floors 5 years ago and am still getting requests for it every week, so here's the original text plus some additional photographs.)


As I approach the cusp of middle age the closest I’ve come to having any design allegiance is that my furniture is the same stuff I had in university, placing me in the Early Student school of décor. The one exception is the bedroom, where I have a high-end mattress, but only because my futon got so compacted it was about to become the next black hole.

So you probably shouldn’t take my decorating advice. Unless you have the problem I’m about to describe, or you have hardwood tastes on a paint budget.


Here’s the situation. I ripped out my old, musty carpeting. This revealed a plywood subfloor, the perfect base for laying a hardwood floor, or even installing reclaimed pine flooring, available from salvage supply places. But it’s going to cost thousands of dollars for either hardwood or the reclaimed pine, even if I install it myself. Plus I can’t decide which wood to choose, and anyway, delivery takes five to seven weeks.

So, I wisely think, why make an expensive mistake now when I can make a much more expensive one in years to come, after lumber prices have gone sky high? Let's just blunder cheaply now, and save the really high-cost errors for later in life when I’m cresting the richly emotional foothills of peri-menopause.

That decided, I filled the plywood’s knots and seams with a fantastic floor leveler product called Poly Underlay Plus, made in Canada by the LePage people.  (If you live in the U.S., DAP makes a couple of similar products called Floor Leveler (in powder form) or Flexible Floor Patch and Leveler (ready-mix).

017_detail_applying_lepage_poly_undA floor leveler like Poly Underlay Plus is a cement-based product that you trowel on. Happily, it has an extremely low shrinkage rate so you need only one coat, plus it’s flexible when cured, so it won’t crumble if your floor is a bit spongy. Poly Underlay Plus  is paintable after an hour or two. The only trick is that you have exactly ten minutes working time after you’ve mixed the stuff. If you’re not an Olympic class troweller, mix small batches and don’t pause for snacks. I mixed a huge batch and it set before I’d used a quarter of it, so now I have a giant, pail-shaped plug as a souvenir of my modest trowelling skills.

Tip: Use a wide cement-finisher’s trowel. It moves faster and feathers edges nicely. Oh, and two words: knee pads.

After the Poly Underlay Plus works its magic, scrape off any bumps or ridges. To save chipping problems later, prime with a good acrylic primer. Then choose an appropriate colour of Porch and Floor paint for the topcoats. 

By way of honesty, it took me five coats because I kept selecting (*oxymoron alert *) “playful neutrals” and then having to cover them with another shade, which would turn out to be more ghastly than the last. After a pathetic parade of disappointments I marched to the paint counter and confessed to having no design sense. The nice lady pretended she didn’t feel sorry for me and picked a fine colour.

Moral: Always get a second opinion if your paint has a name like “Inner Fear” or “Disputed Phlegm”. Oh wait, they all have names like that. Get help.

017_detail_closeup_of_grinding_whee Just before the final coat of paint, carve floorboard ‘cracks’ using a Dremel fitted with a stone grinding-wheel. Start by measuring and marking plank lines on the floor using a longish 2x4 board for a ruler. You can create random or regular board widths. I did 7”-wide planks but occasionally threw in a 4” or 10” spacing to incorporate existing plywood seams, which look goofy if they fall in the middle of a ‘plank’.  017_detail_freehanding_the_lines__2


Wearing safety glasses, ear gear and dust mask, cut v-grooves along the lines. Vary the depth between 1/32” and 1/8” to forge different degrees of settling and wear. Freehand the carving so the lines are mildly irregular and wobbly, which is how real painted planks look. 017_detail_freehanding_the_lines_us 

Note: I originally intended to use a circular saw or a router to cut the shallow lines, but it's tricky when you get close to the baseboard, plus I realized the effect would be too tidily linear for my tastes. Plus the circular saw tears up plywood, where the Dremel just carves a very pretty line.

Using a Dremel will make you feel like some kind of a god. This was absolutely the most fun I’ve had since I tried to get the cat to use a pencil. (You just don’t appreciate how good life is ‘til you’ve watched a furry dork with a grossly inflated ego and no opposable thumb.)

Once you’ve finished carving, vacuum and give the floor a final topcoat. Depending on the colour you (or the paint counter lady) chose, you could use a contrasting shade - say “Incandescent Filth” - and rub it into the lines to emphasize them. Cover the whole surface with a couple of coats of water-based urethane for a long-lasting finish.

