DIY Paper Flooring

In this tutorial I will convince you it’s a good idea to cover the floors in your home in decoupaged paper bags. If you don’t believe me, read on!

Two and a half years ago my husband and I purchased a major fixer upper house at a steep discount. I believe the technical term for the home we bought is “Shit Hole.” After jacking up and repairing water damaged supports, completely ripping out and replacing one bathroom, replacing most of the plumbing, ripping out and getting partially done on the laundry room/second bathroom (the washer and dryer work, the second bath part does not), replacing the flooring in the converted carport/den with linoleum, lots of painting and a little electrical work, it’s livable. Unfortunately, over half the house still has the plywood subfloor we started with and it’s getting old. We painted it, but the paint is starting to wear heavily in high traffic areas, and it’s not an attractive or ideal long-term fix. We just paid off the home improvement loan we used to do all the work to get the home habitable, and we really don’t want to spend much on the flooring or get into debt again. We have three dogs and three cats, so carpet isn’t a good option for us. Originally, my husband was going to put down pine floors, but with his current job schedule, we’ll be retired before he has time. I have the carpentry skills of the average 5-year-old.  What’s a girl to do? Paper floors!

This tutorial is only for putting down paper floors on plywood subflooring. Other people have had success with different methods on concrete, or over other types of flooring such as vinyl, but the Elmer’s glue mixture will not work. I originally tried this method in our guest room, except that I used water-based stain. I’m really bad at stain application and the finished product wasn’t evenly colored or attractive. I mixed stain into the glue mixture and gradually added more paper on top with different concentrations of stain until I was happy with the effect. I actually liked it more than a more uniform finish, and I love not putting down the whole floor only to mess up the stain and have to start again. This is how I’ll be doing the rest of the house.

Using wood putty to fill in cracks in the floor.
To start, you’ll need to prep your floors. Fill in any cracks, level out nail holes, and hammer down or remove any nails that stick out. Don’t let the freeloaders get in your way.

Start by prepping your floors; you can use any sort of wood putty. If you won’t be finishing the whole project in a few days, buy a few smaller containers of putty instead of one big one, because they will dry out. My finished product will be slightly textured, so my subfloor doesn’t need to be perfect, I just have to avoid any ridges or gaps that would cause my paper to wear unevenly.  If you want a more smooth finish, you’ll need to do more prep work and make sure things are level. Any texture in the wood will show through, so if that’s an issue you’ll need to fill that as well. Where my plywood didn’t quite meet level, I used the putty to make the angle more gradual, so it won’t cause damage to the paper. I also add an extra layer of paper over areas that might be a problem. I filled in any nail holes, knocked down a few nails that were sticking out, and filled in gaps between the plywood. After a day to dry, I sanded everything smooth and I was ready to go.

Materials:

  • Paper bags or contractors paper: Contractors paper is inexpensive and much thicker, so I use it. $10 at Home Depot. Adding paper bags on top can add more texture and color, but I don’t think it’s sturdy enough to use alone.
  • Elmer’s Glue: Some people are able to get it in gallons at craft stores and use 50% off coupons. None of ours have it, but Lowe’s sells it for $14/gallon.
  • WATER-BASED Stain: You can not use this method with oil based stain. I used the Minwax Water Based Wood Stain, which is available to be tinted at the paint counter of Home Depot, in American Walnut  for $11/quart.
  • It’s only available in quarts, but some people have had success using Rit fabric dye for smaller applications.
  • Water-Based Polyurethane: I’m using Rustoleum Pro-finisher for floors in semi-gloss. On the first room I accidentally used Minwax Polycrylic and loved it, but apparently it’s not recommended for floors. My dad does custom wood working for a living and he says it will be fine for low-traffic areas, but not for our living room or hallway, so I went ahead and made the switch for the bedroom. Oil-based polyurethane is technically an option here, but water-based is easier to work with, and won’t make your house smell for weeks. The oil-based is stronger, but I’m compensating with additional layers. $40/gallon for the Rustoleum Pro-finisher from Home Depot.

And things you probably already have around your house if it’s a construction zone:

  • Bucket or bowl to soak your paper in.
  • A sponge to smooth down your paper and avoid fingerprints
  • Long roller or new sponge mop and paint tray to apply poly
wood stain and glue ready to be mixed
Mixing my stain and glue.

To begin, you’ll tear the paper and slightly crumple it. I like to do this in little piles as I go, but some people like to do a couple of garbage bags worth ahead of time. The size of the paper is completely up to you. Bigger pieces will go faster, but sometimes the middles won’t get saturated in the glue mixture when you’re soaking them. Tiny pieces tend to get too wet if they’re left to soak and start to fall apart, so you’ll need to dip those one at a time.

You’ll also mix your stain with your glue and water. I saw everything from 50%to 30% glue to water ratio. I prefer closer to 30% glue, but the more glue you have in the mix, the less the creases in your paper will show. More water will make more “lines” where you crumpled the paper and the glue/stain mixture shows up more. I like lines. For this mixture, I started with about 1/3 qt of stain, with 1/3 of a gallon glue, and filled up the rest of the gallon with water. Then, I added more glue and water as I refilled my bowl to gradually decrease the amount of stain in the mixture. If I felt the paper was getting too light, I would add a bit more stain. I use an empty glue bottle to make it easy to measure and allow me to close it, but you can use whatever you have on hand. Experiment on a scrap board or in a closet until you find something you like.

