Tips for beautiful custom resilient floors

With more products in the commercial resilient category than ever, custom design work is continuing to be used on a variety of projects.

Christopher Capobianco

At first glance, they can be intimidating projects, especially those that have borders, medallions, or other custom inlay work. With careful planning, these jobs can be beautiful and profitable for the installer.

The first thing to consider is an understanding of the cost of doing custom work. I’ll never forget when I was showing a particularly nice high-end solid vinyl tile to an architect. He asked for budget pricing and I quoted based on the standard material. Several months later he called me, and was annoyed that a project he was involved with had bid out at almost double that estimate. It turns out he specified a custom installation in three colours with special shapes and sizes that had to be pre-cut. Plus, the job had to be done with union labour on weekends. This misunderstanding gave me a good lesson in knowing what you are quoting before you quote it.

The same goes for installers when custom work comes your way. These jobs take a lot longer to install, so make sure you figure accordingly. Depending on the design and the size of the project, the cutting may be done on site by the installer or prefabricated, such as by a water jet fabricator. Some are complex logo designs or artwork, and others are simpler. For example, I recently had an order for a large resilient plank project where the 7- x 48-in. planks were being cut to 3.5- x 24-in. pieces with angled ends that will form a “chevron” pattern. It’s a fairly simple job from the point of waterjet cutting, but the waste factor, added shipping cost and extra time for labour had to be figured into the project estimate.

The hardest jobs to figure are the ones where the installer is cutting on site. It could be a simple curve or an inlay and sometimes is a bit more complex. Communication between the installer and the designer who created the pattern is important. It is often necessary to sketch the pattern on full size on paper or right on the substrate before you start cutting. Make sure the design is approved, because once it gets cut to fit, it may not be possible to change the design.

As far as waterjet or ultrasonic cutting, these systems use Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs to create the design, and the cutting is done on a table designed specifically for this purpose. Once the designs are created, the different colour material is cut and the pieces are put together, they are often assembled in sections using clear tape on the face of the material before shipping. Before you unpack the pallets, make sure there is a diagram showing where the sections go. On smaller designs, it’s usually easy to figure out, but large applications can contain a number of sections. Once the diagram is reviewed, step one is to lay the sections out on the floor dry to be sure you have all the parts. Make sure the custom elements are located where the customer wants it. Mark the location or locations and confirm before spreading adhesive.

Regardless of whether the custom design you are working with is a simple medallion that arrives as one unit, a large complex design that comes in sections, or one you are cutting on the job yourself, there are a number of keys to a successful installation.

For starters, floor preparation and concrete testing is critical. These are expensive floors, so failures because of moisture or floor prep are that much more expensive to repair or replace. With all of the different “puzzle pieces” that go into some of the custom floors I have seen, it is imperative that the floor be as smooth and flat as possible. A dip or a high spot in the floor could cause one of the pieces to become damaged or even worse, to pop out of the floor.

As I said in several columns here, acclimation of the material is very important to eliminate the possible “shrinking or growing” of the material because of extremes of temperature. The same thing holds true when you cut the material. Don‘t use heat to warm the tile for field cuts. My reasons for being so cautious with regard to heat is that many resilient products are sensitive to extremes of temperature — more sensitive than most people in the flooring and construction trades know. For example, warm product can be stretched during handling or installation or can expand slightly because of the heat. If material is installed in this state, gaps may show up when the material returns to its original size after cooling. Make sure the building is climate controlled, the material is on site for at least two days before installation, and the floor is smooth, flat and dry.

Adhesive selection for custom work is another detail to discuss in advance. Most manufacturers do not make a distinction between custom designs and any other floor when it comes to adhesive selection. I’d suggest a phone call to the technical department. I prefer a “hard set” adhesive so that all the pieces can be held firmly in place once the adhesive cures. This could be a two-part epoxy or a one-part acrylic, depending on the material. These are “wet lay” adhesives, which makes it easier to move the pieces after they are set into the adhesive assuring that the joints are all tight. Pressure sensitive adhesives that have a lot of “grab” can often be harder to work with when a lot of small pieces are involved, and they are not as strong of a bond in some cases. Speaking to the flooring or adhesive manufacturer can help you develop a plan.

When working with wet adhesive, clean any adhesive off the face right away, roll the floor as recommended and block the area from traffic after the floor is done. If tape was used to hold the pieces together, leave the tape until the adhesive is set. The day after you lay the floor it is important to go back to the job and remove all of the tape from the surface of the floor. Don’t delay this part of the job and risk any damage the tape will cause to the surface.

I remember one installation where the installer never removed the clear tape, and the maintenance crew went in and started cleaning the floor with a scrubbing machine. The heat that the pads generated caused the adhesive from the tape to aggressively bond to the floor and it was a major job getting it off. That’s an extreme example, but let’s just say you don’t want to leave tape on the surface of the floor any longer than necessary. If you ever use tape yourself to hold the seams together, make sure it’s a painter’s tape that’s easy to remove. Never use duct tape, as it can damage many floor coverings.

Once everything is done, the floor needs to be protected if there is still construction work going on. Before you walk off the site find someone in authority and alert him or her to the fact that there is a brand new custom floor installed. They may even pay you for your time to cover it so it is protected.

Finally, when the job is done and the building is occupied, make arrangements to get back to the job and take some pictures. Nothing looks better in an installer or dealer’s portfolio that photographs of a beautiful custom installed resilient floor.

Christopher Capobianco has been in the floor covering industry since the 1970s in various roles including retail and commercial sales, technical support, consulting, journalism, education and volunteer work. He currently is part of the sales team for Spartan Surfaces in New York City. You can reach him via christopher@SpartanSurfaces.com.

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