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Ask the Builder: Hardwood floors best left to the professionals

By Tim Carter
Friday, February 18, 2011; 3:44 PM

I'm going to install hardwood flooring. I'm talking about traditional tongue-and-groove hardwood that's 3/4-inch thick, not engineered hardwood flooring. My plan is to try it myself and only call in installers if I mess up. What do you think of this idea? It can't be that difficult - you just nail the boards to the floor. The cost of having the entire job done by professionals would really put a hardship on my budget. What tips can you share to help me do this job myself? -Susan W., Palo Alto, Calif.

I usually encourage people to try things themselves, for many reasons. First, it's fulfilling to accomplish a task and stand back and survey your stellar results. It's also possible to save money. But when it comes to a complete rookie installing hardwood flooring, I have to tell you that you're probably going to fail.

Installation is a true art, given the material you've chosen. And forget what you've seen on some of the cable television home-improvement shows, where they gloss over the finer points of installing the material that can last generations.

I'll never forget watching the first hardwood floor go down on one of my jobs. The tools the installer used were some I'd never seen. He had a funky-looking spring-loaded nailing tool that he hit with a rubber mallet. It drove special nails at the precise angle through the tongue of each piece of the flooring.

But that was the glory part. What's critical is that the material be given time to acclimate to your home. This means that the wood must be brought into the home and allowed to normalize with the house's temperature and humidity. This is a step often overlooked by rookies. If you don't let the wood acclimate, gaps may eventually form between the pieces. It can take days for the wood to become stable.

Professional hardwood installers know all sorts of tricks to ensure that squeaks don't happen. They use special nails that have tiny barbs and/or ribbing on the shaft that allow the nails to really bite into the subflooring.

You'll also see professionals install 15-pound felt paper under the strips of hardwood. This is an added touch that helps prevent vapor from entering the underside of the wood in case the wood is being installed over a crawlspace or a damp basement. The felt paper also helps, to a very small degree, with squeaking.

Have you thought about how you're going to deal with a subfloor that has humps and low spots in it? If you make a mistake, you'll absolutely end up with squeaks or gaps down the road. Professionals use a long straightedge to detect them. They fill the low spots with asphalt shingles to support the hardwood strips.

What are you going to do when you nail your first piece? How will you know it's perfectly straight? The entire floor builds off the first piece, so it must be correctly installed. The pros that worked for me carefully strung a line across the room and laid the first pieces exactly to it. It's important that the line hover just above the wood so that the pieces you install don't nudge it as you face nail them.

The initial layout of the flooring is very critical, especially if you're extending the hardwood into several rooms. You want to avoid cutting narrow strips next to any of the walls where the strips run parallel to the walls. Be sure on the where the wood runs parallel that you don't install it tight to the drywall or plaster. Leave a gap that's as thick as the baseboard that is on the wall. The bottom of the baseboard needs to be slightly above the flooring so that the wood can expand into the void space in case humidity soars.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his Web site, askthebuilder.com.

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