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Installing a strip-wood floor

MATERIALS: Wood flooring, building paper, floor finish, #6 finishing nails, latex wood putty

TOOLS: Pry bar, hammer stapler, tape measure, chalk line, hammer, nail set, drill, 3/32" drill bit, flooring nailer, miter saw, saber saw, table saw (optional)

PREDRILLING FOR NAILS - Nails seem to bend and wood seems to split in the most visible places on a floor—it's almost guaranteed. For finish carpentry, it pays to drill a pilot hole in the visible surface to keep the wood from splitting and help prevent the nail from bending over and marring the wood. A 3/32-inch drill bit is about right for #6 finishing nails, but the best drill bit is an extra nail. Clip off the head, pop it in your drill, and use it as you would a standard drill bit.

All strip-wood floors require a stable subfloor. Materials such as 3/4-inch plywood, tongue-and-groove pine, or oriented-strand board (OSB) are all typical and acceptable. Floorboards should be installed perpendicular to the floor joists. Parallel installation is acceptable in hallways if the subfloor is sturdy, but it may cause more spring in the floor and possibly more squeaks. A strip-wood floor consists of solid strips of wood, typically 1/2 inch thick, with tongue-and-groove joints along the edges. The tongue-and-groove joints keep the surface of each board flush and conceal the nails, which are driven through the tongue and covered by the groove of the next board.

Oak strip flooring is available as a stock item in most home centers. For a slightly higher cost, you can choose from maple, walnut, cherry, and hickory. All will probably last the life of the house and will withstand sanding and refinishing several times. You can buy strip flooring in 2 1/4-inch or 3 1/4-inch widths, sold in bundles of approximately 22 square feet. It’s also sold in random widths to create less-formal floors. Buy it either unfinished or prefinished with a durable commercial finish. The higher cost of prefinished strip flooring is worth considering because you won’t have to sand and finish after installation. Because prefinished boards can’t be sanded flush the way unfinished flooring can, some prefinished strip flooring has a small V-groove along the length that conceals slight unevenness.

Flooring installation tips

• Acclimating the flooring. Wood expands and contracts with changes in moisture, and even kiln-dried boards will warp. To acclimate the wood to the moisture content of your house, put the bundles in the room where they'll be installed. Unpackage them, cut any binding, and leave the flooring for two weeks. The wood will gradually come to the same moisture content as the room, minimizing problems that might occur after installation.

• Hallways. In a large room, install the flooring perpendicular to the joists because it results in a stronger floor. In hallways, run the boards the length of the hall because it looks better.

• Shuffling the deck. As you unbundle the flooring, you'll see that all wood is not alike. Some boards will be dark; some will be light. Some will be highly figured; others won't. Professional floor installers don't try to group similar boards. Instead, they shuffle the boards, mixing them fora random-looking floor.

1 REMOVE SHOE MOLDING OR BASE MOLDING, IF NECESSARY. It’s often easier to lay a floor if the trim isn't in the way. Removing it, however, can be tricky because it’s easy to damage and will break. If necessary, remove the molding with a pry bar, wedging a scrap between the wall and the bar to avoid damage. Reinstall the molding after the new floor is installed.

2 TACK DOWN BUILDING PAPER. Building paper makes it easier to slide the flooring into place and provides somewhat of a vapor barrier. Roll it out and staple every 8 to 10 inches. At the seams, overlap the pieces about 3 inches.

3 DETERMINE THE WIDTH OF THE STARTER STRIP. Figure how many strips it will take to complete the width. The first and last strip should be relatively equal in width. Lay out flooring, or use a calculator and divide the room width by the width of an individual strip of flooring. Allow a gap the thickness of the flooring for expansion along both walls; the shoe or base molding will cover the gap.

4 RIP-CUT THE STARTER-ROW STRIPS. Use a table saw with a sharp rip blade to cut the starter strips of flooring. Because the tongue edge of the first strip must face into the room, you will cut off the groove edge. Determine the width of the starter strip; add the thickness of the flooring. Measure this number from the wall at each end and mark the floor.

5 SNAP A CHALK LINE FOR THE STARTER ROW USING THE MARKS ON THE FLOOR; this will show where the edge of the tongue will fall. This line must be straight because the straightness of the starter row affects the entire installation. Don't guide along the wall as it may not be perfectly straight.

6 FACE-NAIL THE FIRST ONE OR TWO STRIPS (a flooring nailer can't be used). Align the first piece with the tongue edge on the chalk line. Drill holes every 12 inches along the length of the strip, drive #6 cement-coated finishing nails through the holes, and set the heads flush with the surface. Note the expansion gap between the first floorboard and the wall.

7 NAIL SUBSEQUENT STRIPS WITH A FLOORING NAILER. You can use a hammer, but nailers save a lot of time. (Both manual and air-powered models are available.) Position the nailer on the tongue edge of the board, and whack the plunger head with the heavy rubber mallet that's supplied with the nailer. After a little practice you'll nail down this skill.

8 CROSSCUT END PIECES. At the end of each row, the last piece needs to be crosscut to fit. Allow a small gap here to make getting the piece in place easier. Avoid using an end piece that's less than a foot long; instead, use two medium-length pieces to end the row.

9 TIGHTEN SEAMS. Some pieces will be bowed. If you have enough extra pieces, these may not be needed. If you have to use a piece that's bowed, screw a piece of scrap to the floor about an inch from the strip and tap a wood wedge into the gap, as shown. Also try wedging a pry bar edge into the subfloor and prying against the edge of the bowed strip. Then nail the strip in place.

10 FIT PIECES AROUND OBSTACLES. Where the flooring meets a jog in the wall or another obstruction, cut the pieces to fit. Position the piece of flooring as close to its destination as possible, then transfer the measurements for the cuts directly from the wall or obstruction to the flooring. Remember to allow a gap along the wall length.

11 CUT AND FIT THE LAST ROW. The last row, like the first, may have to be sawed to width. It also will have to be face-nailed. To tighten the joint between the final two pieces, use a pry bar between the wall and the edge of the last strip, with a scrap block of wood protecting the wall. Then nail the strip in place.

12 APPLY BASE AND SHOE MOLDING. If you use unfinished flooring, sand it and apply the finish before installing the base molding. If installing new baseboard, cut and fit it once the floor is completely finished. Rest the molding on a piece of paper when you nail it in place to allow the floor to expand and contract under it. Remove the paper when done.

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