Few things are more satisfying than replacing smelling, stinky, worn-out old carpet, unless it’s replacing it with a super successful DIY alternative that leaves money in your pocket! That’s exactly what my experience has been with brown paper flooring.
What is a brown paper floor?
The brown paper floor is a hard floor covering that you can do yourself. It has a finished look of worn leather. It is created by gluing torn/crumpled pieces of brown paper, in an overlapping pattern. Personal styles and colors are achieved with stain and patterns. The floor is sealed using Polyurethane.
What supplies do I need? The supply list for the brown paper floor is extremely simple:
- Brown paper
- Glue (Elmer’s White Glue or Polyurethane)
- Sealant (Polyurethane)
- Stain (optional), rag or paper towels
- Paint tray
- Roller or brushes
I also purchased a set of knee pads and latex gloves. I highly recommend both although they aren’t an absolute necessity.
How do you do it?
Prepare the floor by removing old flooring, sanding or any other steps required to acquire a smooth surface. On a wood floor, the glue mixture of Elmer’s white glue and water (50/50 ratio) is used. On a concrete floor you will need to use straight polyurethane to glue the paper down – be sure to use a water based poly. Tear the paper in irregular shapes and patterns and crumple each piece. Dip the crumpled paper ball into the glue mixture, carefully unwrap the the wrinkled paper and smooth it out on the floor. Press out air bubbles as you smooth the paper pieces on the floor, layering the pieces in an overlapping pattern to generate the desired, random look. Let the floor dry, then apply stain if desired and seal the floor with several coats of polyurethane.
TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
- Take the time to prepare your floor well. The finished floor is truly thin paper, so irregularities will show through – this includes seams, gashes, glue or texture mud splatters, staples, etc. I choose to put a 1/4 hardwood underlayment down on any floor I stripped of glue and laminate.
- A stronger glue mixture (more Elmer’s glue than water) will result in a darker look of the crumpled seams. If your mixture is different during applications, it will be noticeable to you especially if you use stain. Measuring is a great solution for uniformity.
- Beware of glue drops! These will dry and show through as perfect drops/circles when you apply the stain or poly. Make sure to keep any glue drips and drops smoothed out with the rest of the floor as it dries.
- Repairs are a wonderful attribute of this flooring option as any place you are unhappy with or that gets damaged is easily repaired by gluing more paper over old. If you have already stained or added poly to your floor you’ll need to use poly as the glue to reapply paper.
- There is a combo poly/stain product you can purchase if you want color on a floor where poly was used as the glue. The stain doesn’t take the same way to this as it does to the white glue, but it can still be accomplished with this combo product.
- Use enough polyurethane. It will take at least 4 coats to seal your floor and provide some protection, although personally I wouldn’t do any less than 6 coats on top and have seen several who recommend twice that amount. After about the 4th coat you’ll start to notice the finish and leveling of your floor.
Truly all you really need is a desire a few supplies to create your own, beautiful floor. It’s the most inexpensive and deeply satisfying DIY project I’ve ever undertaken. It’s been really fun to see this project come together. Many have asked where I got my supplies. I ordered two rolls of brown paper from Amazon for about $16 each. They covered well over 1800 square feet. You can purchase brown paper at your local hardware store too. I can’t speak to the difference in paper types or cost, I truly ordered the cheapest big roll of brown paper that came up on amazon with my first search. I bought a gallon of Elmer’s white glue for about $14 at a local hardware store, also some knee pads and latex gloves. Polyurethane varies from about $30-50 per gallon. I bought mine at Lowe’s.
One common question is how long to let the paper absorb the glue mixture. The best answer is you’ll find out really fast! There is a balance in too much/too little but by the first 2-3 pieces you’ll have it figured out. If you leave it too long the paper will fall apart on you as you try to unfold and flatten it. I found no need to put glue down first, the paper was adequately wet with glue that as I spread and flattened the paper out the glue mixture would move easily and hold the paper in place. The only thing to avoid is catching air under the paper. I found taking time to apply pressure and smoothing on each piece was all required to avoid bubbles and wrinkles. The white glue mixture with water will absorb almost twice as fast as the poly.
My first attempt was on a concrete floor in the basement. I opted to use an old lid, covered in a black garbage bag, for holding the poly and dipping the paper. In the end, I’m not sure it was any easier than just putting the gallon on a black garbage bag and dipping the paper right into the can. But I would recommend using the garbage bag as it catches a lot of stray drips and that’s a good thing!
