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7 Tips for Installing Solid Hardwood Flooring

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Advice for Installing Solid Hardwood Flooring

Updating a home’s flooring is one of the best ways to increase its value. Even though design trends are always changing, you can never go wrong with a solid hardwood floor.  Fortunately, installing solid hardwood flooring isn’t a difficult job as long as you have the right tools, knowledge and patience.

I want to give you seven tips for installing solid hardwood flooring I’ve learned over the years so you can complete a quick and professional hardwood installation.  An important note on solid hardwoods: make sure you leave the wood inside the home with the boxes open for at least a few weeks prior to installing solid hardwood flooring.  It’s important that the wood acclimatizes to the environment to prevent cupping or shrinkage after installing the hardwood flooring.  I used an inexpensive moisture meter to test the moisture content of my hardwood to ensure it was within 1% of the rating of my subfloor.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Moisture Meter

Installing Solid Hardwood Flooring in 7 Steps

1. Removing the Baseboard

The baseboard should be removed before installing solid hardwood flooring.  Some might recommend undercutting the base, but it’s a time intensive exercise and you lose height on your baseboard.  Installing new hardwood flooring is a good time to consider replacing or upgrading your baseboard as part of the project.  Score the top edge of a base with a utility knife to make sure you remove the old base cleanly.  Then use a small trim pry bar to pull the baseboard away from the wall.  Set the baseboard to the site if you plan on using it again, or discard it if you’re replacing it after the installing the solid hardwood floor.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Scoring Baseboard

2. Preparing the Subfloor

You might not think so, but preparing the subfloor can take as much or more time than the actually installing solid hardwood flooring – it all depends on the current floor material.  If you’re replacing carpet, simply pull up the carpet at one of the corners with a pair of pliers and remove the underlayment and tack strips.  I’d recommend saving some of the carpet if it’s also used in other areas of your house.  It’s often impossible to find matching carpet after a few years, plus the carpet you’re removing will already have a similar wear pattern to what’s used elsewhere in your home.

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If you’re replacing other flooring, then you’ll need to do more work.  We replaced vinyl flooring with 3/8″ particle board underlayment on a recent job, and this was one of the most difficult types of flooring I’ve had to remove.  Some contractors consider installing hardwood flooring on top of particle board, however most manufacturers won’t certify particle board as an acceptable underlayment because nails and staples won’t hold as well.  If you have vinyl over OSB or plywood underlayment, you simply remove the vinyl layer from the top with a scraper and heat gun and then sand the surface flat.

The best way I’ve found to then remove particle board underlayment is to score the surface with a circular saw set just deep enough to cut through the underlayment without marking the subfloor. You can check the depth by using your home’s floor vent and adjust your saw accordingly. Otherwise I’d suggest starting with a conservative estimate and moving from there.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Scoring Vinyl

You should cut the subfloor in small squares to score the vinyl and underlayment. The underlayment is usually attached with staples and adhesive so you need to wear eye and hearing protection.  It’s also best to use a dull blade because a new blade will definitely be dull once you’re finished.  After the surface is scored you have to chip the surface.  You can use a simple hammer and pry bar if the underlayment is poorly installing, but if the previous contractor used lots of adhesive and staples you need more powerful tools.  I prefer to use a rotary or demolition hammer in chipping mode with a chipping blade or chisel.  My Bosch worked well for this job.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Chipping Vinyl

Unfortunately, if you have particle board underlayment this step still isn’t complete.  You’ll notice small sections of the particle board may remain on the floor so you need to go over the entire floor to clean up these small pieces because you need a perfectly flat surface when installing solid hardwood flooring.  You will notice those bumps and humps both during and after installing solid hardwood flooring if you don’t get each and every piece.  The best way to remove the smallest pieces is with either a hammer and chisel or an oscillating multi-tool with a wood and metal blade in case you run into staples.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Circular Saw Rotary Hammer

If your floor had tile, then the existing tile should be chipped up with a hammer and pry bar or a rotary hammer in chipping mode with a tile blade.  The subfloor under the tile needs to be scraped clean and the thin set removed. Sanding may also be required to ensure a perfectly flat surface.

3. Final Subfloor Preparation

After you removed the flooring it’s important to do a final check for any remaining nails, underlayment or uneven subfloor before you begin installing solid hardwood flooring.  I use a large scraper or steel dustpan and run it across the entire floor at a sharp angle.  They will stop when you hit something uneven so you know what to fix.  You also need to sand the edges of your subfloor to make sure it’s flat. If your subfloor is damaged or too thin you may need to add an additional layer of plywood.  Preparing the subfloor will make installing solid hardwood flooring much easier (and enjoyable).