This floor treatment satisfies tight schedules and taut purse-strings, plus it really fools the senses. Here’s proof. My brother-in-law Bill, who’s a specialist in restoring antique houses, absolutely couldn’t tell the floor was plywood. He was completely convinced we had a real painted pine surface. I assured him it was just plywood, but I was dead smug about it. Total cost of doing one large room, including Poly Underlay Plus and paint: Under $100. Sweet. 




Thank you for only sending newsletters when you really have something to share. Regular newsletters are often filled with triteness, because the authors strain to fill them on a weekly/monthly basis, whether or not there is much to be said (kind of like the daily news on TV).

The cat comment was hilarious! It's not often that we get sensible, inexpensive advice mixed with good writing and a great sense of humor.

Thank you.


I think you're terrific.. We just started getting your column in our local paper 3 weeks ago, & I really liked it, so I signed up for your newsletter..Got the first one today, & watched your video on 'pot textures'. It was really funny, but good craft ideas..Soon's I get some extra time, I'm going to check out your whole web site..I know it's going to be very informative.."Keep 'er going Girl"
[From a 70+ tool gal

Shelley Wilson


I'm with Susan; the cat comment was hilarious. I openly guffawed.

Oh yeah, Mag, you're my hero!


christel hutchison

Your column is the first thing I read in the Sunday paper. It never fails to make me chuckle.

I love the plank floor. Approximately how long did it take you to Dremel the lines?

Alesia Brady

I was wondering if theres a way to leave off the floor leveler so as to maybe pick up the natural look of the wood. Then perhaps use stains instead of colored paint. Ingenious idea by the way!


Thanks for all the nice comments everyone. To answer your questions, it takes me about 2 hours to Dremel the lines in a 12'x12' room. Regarding using the natural wood tones instead of using leveller and then paint, of course you can do that. The plywood may have printing on it so you'd need to sand that off. The main reason I've avoided using bare plywood is that it's hard to make the effect work because the seams of the 4x8 sheets of plywood are so obvious, and so are the nails or screws that hold each sheet in place. So to get the look of planks, you have to minimize the seams of the sheets of plywood, and also equalize the tone of the plywood sheets, which tends to vary from sheet to sheet. So you might need to stain a few of the sheets to match the darkest sheet on the floor. What helps to disguise the sheets is to use the Dremel to create lots of short plank lines all over the floor, so your eye isn't so drawn to the 4x8 seam lines, and is distracted instead by all of the short plank lines. You can also darken (with a fine art paintbrush and dark stain) the details of the short planks, but don't darken the seams at the ends of the 4x8 plywood sheets. This will make the plywood seams 'disappear' to the eye. You might also want to dab the nail heads or screw heads with paint that matches the tone of the plywood, so they disappear too. Let me know if that's clear - I really like your idea. Let me know how it turns out. Send photos!



I had to let you know that I found your information on making a floor out of plywood and mine ended up looking great! I used a router and stained mine and it has the feel of a cozy cabin floor without the high cost. I also painted a runner in the hallway complete with fringe--it is so much fun. I am really proud of the way it turned out and plan to do the same in my bedrooms, too. Maybe white painted floors . . . hmmm . . .

Thank you so much! Charyl


Thank you so much for the detailed answer on the stained rather than painted floor, it is totally clear. I really appreciate you taking the time to get back to me. I will definetly send photos.


Dear Mag,

My living room is 11x17. I was wondering if you would suggest running the "planks" along the shorter dimension...would it make the room seem wider? Running the planks along the longer length would be my first inclination...but I'm worried it will just make the room look that much longer and narrow.


Alison Buck

I love the color your floor turned out. What was it? thanks, Alison

wood laminate floor

The flooring looks so nice!

Wendy Boyce

I think you are amazing...We have been re-doing our house for so long and I am down to just a few floors and thinking...where oh where will I ever get the money to finish this place. This flooring idea pumped creativity right into my veins and I can hardly wait to create and share the finished job! Thank you!


Thanks, Wendy. Yes, this is a surefire solution for cheap floor treatments. Go easy on the filler stuff - use it primarily on the seams and in big knotholes in the subfloor.

Alison, the colour was from Home Hardware - I think it's called Chili Pepper!