My first blunder was trying to use a combo poly/stain to apply the paper. I’d read that polyurethane would be required to make the paper adhere to concrete, so when I saw they made a combination polyurethane with stain product I thought it was a perfect one step solution. NOT SO. Stain is oil based. Oil doesn’t stick – duh! As soon as I used my plain water based poly the paper went down like a dream. I did use the combo product to seal and finish the floor with a darker color and that worked great.
The next learning curve was seeing how much polyurethane it would take to glue the floor down. My first gallon did this section of floor plus the small room off to the left.
As I was covering all but three rooms in a 1500 sq foot basement, it was clear a couple gallons wasn’t going to do the job. I took just over 3 gallons to finish an estimated 600-700 sq feet. At this point, I changed my game plan of buying a more expensive polyurethane to the cheapest one I could find which ended up being a Rustoleum brand at Lowe’s for about $30 a gallon. It’s still super cheap compared to other floor coverings, but I wasn’t planning on spending as much here as I’d read about. These pictures reflect how the floor looks when it’s wet and the same floor when it’s dried. This is before the polyurethane has been applied. I just remember when looking at tutorials how I wished I’d had a visual reference as it was wet to know if I was doing it right! Don’t worry about imperfections of wrinkling in the paper, etc. I found that as it dries most of those things resolve themselves and the coats of sealant complete the fix. Additionally, I found that it was much harder to get the paper as smooth and wrinkle free on concrete versus wood. The good news is you’re going for a look of worn leather so wrinkles fit and camouflage well.
Both of these photos are from the basement where I put this floor down. The one on the left is a direct look down, the one on the right is a distance shot across the floor. Both pictures have the same dried coats of top coat (polyurethane), the lighting and angle are what explain the different look. The color variations in the paper are a natural process of the way the crumpled paper absorbs the glue and how it dries. You can see from the picture on the right how the gloss sheen adds to the finished look of the floor, if you prefer a less glossy finish you simply use a satin version of polyurethane. I read many recommendations to lightly sand in between each coat for a smooth finish. I found this impossible on the concrete floor because there are some seams and wrinkles that already interfered with the completely smooth finish. At this point, I’ve simply paid more attention to these areas when applying the sealant coats giving those spots a little extra. Honestly, I can’t see that not sanding between coats has had any negative impact on my flooring. Additionally, it’s flooring that will eventually be covered with area rugs and furniture. To date, I’ve put down three coats of polyurethane, I plan to do one or two more. One great advantage to this floor is it’s flexibility. Additional coats of polyurethane could be added at any time during the life of the floor for added endurance and shine. It is also extremely forgiving! If you don’t like the look of a section or if you have a scratch or trouble spot you simple glue more paper over the top. I’ve already had a few touch up spots.
You can see what it looks like to put new paper over old. The picture on the right is this same spot, looking down, after it’s dried. The “fix” fits in perfectly. You can also see how a floor imperfection will show through your work. This seam of two concrete pads is significant. I thought I had enough floor leveler over the seam to hide it. But you can still see perfectly where the seam is. Paper is very thin so imperfections in the floor they’re covering will show through. Prep work pays!
Paper on concrete also looks differently when dried. On a concrete floor I found the paper dried very light compared to that on wood. You also can clearly see the paper sections and seams. The wood floor finish is more even and camouflaged (until stained). It’s not hard to see why people like working with it on wood better than concrete. However, that said I still think both look beautiful! One other detail I learned along the way was how the coloring is affected by the glue and pressure. The white glue mixture needs to be consistent or you will see a difference with each “batch” of glue. More glue creates a darker look, while a batch with more water will cause a lighter more washed out effect. As poly was used downstairs I can only explain this difference as how long/well the paper was allowed to absorb the glue before being put down. In areas of the floor where my husband helped me, the paper looked darker and I could see all the details and seams better. I liked it better than areas I’d done on my own. My only conclusion is that he did a better job of smashing the paper before laying it out flat. I figure his hand strength was better than mine or he was better and squeezing out the excess poly before handing me the paper pieces.
So this is where a little control comes in with color. These photos show the natural color, or the look with the paper, unaltered dried. Again, there’s a difference between concrete and wood. Because the only adhesive strong enough to glue the paper to concrete is polyurethane, there is already a coat of protectant on the paper once it’s dried. This means putting any stain for color will be problematic. I did try one small area with a combination polyurethane and stain. It glides on the same way a coat of polyurethane does.
