Tools & Materials
Jeff Hosking, a flooring consultant for This Old House, first began laying floors 35 years ago. Back then, 90 percent of his work was installing solid-wood strips with nails. But now, half of the flooring he installs is engineered—made of thin sheets of wood glued together like plywood.
Solid wood is classic and can last a century, but engineered flooring offers a quicker, easier way to get a new floor, and it comes with a durable factory-applied finish.
Because it’s laminated, it’s more stable than solid wood, so you can put it over concrete or radiant floors, and not worry about warping. And Hosking says the finishes are far more durable than anything he can apply on-site.
Top-of-the-line engineered strips range from about $8 to $12 per square foot. That’s higher than solid-wood planks, but homeowners can offset the expense by tackling the installation themselves.
Engineered Wood Floors Overview
•To estimate how much flooring to buy, calculate the square footage and add a waste allowance: 5-7 percent for straight-course floors; 15 percent for a herringbone. For metric materials, 1 sqaure meter equals about 10½ square feet.
•Take an inventory of all edges that won’t be covered by exisiting trim, including hearths, stairs, cabinets, or openings such as foloor registers or outlets. Order enough factory finished trim to cover these edges.
•Let flooring acclimate in open boxes for 3-4 days in the room where it will be laid.Wait at least a week before opening boxes in areas with new drywall or plaster. Don’t store flooring in basements or garages; it might absorb moisture.
•”Try to run the flooring parallel to the longest wall in a room,” says Hosking. “It makes the space seem bigger.”
Click arrow button at top right to enlarge illustration.
Prepare the subfloor
With a pry bar, gently remove the baseboard trim. Also remove the end caps on baseboard heaters, registers for forced-air vents, plates for floor receptacles, and any other obstructions. Add a box extender to the floor receptacles, as code requires.
Walk over every inch of the floor listening for squeaks. Wherever the existing wood flooring is loose, batten it down with ring-shank nails or Phillips-head screws, and set them flush. Fasteners should penetrate at least ¾ inch into the floor framing.
Repair loose or damaged sheet flooring. Over badly damaged floors, glue and fasten sheets of AC-grade ¼-inch plywood, with the “A” side facing up.
Check for flatness by sweeping a 10-foot straightedge across the floor. Mark the floor wherever light shows underneath the edge. Level humps with a belt sander. Fill depressions deeper than 1/8 inch with troweled-on patching compound; sand it smooth when dry.
Trim door casings
Trim the bottoms of door casings to allow the new flooring to slip underneath.
Place a scrap of the new flooring in front of the door casing and lay a handsaw on top. Then, slowly saw through the casing. Repeat on the opposite side of the doorway.
Vacuum the entire floor to clean up all dust and debris.
Lay builder’s felt
Cover the subfloor with 15-pound builder’s felt and run it in the same direction as the new flooring (in line with the longest walls, typically).
Butt the felt’s edges together and use a hammer tacker to staple down each edge every 4 feet or so. Trim felt to within 1/2 inch of walls.
After the floor is covered, use a hammer to tap any poorly set staples down flush.
Tip: Cut openings in the felt with a utility knife each time you encounter a vent or outlet.
Set the starter course
Start laying the floor in a corner, along the longest exterior wall, which is more likely than a partition wall to be straight and square.
Place 1/2-inch-thick spacers against the wall and adjacent wall. This will create expansion gaps that prevent buckling. Butt the grooved-edge of a long strip of flooring against the spacers.
With a mallet, snug together the ends of more long strips. At the end of the course, fit a strip (no shorter than 10 inches) 1/2 inch from wall.
When the first course is set, place a straightedge against the tongues. Slide the flooring in or out until the tongues line up with the straightedge.
Using a brad nailer loaded with 1 1/2-inch brads, facenail each board every 8 inches and within 1 inch of the wall. Adjust the nailer to set the brads slightly below the floor surface. Check tongue alignment as you go.
Toenail the flooring
Once the first course is in place, drive 1 1/2 inch brads at a 45-degree angle through the strip’s tongue and into the subfloor, a technique called toenailing. Repeat every 4 inches. Don’t nail closer than 2 inches from the end of the strip.
Slip the second course of flooring over the tongues of the first and snug up the strips with a mallet or a tapping block and hammer.
As you go, offset end joints by at least 12 inches from those in the first course. Toenail them with the brad nailer as before, but don’t facenail.
Because there are tongues and grooves milled into the ends of this flooring, the ends shouldn’t be cut, except when they meet a wall or obstruction.
Tip: Choose each piece of flooring for length, not color or grain. The farther apart you stagger the end joints, the better the floor will look.
Tap the strips together
Tap each course snugly into place with a hammer and tapping block.
Be careful not to hit the block too hard or you’ll crush the tongue.
Tip: If a tongue is slightly damaged, use a utility knife to trim away just enough wood to allow the groove of the next course to fit over the damaged section.
Nail down the floor
If any of the first few courses are too close to the wall to use a pneumatic staple gun, then toenail them with a hammer and 1 1/2-inch ring-shank nails. Don’t facenail them.
Lay out the next five courses on the floor and fit the ends together. The goal of this process, called racking, is to stagger the end joints randomly across the floor’s field.
Offset the end joints in adjacent courses at least 12 inches, and the joints of every third course at least an inch.
With a jigsaw, cut flooring around ducts and outlets. Cover exposed edges with mitered trim pieces, which are supplied by the manufacturer. Fasten trim in place with a brad nailer.
When reaching the wall ending wall, and the stapler can no longer be used, toenail the next-to-last courses with the brad nailer.
Using a table saw, rip the tongue off the last course. Be sure to leave a 1/2-inch expansion space between the final course and wall.
Slip the strips into place and force them tightly against the previous course with a pull bar; facenail them with the brad nailer.
Remove all spacers and install the baseboard. Vacuum the floor, then fill all facenail holes with colored putty.