We have a wall-to-wall painted canvas floorcloth in our dining slash living room. I painted it myself last fall and while I’d love to take credit for the idea, painted canvas floorcloths predate me by a few centuries. I needed a simple, hardwearing, and ultimately temporary solution for covering a less-than-great floor in a rental apartment and floorcloths fit the bill in terms of cost, aesthetics, and quirky historical precedent. Also called oilcloths, painted canvas floorcloths would have been found covering wood floors in the stately homes of early US-ians like Founding Fathers themselves, George Washington and John Adams. Early floorcloths were often painted to mimic more precious carpet or tile patterns and modern replicas often go this route as well. No surprise to anyone, I decided to keep mine plain and simple.
The particulars of this project are many and I’m not sure how applicable they might be to the average reader, but I’ve done my best to answer the frequently asked questions about making and living with a painted canvas floorcloth! If there’s anything I’ve missed, feel free to ask in the comments. Additional resources below!
Why a painted canvas floorcloth?
Why did you want to cover your floor?
The existing floor in this room is vinyl, or possibly linoleum, and while lots of folks, including me, use these terms interchangeably, the materials are actually very different! Linoleum has been around since the mid-1800s and is made of naturally occurring materials like wood flour, limestone, jute and linseed oil. It’s generally considered to be eco-friendly and it’s seeing something of a renaissance for folks looking to lighten the environmental impact of their home renovations. Vinyl flooring on the other hand dates from around the 1950s and is made of synthetic materials. This early vinyl often contains asbestos and should generally not be removed or disturbed without proper abatement.
Beyond the possible ick factor of asbestos in our old floors, I really didn’t love the floor in our main living/dining room. It’s embossed with a faux stone pattern that’s not to my personal liking aesthetically and doesn’t feel particularly nice underfoot either. More crucially, in this room and and in our kitchen, the flooring was put over an existing floor (or subfloor—I don’t know) and nailed into place, likely sometime around the middle of the last century. All things considered, the floor is in overall fine condition, but there are cracks and crevices along the outer edge. Worst of all, it doesn’t extend underneath the baseboard which means that around the whole perimeter of the room there’s a gap which would be better called a trap. It’s very hard to keep clean and an especially gross thing to live with when sharing a home with a crawling baby who likes nothing more than to fondle dropped crumbs and floor cracks with very tiny fingers. Taking the canvas floorcloth all the way to the very edges of the room was the best solution I could think of for covering that gap and it’s been working beautifully.
Why didn’t you just pull up the existing floor and replace it?
The shortest answer is that’s a big project! We don’t own this apartment so a project of that magnitude and investment is really not ours to take on. (It’s one thing to paint a door, it’s quite another to rip up a floor and install a new one!) Before I tackled this project, I chatted with my landlords about covering the floor and got their go-ahead as long as I wasn’t planning to glue anything or affix the covering with nails.
Why didn’t you cover the floor with prettier vinyl flooring—there are so many patterns and colors out there!
There are lots of vinyl options out there, from peel-and-stick vinyl tiles to fancier vinyl floorcloths, but while it’s a very common and affordable building material, vinyl is really not so great for our bodies or for the environment. I really wanted to try something different, especially because part of the reason I wanted to cover the existing floor was not loving the look or feel of vinyl in the first place. I’ve also wanted to make one of these canvas floorcloths for a very long time. I never thought it would be a wall-to-wall behemoth, but I was excited to see what I could make work in a tricky room.
How do you make a painted canvas floorcloth?
What materials did you use?
+ Primed canvas: I used the #8 Primed Floor Cloth Canvas from Canvas Etc. The folks there were nice enough to supply the canvas for this project to me and I can’t recommend their canvas enough. The triple-primed canvas significantly cut down on the prep and painting time and it also felt like pretty good insurance against user error. It was a comfort to know the first three coats of paint were already there!
+ Heavy-duty scissors: I borrowed these shears from a neighbor through the Buy Nothing Project and I was so grateful for them! This canvas is thick and having heavy-duty scissors made cutting it easy.
+ Needle and thread (and a sewing machine): Primed canvas is heavy and needs an industrial machine to get through it. I paid a local awning shop to sew two seams in their workshop in Gowanus. It took a bit of calling around to find a shop willing to take on such a big project (and original quotes for two seams were upwards of $600) but I eventually found a spot with a more affordable price point. Because I was making such a large covering I decided to fold my edges under rather than hem them. For me, the folded edges are the perfect folly for the gap that exists between the floor beneath and the baseboard and I deliberately folded the edges so that they extend 1/4″ inch up the trim and fully cover the gap. Folding the edges once the floorcloth was in place was a simple way to achieve a close fit around a wonky room.
