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From the Ground Up: Finishing Touches

For beautiful and durable interior finishes, it's what's underneath that counts

Finishes diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
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Whether it's a carpeted bedroom, a tiled bathroom, or a library paneled in quartersawn oak, each room in the house gets its distinctive look and feel from its finishes—the materials, colors, and patterns that hide the rough framing and give a space character. Finishes can be rustic (think rough-textured plaster in shades of ocher), ornate (elegant chair rails and Victorian wallpaper) or retro (chartreuse paint and shag carpeting). With so many choices and so much personal style at stake, no wonder homeowners spend a lot of time agonizing over finishes.

But as This Old House general contractor Tom Silva points out, finishes also preserve and protect the home, so they ought to be done right. "Finish work is all about labor, whether you do it yourself or hire a pro," Tom says. And since most of the labor is in the preparation, he warns never to stint on important steps like sanding. "If the job is poorly prepped, it won't look good or last."

To show you what's involved in finishing all the surfaces in a home, we've tapped the expertise of seven specialty contractors, including painting, tile, wood flooring, and drywall pros. Turn the page for an all-in-one reference showing the crucial layers that lie beneath each finishing touch.

Whether it's a carpeted bedroom, a tiled bathroom, or a library paneled in quartersawn oak, each room in the house gets its distinctive look and feel from its finishes—the materials, colors, and patterns that hide the rough framing and give a space character. Finishes can be rustic (think rough-textured plaster in shades of ocher), ornate (elegant chair rails and Victorian wallpaper) or retro (chartreuse paint and shag carpeting). With so many choices and so much personal style at stake, no wonder homeowners spend a lot of time agonizing over finishes.

But as This Old House general contractor Tom Silva points out, finishes also preserve and protect the home, so they ought to be done right. "Finish work is all about labor, whether you do it yourself or hire a pro," Tom says. And since most of the labor is in the preparation, he warns never to stint on important steps like sanding. "If the job is poorly prepped, it won't look good or last."

To show you what's involved in finishing all the surfaces in a home, we've tapped the expertise of seven specialty contractors, including painting, tile, wood flooring, and drywall pros. Turn the page for an all-in-one reference showing the crucial layers that lie beneath each finishing touch.

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What Lies Beneath

 

What Lies Beneath

Prepping Drywall and Trim diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
Prepping Drywall and Trim
No matter what the finish, it looks best and lasts longest when it's applied or installed over a properly prepped surface. Here's how to do it.







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What Lies Beneath (continued)

 

What Lies Beneath (continued)

Tile tub surround diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
Tile Tub Surround
1) Cement backerboard (1/2-in.)

2) Epoxy-covered screws (1 1/4-in.)

3) Fibermesh tape (covered with thinset): Prevents cracks along backerboard seams

4) Thinset mortar (troweled flat): Waterproofs backerboard

5) Thinset mortar (combed with toothed trowel): Sticks tile to substrate

6) Glazed tile

7) Polymer-fortified grout: Seals tile joints

8) Copolymer sealant: Seals inside corners and tub-tile joint
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Lighter, Faster, Longer Lasting

 

Lighter, Faster, Longer Lasting

Tile floor diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
Tile Floor
1) Construction adhesive: Secures backerboard to subfloor

2) Cement backerboard (1/2-in.)

3) Epoxy-covered screws (1 1/4-in.)

4) Fibermesh tape (covered with thinset)

5) Thinset mortar

6) Floor tile (stone or ceramic)

7) Polymer-fortified grout: Resists cracking
Long-Lived Floor Finishes

Time was, all wood floors were sanded and finished on-site, a process that's notorious for the dust and fumes it generates. But with factory-finished floors, there's no need to sand or wait days for a finish to cure: You can walk on it as soon as it's installed.

These finishes, now used on many brands of solid-strip and engineered-wood flooring, have as many as seven coats (three is typical for job-siteapplied finishes). Each one is loaded with transparent ceramic particles, which resist wear and tear. Warranties of 25 and even 50 years are now fairly common. "You can't come close to that kind of durability with a job-site-applied finish," says Tom Silva.


