Historic Resources Committee

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Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

  • 1.  Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-08-2011 03:04 PM
    We are looking for some information on inserting sisal rope between floorboards - to fill gaps. I know this was done in some (really old) buildings when gaps developed, and I remember some substance called 'oakum'. Perhaps someone has run across this, or used the method, and would be helpful.

    Thank you for any help - especially if you have used this method/material for floor gaps.


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    Mary Colette Wallace Assoc. AIA
    President
    The Wallace Research Group
    Bellevue WA
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  • 2.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 01:14 AM
    How brilliant you are.  What a great solution.  This is how wooden boats are caulked, between wood planks.  So recommend you just google wooden boat builders and you will surely find the technology and the craftspersons to do the work!  If you need help I'll find the builders for you - but I'm sure you will find them if you look.  Probably some right there in a Seattle ship yard!

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    Aron Faegre AIA
    Aron Faegre, Architect
    Portland OR
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  • 3.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 11:39 AM
    Oakum was used to waterproof wooden ships and is used to seal plumbing pipes. I do not know of an application for building floors. The sap from pine trees in North Florida was used for many years. It would seem to me that you would have to cover or seal it since it would get dirty and certainly using an exposed petroleum product would not be a good idea 


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakum
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    Gus Paras AIA
    Architect
    Tampa FL
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  • 4.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 12:28 PM


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    Larry Johnson AIA
    The Johnson Partnership
    Seattle WA
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    I believe the technique you are alluding to is "caulking," as borrowed from the maritime world of boat building:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caulking





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  • 5.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 12:55 PM
    try a google search for "oakum chinking". you will get current suppliers of the material as well as historic information. Oakum is old rope mixed with some substance (tar, clay, etc.) which was then pounded into cracks. I believe this was typically used on log buildings, have never heard of its use on flooring.

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    Peter Birkholz AIA
    Associate Principal
    Page & Turnbull
    San Francisco CA
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  • 6.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 12:58 PM
    Thank you everyone, for your replies. I thought oakum was the pitch-like substance to 'seal' the sisal or hemp fiber into place. Instead, as several of you pointed out via the wikipedia site on 'oakum', it's the fiber itself. For our application, the sisal will be stuffed between deck boards on a covered deck at a rural workshop and sealed (after a light sanding) with a waterseal product. I guess only time will tell as to how durable it will be. However it looks beautiful so far.

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    Mary Colette Wallace Assoc. AIA
    President
    The Wallace Research Group
    Bellevue WA
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  • 7.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 01:01 PM
    Go to the nearest boat yard, caulking seams is standard practice for wooden decks and hulls. They will not only be able to show you the various materials that can be used, but also the tools required for this work.

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    Christopher Blood AIA
    Michael Helm architects
    Road Town, Tortola

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  • 8.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-10-2011 01:59 PM
    Hello, Mary,

    Oakum was a by-product of sail-powered maritime transportation, common in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries in port cities (like Seattle).

    For longevity in marine environments, ropes for rigging were coated in pitch.
    When the ropes frayed or otherwise lost their utility, they were frequently recycled as 'oakum' which was, with caulk, one of the sealants of its day. 'Picking oakum' required stripping off the pitch coating and tearing the rope into its constituent strands by hand, a process so physically brutal and mentally vacuous that it often was imposed as punitive hard labor in prisons. (Oscar Wilde spent two years picking oakum in Reading Gaol, which contributed in no small measure to his death three years after his release.)

    Besides being more or less free, the great advantage of oakum was its swelling when wet to provide a pretty effective seal in the wood joints of ships and buildings; the residual impregnated pitch also contributed to its sealing properties. As your floor application demonstrates, it was also a good compressible filler.

    The upshot of this social and technological history is that i have no idea whether oakum is still available; i doubt you can order it from your local corrections system. I leave it to our colleagues to recommend substitutes from their experience.


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    David Cornelius AIA
    Sole Proprietor
    David Gregory Cornelius, AIA, PE
    Ardmore PA
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  • 9.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-10-2011 02:27 PM

    What a great discussion! Thank you for such clever links and replies. I have to admit that we're not using oakum in the traditional (pulled apart fibers) sense. The 3/8"diameter sisal rope fits so tightly into most of the gaps in the deck that we're using it as is. And, only when the gaps are a bit wider do we tease apart a length to add to the rope in a tight twist.

    Warm regards,

    Colette
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    Mary Colette Wallace Assoc. AIA
    President
    The Wallace Research Group
    Bellevue WA
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  • 10.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 01:18 PM
      |   view attached

    Okay, this is my first attempt at sending a photo as an attachment. I hope it comes through.
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    Mary Colette Wallace Assoc. AIA
    President
    The Wallace Research Group
    Bellevue WA
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  • 11.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-09-2011 01:26 PM

    Also, as to method - since the maritime version with the wood swelling won't be happening - we're using 3/8" sisal rope and stuffing it about 1/8" below the radius'd corner of each board (we made a tool for this). We teased apart a length or two, for adding one strand to the 3/8" when the gap is larger than normal. After this, we plan on a light sanding, and then a coat or two of waterseal.

    Thank you all very much for your help. Since the location is on an island, I thought the oakum would be design appropriate;-) But who knows how long it will last....

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    Mary Colette Wallace Assoc. AIA
    President
    The Wallace Research Group
    Bellevue WA
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  • 12.  RE:Question about sisal rope for wood flooring gaps

    Posted 08-10-2011 02:06 PM
    David,
    I enjoyed your informative and interesting historical account of the uses and production of oakum. It's still available. Try http://www.hardwareworld.com/Brown-Oakum-1lb-Bag-pN7NS99.aspx
    Best,
    Lisa

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    Elizabeth Sasser AIA
    Historical Architect
    Quid Tum Historic Structures Consulting
    Amherst NH
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