Installing Solid Hardwood Floors
“The guy at the big box store only had flooring nails. I’ve heard staples are best…” Times have changed with the widespread use of pneumatic tools with staples leading the way initially. Which is better? The consensus points towards staples but some professionals go the other direction; more below.
Installation Tool Types - Manual
Installers have their preferences on what tool is used to fasten solid wood floors. In the good 'ole days, prior to the sixties nearly all floors were actually nailed by hand using nails similar to concrete cut nails. Painstakingly and back breaking work by any means, the 60's brought on the widespread use of the manual cleat nailer. This tool made installing solid floors much easier and quicker. Not to mention adios to the days of all those bloody thumbs when nails were missed when pounding in with a hammer.
All floor nailing tools work by engaging the plunger portion of the tool with a mallet specially designed for this type of work. Common manual tools were often difficult to use if you didn't have the proper physique or strength. In order to get the nail seated properly in the tongue portion of the floor, a pretty good whack with dead on aim was needed. Failure to do so causes problems with nails that don't go all the way into the wood flooring.
Types Of Tools - Pneumatic
The early 90's brought on air assisted flooring fasteners with the Bostich MIIIFS stapler (shown right with mallet and foot plate) being the front runner. Pneumatic became the tool of choice, working from air pressure with a connected compressor. No longer did it take one million calories (or so it seemed) to nail 1,000 square feet because manual tools were very labor intensive.
Pneumatic fasteners require only a small tap on the plunger to get a nail or staple (black round gizmo shown) engaged into the hardwood, but does depend on the air pressure setting on the compressor used. Some hardwoods require different settings and it's best to test first before running into mistakes that can cause installation problems later.
Pneumatic Staplers And Nailers
Yes, there are pneumatic nailers and staplers, but which to use? Some professionals have noted staples actually fasten the floor too tight, creating potential squeaking effects, while others are more comfortable with the time tested flooring cleat nails that allow a more natural expansion and contraction wood floors need. This seems more prevalent where moisture levels are higher, particularly the gulf state region or areas near large bodies of water.
Proper Subfloor Is A Must!
Insuring you have a suitable subfloor is the most important ingredient for any successful installation when laying solid 3/4" hardwoods. Failure to heed this vital prerequisite will lead to spongy, creaking, and popping sounds. Nails or staples need a proper bite, otherwise they will loosen over time.
What Types Of Nails Are Used?
In the golden days, steel hardened cut nails were used. Now depending on what tool you may be using there are cleat nails, manufactured with a barbed like appearance on the bottom that helps hold the flooring into the subfloor.
Staples on the other hand, gain their strength by not only a two pronged approach but also through the use of a hardened glue resin coating. Once the staple is engaged by a pneumatic tool, friction caused by the force going through wood and subfloor heats up the resin acting as an adhesive.
The mallet shown has two distinct parts besides the handle. The white portion is hard rubber used to engage the plunger and persuade adjacent boards into place before actually hitting the plunger. Have a board that is bowed a little? That's what the rubber part is designed for.
Opposite of the white rubber part is a chunk of metal working as a counter balance providing weight and more force while moving planks or strip into place, and should never be used on the plunger. In some cases it may be advantageous to tap end pieces tighter before actual nailing or stapling, but to be used as a tool to drag pieces into place should be avoided, especially with prefinished material.
How Long Does It Take To Install?
Much depends on the width of the board you are installing. Other factors coming into play is what the overall layout looks like. For a standard 400 square foot room, furniture moved, and ready to go; common 2 1/4" strip flooring will take 10-12 hours for an experienced installer. If you're hiring out, be careful with those bragging artists that claim the job can be done in half the time. Some have been known to skip nail. Skip nailing is fastening every other row only.
Is It A Messy Job?
You're likely to encounter quite a bit of dust that will be raised chiefly from preparation before the installation. Let's say you're removing carpet to install new hardwoods. You are better off vacuuming the dirt that will be found under the carpet and padding as any sweeping will certainly leave dust scattered everywhere.
Once the job begins it's wise to handle all the cutting of material in a garage or outdoors. Tools used to cut, such as an electric miter saw can throw off dust even if a small dust collection bag is present.
Starting The Job - Keeping Floors Straight With Control Lines
Opinions will vary where to start. Most call for starting on the longest parallel exterior wall. Let's simplify that and say longest parallel wall. Why use this reference? It will help keep the installation straighter for one thing.
