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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.