I dedicate this post to my good friend Leslie. Leslie has this great sense of humour, contagious laugh and straight-up communication style that I appreciate. I’d like to think we’re alike in many ways. Except one.
Leslie is incredibly neat and organized. She’s not the kind of friend that you drop in on without warning—and if you do, don’t even think about using the bathroom. There might be a hair in the sink. (I’m proud to say I’m allowed to use the bathroom. We’re that good of friends; or I’m just that messy. I’d prefer to think the former.) She’s so incredibly tidy, she’s made a successful business of it.
Leslie and her fiancé Conrad popped by recently to see the house, as we were in the midst of laying our earthen floors. We had completed the first coat, working a muddy mix of clay, sand and straw around our in-floor heating coils and roughly trowelling it to an undulating smooth-ish-ness. She looked around and, ever-so-politely, ever-so-cautiously, asked: “But how will you clean it?”
I suddenly saw our house through Leslie’s eyes. Indeed, its earthiness extends not just to the floors, but also to our clay-plastered walls. Our house is, quite literally, made of dirt.
I wrote earlier about our walls, which took the better part of last summer to plaster. You probably thought after all that that we were done. But we’re not. Likely not for a while yet. We recently began a finishing coat (while we’d originally planned to plaster all straw bale and drywall walls, after hundreds of hours spent plastering, paint is looking pretty good) and have many walls left to finish.
We originally considered a commercial product called American Clay for our finishing coat. It’s a clay-sand mix available in every colour you can imagine and looks beautiful. It’s also not cheap: a quick estimate rang in at about $1,500. We could have any colour we desired, but with mounds of clay and sand on the front lawn, it was hard to justify the price.
Enter the quest to lighten up what we had, which was dark grey sand and dark grey clay. Mixing mason’s lime into our plaster worked beautifully: not only did it lighten the plaster, it made it impervious to a rough scrub with a damp cloth. The colour is light grey—simple aneutral, and something you could live with for a while (although one day we may opt for some colour with a coat of clay paint on top). Next on the list is to plaster the kitchen and bathroom, which were temporarily emptied of their contents so we could lay the flooring.
Back to the flooring.
I was convinced to do earthen floors when we brought Cindy, the Plaster Master, up from the Kootenays last summer. Earthen floors are warmer and softer than concrete and work better with in-floor heat than hardwood. It seemed like the perfect fit for us—especially with the materials lying in our yard.
We had the plumber lay the heating tubes and Nick and I worked together, mixing batch after batch of sand, clay and mulched straw in our rented mortar mixer and dumping it onto the floors by the wheelbarrow load. Once the first, two-inch-thick coat was dry, we embarked on a three-day trowelling marathon to lay a thin topcoat. We carefully planned where we’d stop each night, doing as much done as possible each day to limit the seams left by overnight drying.
Then we waited. Several weeks. Until it finally dried.
Nick sealed it with four coats of rolled-on linseed oil, until the floors were saturated. Then it was time for the final coat: a mix of beeswax and linseed oil. We spent all weekend on our knees, rubbing the Vaseline-like paste into our floors. It was sticky and gooey and slimy. It was the stuff of Leslie’s nightmares.
And it took a full three weeks to try.
So long, in fact, that it was beginning to give me nightmares. Here we were, so close to moving two shedding huskies into the house, with flypaper floors. Walking on them gave a little slide to your step and a polish to your feet that tracked greasy footprints up the stairs and across the deck. I mopped the floors not once but twice with Murphy Oil Soap, a trick Nick had read about.
Suddenly, one day, they were dry. And they were beautiful: a rich chocolate colour with the occasional trowel mark and slightly uneven surface offering a nod to our hard work. Each dog hair, each speck of dust, every one of Nick’s dusty footprints brushes away with a vacuum or a mop.
Which is a relief. Because we couldn’t possibly have a floor with dirt stuck to it.