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Covering your stage floor...

This write-up was provided by one of our Sales Managers, Dave Durbin.  Dave has many years of experience as a TD in both professional and academic settings.

These materials and methods (or some variation) are standard operating procedure at many professional and educational theaters around the country for finishing a stage floor. If installed properly, you should be able to get at least five, sometimes as much as ten years of use. It’s durable, looks good, stands up to all kinds of theater-related activities.

Materials:

  • 4x8 Sheets of ¼” double-tempered hardboard. “Duron” is one brand name. Do not use single-tempered sheets as they will almost certainly warp over time.
  • 4-6mm clear plastic sheeting. This is optional. You would find this at your local home center in the paint department as a long roll, typically 3’-5’ wide x 100’ or more long.
  • Acrylic-latex primer (color doesn’t matter, typically white). Recommended products include Kilz or Zinser interior water-based primer. Could be whatever is in your slop bucket at the time, as long as it hasn’t been thinned at all with water.
  • Rosco Tough Prime Black, available from BMI Supply.
  • Clear water-based sealant. Recommended products include Rosco Clear Flat Acrylic or Basic Coatings StreetShoe NXT, both available from BMI Supply.
  • 16ga Pneumatic straight brad nailer and a lot of 1¼” – 2” nails, depending on the thickness of the stage/subfloor.

Process:

  • Store the sheets of hardboard on the stage for several days immediately after delivery.  You want them to acclimate to the space.
  • While you are waiting, go over the entire stage floor to get rid of any hardware like nails or drywall screws that may have been left behind/snapped off from previous scenery pieces. A push broom is a great tool for this – flip it over so you run the flat top edge of the broom over the floor. Move slowly and methodically. Anytime you feel the broom head snag it means you’ve hit on something that needs to be removed. Use vice grips or horizontal cutters to pull out the offending hardware. If there’s not enough to grab, use a hammer and pound it down until it’s flush with the floor. Also scrape off or sand down any dried paint or volcanos created by hardware that went into the stage floor.
  • Even though you are about to cover the whole thing, put down drop cloths on the stage floor so you don’t end up with paint spatters and spills. They will dry with a 3-dimensional texture that will keep the hardboard sheets from sitting flat on the floor.
  • Lay out the sheets of hardboard and paint all of them on one face with an acrylic-latex primer.  The sheets may curl or warp as they dry, but this is not a concern. Raw hardboard soaks up a lot of paint, so budget for about 1.5x the amount of paint based on the specified coverage. For example, if the paint can says it covers 500sqft, assume it will only cover about 300sqft on this coat.
  • Once the primer is fully cured (min. 24 hours, regardless of what the paint can says), flip the sheets over and paint them on what will be the top side and on the edges with black paint. Again, give them 24 hours to fully cure before handling and certainly before stacking them.
  • Give the stage one last, thorough sweeping to get rid of dust, debris, and hardware so the hardboard sheets will lay perfectly flat.
  • Snap a chalk line on the existing stage floor between the back of the proscenium arch legs left and right. Then snap a line that runs all the way upstage-downstage on centerline. These two lines will serve as guides for laying out the sheets of hardboard. When it is all done, the resulting layout will give you a centerline and plasterline to reference via the seams between sheets (great for blocking, scenery placement and lighting focus.) Do your best to ensure the two lines are at a right angle to each other; this will make your life much easier during installation. Use a large 3/4/5 triangle to double check that you’ve got two lines at a 90° angle. I recommend a minimum 12’/16’/25’ triangle, but a 15’/20’/30’ is better, assuming your proscenium opening is at least 30’ wide.  If you’re burning a foot at the end of the tape measure, don’t forget to account for that when taking your measurements!
  • Optional Step – Roll out the plastic sheeting left-to-right as an underlayment to the hardboard.  Overlap the plastic sheets by a few inches and use minimal amounts of masking tape to keep them together and in place. This will serve as a vapor barrier between the stage floor and hardboard, prolonging the life of the hardboard. It will also catch any paint that seeps between the hardboard sheets when painting so it does not build up on the stage floor below.
  • Starting downstage center, at the intersection of your chalk lines, lay out the sheets of hardboard going up one side of centerline, then along the upstage side of plasterline out to the left and to the right towards the wings. Creating this 90° T-shape of sheets will be the basis for dropping in all the other sheets. Note that your hardboard sheets probably won’t have perfect 90° corners. It’s important to flush the edges of the sheets with your chalk lines, even if that means the sheet-to-sheet seams have a slight V-shape to them. If you allow the sheets to guide you, the resulting layout will compound the slight angles of the sheet corners across the floor. By the time you get to the edges of the stage, your sheets could be running very crooked and/or you’ll get ever-widening V-gaps between them that you won’t be able to close.
  • Use very small spacers in the seams between sheets. You can use dimes, a 16ga brad nail, 4-penny finish nail or even a folded index card. The resulting gap shouldn’t be noticeable to the audience and it allows the sheets to expand when being painted and when it’s humid outside. If you don’t put this small gap between sheets you’re likely to experience puckering as the sheets expand and push against each other. At that point, no amount of hardware can keep them down flat.
  • Nail the sheets down with 16ga. straight brad nails. Do some testing in the wings with a scrap of material to dial in the pressure of the pneumatic gun. You want the nail head to finish just below the surface of the hardboard. You don’t need a ton of nails – one in each of the four corners, 16” on-center along the edges and 16” on-center down the middle of the sheet along its 8’ length.
  • Continue dropping in sheets, working out from the inside corners of your big T-shape, and nail them down. Correct for the non-90° corners of your sheets with each row so that you maintain long upstage-downstage and left-right seams that are parallel to centerline and plasterline.  Don’t get ahead of yourself! Lay out and completely nail down a row either side of centerline before placing the next set of sheets.
  • Once you get into the wings and start running into obstacles, like walls, pinrails & catwalk ladders, start cutting sheets to fit and nail them down as you go.
  • Once you have covered as much stage floor as you want, let the floor acclimate for another 24 hours before taking the next step. Keep anyone from using the stage or even walking across it to keep it clean, because there’s more painting to do. If you come back the next day and some sheets have puckered, use just one brad nail in the middle of the bump to put it back down. Keep your use of extra nails to a minimum.
  • Paint the entire stage floor again with black paint. This coat should take less paint than the primer coat. Allow a full 24 hours before finishing.
  • Roll out a coat of clear sealant to really protect the color and the hardboard sheets themselves. Again, give it 24 hours before anyone even thinks about walking across the stage.
  • Enjoy a smooth, splinter-free stage floor for years to come. Only ever use water-based paints and sealants for subsequent finishes, whether painting a different color, creating a faux finish specifically for a show, or just touching up the black.
  • When it is time to replace the floor, replace both the hardboard and clear plastic. If you don’t have the plastic down underneath it and paint has dripped down between the sheets, you will have to sand down the paint buildup so your new floor lays flat.