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The Silent Treatment

Taking the squeak out of wood floors

Photo by David Carmack

As flooring contractor Patrick Hunt treads across the parlor of the

1860s farmhouse that his parents are restoring, a chorus of loud chirps

and squeaks rises up from the plain-sawn white oak strips beneath his

feet. "Beautiful to look at," he says. "But what a racket."

In 17th-century Japan, the shoguns valued (and deliberately built)

squeaky "nightingale floors" as early warning systems against palace

intruders. But Hunt, who with his crew installed the oak and pine in

TOH's project house in Billerica, is hardly concerned with thwarting

assasins. He just wants to restore a measure of quiet and solidity to

the house. "Eighty percent of the time you're hearing wood rubbing

against a nail," Hunt says, shifing his weight and evincing a groan from

one ornery board. "These floorboards swell and contract regularly with

the changing seasons, so the nails, the boards, and even the subflooring

loosen up, causing something to rub against something else."

Silencing squeaks is generally a simple matter. "In most cases, you can

face-nail the boards back in place," he says. If that doesn't work,

lubing them with powder, gluing them back in place, or shimming them

tight may squelch the squawks. But a floor that's spongy or sagging

could be a sign of serious damage or structural deficiencies, requiring

him to shore up the joists or replace the flooring.

Thankfully, this is not a worry at his parents' place. After driving

in a few nails, he takes a stroll to test for sounds. Hearing a few

sighs, he smiles. "I'll leave those," he says. "Someone else might

call them creaks. But to me, that's charm."

Photo by David Carmack

The Face-Nail Solution

"Drill a pilot hole first," says Patrick Hunt, as he fits his drill

with a 3/32-inch bit just a whisker narrower than the 8d finish nail

he's using. "Otherwise, the wood will split." Positioning the bit at the

center of the board and at least 3 inches from the end to prevent

splitting, he slowly bores straight down through the wood until he hits

the subfloor, about 3/4 inch below. "Too fast and you'll create a

sloppy, burred edge," he says. In the days before power drills,

floor-installers ran finish nails through their hair in lieu of a pilot

hole. "The natural oils made the nails drive through the wood more

smoothly," Hunt says. "Or you can dull the nail tip with a hammer so the

nail cuts through the wood fibers instead of wedging them apart."

Hunt positions his 2 1/2-inch finish nail in the pilot hole, then

taps it twice to sink it just shy of flush with the board. "I'm lucky if

I hit a joist, but it's not necessary," he says. (In houses that have no

subfloor, Hunt has to make sure the nail goes into the joists, which

always lie beneath the end joints in the flooring.) He's careful not to

hammer the board lest he leave a crescent-shaped mark or divot on the

wood. Instead he uses a nail set to drive the nail 1/8 inch below the

floor's surface").

Using his finger, Hunt fills the indentation above the nailhead with

a tinted oil-based putty, then wipes the surface clean with a cloth. The

filler doesn't require a finish and comes in a variety of wood hues to

blend with the color of the flooring. "I may mix two or three together

to achieve a perfect match from board to board," he says. "Plus,

oil-based putty won't dry out and form a skin that throws off the color

match."

Photo by David Carmack

Baby Powder, Shims, and Adhesive

"Sometimes two boards may rub against each other despite my best

efforts to stabilize them," Hunt says. As a short-term solution, he

sprinkles the joint with a generous layer of baby powder, which eases

the friction between the boards. Using a wide brush, he works the powder

into the cracks, then sweeps up any excess so the area isn't slippery.

When the joists or subflooring pull away from the floorboards, every

step causes creaks. If the joists are easily accessible from below, Hunt

watches for movement between the subfloor and the joists as someone else

walks across the floor overhead. Then he gently knocks a shim into the

gap nearest that spot. "I like wood shingles as floor shims because

they're flat and broad and finely tapered," he says.

If a gap exists between the flooring and the subfloor, it can't be

closed up from underneath; filling it with construction adhesive may

stop the noise. First, Hunt drills a 3/16-inch hole in the face of the

flooring strip. Then he fits the nozzle of the adhesive tube into it and

squeezes until he feels resistance. He quickly wipes up the excess with

a cloth soaked with mineral spirits. "The adhesive has to come off

immediately, otherwise it will mar the finish," he says.

"Putty would pop right out of a hole this size," Hunt says, so he

fills it with a wood cylinder drilled with a plug-cutting bit out of a

piece of matching scrap. "I always try to use the same species," he

says. He taps the plug in after the adhesive is dry, then, using a sharp

chisel, slices it off close to the floor surface. Once he sands it down

flush and reseals the wood with a dab of polyurethane, the repair is

virtually invisible.