Installing a hardwood floor in the kitchen of my first house (almost six years ago–don’t mind the buzz cut) was one of those Aha! moments where I realized I could repeatedly swing a sledgehammer at a nailer hooked up to an air compressor barefoot and not loose a toe.
And since I just use some of the leftover flooring from that same kitchen to finish off the bathroom in my new house, I figure it’s a good time to spread the fun.
So let’s talk about hardwood floors.
Types of Hardwood
First of all, I’m not talking about laminate, I’m talking about actual wood. And I’m not talking about actual species of wood (but you can check out more here if you’re interested). What I’m talking about is the types of hardwood flooring you can install:
- Unfinished hardwood– You put this down in its unfinished state and then sand, stain, and seal it when its in place. The benefit is that you get a smooth finish on the floor, but the dust from sanding down floors and the fumes from staining any putting poly down are something to contend with.
- Pre-finished hardwood– Pre-finished floors already have the stain and protective coat on before you put them in. You have to be more careful with the installation and the boards have individual definition instead of the cohesive look of a floor finished after it’s installed, but once it’s in, it’s in.
- Engineered hardwood– Engineered hardwood is generally pre-finished, and is also usually thinner than solid hardwood. It’s made up of layers of wood laminated together with the grains running in opposite ways which provides strength and durability. The downside is that you can’t refinish it like you could solid hardwood… generally only the top 1/8″ is “finished” wood.
The one thing that is similar about all of these is that they come tongue-and-groove. Some engineered woods will allow for a “floating” floor where the boards snap together and are only nailed on the outside edges. I prefer to nail each board down regardless.
There are a number of tools that installing a floor requires, but this is the big one:
The guys at Lowe’s once tried to tell my aunt that there was no such thing as a floor nailer that hooked up to an air compressor, but let me tell you something, there is. It’s at the Home Depot rental place. (I love Lowe’s, but seriously dudes.)
Here’s how the nailer works. It hooks up to the compressor, the nail comes out of the hole by the notch there when you whack the top of it with a nailer, which is absolutely as much fun as it sounds like.
It installs the nail through the tongue of a board at an angle so that the next board can still slide over the tongue. Like this:
(If that graphic looks familiar it’s because it’s just like installing a wood ceiling, but upside down.)
This is my bathroom, and it needs a floor. And like, a toilet, but first things first, okay?
Here’s what I used to give it one:
- Hardwood underlayment
- Engineered hardwood flooring
- Miter saw
- Pneumatic floor nailer
- Pneumatic stapler
This is how I did it:
Step 1 – Subfloor & Underlayment
In newer construction subfloor is usually 1/2-5/8″ plywood that is nailed down to the joists. You can attach your wood flooring directly to this, but not to particle board which is different than plywood.
The underlayment provides protection for the hardwood against moisture (small joke there since I’m living dangerously and installing this in a bathroom, but just go with it). It will also add some cushioning to the floor and help prevent squeaks.
I used a hand stapler to fasten it. This particular underlayment is probably better for laminate, but it’s what The HD had so I used it. I’d be a little more concerned about getting something specifically for hardwood on a larger area.
Step 2: The Dreaded Beginning
It’s not dreaded for no reason, it took me two hours to get the first two boards in, and only a two more hours to finish the rest of the floor.
It starts with the laying out your floor. For maximum strength and durability the flooring should run perpendicular to the floor joists. (Check out which way they run in the basement or by sticking your head in the crawl space.)
Also, you’ll likely have several boxes of flooring and particularly if it’s pre-finished you should mix them all up ahead of time, or risk having different colored stripes in your floor.
One of my boxes was leftover from when I installed the kitchen (6-ish years ago) and the other was new which posed another problem since the tongues weren’t exactly the same size, but nothing a hammer and little determination couldn’t fix.
The first row had to be cut to fit around the tub in my case, but most times it will just be straight.
You won’t be able to use the nailer on the first row because there isn’t enough room, so I used an air-stapler to nail through the tongues at a 45, and my finish nailer to secure the side closest to the tub.
Here’s how I stapled through the tongue:
You get to see this hand shot because I started with the wood directly up against the tub which was a bad idea for the squeaks, so I pulled it out and put those cardboard shims in.
While I went tight against the tub because there will be no trim there, you should leave a 1/2″ gap or more around the walls (it will get covered with baseboard) to leave room for expansion.
You’ll also have to use another nailer or hand nail with your final boards of the room as well.
Step 3: Rows 2 through Infinity
As you’re laying the boards you’ll want to work in the direction of the tongues. This sounds like something biblical, but it just means tongues out… from right to left in this example.
Those boards to not just slide nicely into place over the previous row, which is while you’ll need a Banger.
I use small scrap pieces. The objective is to fit it over the tongue and hammer the board into place so that the tongue stays intact for the next piece to slide over. Boy, I just used the word tongue a lot.
If you’re using wider boards like these you may be able to use the floor nailer by the second row. Nails should be spaced every 6-8″… the rule of thumb is put the nails closer together the wider your boards are.
When you come to the end, I find the easiest thing to do is flip the next piece around and measure it, then cut with the miter saw to fit it into place.
The flipping around part is key so that you get the grove on the right side of the board.
Also, you want to start each row with a different sized board. having seams that have too much of a pattern drives me nuts, so I’m always pretty aware of where I want my first board to end and where the subsequent seams will be.
Step 4: Special Cuts
You may or may not run into this around stairs or if you’re crazy like me, in the bathroom.
I found that making a template with some spare underlayment was the easiest thing to ensure a nice tight cut, which I made using the jigsaw.
Step 5: Voila!
And here’s the after.
You’ll want to be pretty careful with pre-finished boards, but if you do end up dinging the sides hammering a particularly difficult board in place (not that I would know) those wood crayons do wonders.
Also? First “finished” floor in the new house, so I totally did a little happy dance on this when it was done.