Lightweight Crown

Plaster moldings have a crisp, seamless detail un-rivaled by most wood trim. And they don't gap open as the seasons change. Trouble is, solid plaster is also weighty, rigid, and costly. Not so the Trimroc crown molding installed at the Winchester project. It has an expanded polystyrene core with a 1/8-inch veneer of acrylic-modified gypsum plaster, making it light enough to be glued in place with ordinary joint compound. The same compound fills all the joints: no nail holes to fill, no copes to cut. While more expensive than standard wood moldings, Trimroc boasts profiles that would be expensive to reproduce in wood. And it costs less than cast-foam moldings.


Veneer Plaster

In the days before wallboard, skilled craftsmen would cover interior walls with thick layers of plaster, creating a rock-hard, extremely durable surface quite unlike the soft, "cardboardy" texture of everyday drywall. You can get a similar effect much faster with veneer plaster, which is troweled on in one or two layers over a specially treated gypsum panel, commonly known as blueboard. "The nice thing about veneer plaster is that you don't have the mess of regular drywall, which takes days of sanding," Tom says. "With veneer, it's dusty on the day it goes up, then the crew is gone." The downside is the additional cost (about 25 percent more than drywall) and the scarcity of plasterers with the skills to apply it.

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Finishing Off Mold

 

Finishing Off Mold

Tile backsplash diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
Tile Backsplash
1) Moisture-resistant wallboard (1/2-in.)

2) Thinset mortar (troweled flat)

3) Thinset mortar (combed)

4) Tile (ceramic, glass, stone, or metal)

5) Polymer-fortified grout (sanded for large joints, unsanded for tight ones)
Ugly stains. Nasty odors. Respiratory disorders. All are problems caused by mold and mildew multiplying in moist, poorly ventilated areas inside our homes. Fortunately, more and more manufacturers are making products that begin fighting the fungi as soon as spores land on a surface.

The most common antimicrobial technology is Microban, the brand name for a number of different chemical processes that disrupt the ability of microbes to grow or reproduce. Various building products incorporate Microban, including caulk, carpet, grout, paint, even shop-vacuum filters. Because it's part of the material and not just a coating, it works continuously throughout a product's useful life.

Microban isn't the only game in town. USG's Humitek drywall has a different kind of antimicrobial coating on its paper facing, a favorite growing medium for mold. Georgia-Pacific got rid of paper completely on its DensArmor wallboard and replaced it with a fiberglass mat facing. But the best protection against mold, as Tom Silva will tell you, is careful construction practices that seal out exterior moisture and ventilate indoor moisture—practices that have been at the center of this yearlong series.

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Where to Find It

 

Where to Find It

Linoleum diagram
Illustration by Ian Worpole
Linoleum
1) Plywood subfloor

2) Plywood underlayment (1/4-in. 5-ply birch): Makes the best substrate; stable and void-free

3) Narrow-crown staples (5/8-in.): Hold plywood to subfloor

4) Feathering compound (cement-based): Fills seams between plywood sheets

5) Acrylic adhesive

6) Linoleum: Durable antimicrobial sheet flooring made from linseed oil
Tile contractor:
Joe Ferrante
Ferrante Tile
Medford, MA
781-396-6327

Painting/decorating contractor:
John W. Dee
Painting & Decorating
Concord, MA
978-369-8897
www.johndeepainting.com

Painting contractor:
Jim Clark
Clark Painting
Sudbury, MA
978-443-5091

Carpets and rugs:
Steve Boodakian
Koko Boodakian & Sons
Winchester, MA
781-720-5566
www.kokorugs.com

Floor installer:
Patrick Hunt
Hunt Hardwood Floors
Lexington, MA
781-862-3559

Flooring contractor:
Walter Bamonto
Merlin Flooring
Farmington, NY
585-398-2204

Plaster and drywall contractor:
Paul Landry
PL Drywall and Plastering
Waltham, MA
781-899-6524

 
 

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