Installing hardwood flooring isn’t a DIY task for everyone, but if you’re relatively comfortable taking on carpentry-related tasks around the home, hardwood flooring can be a great DIY project. Some projects for small areas with basic floor patterns can be banged out rapidly, but other more complex patterns, shapes and border designs using hardwood can typically be left to the pro’s. With a few key tools like a pneumatic nailer and, particularly a flooring nailer, installing hardwood flooring as a DIY project can be extremely rewarding. It’s also a project that will likely be enjoyed for decades to come. If you’re considering diving into a hardwood flooring project, read these 10 tips and insights I recently learned doing hardwood floors for the first time myself.
1 – Let your wood acclimate in the room(s) it’s being installed. Two weeks is a pretty common guideline, although longer can be advised. Also, try not to let the wood acclimate during unusual weather or when “wet” trades are still working. Projects like real plaster, some painting, etc. can make the environment unusually humid. If you install that damp wood, it’s likely to shrink and crack when it dries out.
2 – Start with a really flat surface. I actually took a belt sander and smoothed out the seams/transitions in our 3/4″ plywood subfloor. Even slight lips at the edges where your subfloor meet up can make for unsightly bumps on your finished floor. A little extra prep work here goes a long way.
3 – Most installers recommend rosin paper or 15 lb roofing felt to underlay the flooring. Some applications require a membrane to keep moisture from below the subfloor away from the wood. Since our install was on a 2nd floor above other living space, I just used 15lb felt and butted the edges carefully before stapling them down. If you overlap the felt you can get a bump in your finished floor. The felt provides a little cushion between the wood and subfloor, which can help reduce squeaks and noise.
4 – The starting and finishing rows are the hardest. I started on the inside wall and worked my way to the outside wall. Make sure your first rows are parallel to the walls so you don’t wind up with slightly diagonal flooring and gaps. Generally you want to use your longest and straightest boards for the start. Depending on your board size, you likely won’t be able to use the floor nailer in the first couple runs. I face nailed the very first board (since the nails would be under the shoe moulding later. I then toe nailed the first and next couple boards before I could start swinging the nailer. I pre-drilled and used finish nails, followed by a nail set to countersink them. Pre-drilling helps avoid splitting.
5 – Leave an expansion gap around the floor. I left about 1/2″-3/4″ on the two long sides. I couldn’t leave a gap for some of the floor lengthwise since the boards were captured on both sides, but generally wood expands over the width of the boards more than the length. If you have the option, leave a gap for all sides, but make sure you have baseboards / shoe moulding that will cover the gap from view. Having an exposed gutter around your new floor probably wouldn’t look very good.
6 – Buy more wood than you need. Estimates vary anywhere from 5%-20% over, depending on your particular floor width, installation style and who you talk to. Having extra lets you avoid really warped or flawed boards, and gives you more pieces to choose from for length. I did 10% which worked out almost perfectly for our small install.
7 – Consider a pneumatic nailer if you’re doing anything bigger than 100 square feet. I used a manual flooring nailer (review coming soon). It was definitely a workout, even for just under 200 square feet. I’ll post some pneumatic options soon too.
8 – Keep your chop saw close to your work area, but not in the same room. You want your floor to stay clean so debris doesn’t get under or between your boards. Keeping the saw close will help your efficiency, especially if your install involves precise cuts. If you’re like me, you’ll do the “measure once then cut until it’s too short” technique, which can result in lots of trips to the saw.
9 – Do what you can to make the boards fit tightly together. On my project, this often meant standing on the board and whacking it into place before nailing it. Most flooring mallets have an angled metal end designed for just this task. Whack a scrap piece of flooring so you don’t damage the tongue on the board (never hammer the actual board you’re using). Make sure both the end joint and the full width of the board are tight. Having a partner for this can be helpful. Depending on the direction of bow, if the board isn’t straight, you can persuade it into place. I used a small bottle jack to push off the opposing wall to take the bend out of a few pieces. If the wood is too warped, don’t use it at all. Ultimately, there will be some small gaps. Not to worry, I’ll cover a good wood filler in an upcoming article.
10 – Have fun! It can be hard work, but once you get going, installing hardwood flooring is a very rewarding project, with very visible and tangible results. Good luck with your project!
11 – I could go on, but this is a top 10 list. If you have any tips or comments related to installing hardwood flooring, please share them with us by adding a comment.