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How to install hardwood flooring

Updated on January 2, 2013

By following some simple techniques on how to install hardwood flooring used by veteran installers, you can install an impressive hardwood floor that will last for years.

Install vapor barrier

Hardwood flooring can be seriously damaged is moisture seeps through the plywood subfloor beneath. To guard against this, install underlayment as a vapor barrier. Underlayment types vary; on this job, the crew used an underlayment made of two layers of Kraft paper laminated with asphalt. Roll out vapor barrier to completely cover the plywood subfloor and staple it in place.

Prep the planks

When estimating materials for the flooring job, calculate the square footage of the space to be covered and add 10 percent to 15 percent to the total to allow for waste and scraps resulting from cuts, damaged pieces and bad boards.

Wood flooring will expand and contract — sometimes dramatically — as temperatures change. Before installing hardwood flooring, acclimate the planks to the temperature of the room before you begin to install them. Wood that is too warm when installed will shrink and leave unsightly gaps between pieces. If the room is very cold during installation, the boards can swell and buckle as the ambient temperature rises.

On new construction, hardwood flooring should be installed only after the home’s HVAC system has been fully activated and the interior temperature is normalized. Flooring bundles should be loaded into the space and left to adjust to the room’s temperature for at least 48 hours prior to installation.

How to install hardwood flooring

Hardwood flooring planks usually feature tongue-and-groove construction, with the hollow “groove” of each new piece fitting tightly over the protruding “tongue” of the piece beside it.

Most installers run wood flooring with the planks parallel to the longest outside wall of the room. Ideally, this will position the planks at a right angle to the joists below the subfloor. The first board is placed against the wall and face-nailed through the top of the plank, close to the wall. Use 2-inch nails, driving them into the floor joists underneath for added hold.

Hardwood flooring planks usually feature tongue-and-groove construction, with the hollow “groove” of each new piece fitting tightly over the protruding “tongue” of the piece beside it. Fit each new plank up against the installed floor and tap it with the metal face of a flooring mallet to ensure a tight fit. (The metal face is angled to minimize damage to the wood.)

The first 2-4 rows of flooring will likely require face-nailing through the plank itself, until a pneumatic floor nail gun can be used. A pneumatic floor nail gun, powered by an air compressor, fits over the lip of the plank being installed. Once you have adequate wall clearance to use a nail gun, it will speed progress considerably.

With the nail gun’s base plate held tightly against a new piece of flooring, strike the plunger with the rubber end of your flooring mallet. The action will drive a flooring staple at an angle into the subfloor through the tongue of the plank, where it will be hidden by the next course of flooring. Continue this “blind nailing” through each plank, driving a fastener every 10 to 12 inches. Some nailers use L-shaped flooring cleats, while others require the use of long two-pronged flooring staples. Use the fasteners that are appropriate for your nailer.

Working your way across the room

As you add courses of flooring, make each new row about 6 inches shorter than the previous one. The result will be a stairstep layout.

As you add courses of flooring, make each new row about 6 inches shorter than the previous one. The result will be a stairstep layout. This ensures that you are correctly staggering the seams of the floorboards for maximum strength and stability, as well as producing an aesthetically pleasing look. Use the longest planks from each bundle at entrances and doorways, where they will be most visible. Mix in shorter boards as you work, but don’t cluster too many of them together.

Where the flooring ends at the wall, line up new boards against the wall and over the gaps and mark them where they meet the existing flooring. These will be your cut lines. To minimize time-consuming trips to the miter saw, mark several planks at once. Carry all the marked boards to the saw and make the cuts. Be sure to mark the boards so you’ll know which end is to be installed next and which end can be put back into the pile to be used elsewhere.

When you reach the opposite end of the room or an obstacle like a staircase, you’ll likely need to rip the final floorboard to make it fit against the far wall. Mark the desired width on a plank and make the long rip cut using a table saw. As with the first row, face-nail through the floorboard, switching to a pneumatic nailer when you no longer have wall clearance to use the angled floor nailer. These nail holes can be filled with wood putty after installation is complete.

Don’t be too concerned with getting a tight fit at the ends of the room. A gap of ½ to ¾ inch will allow for expansion of the floor and will be covered by thin pieces of shoe molding.

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