Walt Nevin’s career in hardwood flooring began as part of the war effort in 1942, when he was just 14. Eleven years later, he started his own business. Now 83, he still runs Quality Hardwood Floors of Spokane, bidding jobs and assisting his three-man crew of installers and finishers. He’s also an avid golfer and elite bowler.
S-R: When you were growing up, did you have hardwood floors?
Nevin: We had beat-up linoleum floors that were worn halfway through – that old Congoleum stuff with the print on top and you wear through it and there’s tar underneath.
S-R: When did you start working with hardwood floors?
Nevin: After World War II started, I sanded oak floors at Farragut Naval Training Station in Bayview, Idaho – Eleanor Roosevelt’s project, they used to say. (Editor’s note: First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was said to have noticed Lake Pend Oreille while flying to Seattle. Knowing that President Roosevelt was seeking a location for a secure inland naval training center, she mentioned it to him and he made a secret tour of the area. Ground was broken in March 1942, and by September the base had a population of 55,000, making it the largest city in Idaho.)
S-R: How did you get that job?
Nevin: My dad was working for a company called Southern Hardwood, making $1.67 and ½ cents an hour. When I went to work with him, I got $1 an hour, and that was a really good wage. After Farragut, we did 324 houses for Fairchild in Airway Heights. Sometimes I would personally sand seven houses a day. An edger man would follow up behind me, and another crew would come in and put the finish on and seal it.
S-R: What was the impetus for starting your own business?
Nevin: When I worked for my dad, my brother and I used to sit around until two or three in the morning trying to get checks for the work we’d done. By 1953, I figured I could do better on my own. So I subcontracted for my dad, Southern Hardwood and anyone else who needed work done. My brother helped me, but mostly I was a loner.
S-R: Were hardwood floors pretty common back then?
Nevin: Hardwood floors were predominant. The FHA and the VA insisted on it. Builders would lose money if they didn’t install hardwood, even if they were going to lay carpet.
S-R: Is installing and finishing floors a physical job?
Nevin: Quite. It’s really tough on the knees. It’s tough on the back. You breathe a lot of dust, and the stuff you sand off of floors is not always completely healthy, although nobody I know of ever died from it.
S-R: How long did you do the physical part?
Nevin: Up until I was 75 years old.
S-R: How many employees do you have?
Nevin: My son-in-law, his son, which is my grandson, and one other person – we’re a four-man crew. My daughter is in the office, and then we have a friend who works part time in the office. We’ve never been big.
S-R: Do you have a project you’re most proud of?
Nevin: The Davenport Hotel. We sanded it 40 years ago, and we sanded and finished it for Walt Worthy recently. It’s a real showplace for us.
S-R: Have any jobs proved especially challenging?
Nevin: We did one down in Pullman once where the finish wouldn’t dry. You’d walk in there and lose your shoes. Well, people can’t stay off their floor week after week. What had happened was another company had used a hot wax treatment on the floor. When we sanded it we didn’t get all that wax out, and the wax kept the finish from drying. We finally had to go back in and sand the new finish off and add a coat of shellac. Shellac will dry over anything. Once that dried, we put a gymnasium finish on top and it was fine.
S-R: What lessons have you learned about running a business?
Nevin: Keep the business small, so you don’t have to hire inexperienced people. You keep a handle on quality by having people who do it all the time. My son-in-law, Paul, is pretty hard to beat. He can do everything – electrical, plumbing – and he’s very, very good at the hardwood floor business.
S-R: How much do you charge to refinish floors?
Nevin: A nice, big, wide-open space like a gymnasium we can do for $1 a square foot. If it’s a kitchen with lots of ins and outs and toe kicks, then we’re likely $3 a square foot. The average job, where you have a living room, dining room, three bedrooms and a hallway, we’re about $2.50 a square foot.
S-R: Are there any jobs you won’t take?
Nevin: There’s practically nothing we won’t tackle. Yesterday I bid one for a property management company where the carpets were still on the floor, doggy doo on the carpets, the floors had terrible stains and they were creaky.
S-R: Are hardwood floors difficult to maintain?
Nevin: They’re pretty easy, really. We use an oil-modified polyurethane gymnasium-type of finish that wears real well. As long as people don’t get a lot of grit and sand on the floor, the finish will last around 20 years.
S-R: Has the recession affected your business?
Nevin: These last two years, yes. It’s slowed us down. But when you don’t have as much income, you just tighten your belt and live with the times.
S-R: Why do you keep working at 83?
Nevin: I’ve always believed that when you retire, the end is near. I enjoy meeting a lot of really nice people, and I take pride in staying busy. I don’t intend to ever retire.