4. Laying Moisture Barrier / Paper

It’s recommended you use a paper underlay as a moisture barrier in most climates to keep things from sliding around. You should check your local supplier to see what they recommend for your climate.

5. Racking the Floor

Now it’s time to start laying out your floor. The trends have changed over the years, but the fundamentals have remained the same.  I always make sure to follow the following fundamentals when installing solid hardwood flooring:

  1. Don’t let your joints touch or come too close to each other – I use a 6″ rule on my floor.  You also need to keep joints at the same location at least two rows apart.  You might see joints lining up every other row in older homes, but I prefer keeping them at least two rows.
  2. Start racking – or laying out – your floor before you start nailing or stapling.  You want to take your time racking – I lay out at least 6-12 rows before I nail and I would rack out a entire room if it wasn’t too large.  Two people this job much easier.

I make good use of both my table saw and miter saw when racking. Make sure you also have a nice clear cutting area – dust collection is a must if you’re cutting indoors.  This will speed up the project because no one likes cleaning under every board because your sawdust is everywhere.  There are many articles dedicated just to racking and the intricacies of cutting and trimming. I’d recommend you do additional reading on this topic if want more information.

6. Installing and Layout the Hardwood

Nailing (or stapling) is an important part of installing solid hardwood floors and is best done with a pneumatic tool (it’s worth renting the equipment for the job if you don’t have it on hand).  A lot of pros are moving towards manual nailers and I applaud them, but in my opinion the pneumatics are a better choice because a tired arm at the end of a long day could affect quality.  I used a Freeman combo nailer shooting 15.5 gauge staples in my recent project. There’s debate between use staple vs cleats options, but my combination has worked well for me so far.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Nailer Mallet

Most nailers are designed to sit over the next row that you racked so you’re just pulling in the next row tight.  The nailer should always be struck confidently and with a good amount of force.  Make sure you commit to it when you hit your nailer because flubbing a hit is frustrating and causes you to spend time pulling out staples or cleats.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Nailer Racking Over

Once you start nailing close to a wall you won’t be able to fit your flooring nailer. This is when an 18 gauge brad nailer will come in handy, as well as adhesives for smaller pieces. Face nailing may also be necessary, so make sure you have wood filler to match your flooring.

Installing Solid Hardwood Floors - Face Nailed Tile

Face nailed pieces next to tile after filling

It’s important to note that solid hardwood will always have some natural expansion and contraction as temperature and humidity fluctuate.  You must leave at least a 1/4″ of space all around to account for the expansion and contraction. Your baseboard will cover the extra allotted space.  If you don’t leave extra space you’ll encounter cupping as the floor expands.

7. Baseboard Installation & Touch Ups

Your work still isn’t done after installing solid hardwood flooring.  You need to re-install the baseboard and touch up any face nailing and marks you may have made on the wall.  I recommend completing the touch ups before you unveil it to the homeowner because it increases the wow factor when you unveil the room.  Make sure that you allow for this final step in your schedule.

Share your tips for installing solid hardwood flooring in the comments section below.

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About

Matt Rudderham is a Project Manager, woodworker and avid DIY’er from Calgary, Alberta. He’s the son of a general contractor and spent a lot of time on job sites learning the ins and outs of construction...Read more

37 comments on “7 Tips for Installing Solid Hardwood Flooring

    1. Matt Post author

      Thanks Jeff, Much appreciated. I hope others find it useful as well. Hardwood isn’t as hard as a lot of people think if you know what you’re doing and prep correctly.

  1. John S

    Matt – I found tip #3 particularly helpful – in the event I ever find myself installing hardwood floor, I will definitely run a dust pan over the floor to check for anything uneven

    1. Matt Post author

      Thanks John, Anything flat works. I happen to have a large metal one that is wider than my shovel so I use that. Hope it helps if you tackle this project some day.

  2. Sergey

    Matt,
    Thank you for some insightful tips, especially the 6” rule, floor preparation, and face nailing. I will definitely keep these things in mind once I start my next flooring project. Would appreciate to see more of your tips and advices.

    1. David

      Hi Matt, great article. One thing to mention is quality of material can come into play. If dealing with an inferior product one can encounter issues such as varying widths. If you have boards that vary a 16th or even a 32nd, after several rows, one can be fighting large gaps. Something to be aware of. I suggest going back to the supplier when encountering this type of problem, and always be wary of cheaper products ( especially those coming from China ). The only way I know to install a product with varying widths is to sort them with calipers into groups and install each group at a time, which is a huge pain!

