How to Paint a Black and White Checkered Floor (Or, The Misery of Our Endless Scrubbing)

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's an unofficial tradition among my friends to move home for a length of time, start a major home renovation project, and then leave halfway through. (Parents, it turns out, are great finishers.) The middle of a renovation project brings with it an existential crisis that fuels movement--movement anywhere else, really, as long as it's away from this project that will never end.

When I moved home (in keeping with tradition), I wondered now and then about starting a major home renovation project, but nothing really stuck.  

Meanwhile my sister went to college in another state, finished college, and reoccupied her attic bedroom. A few months later our parents left town for a few weeks.

Let's repaint the basement floor, I said. I think we laughed, both of us, and then a few days later my sister said, Let's do it.

Our basement holds the three primary life sources of our house: the kitchen, the wood stove, and coolness in summer. Twenty years ago our mother painted black and white checks on this space, using epoxy paint and forty rolls of masking tape to mark out the squares. When the paint was dry she declared it finished and allowed us to walk on it, all seven of us, plus Dad. We in turn brought in friends and wheelbarrows full of wood and muddy boots and goat kids and bottle lambs (and one time we left the back door open and a flock of sheep wandered in) and ping pong games and wrestling and bicycles and scooters and science experiments and breaking glass and chair legs scraping and twenty years in the life of a family. The best on the market epoxy paint, formulated for factory floors and forklift trucks, wasn't up for the task, and what resulted was a floor that when scrubbed clean still prompted people to say, "Oh, I thought that was mud."

Demoralizing, to say the least. 

Repainting the basement floor was the perfect major home renovation project.

We enlisted a few strong men to help us move out furniture, had a few paint store adventures while choosing the right paint, and then we got to work, sanding and scrubbing. 

We sanded and then we scrubbed, once, twice, three times.

And then we painted on a coat of white paint.

Here's a pro-tip an amateur-with-a-terrible-experience-tip: if you're planning to paint a concrete floor, DO NOT USE LATEX PAINT. I had it in my mind that my mother had used latex paint. I was so sure of this. It wasn't until we'd painted the entire floor white with latex paint (the heavy duty floor stuff, etc., etc.,) that I asked my oldest brother, casually, what kind of paint Mom had used. Epoxy, he said.


Latex paint, it turns out, comes up with Windex.


Here is where the project grew totally out of control. We'd just painted the floor with this paint that was guaranteed to peel up, so we had to remove all of it, as much as we possibly could from each tiny ridge of original paint and each tiny pockmark in the exposed concrete.

Our two-week project became a true home improvement project by expanding into a several-month-long kitchen-less nightmare.

We started scrubbing again.

We scrubbed and scraped and enlisted anyone who was willing to help us.

At this point we thought, now would be a good time to repaint the walls. So we did.

Then we scrubbed again. 

We developed a water/vacuum system to maximize efficiency.

(Once during our increasingly comical trips to paint stores/sections, a gum-snapping paint seller suggested the latex "hadn't stuck" because the floor wasn't clean. "Did you clean the floor," she said instead of asked, and in the comic book that is my mind we lunged at her in a cloud of cartoon scuffle, but in reality we walked away and I said to my sister, I still don't have all the feeling back in my arms from the first time we scrubbed it three times, that's how clean the floor was.) 

By now our low-cost project budget (we can use grocery money, I'd said; it'll be so cheap, I'd said) blossomed into something resembling what I would have been happy to make that year, and we had to come clean to our parents, who were still blissfully unaware of what was happening to their house.

Do it, they said. Do it with the best paint there is. So we did.

 We painted two coats (or was it three) of white epoxy paint as a base layer.

And it felt like we could maybe fly.

We were talking about the math when our oldest brother and a friend joined us and did some chalking up of the plan.

Here's another tip: use a laser to mark grid lines. A friend who will go down in the annals of Anderwood as a True and Good Friend brought a floor/tiling laser level, significant good humor, and an unwavering interest in the project, well beyond the point of sore knees. 

And then it was time for tape.

At this point, something shifted for me. Here's what happened: my sister left for graduate school, and my mother and I finished the project. It turns out my sister is the one carrying on the tradition of moving home, starting a major renovation project, and then moving on to the rest of her life. It turns out I am the one who stays home and finishes the project.

This was an unexpected twist.

This house, this big, boxy house designed and built by my family from salvaged wood on a two-acre lot on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and five years later moved on a huge truck to a forty-acre farm, this house--it's hard to express what this house means to me.

It means displacement. Isolation. It means sacrifices and strangeness and hard, hard work.

This house also represents the danger of hating something so much it becomes something you love.

Originally my mom had painted individual white squares and black squares, laying tape for one set, taking it up, then laying tape for the next set. We decided to do a base coat of white, with black squares marked out on top of the base. We then added a topcoat to seal edges and add a layer of protection. We'll see how this wears over the next twenty years, but I recommend this method just because it's easier to paint. 

Then, finally, after months and months of a makeshift kitchen in the upstairs dining room, we peeled up the tape, waited two weeks for it to cure, and then reenlisted a few strong men to start moving furniture back in. 

But only after the two then-smallest members of our family inspected our work and declared it good.

May all the things you hate be houses that someday provide refuge.


  1. Oh, my, I'm glad you documented this....least we forget.

    1. Couldn't have done it without you, Mama.


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