For example, my illustration to the right shows three possible areas of starting. #1 is the best choice to avoid any complicated areas that need lining up as #2 and # 3 would. By the way, this installation will run parallel to the blue control line and we will be starting off the # 1 wall line.
What's A Control Line?
A control line is a line that is established by measuring out from wall #1. The purpose is to check for square ness with a tape measure to other areas of the layout. Essentially you want to set the line in or near the center of the layout should the installation go into other rooms. A control line is not necessary if the job only calls for one square or rectangular room.
Use a general number to measure off wall #1. I'll use 96 inches in this case because it nears the center of the area. Measure from two areas off wall #1 and mark. Draw a chalk line with a helper and snap where the two areas are marked. Once the line is set we can check if the starting area is parallel against two walls in the starting room.
Transfer Control Line. Check Other Areas
We'll now need to check how the installation may fall into the other rooms should we use the first control line. A control line is basically temporary in this case if the other walls are out of square. There are two doorways that run off the main room. Establish a measurement that will allow another control line to run parallel and run though the two door openings of the other rooms.
At this point once two marks are set and line snapped on the subfloor, measure for square ness from the new line to wall # 2 and 3. If all the parallel areas look square there will be no need to adjust anything; simply start your installation from wall #1.
Shouldn't I Have Rolled Out The Tar Paper First?
Good point. It would have been useful to layout the underlayment first so we wouldn't have to go through these steps again. The control line serves another purpose after beginning the installation, which we'll get into later. When rolling out your underlayment opinions vary on whether or not it should be overlapped or not.
Some claim if it is overlapped one can actually see a telegraphing effect after the floor is installed. In other words, small rises occur every 45 inches where the two layers overlap. Personally I never paid attention to it, and the National Wood Flooring Association calls for overlapping anyway.
Rolling Out the Underlayment
We also have a section on using rosin paper (related links at end) for those that may have heard this is the way to go. Felt paper can be messy, because it is the same stuff roofers use when drying in a roof, or before the shingles go on. We want to begin rolling out the paper parallel to wall #1. When rolling, start at one end and unroll to the other while keeping about 12 inches away from the wall. This will keep the roll from blackening your freshly painted walls.
Once you're near the end, cut off enough for it to cover, remove the roll and push the long sheet into place or butted to the wall and trim on both ends with a utility knife. Repeat these steps across the room, while stapling the underlayment to the subfloor. No need to overdo the staples. All we want to do is keep it stationary so our control line stays put. You could finish off the room and let the other areas go until you're ready.
Getting That First Row Laid
Now that we have our underlayment laid out and control line in place, the next step calls for fastening that starter row. For areas along the parallel wall lines always try to unitize the longest and straightest boards you can find, as it minimizes gapping while keeping a true straight start. It is also recommended when racking to keep an eye on the better boards of the bunch and set them aside to use in other areas we will need them.
Set Another Chalk Line
Depending on what width hardwood you are installing this line will be different. Our job calls for a 3 1/4" wide prefinished Bruce Winter White product. Incidentally, this was a cabin grade product installed in 2003, purchased off the internet, with the customer full aware of what to expect with a cabin grade hardwood.
Considering solid wood floors are started with tongue facing out, I used our 3 1/4 inch board width and added 1/4" for the tongue. This insures the chalk line is not covered and can be seen easily. By adding another 3/8" inch for expansion our line was measured 3 7/8" off the drywall.
That's Not Much Expansion Area There Fella
Granted it does bend the general rule of allowing 3/4 of an inch that many specify. There are exceptions for smaller layouts as this one only dealt with a 200 square foot room. The customer had also preferred 1/2" thickness baseboard so a larger expansion area would not work.
Nail That First Row
The start of any installation is the most important. Often boards do not like to stay on the chalk line when nailing begins. Here's a neat trick to prevent movement. Cut some small wedges from wood scraps on the miter saw and insert between the first course and the wall or baseboard.
Keep in place until you have four to five rows installed, then they can be removed. When nailing, do so at a 45 degree angle above the tongue. I've noticed some do it yourself sites bring up using a drill and eight penny nails to get the first row installed. Why bother? I think most of us can now afford to rent or borrow a compressor and nail gun these days. Besides, the installation goes much quicker and prevents board movement.