      1. David

        Matt, I would love to hear about some of your methods of floor prep when encountering out of level and wavy sub floors, as well as comments regarding orientation of flooring in relation to floor joists.

        Thanks, David

        1. Matt Post author

          When running into wavy / out of level subfloors it’s a case by case basis. If the subfloor is in good shape and has good rigidity, you could try to level it by ensuring it’s well screwed down first, and then attack a creeping edge with a sander to make sure things are evened out. Sometimes the subfloor will be in rough shape, but not need to be replaced and I would look at adding a layer of glued and screwed 5/8″ T&G plywood over top to try to level out any inconsistencies, this can be the easiest option sometimes especially if you’re in an older home that might have a thinner subfloor layer, it will add additional rigidity at the same time. We would always run our hardwood perpendicular to the direction of the floor joists, I should have mentioned that in the article!

      2. Matt Post author

        Hi David, Thanks for your comments. The quality of the material is absolutely important as you noted. Typically if I were doing a customer job I wouldn’t purchase anything below a ‘Select or Better’ material for this very reason, the extra time spent sorting material and making up for deficiencies would be more than covered in just purchasing a better grade of material. It’s always tempting when there is a deal to be found, but in the long run it’s rarely worth the extra time and effort in my opinion, I’d rather leave my calipers at home. 🙂 Canadian or USA hardwood are all I mostly work with, the odd time there might be an exotic that would come up from south america, but typically these are a much higher grade than anything you would find from China like you mentioned.

  3. Debbie Howery

    Can you tell me how to get a staple out of the surface of hardwood floors. My husband is installing and did not realize until he’s 1/2 way across the room that the 5th board from the wall has a staple on the surface. he missed with that staple and didn’t notice. please help.

    1. Matt Post author

      Hi Debbie, That’s a bit of a tough one. If the boards are already stapled all around it the best course of action (if you can’t live with it) is to get something under that staple (a screwdriver or prybar) and try to get it peeled up. Once it is above the surface enough, you could cut it out with an oscillating multi-tool. I’ve never had a lot of luck with this, as the process of prying the staple up is likely to damage the board below it. If that does happen, you can cut that board out and replace it using your OMT, and then gluing down a replacement board.

  4. kimbo

    Thanks for the information, however we’ve run into a snag. We purchased hand scraped hickory for our floors, 3/4″ but it’s apparently hand scraped in China and it’s actually 3/32 short…how do we level it with the nosing….I knew it wasn’t Canadian!!! Am very disappointed that the wonderfully “maple leaf” decorated boxes are only for show…the product has no distinguishing markings for Canada. Thought of doubling up the tar paper but it’s not likely enough…any suggestions are appreciated.

    1. Matt Post author

      Often nosings won’t be perfectly level with the flooring you are installing, I often have to scrape a 16th from the bottom of the nosing to get it to sit flush. Typically a hand plane does the job of this pretty well. Hopefully I’ve understood your question – I wouldn’t use tar paper to level, but I have in the past used thin shims to level spots on the floor, typically I just use scrap cedar for shimming.

    1. Matt Post author

      Hi Lee, Sorry I missed your question for such a long time here. The answer is that it depends – if your subfloor is thick enough and in good shape after the particle board you might get away with it, generally I would prefer to put down a new layer if height isn’t a problem, it’s just nice to be able to work on a fresh and clean floor for a new installation. In my experience it will save you time over all of the little bits and pieces you will find you missed and have to clean up along the way.

  5. Happy Harry

    Great article and thanks for the tips! My problem is the baseboard continues from the room to a hallway/foyer area via the doorway (about 6″). Once the hardwood is laid in the room, the baseboard will be slightly higher than the baseboard in the hall/foyer which currently has vinyl. I’m bugging out on how to join these two baseboards again or how to eliminate the 6″ piece in the entryway which would require the outside miters to be removed as well. Any suggestion? Thanks again for this article!

    1. Matt Post author

      Hi Harry, Thanks for reading the article. In a perfect world everything is the same level, of course none of us live in that world.:) There are a lot of ways to tackle this issue, which one to use mostly comes down to the style of baseboard and the height difference. Sometimes I’ll use a baseboard transition block if it fits with the style of the house, do a google search for ‘baseboard transition blocks’ and have a look to see what I mean. These are great for a large height difference and are quick and easy. You can also get into ripping pieces from the bottom to make them fit the two heights, a little more work, but if the difference is small (say under 0.5″ I will sometimes do it this way so it doesn’t accentuate the height differences. Hope this helps and good luck with your project, let me know if you have any other questions at all.

