How to Lay Wood Flooring Safely

Fewer home improvement projects have more eye appeal—and potentially a better return on investment—than new hardwood floors. Part of the laying-wooden-flooringreason for this is the durability of the woods typically used for residential flooring.

Whether installed by a professional or well-prepared homeowner, properly laying wooden flooring requires caution, a slow and steady pace, the proper tools and a willingness to pay attention to every little detail.

Here’s a look at how to safely build a hardwood floor with results that will please even the sternest critics.

Choose Your Wooden Flooring

Hardwood flooring comes in many different types and styles. Choosing the right option often comes down to the budgetary concerns. However, you should also consider the durability of any flooring option. Re-installing a new floor every ten years isn’t really a bargain if you can find a flooring option that will last for decades with proper care and maintenance.

Most hardwood floors are made from oak, maple, or walnut. It’s also easy to find ash, beech, birch, and American cherry wooden floors. Regardless of which species you choose, you’ll find options that will help you stay within your budget. In terms of final color, hardwood floors can be finished or unfinished. Unfinished flooring is less expensive and gives you total control over the final color.

Tongue-and-groove flooring will ensure a proper fit each time one board joins another. Essentially, one end and one edge of the board has a slot cut or “groove” into and the other end and edge has a tab or “tongue” protruding from it. The tongue fits snugly into the groove, providing a professional look at every point of connection.

Your local home improvement store will have a wide range of samples for your perusal.

Hardwood Flooring Installation Checklist

Knowing how to lay a wooden floor isn’t as easy as riding a bike. Not only do you need the flooring to look good once it’s finished, but you also need to ensure that you use the right equipment and tools to get the job done safely.

Use the Correct Tools

Many DIY projects result in some sort of injury because the wrong tool was selected. Building and laying solid wood flooring requires some specific tools for proper installation as well as to ensure the safety of the installers every step of the way.

Materials you will need

  • Safety glasses or goggles
  • Gloves
  • Kneepads
  • Ear protection
  • Measuring tape
  • Carpenter’s pencil
  • Square
  • Chalk line
  • Small drill
  • Hammer
  • Nail-set
  • Finishing nails
  • Vapor barrier paper
  • Table saw
  • Pneumatic nail gun or staple gun
  • Floor putty

Vapor Barrier Paper

vapoor barier paper
image credit:

Before any hardwood floor can be installed, a damp-proofing or moisture resistant material needs to be put down atop the subflooring. This is commonly known as vapor barrier paper and it’s available in sizeable rolls at your nearest home improvement store.

Remove the shoe boards (sometimes called floor molding) from the room in question. Cover the entire floor with the barrier paper and securely fasten to the subflooring with staples. This will prevent moisture from seeping between the hardwood floor and the subflooring, which is key to preventing mold and mildew buildup, thereby saving your investment and protecting your family.

Important note: The floor joists play an important role when installing a hardwood floor. Use a carpenter’s pencil to mark the barrier paper with an “X” above each floor joist. Nails will be driven through the hardwood flooring into the joists to ensure the floor is properly secured and will not move.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

The old adage to ‘measure twice, cut once’ has never been truer than with a hardwood floor installation. The hardwood slats aren’t particularly cheap, and too long a measurement can be fixed, but too short often results in wasted materials.

There are a range of measuring devices on the market, including traditional measuring tapes. Modern technology also means there are laser devices, which give incredibly accurate measurements. Let your personal preference dictate which type you choose; just remember to make accurate measures and precise cuts.

Start the Installation – Laying Wooden Flooring

  • Wood expands with heat and contracts with cold, which means leaving a little space around the edges. With the shoe boards removed, start on the longest unobstructed all in the room. Measure out 3/8″ and snap a chalk line the full length of every wall in the room.
  • Select a long board for the first board and align the edge along the chalk line, perpendicular to the floor joists. This is important as it will ensure
    the entire hardwood floor has a solid anchor.
  • With your safety glasses or goggles on, use the drill to start a hole in the piece of hardwood flooring above a floor joist. Drive a finishing nail through the flooring, subflooring, and into the joist. Leave the head of the nail exposed as to not damage the flooring by hitting it with your hammer. Use a nail-set to tamp the finishing nail below the surface of the piece of hardwood.
  • Make certain the tongue on each piece of hardwood flooring is the leading edge. You will use nails, and eventually staples, to secure the flooring to the joists. Note: You will cover the nail holes with putty at the end of the job. Make sure you match the color of the putty with the color of laying wood flooringyour hardwood floor.
  • One of the keys to an interesting looking hardwood floor is to cut the slats at different lengths. Not too short as this will make for too much work and could end up looking peculiar.
  • After a couple of rows have been installed, drive some finishing nails into the joists through the tongue of the last board installed. This will hold the floor securely in place until there is enough room from the wall to start using the pneumatic nail/staple gun. You can also secure the far edges of each board with a face-nail and nail-set. These nail holes, which can later be filled with putty, will ultimately be covered when the shoe board is set back into place.
  • Continue with each row, using the specially designed pneumatic staple gun to secure each floorboard to the joists below. As you approach the far wall, you will have to stop using the staple gun and go back to finishing nails.

Installing the Final Board

  • It would take a stroke a great luck for the final space to be the exact width of a hardwood slat. This means you will most likely have to “rip” the final boards. Ripping, in carpentry terms, means to cut a board lengthwise.
  • For a rip cut to be straight, it must be done with a table saw. Measure the width twice, set that distance on the table-saw guide, and cut the boards. Remember, measure only to the chalk like you snapped at the beginning of the project.

Important note: Table saws can be extremely dangerous. If you’re not familiar with their use, or simply would prefer not to use one, let a flooring professional do the work. Take your measures and slats to your nearest home improvement store. Their professional carpenters will be happy to make the cuts for you.

Fill the Holes with Putty

With the floor installed, there will be several noticeable holes in the hardwood slats. Take a piece of the flooring to your local hardware store or paint store and match the color with their selection of wood putty. Some stores can make custom colors.

Building and knowing how to lay solid wood flooring is not an easy job, but it is a challenge that can be met and accomplished with proper planning, supplies, and tools. Remember, no hardwood floor is worth smashed fingers, permanently damaged eyes, or loss of hearing. Before you ever pick up a hammer, turn on a saw, or use a pry-bar to remove stubborn shoe boards and nail, be certain to put on a good pair of carpentry gloves, proper eyewear, and ear protection.

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