The art of parquetry celebrates timber’s beauty and is a value-add for suppliers that’s also affordable for builders.
There’s a hypnotic beauty in a good parquetry floor; watching the shift of colours across the timber blocks, and the movement of the pattern. It’s a feature of many classic buildings, both public and private, but has fallen out of common use in private dwellings with a false perception of being ‘difficult’. In fact, done properly, parquetry lasts 25 years between sandings, and there are century-old floors still going strong across Australia. If anything, it benefits from minimal maintenance, with nothing more than a regular vacuum.
There are two main types of parquetry floor: block and mosaic. Block floors are laid one piece at a time and mosaics come as pre-made sheets, sometimes in elaborate patterns. Common designs include herringbone, basket-weave, brick and chevron. The parquets themselves are generally cut from attractive hardwoods and are usually square-dressed solid blocks around 14-19mm thick, though they can also be thinner veneers, around 8mm, and engineered timber parquets have come onto the market in recent years.
Far more than just a fancy floor for high-class offices, parquetry is an extremely practical option that is surprisingly affordable and just requires a little planning.
Value adding to timber
For timber suppliers J Notaras & Sons, parquetry represents a convenient value-add to their standard flooring range. Founded in 1952 by Lambrinos and Spiro Notaras, the family business – now run by their children – has produced flooring for over 60 years and sells kiln-dried hardwood product around NSW and SE Queensland.
Since 2000, their value adding plant has included a parquetry processing plant. The product is made from the dockings of their tongue-and-groove flooring.
“Years ago, offcuts were just burned,” says Donna Layton, general manager. “We no longer burn any material: everything leaves our site value-added. All our dockings are automatically cut to a length to suit our parquetry machine and are manually sorted by one or more people – depending on the availability of workers. The blanks are graded to check they are free of cracks and splits. Any that fail are binned for chipping, the graded ones are packed on pallets.”
J Notaras & Sons produces 260x65x14mm light-coloured parquetry blanks in Australian Beech, New England Blackbutt, Silvertop Stringybark, Tallowwood and White Mahogany. Red blanks of the same size are available in Blue Gum, Rose Gum, Grey Gum, Red Mahogany and Turpentine, while brown blanks come in Grey Box, Grey Ironbark and Spotted Gum. A thicker 260x65x19mm blank is available in Australian Beech, Blue Gum, Rose Gum and Spotted Gum, as the company also produces a 60x90mm T&G board.
Each box contains enough blanks –known as parquets, or blocks in the flooring trade – to cover 1.44m2. All timber is locally sourced and harvested from NSW native regrowth forests on a sustainable basis.
“It’s labour-intensive to produce,” says Layton, “and slower than running material into T&G. It wouldn’t be cost-effective to run as a full-time production process, but it is a worthwhile product to process part-time. We use our existing staff and run parquetry when we aren’t running some of our other production processes. It’s an excellent way to add value and create another product line.”
The job is low in labour costs: one person to feed blanks into the machinery (a Weinig Unimat planer and Friulmac end tenoner), another to grade and a third to pack, mark and seal each box before loading onto a pallet.
“The market for parquetry is very selective and not as widespread as the T&G market, says Layton. “It’s a specialised field, but if customers want something different and spectacular, then parquetry is worthwhile considering.”
Different and spectacular are exactly the words for the results.
In expert hands
Rod Williamson of Roby Floorsanding and Parquetry is a third-generation parquetry layer. “Forty years ago, every home that was built basically had a parquetry floor,” he says.
In the decades since, several factors have combined to change that in private dwellings. Builders didn’t want to take the time to lay complex floors, there were fewer expert layers, and non-specialist layers used the wrong or too-weak glues – “After about five years, the bad work was starting to come unstuck,” Williamson says.
Combined with changes in residential fashions, parquetry moved out of the domestic sphere and into the commercial, now most often seen in high-end offices, churches, libraries and government buildings.
Which is a great shame, according to Williamson. “Done well, parquetry pretty much lasts forever, if it’s looked after properly,” he says.
“There’s not much difference in the cost, you’d be surprised. Once you get started, if you’ve been doing it for a while, you can lay a block floor one piece at a time, incredibly fast. It’s probably as quick as a tongue and groove floor. For tongue and groove, you’ve got to glue along the line of every board and then staple it, and top nail or secret nail if it’s a wide board, whereas with parquetry you just trowel a section of glue, start laying the blocks and away you go.”
Williamson has been using Notaras timbers for many years. “They’ve got a good block parquetry product. We buy through Abbey Timber. It’s always available, we’ve had no problems with any of it – and we’ve had a lot of problems with manufacturers over the years, I can tell you.”
Putting it together
Parquetry requires a clean, flat, dry surface such as concrete or ply to be glued to. On poor surfaces, 6mm of cork is sometimes used, and specialist floors such as basketball courts have their own special substrates. Adhesive is spread over a small area and block parquetry is laid piece-by-piece, or as mosaic sheets (usually around 900mm).