Torn contractors paper and glue mixture
Everything is ready to go.

Saturate a few pieces of paper in the glue mixture and gently squeeze one out. Use a sponge to smooth it out on the floor, and make sure you remove any air bubbles. You can use your hands, but there may be visible finger smears or prints in the finished product if you don’t go over it again with a sponge, and make sure that the amount of glue/stain mixture is even over the whole paper’s surface. If part of the paper isn’t completely coated in glue, you can put that side up and go over it with a sponge, but the whole bottom must be saturated with glue for it to adhere to the floor properly. Any blank spots on the bottom will turn into air holes that you’ll have to fix later. Squeeze out the sponge regularly, so you’re not putting way too much stain on your paper when you smooth it.

Contractor's paper soaking in glue mixture.
I like to leave a few pieces of paper soaking the glue mixture as I work.

Since I’m varying the amount of stain in my glue mixture to create a mottled effect, I’m placing the paper randomly, instead of starting in a corner and working my way out. On the first day, I leave gaps for myself to step in, and on successive days, I step on the dry paper. It took me three days to do our bedroom, with a couple of breaks in between papering sessions on each day. Be careful not to slip in any glue because it is SLIPPERY. Go over any accidental foot prints or drips on finished paper with the sponge on your way out of the room. I’m not too careful about going over every single drip because I think a few of them are attractive, but with the stain mixed in they will leave visible spots in the finish.

It will look really wrinkly and ugly before it dries. DON'T PANIC!
It will look really wrinkly and ugly before it dries. DON’T PANIC!

When you first get started, you’ll be pretty sure you’ve made a horrible mistake and that this is going to look awful. The paper will buckle and look really bad as it dries. The combo of stain and wet glue isn’t a very attractive color, and everything will just be a big sloppy mess. You’ll also drip everywhere, and your subfloor will look horrible, too. Don’t worry, once everything is dry magic will happen and it will look great. Trust.

Almost finished putting down paper
Filling in the last few holes before letting it dry.

In high traffic areas, or if you want a very smooth finish, you’ll need to squish down any wrinkles, and cut a hole to pop any air bubbles, before papering over any “imperfections” in the dried paper, and let your last corrections dry for at least 24 hours before you begin to apply the polyurethane. Use extra glue mixture to flatten down any raised edges, and make sure there aren’t any tiny bare spots you need to cover as well. You can easily patch it after you’re finished, so it’s not an emergency if you discover a mistake, or just decide to deal with areas that might wear unevenly after they’ve started to show damage. Follow the instructions on your particular brand of poly. For the Rustoleum, you can’t do more than two coats per day, and you must sand between coats that are more than six hours apart. The Minwax Polycrylic is less durable, but it only specifies that there be two hours dry time between coats, so that may be a better choice for low traffic areas. Other brands have different instructions, so just make sure you follow them.

A paint tray lined with a garbage bag to hold the polyurethane.
Polyurethane in the garbage bag makes finishing the floor much easier.

To actually apply the poly, I line a paint tray with a garbage bag and pour the poly in that. This allows you to close the trash bag around your mop or roller head between coats, and just trash the bag at the end of the day. When I was using Minwax Polycrylic I kept the bag going for all six coats without having to wash my mop or change bags. Most recommendations are for between four and 12 coats of poly, and I used six in our bedroom. For higher traffic areas, I’ll likely do more. Apply the poly in thin, even coats. Excessively thick coats, or not allowing it to dry between coats can cause a cloudy finish. Making the coat too thin can also cause cloudiness, but that’s a result of overworking the poly. Don’t go over the same spot over and over or you’ll just get a bunch of air in the finish and mess it up. If you do end up with cloudy poly, this blogger had success staining over the whole floor again with oil-based stain to correct it without having to start over.

Completed floor
All done and ready for trim and furniture. Look how pretty and shiny!

You’ll need to let the floor dry for about a day for light traffic, and ideally, you’ll wait about a week for the poly to cure before you put in furniture and start living in the room. Sometimes that’s not practical, so just give it as long as you can and know that it’ll get more durable the longer you can leave it. Upkeep is similar to wood floors, but easier because these floors are so much easier to repair. Most people report success with regular sweeping and vacuuming and mopping with a damp mop. Products safe for hardwood floors will be safe for the finish. It’s better not to get it too wet, but some people have used this technique successfully in their bathrooms.  In my own experience with the finishes I’ve used, there may be some temporary discoloration if water is left to stand on the floor, but it goes away in an hour or so after it’s dried.

Close up of completed floor
You can see all the textures and colors created by varying the amount of stain and glue.

To repair damage you can either just repaper over the area using the same technique you used for the original floor, or you can color in the discolored area and apply more polyurethane over it. You can keep a little kit with small amounts of repair supplies if you have pets or kids that are likely to damage the floor. In areas with heavy use, many people mop a fresh coat of polyurethane on the floor about once a year. I didn’t take pictures, but the first night our dogs were allowed in the guest room, they pulled the paper up where it was sticking into the holes for the air vents and I hadn’t replaced the covers yet. I had it fixed and invisible in less than 10 minutes of work.

Completed paper floor
One last picture of the finished floor. SO PRETTY!

 

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Laura-C

Hopes to someday train her dogs not to be douchebags.

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