Katherine - better to run the 'planks' across the room if the living room dimensions are already bowling alley-ish.


Hello Mag;

Love the idea. We want to try this at our cottage. How has the floor been holding up? The cottage has a main traffic flow area where it would receive a fair amount of traffic. And, like most cottagers we don't want to redo anytime soon. Also, did you trowel the entire floor surface or did you just cover the knots and plywood seams?


Hi Jennifer,
It's holding up beautifully after 9 years although it needs occasional touch-ups where the paint comes off around nails or seams. We troweled the whole surface but if I were doing it again today I would use filler only on the seams and knots since the filling compound tends to break down a bit over time. I'm still happy with the floors and even added a new one last year (with far less filler). It fools absolutely everyone, so no need to rush into upgrading the flooring! Hope that helps. Good luck with your cottage floors and let me know how it goes when you get a chance.


wood flooring

I think you are amazing, it really takes lots of time and work, for such a flooring project.


you are the WOMAN! thanks so much.

Kathy Carbone

It only cost you $100? That's a low, low price for an entire room undergoing a floor renovation. The only downside of the poly underlay you used is, it dries quicker than you thought, so you better be fast in troweling it. Overall, it can help minimize the movement of your tile and reduce the potential of tile cracking.


I have been searching for weeks for a tutorial on doing this as we are looking at purchasing a cottage w/ all the flooring ripped up. I knew we wouldn't be able to afford all new floors so I dreamed up this idea but didn't trust doing it until I could find someone who did it successfully & could give detailed instructions & tips. I am SO VERY HAPPY I found your article. (I have to compliment you here also on your amazing sense of humor. It made for a very entertaining read as well as informative!) Praying we get the cottage so I can do this myself (well, when I say "myself", I actually mean my dear hubby will have a prominent position in this flooring renovation project as well, whether he knows it yet or not). BTW, this cottage will be used as a summer rental...do you think the floor will hold up better if I use additional topcoat of paint & protective clear coat on that? Or do you find touchups to be pretty simple & not require redoing large sections when wear occurs?
Thanks again for this great project post!


Planning on trying this technique in my apartment (with landlord's approval) ;-) it's a 2 room with the kitchen on one end of the living room area, which already has a painted plank floor. The kitchen area has exposed "ugly" plywood. Will definitely be trying this to make it "all" the same! Thanks!

M.Jan Overton

I usually HATE reading DIY instructions, but I'm so glad I decided to go for yours. Straight to the point (YAY !). And, thank you not only for the hilarious cat episode, but I dearly appreciated you throwing in the names of the paints.Too funny ! I'm painting my floor ASAP.


As the Lepage product is no longer available Ive tried the Dap flexible floor patch and leveler and I'm sorry that i did. It goes on very grainy and dries very quickly. It shows very clearly as lumps on the nail holes and as it is thick the 'feather edge' is a noticeable ridge. Now i'm enduring the nightmare of sanding a product that 'doesnt sand well.' I have a test patch outside of 3/4 dap flexible floor patch and 1/4 dap fast and final. Just that 1/4 added made it as smooth as silk but have to wait until tmrw to see if it will set at all, if it will set hard, and if it will stand up to stress tests. Fingers X'd as it went one so well if it sets hard it will not require sanding. Oh how i wish i had tested first.


I think, Traditional hardwood flooring is made from wood and timber products are best choice. Also, the warm glow of wooden floors that generally achieved in hardwood floor cannot be matched. Laminate Flooring


This looks so good , what a clever idea. I must admit whilst reading this I was crying with laughter . You should be a comedian lol :)

Sha Marte'

Love, love this idea. I'm going to try, no I'm going to do this in a 1962 vintage single wide. But aside from that, how's the peri-menopause coming along?


I really like this idea, hope my husband does too... I laughed so much reading this I'm going now to look for more of your blogs. I'm sure I burned enough calories laughing to forgo my workout today.


I have a mobile home that I just replaced 50% of the plywood subfloor. I am thinking about trying this with the staining method and my wood burner (small craft one, nothing major.) I like that I can try this and cover it up if I don't like it. I am thinking I can fill the cross lines of my plywood sheets with wood filler. I was going to put down the floating wood floor, but I can't justify the cost in my mind knowing I am going to cover most of it with area rugs. My biggest concern at the moment is waterproofing my bathrooms.

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