+ Paint: I used Farrow & Ball Pigeon in an Estate Eggshell finish to cover the floor. There are about three coats and I have about 8 ounces of extra paint remaining should I need to make touch-ups. Honestly the whole thing could probably use another coat or two, but I wanted to see how it wore and what it was like to live with before investing in another can of paint (and another afternoon of painting).
+ Thresholds/Saddles: One of the trickier puzzles to solve for a wall-to-wall floorcloth was how to deal with the entryways into the room. The main door of our apartment opens into this room and so the floorcloth needed to be kept in place and protected from a door that opens many times a day. I decided to gently remove the existing metal saddle/threshold, lay the floor cloth underneath it and and replace the original nails. This way I wasn’t disturbing the original flooring, I can easily remove the floorcloth when we move out, and the floorcloth stays in place when the door opens and closes. I still haven’t settled on the perfect saddle for connecting the floorcloth in the double doorway that leads from the dining room to our bedroom, but for now it’s laying flat and hasn’t caused us any issues beyond looking undone. I’ll give an update when I settle on a solution!
How much did it cost? This floor cloth covers a ~209 square-foot room. It took about $150 worth of primed canvas to cover the room. I paid an awning shop $200 to sew two giant seams on their industrial machines. And I used one 4-liter can of Farrow & Ball paint to cover it. The final price, no doubt, depends entirely on the size of the cloth being made, access to an industrial sewing machine, and the kind of paint used!
What’s it like to live with?
For us, the painted canvas floorcloth is a huge (huge) improvement over the vinyl flooring. It’s visually much calmer, it feels far better underfoot, and it solves the problem of the dirt trap between the flooring and the wall. Generally, it’s taken a kind of grody room in a rental and turned it into a spot that feels better and brighter and more like a place we want to spend time in.
Is it weird? Does it feel like you’re camping? Why did you put a plastic tarp under your beautiful table…etc.? I love this thing. It’s so much better than the vinyl alone and I have no regrets. I grew up in a very old house where at least half the wooden floors were painted, so painted floors are a familiar and normal thing for me and this doesn’t feel very different from that!
Do I see wrinkles? You do! Like me, this floorcloth is not perfect. There are some ripples, especially where I (regretfully) folded the length of fabric to transport it home from the awning shop (though many have relaxed over time). Like lots of things, they show up differently in photographs than they do when you actually live with them! We hardly notice them!
Does the floorcloth slip? Not a bit. Painted canvas is quite heavy! Mostly for cost reasons we didn’t cut a wall-to-wall rug pad to go under this even though that’s something we could have done. Still, there’s no slippage at all. If you were to tackle a smaller-scale floorcloth that didn’t stretch wall-to-wall, there might be more chance of sliding, but a simple rug pad would solve that!
Can you clean it? Yes! We vacuum and sweep our floorcloth just the way we did the vinyl underneath it. We generally spot clean the floor when something spills and use an all-purpose spray and a slightly scrubby sponge or this mop for wet cleaning. I plan to eventually make a second floorcloth for the kitchen, but there are a few more pipes and radiators to contend with in there so I’m steeling my nerves and refilling my stores of energy.
Is it waterproof? Mostly! The three coats of primer and three coats of paint make a pretty solid seal on the fabric and in the past few months it has certainly seen its share of spills. That said, I really wanted this to be a relatively low-stakes investment in terms of labor and materials and so I didn’t use any kind of sealant beyond the paint. Three months in, the cloth is holding up beautifully and washes up easily, but a sealant could be something I decide to add in the future for extra protection against spills or mold &c!
Can you move it? Eventually, yes! Beyond the nailed-in-place threshold, I used two small tacks to hold down corners of the cloth that I snipped to fit around and behind our steam radiator. I’m hopeful that this holds up well enough that when we eventually move I can cutting it down to size and take it with us to use as an area rug.
Canvas Etc. provided the pre-primed canvas for this project and they have a wealth of knowledge and the canvas should you be interested in tackling one yourself!
This Old House has a great video on making canvas floorcloths in case you’re not convinced this is something that other people actually do!
Garden & Gun ran a beautiful story on far more intricate floorcloths, should pattern and color excite you!
Remodelista has a tutorial from my old colleague Justine Hand with step-by-step instructions for making a striped floorcloth runner in case you need more visuals or a project with a less overwhelming scale.
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