“You’ve got to start the first couple of rows square,” says Williamson. “If it’s a millimetre out in the first couple of rows, by the time you get down 20 rows you could be 20mm out. Undulations in the concrete can throw it all out, too. The key is not to push the whole thing together too tightly, just ease it together and then try and keep it as square as you can.”
This is where a specialist layer is invaluable. It’s rare for a house to be built fully square, so the layer needs the experience to choose where to lay from. “It’s not the measurements of the room: it’s where you’re going to see the floor the most,” says Williamson. “If you walk into a house and there’s a long hallway and that hallway isn’t square but the room to the side is, there’s no point starting square in the room and working your way out into the hall. When you walk in the front door, your eye is going to focus on the hall, not the side room.”
Similarly, small variations in the substrate can be managed by easing blocks over rises and dips. The tiny gaps that arise are fixed in the later filling and sanding processes.
“It’s just little things I was taught by my grandfather and my old man,” Williamson says. “But they make a lot of difference.”
For example, a different-coloured border around a wall looks beautiful, but needs to be balanced. “You don’t want to start off with a full block on one end and half a block on the other end,” says Williamson.
His technique is to measure out from the wall all the way around where the client wants the border and flick a chalk line. Inside the line, the parquets are planned to be pleasantly symmetrical and are then glued to the chalk line, with those at the edges overlapping into the unglued area. “When it’s all set the next day you come back with a saw and cut it off to the straight line, then lay the border,” Williamson says.
He adds, in the tone of the truly experienced, “When you have to make compromises, you make them over against the wall where the furniture goes and no-one’s going to see them.”
While parquetry floors require good timbers and a degree of skill in the layer, the floors themselves are much lower-stress for homeowners than floorboards. There are no movement problems with parquetry; unlike long floorboards, it won’t twist or bend. You don’t have to acclimatise it, you can repair it easily because each parquet isn’t connected to the other ones, and you can lay it in a brick bond pattern or a random brick bond if you want the look of a standard timber floor with long, straight lines.
And yet it remains an under-used option in residential buildings. “I think T&G and floating floors have just taken over,” says Williamson. “Builders want a floor that just goes in and it’s done, you can walk on it straight away, whereas with a parquetry floor, you need to wait for the glues to dry.”
He accepts that the demand on timber in the industry does mean that this is unlikely to change, but hopes that parquetry will remain a part of the mix, given its real practical advantages. “I think a lot of people think it’s a lot more expensive than it is.”
Sticking it down
In the first half of the 20th century, block parquetry was also tongue and groove and it was all laid in pitch. “There wasn’t any suitable glue,” says Williamson, “so they’d boil a big vat of pitch, spread it on the floor and lay the blocks into that.
“What happens in the wintertime is that pitch gets really hard, which means the floor gets loose, then in summertime it warms up and the floor settles back down again. I’ve done quite a few repair jobs on those floors over the years in schools and government departments and so on.”
At the start of Williamson’s career, and for many years, PVA was the glue of choice, now polyurethane glues dominate.
“I think they’re too strong,” says Williamson. “The strongest thing on the floor is the parquetry hardwood, the weakest thing is the concrete or timber underneath and with polyurethane, the next strongest thing is the glue, so if you get a lot of water the timber is going to move and the waterproof glue will move with it and damage the substrate or walls.”
The exact reason why PVA has become less popular in building is what makes it suitable for parquetry: the bonds of the water-based glue are easier to break. “With traditional glues, if you damage half a dozen blocks, you can just take those blocks out and replace them,” says Williamson. “It’s not hard to find the timbers, suppliers have a bigger range available than they used to.”
Floors laid by Williamson’s father in the early 1950s are still in excellent condition. “He laid mosaic floors for a company called George Wills and it was laid straight over the top of a cypress pine floor, diagonal pattern, and it’s been there decades and there wouldn’t be one loose finger in the whole floor. It’s only been re-sanded once in its entire life. If you use enough glue, you use the right trowels, you use the right method, as my dad was taught and I was taught, there are no problems.”
Caring for parquetry
Many of the problems people associate with parquetry floors come from basic misunderstandings about timber, Williamson says. “A lot of people wash it with water, and water and timber don’t mix.”
He recommends minimum maintenance on any timber floor, aside from regular vacuuming. “It’s only the dirt between your shoes and the floor that causes scratching,” Williamson says. “A lot of Asian people take their shoes off when they get to the front door and their floors last 25 years without a problem. If you want to clean it, use cold water and a couple of caps of metho in a really wrung-out mop.”
Properly cared for, parquetry floors are a lifetime proposition. They can be re-sanded to an as-new finish six times or more, depending on how they’re looked after. And with an average of one sanding every couple of decades, or even longer, most will outlive the person who installs them.
As Williamson says, “In a tongue and groove floor, you’ve only got about 6mm down to the tongue and then you just throw it away. But parquetry floors, even when they’re only 8mm thick, you still get a long life out of them as long as they’re looked after properly.”
He advises keeping the floor as dry as possible and never using a steam mop on any timber flooring.