The stained floor is a darker brown. Ironically it’s the same walnut stain as you’ll see on the stairs although it clearly doesn’t look anywhere near that dark on the concrete. For this small space, I used a brush to apply the stained polyurethane. On the rest of the floor I used a paint roller and brushed in the edges to apply the top coats.
On a wood floor you can control color by applying stain directly onto the dried paper and then applying the polyurethane top coats. I found it helpful to run a dry paper towel over the top of the stain to absorb excess stain and better control the look I wanted. I used both paper towels and a rag to apply the stain, I prefer the rag as the paper towel will inevitably pull apart leaving little pieces of paper towel to clean up. I also found the stain remains quite tacky even after drying. I wrapped my feet with some press and seal plastic wrap when applying the first coat of polyurethane, which dried in about four hours. This removed the tacky finish and started the gloss look. In fact, as I moved on with the floor I found I liked the washed look that the poly brought out when applied almost immediately after the stain was put down.
One of the things I’ve loved the most about working with paper is how easy it is. All you need to do is fold over the wet paper to make a straight edge. This was very helpful when applying it to the stairs as there were a lot of straight edges. It was wonderful to see the ugly wood transformed into a picture of perfect edges and beautiful finish.
Here’s the stair’s transformation:
Pulling up old floor was a learning experience. I wasn’t prepared for how rough the wood subfloor would be when the old linoleum was pulled up and scraped off. My floor had two coverings to remove – old carpet and old linoleum.
Unless you have a lot more patience than me, and perhaps more equipment – smoothing out this travesty is impossible. I did try one room of putting the paper down on top and wasn’t happy. So I opted to go buy some 1/4 hardwood panels for about $18/ea to put down for a smooth subfloor.
I have been MUCH happier with this and highly recommend doing it for any floor where there’s been damage done to the subfloor from previous flooring. In fact, knowing what I know now, I may have opted to put this down on my concrete in the basement instead of applying the paper straight to the concrete.
This new underlayment also provided me the option of matching instead of replacing some hardwood laminate flooring that I put paper over. We took a room out and were left with these open seams where the walls had been.
This meant figuring out a way to patch the areas. We ended up gluing some of the same underlayment and covering it with poly to bring it the same height for finishing. Another lesson learned here is application of polyurethane. There’s a reason the instructions say to apply it in thin layers. When you pour it out it will get deep creases and cracks in it as it dries. For my application this was fine as I was applying more wrinkles over top, but if you wanted to skip a few steps in applying your top coat – DON’T!
As I gained confidence with my floor, I decided to tape a pattern into my dining room area. I measured out the area my table and hutch would be using a piece of yard and then put down painters tape in a pattern. It turned out great!
As the stain is going on paper, it is impossible to avoid some bleeding of the stain under the tape – even using the higher end tape. But it fits the style of the floor and is only noticeable to me and those who might scrutinize the floor close up. Originally, I was going to tape out some large diamonds inside but it was more work than I anticipated so ended up keeping it simple. If you have the time, talent and patience the sky is the limit with the designs you could paint into your floor freehand with just the darker stain. Everyone that sees my floor asks me how I got the lighter color. They are surprised when I show them my pictures and see how simple it was.
Another blunder – As I hadn’t done a pattern before I didn’t know what to expect. I tried to put a lighter stain down in the light strip but found it blurred the line so much it looked bad. So I ended up re-taping and touching up with the dark stain again to re-define my line where I’d tried it. It also taught me that even a light stain will bring out the wrinkles and seams of the paper more. So if you don’t want to see the overlapping paper seams don’t use stain at all. If you are going to stain patterns into your floor I strongly suggest planning on the natural color as one and only dealing with one other color of stain. If you really want stain colors you’d need to seal the floor with a coat of poly before applying the second stain to maintain the crisp line definitions.
Stain is a personal choice. I like it, I think the darker stain enhances details, gives depth and makes the floor look more elegant. The options are endless. Either way, stain or no stain, I don’t think you’ll find as pretty a floor – especially without the price tag – as the brown paper floor offers.
Durability – Many have worried and asked about the strength and durability of this floor. My personal experience has been fantastic. My stairs have never yet had the extra coats of poly on them. They’ve been in use since I could get the first coat over the stain and they have handled movers, utility dollies and kids throwing toys down them. I had one area of damage that took two small chips of wood out when something big was dropped, but all I had to do was reapply some small paper and more stain. As for the floors that have had at least 4 coats of poly – they are holding up wonderfully! I look forward to getting more coats on for a deeper shine and added strength.
I have loved my brown paper floors and get compliments and questions every time someone new sees them!