In this case I used a Porter Cable pneumatic nail gun that shoots 15 gauge finish nails. This tool should only be used for nailing near walls and not a substitute for installing the entire floor. Doing so is likely to create squeaks down the road as the fasteners begin to loosen. Finish nails are not flooring nails.
Shown to the right, I've not only top nailed as close as possible to the inside edge of the board every 6-8 inches (white dots) so it becomes less visible, but also nailed above the tongue.
First Row Intact. Moving On
Once the first row is laid, double check all your measurements to your control line. It should be dead on had you measured out from the wall in the same locations. Depending on what width product you're using, the nail gun may be needed for the next row or until the actual flooring stapler can fit into the area.
About That Stapler
Although I have a comprehensive page dealing with nailers and staplers, a small note is not covered. Not only does a pneumatic fastener require the proper air pressure adjustment, but it needs to sit flat and square with the tongue of the floor when engaging.
Take your time with it. Professional installers know how to handle this tool and if you should happen to see them in action you'll be amazed at how fast they work...in the open areas. If the tool does not fit snug and square above the tongue when the staple penetrates, it may not allow the next board to fit snug without gapping.
Let me try to clarify; A staple in the wrong place is a bugger to remove. It cannot be tapped in with a nail set unless it's very close to where it should be. Some guys actually use the side of a big screwdriver to get it home. However if the staple needs another half inch to seat in the proper location, it should be removed. Another option is using some wire/metal snips. Cut both sides of the staple as close to the wood as possible and set from there.
Removing an entire board that has been stapled is not a easy task. Take your time and make sure the stapler is where it should be before tapping the plunger. With staples that miss the tongue and get lodged into the surface of the floor, the only recourse is removing the entire board.
If you're handling any installation, specifically a prefinished floor, check the plate on the underside of the fastener. Even though it's generally made of vinyl nylon, anything embedded in the bottom will scratch the floor.
Here's a subject rarely discussed. Tricks to keep a floor straight while nailing against angled walls. My illustration shows an area being installed left to right with the bottom being the left side. Loose boards are the racked out area.
When nearing these areas and stapling very near the end of each piece cut on an angle, we have no support between the board and the drywall or base. Essentially the alignment wants to run astray ever so slightly. Multiplied by numerous rows (let's say 15), it can run out of alignment by as much as an inch or more. Inserting small temporary wedges (mentioned above when we started) in these areas will provide the support needed and the layout will not bend.
Wedges do not have to be used at every board end. This phenomenon (yikes that's a big word for an installer) occurs not only with fastened wood floors, but glue downs and floating ones as well.
Finishing Off The Final Rows Against the Wall
There comes a point when the stapler will not fit near walls and we resort to the finish nailer again. If you've kept some longer straight boards for this area you'll see how much easier it is to finish off the area opposed to using random boards that are not straight. Through the larger open areas it becomes much easier to get a tight fitting floor because there's leverage in tapping them into place with the rubber side of the mallet. Pneumatic staplers also exert a good amount of force keeping those boards together too.
For stubborn boards there are several options. One can either do it by hand with a long handled screwdriver, or invest in a tool called the power jack shown on the right. When nailing the final courses do so by blind nailing or nailing into the groove at a 45 degree angle. At one point it will be necessary to top nail the last few rows.
Cost Analysis 2015
The following segment deals with a November 2015 1,000 square foot job where the material was purchased from us but installed by a local independent professional in Chicago. Both material and labor costs are shown. Keep in mind, installation labor will vary from one region to another and from one installer to another.
The product chosen was our Authentic American Hickory Reserve ¾ inch by 3 ¼” solid hardwood with random lengths running 12 inches to 96. The layout includes the foyer, living and dining room along with a hall. The master bedroom will also receive hardwood but not two additional bedrooms.
The actual measurement on the job came in at 950 square feet. By adding in a 5% waste factor we’re up to 997.5 square feet. The Hickory product itself is packaged at 26 square feet per carton, making the order 39 boxes or cartons or 1,014 square feet.
Other materials needed for this job
• Three reducers
• 315 lineal feet primed white quarter round
• Two rolls Aquabar B underlayment
|Underlayment (S/F) ¹||
|Reducer (material S/F)||
|Quarter Round (material L/F)||
|Installation Trim (L/F)||
|Installation Hardwood (S/F)||
|Freight To Chicago ²||
² Residential Delivery