Be conscious of your timber choices if you live in a termite-risk area, Williamson warns. “Cypress Pine is the only timber that white ants won’t eat, though I’ve never seen them eat much Brushbox, either,” he says. ”Whereas Tasmanian Oak – they’d walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge to get some Tassie Oak in them.“
In termite areas, floors are just as important to protect as the frame of the house. “We did a block parquetry floor for a woman and about 18 months later she rang me up and said, ‘I walk across the floor with my high-heeled shoes on and I’m going right through it.’ I raced out and took a look, and it was full of white ants. She paid a lot of money for the floor, but didn’t do any termite work around the outside of the house.”
The magic of sanding
A freshly laid parquetry floor has a rustic charm, but it’s the skill of the sander and polisher that brings it to life, smoothing the surface into a single unit and increasing the play of light across the colours of the timber. A skilled sander and polisher can increase the value of a floor, whereas a poor worker can create marks that show up in the finished product.
“Everything is much more visible these days,” says Williamson. “When I first started laying floors, houses had one little window in a room and one little light in the ceiling. Defects in floors didn’t show up. But now you’ve got half a dozen downlights, you’ve got huge windows – everything shows up!”
Thankfully, equipment has also changed. Gone are the heavy old machines that were often petrol powered to be used on subdivisions where electricity was yet to be connected. In their place are light, reliable models that sand perfectly smooth.
Abrasives have also improved dramatically over the course of Williamson’s career. The most popular flooring sanders use continuous belts – the old version wrapped a sheet of sandpaper around a drum, tucking the ends into a groove cut in that drum, which was then tensioned. The groove always made a mark in the floor as it came around. Now, a range of abrasive grades and types from the better manufacturers means specific products are available to suit any type of timber.
“Sandpaper‘s much better today than what it was in the old days,” Williamson says. “We use a lot of Norton products and Sia. Great performance from them. And recent timber floors aren’t as hard as the old ones. It’s all plantation timber, not old-growth forest.”
This can cause problems with machines that use a circular motion. “You have to know what you’re doing there, because they can actually cut a circle in the floor, which will show through when you coat it,” says Williamson. “You’ve got to keep the machine moving and make sure what you’re using is clean and hasn’t any grit on it.”
Eccentric oribital machines that go backwards and forwards as they go round and thus make it virtually impossible to stay too long in one spot are also available and have been for many years. “I still use Progress machines that have got to be 60 years old, you can’t cut a mark in the floor with them. I’ve got about seven or eight of them in the factory, but my son Jayson, who does a lot of the sanding and polishing for us, rarely uses them – they’re too slow.”
The floor is screeded with filler before sanding. “This is where we deal with any little gaps that come up from things such as a rise in the concrete, meaning two blocks go together flat on the bottom but with a minuscule gap at the top. The filler will cover that,” Williamson says.
The final step is waxing and polishing. There is an enormous range of good products available that both nourish the timber and protect the floor. Williamson likes the traditional approach: “I was taught by my grandfather to use beeswax. You break it down with mineral turps. After you’ve waxed the floor once, you use mineral turps to dissolve the wax again and keep re-using it, so you don’t get a build-up. And then when you find you’re not getting any shine off the floor, you’ve used up all the wax and you just rewax it again.”
There are excellent off-the-shelf products available, but he warns against some of the ‘no-fuss’ water-based waxes that will continue to absorb water from the shoes of people coming into the house, permanently staining the timbers at doorways.
While much of the work for Williamson’s company comes from floorsanding, parquetry is still popular in public buildings for its toughness, as well as high-end homes for its prestige.
“We recently replaced all the parquetry in a basketball centre at Randwick Girls High School,” says Williamson, “about 600m2 in one room. It’s on an Air-Thrust floor: sheets of ply with little rubber pads under the bottom sheet. The flooring is glued to the top and stays in place, but the layers underneath take the stress out of your knees and feet.”
The sizes of parquets have changed over the years and while it’s possible to source or cut small quantities for repairs, it does mean some types of floor can’t be reproduced.
Wiliamson says, “I’ve got a house down the coast and the dishwasher burst there and damaged a lot of parquetry in the kitchen and went downstairs and damaged some floor down there. You just can’t get that size anymore, so I had to dig up the floor downstairs, clean all the undamaged blocks one by one and use them to patch upstairs and put in a new floor downstairs!”
Finding a reputable layer is often word of mouth through previous clients or timber outlets. Training is similarly passed on from one generation to the next, and Williamson worries that some skills risk being lost with the older generation of layers. “Jayson is fantastic at sanding and staining, but he’s never laid much. Of course, I’ve got to quote a job tomorrow in a church that’s 300m2 of parquetry floor and I’ll need him, so he’ll learn a bit there, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, a repair job in another church at Parramatta calls. Its block floor is 80 years old, laid in pitch, and got wet when the ceiling fell in. But Williamson is confident it will be a simple job. “With the weather being warm, the pitch has still hung the floor together, so it just needs re-sanding. There are a lot of beautiful floors in churches. They tend to look after them better, and wax them so they don’t need to re-sand them as much. It’ll be there for the grandkids.”
Image: Roby Floorsanding and Parquetry laid 170m2 of Brushbox herringbone parquetry with a Ramin border in this Artarmon house last year and sanded and polished it to a high shine.