An article in Fine Homebuilding magazine showed hardwood floors with fancy wood inlays in contrasting colors. Some were borders or outlines. Some were geometric shapes, like a compass pointing in eight directions, which are fine as far as they go, but so traditional and easy-peasy. (Notice how I said that with a straight face even though we both know it isn’t remotely true?)
At the top of the newly-hardwood stairs at our beach house (see “Carpet out; stair retreads in“), the landing was pleading for a wood medallion and a plain-Jane geometric shape wasn’t going to cut it. Clearly it needed to be a sailboat. My ever-loving wife, “Lizzy” (not her real name) said I should go for it. Lizzy doesn’t seem to have the “Danger, Will Robinson!” gene–at least not if I’m the one taking the risk.
The basic technique for creating a wood inlay of irregular shape is to make the inlay itself and then cut a hole in the floor exactly the same size and shape as the inlay and then glue or nail it in the hole. The operative word being “exactly.”
I had already installed the new white oak stair treads and the floor of the landing was also going to be a light oak so the inlay needed to be dark wood. I sorted through all of the scraps of tigerwood leftover from the adjacent bedroom floor to find pieces that looked like waves against a sailboat hull and pieces that looked like a mast with sails and then glued them together in the general shape of a sailboat. Transforming pieces of wood into a picture of a sailboat put me squarely in artsy right-brain territory, which is terra incognita for a very left-brained math-major kind of guy like me.
Since I was going to use a router to cut the outline in the floor, I avoided making any sharp points or corners on the sailboat because the router bushing wouldn’t be able to follow anything pointy. After sketching a curvy sailboat on the tigerwood pieces, I cut it out with a jigsaw and then sanded the edges to get rid of any uneven spots.
If you were to plop the sailboat medallion on the floor and run the router around it you would have a hole in the floor that was the right shape but way too big because the bushing and router bit are outside the sailboat.
So before I nailed down the oak boards on the landing, I made a template out of a scrap piece of Masonite by tacking it to the back side of the sailboat and then flipping it over and running the router around the edge of the sailboat to cut out a sailboat-shaped hole in the Masonite. Even though the hole was bigger than the sailboat, I was going to fasten the template to the floor and run the router around the inside of the template with a larger bushing to compensate.
For the mathematically curious, the radius of the second bushing has to be bigger by the size of the router bit. For example, if the diameter of the first bushing is 1/2″, which is a radius of 1/4″, and the router bit is 5/16″ then the second bushing needs to have a radius of 1/4″ + 5/16″ = 9/16″, which is a diameter of 1 1/8″. (My high school math teacher and summertime carpenter, Mr. Gunderson, would be so proud.)
By making the template before nailing the oak flooring on the landing, I saved my router from hitting any nails. Here’s how.
I positioned the template on the subfloor of the landing and spray painted the subfloor through the template. This way when I was nailing down the oak flooring I would know where the sailboat was going to go and be sure not to put any nails in that area. I measured the distance from the template to the walls so that I could reposition it after the oak flooring was nailed down.
The pin nailer I had used on the stair treads came in handy to temporarily fasten the template to the oak flooring without leaving visible nail holes. The moment of truth had arrived. Breathe in. Breath out. I plunged the router into the middle of the template hole and headed for the edge and hoped the bushing would follow the template and, more importantly, that I had done the calculations correctly. (I could always blame Mr. Gunderson if they weren’t.)
When I did a test fit of the sailboat some of the sides fit in and some didn’t but they were off by less than 1/8″ so I breathed a sigh of relief that my numbers were right and it was just a matter of trimming. A second and third pass of the router around the template did the trick and the sailboat fit like a glove.
For my test fittings, I put strings across the opening in the flooring so that I would be able to get the medallion back out by pulling on the strings.
When I had a perfect fit I pulled the sailboat out of the hole with the strings one last time and then glued it in permanently with Liquid Nails.
Some people are prone to seasickness. Some people, like by ever-loving wife, are well past “prone.” Dizzy Lizzy got seasick at a boat show that was indoors in a big arena! Sometimes just stepping on a sailboat will make her a little queasy, but so far she hasn’t had that problem stepping on the sailboat medallion at the top of the stairs.
Fortunately the bathroom is close by if the worst should happen.