Hardwood Flooring Ask the Builder

Hardwood Flooring Ask the Builder

Hardwood Flooring

DEAR TIM: I’m about to undertake the installation of hardwood flooring. I’m talking about traditional tongue and groove hardwood that’s 3/4-inch thick, not engineered hardwood flooring. My plan is to try it myself and only call in hardwood flooring installers if I mess up. What do you think of this idea? It can’t be that difficult to install as you just nail the boards to the floor. The cost of hardwood flooring, and I mean having the entire job done by professionals, would really put a hardship on my budget. What tips can you share to help me do this job by myself? Susan W. Palo Alto, CA

DEAR SUSAN: I usually encourage people to try things themselves for any number of reasons. First, it’s fulfilling to accomplish a task and stand back seeing stellar results. It’s also possible to save money. But when it comes to installing hardwood flooring and you’re a complete rookie, I’ll have to tell you that you’re probably going to fail.

These pieces of hardwood flooring, believe it or not, will end up looking like the finished floor just beneath them once they’re installed, sanded and finished. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

It’s a true art and skill to install the material you’ve chosen. And forget anything you’ve seen on some of the cable television home-improvement shows where they gloss over the finer points of installing this wood material that can last generations.

I’ll never forget watching the first hardwood floor go down on one of my jobs. The tools the installer used were some I’d never seen. He had a funky-looking spring-loaded nailing tool that he hit with a rubber mallet. This tool drove special nails at the precise angle through the tongue of each piece of the flooring.

But that was the glory part. What’s mission critical is to make sure the flooring material acclimates to your home. This means the wood you’re going to use must be brought into the home and allowed to normalize itself with the house’s temperature and humidity. This is a step often overlooked by rookies. If you don’t let the wood acclimate, gaps may eventually form between the pieces of wood. It can take days for the wood to become stable.

Professional hardwood installers know all sorts of tricks to ensure that squeaks don’t happen. They use special nails that have tiny barbs and/or ribbing on the shaft allowing the nails to really bite into the subflooring.

You’ll also see professionals install 15-pound felt paper under the strips of hardwood. This is an added touch that helps prevents vapor from entering the underside of the wood in case the wood is being installed over a crawlspace or a damp basement. The felt paper also helps, to a very small degree, with squeaking.

Have you thought about how you’re going to deal with a subfloor that has humps and low spots in it? If you make a mistake here, you’ll absolutely end up with squeaks or gaps down the road. Professionals use a long straightedge to detect humps and low spots. They fill the low spots with asphalt shingles to support the hardwood strips.

What are you going to do when you nail your first piece? How will you know it’s perfectly straight? The entire floor builds off the first piece, so it must be correctly installed. The pros that worked for me used to carefully string a line across the room and laid the first pieces exactly to this line. It’s important that the line hover just above the wood so that the pieces you install don’t nudge it as you face nail them.

The initial layout of the flooring is very critical, especially if you’re extending the hardwood into several rooms. You want to avoid, if possible, cutting narrow strips next to any of the walls where the strips run parallel to the walls. Be sure on these walls where the wood runs parallel, that you don’t install it tight to the drywall or plaster. Leave a gap that’s as thick as the baseboard that is on the wall. The bottom of the baseboard needs to be slightly above the flooring so that the wood can expand into the void space in case the humidity soars.

Hardwood Flooring Ask the Builder

If I’ve talked you out of installing the floor yourself, you may want to try some prefinished hardwood flooring. Some of it can be easy to work with. But be sure to follow all the instructions with respect to acclimating it to the room.

Floating hardwood flooring is also gaining in popularity. It’s not nailed to the floor below. The pieces interlock with one another. Sometimes the connection is mechanical and other times it’s a glue joint. These flooring systems can be challenging to install if you’ve never done it before.

You’ll love your solid hardwood flooring if you decide to use it. It’s the only material I’d use in my own home. I love everything about it. Perhaps the best part is knowing that it can last hundreds of years if cared for. If you care for the finish, it only needs to be sanded lightly the first time it’s installed. Every coat of finish after that only requires a light screening of the previous finish. There’s no need to sand away the wood.

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