  6. Doug

    Hey there,
    Great post for guys that have not installed floors often. One thing I didn’t see in the post was underlayment. It may be a regional thing. I usually use a wax/kraft paper under hardwood.

    While it may not be %100 necessary. It is a good idea. It allows boards to slide together easier during the install. This makes it easier to get a tight fit between boards. Even if you vacuum and sweep etc. sometimes you miss a little dust or splinters etc. Laying the paper keeps this dust down and keeps the splinters from getting between boards, allowing the tight fit. Using the underlay can also prevent possible future squeaks. Also, if the area under the floor (i.e. basement) is not finished or has a high moisture, a proper underlay can help stop that moisture from traveling up to the hardwood.

    Also, I don’t understand why ppl rack a whole room or even half a room. It is a waste of time. I usually do one or two rows. It saves time and still allows you to make sure the ends are 6″ or more apart.

    VERY IMPORTANT! Make sure you are taking boards from more than one box at a time. I like to have at least 3 open at a time, more if I have the room. This is very important for randomizing possible colour variations across the floor.

  7. John U

    Thanks for the information you posted on solid wood installation. I have been in the process of removing 3/8 particle board underlay that is nailed and glued. In doing the removal I have found that where it is glued it wants to also remove some of the OSB sub floor. Some spots have been worse than others. Do you have a recommendation for these spots or is it best to put a new layer of plywood of the same thickness for the entire floor? The sub floor is 3/4 OSB. I do have 2 transition spots as well. One to the hallway where I can use a reducer and I have a staircase to the basement where I need to use a nosing. Your insight would be appreciated.

    John

    1. Matt Post author

      Hi John,
      Every subfloor will be different – if yours is glued well and you’re tearing up that subfloor you’re better off to put down a new layer. There are products you can use to try to level out and repair if there are only a few spots however a new layer is going to be better and quicker. In some cases I’ve even had to replace the original subfloor to attain even surfaces when mating to existing tile, etc. Hope this helps and good luck with your project.

  8. Dick Wilcock

    Hi!

    Great article!
    I’m wondering, as I can’t seem to find too much about about it, if you have any insights to nailing down hardwood under a baseboard heater? I’ve read in one place to glue the first row down.

    I hope my question’s clear enough.

    1. Matt Post author

      Hi Dick, the first rows usually do well with some glue. I often use a PL Premium construction adhesive, but any wood to wood rated product could work. Hope this answers your question.

      Matt

    1. Matt Post author

      Hi Jay, If it looks visually okay to you (and any of your stakeholders 😉 ) then that’s good. Usually these boxes are in truly random lengths though, so don’t get too attached to that pattern as you move on through laying out the rest of the room.

  9. John Ferrell

    I like that said that we need to inspect the floor before we put in the new one. If I was going to get a new floor I would want to hire a professional so I know that it is done right. You might want to get tips from a professional if you have the skills and the tools to do it yourself.

  10. John Mahoney

    I didn’t know that solid hardwood always has natural expansion and contraction depending on humidity and temperature. It makes sense that knowing this can help you plan your project better as to allow room for this. I can see how anyone looking into this would want to consult with a professional and make sure they get sound advice in order to get the results they want.

  11. Chris

    My contractor planned on removing tiles in master living room, cleaning/leveling floor afterwards. Was then going to “tar down”(adhere 3/4″) plywood decking to the slab and this would be his substrate to nail the hardwood floor in place. My question is….will the tar he is using to adhere the plywood to my slab and good vapor barrier to retard moisture seepage into the hardwood and/or the 3/4” plywood for that matter? Anyone ever done their floors like this or know of this method?

  12. Chris

    addendum to previous post for clarification:

    will the tar be a good vapor barrier, in addition to the plywood being adhered to the slab with the tar, serve as good vapor barriers…protecting the hardwood floor we are putting in?

  13. Roger Middleton

    My wife and I have recently moved into a new area that we’re loving but the flooring in our house doesn’t look that great and we have been wanting to replace it. I liked that you had mentioned that prior to laying the subflooring it can be important to make sure that you avoid any possible edging so it can be important to sand all edges. Since I don’t have the right type of sander or some of these other tools, I might have to look into hiring a professional to handle the install.

  14. Larry Weaver

    Thanks for explaining that that undercutting a baseboard is a time-intensive exercise that loses height on your baseboard. My carpet in the living room has a ton of stains that just won’t go away, so my wife and I have been thinking of getting it replaced with a hardwood flooring. Considering we don’t have a lot of time to do it on our own, I think we’ll look into working with a floor installation company.

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