Introduction: Hardwood Floors; How to and Not to Install

About: Retired Army, Dad to a young man, husband to a wife who enables my tinkering. Amateur blacksmith and modest knife maker

Hardwood floors are installed by professionals for a reason. DIY saves money but some aggravations aren't worth it. This is a combination of instructions and lessons learned from my home's "upgrade" to hardwood flooring. Please note that I am NOT a professional and do not pretend to know all the answers. This a chronicling of the Kuhlfolks' (mis) adventures in home improvement and passing along of information, tips and tricks we've learned along the way.

Thanks for visiting!


June 2011, finished upstairs hallway basket weave
September 2011, updated tools and equipment, more details and prices

Step 1: Tools,Equipment, Supplies & Personal Protective Equipment

Tools & Material:

Nailer (a manual if fine for some woods but we opted for a kind called Patagonian Rosewood which is near the top of the Janka hardness scale at 3840 out of 4000, so a pneumatic was needed. DO NOT attempt to hammer these by hand or use a substitute when installing a wood that is high on the Janka scale, ( Note that not all woods are listed. Our floors' wood is rated at 3840. When I tried to hand nail a board the nail bent and I had to drill a pilot hole to place nails where the pneumatic nailer couldn't reach. $150-300 USD
   We picked up the Akazuki from Amazon and those nice folks upgraded us to the professional model for FREE! This will shoot Cleat nails. (see Nails below) 

Air Compressor; look for rating of the "SCFM" (which translate to : how much air is moved by the compressor pump) of 3.5 or higher and able to reach ~ 120 PSI. More is better but the price increases with rating and size of the compressor. We got the Dewalt 4 gallon double hotdog, 120 volt. It was sufficient for the job, and allowed me to put in 10 nails in row before running low on air. $150-300 USD higher prices go with higher capacity and capability.

Table Saw, 10in blade, steel (or harder) tabletop (note: an aluminum top is okay but boards move easier across Iron or Steel tabletops)  $90-300 USD Higher prices equal more features and better quality.

Router or Dado cutter blades for the table saw to cut channels in the side of boards for custom fitted planks. I highly recommend a Router Table ($20-$30 USD) that you can set up a fence to help make the grooves easier. This becomes important when laying board in unusual patterns

Miter Saw, I have a 10in Hitachi but a 12in blade would be better for Herringbone layouts due to the depth of the angle cuts at the edges. $150-250 USD 

Saw Blades, be sure you have the right number of teeth, 60-80, for a 10 inch blade in order to make smooth sharp cuts and tipped with carbide or tungsten for longevity. It is worthwhile to mention that pitch(oils and sap)  builds up on the teeth and needs to be cleaned off occasionally. A good wire brush and a strong degreaser has worked or me. Simply remove the blade, soak it in the degreaser for approximately 30 minutes, then hit it with the stainless steel brush. When your edges of the cuts start looking rough it is time to clean it again or possibly time for another blade. $30-80 USD (shop around, price doesn't necessarily equal quality!)

Nails; 18 gauge nails. I have been putting them approximately 6-8" apart. They are cleat style so they are designed to be put in by a Pneumatic Nailer. Normally these are 1, 1.5 and 2 inches long and are glue together for ease of installation into your Nailer.  The length you need depends on the thickness of your planks and the thickness of the subfloor or wood below it. $12-15 USD

Wood;   We measured wall to wall, did some minor geometry, and determined we needed about 1800 sq ft. Lumber liqudators in nearby so we went on a Wednesday (less customers) and found a clearance sale on a "limited" supply of $3.80/sq ft, Patagonian Rosewood (yes that's expensive but his floor will out live my son!) . I asked what they  meant by limited supply, which turned out to be only 18,000 sq ft! I laughed until the salesman told me that this was probable going to gone by that weekend! $7000 USD

(I recommend that you have the wood delivered by the supplier. Each of our  80+ boxes was 8' x 12" x 4" and weighed 150 lbs.  Moving these inside was a workout!)

PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
Gloves, I prefer Framers since I like the ability to sense what I'm touching without having to look directly at it. $25 USD
Knee pads, get quality ones, you're going to be spending a lot of time kneeling. $20-50 USD
Glasses, get Z87+ quality safety goggles or glasses. $7-20 USD ( I am rough on glasses so I buy the cheaper and replace as needed.)
Hearing Protection, in-ear style or over-ear just make sure it is at least 30db level. $5-20 USD depending on style and level of protection.

Drill  I used a 14 Volt portable and a compact 10 volt portable, but most any drill will work. The key is to be able to work close to a wall or confined area without damaging the wood or the surrounding area. A pneumatic hammer drill will probably be overkill!  Corded: $60 USD  Cordless $90-150 USD depending on size and manufacturer. 

Flexible drive shaft bit holder  This should fall into the, "nice to have but not necessary" category. I broke a couple of these due to excessive bending and drilling at extreme angles (Herringbone pattern up against angled walls!). Again, the better ones cost more but a reasonable price is $10-20 USD

Sliding Bevel  The DIY floor installers best friend for those weird angled cuts. USD $10

Step 2: Prepare the Surfaces

Our house is over a crawl space. This allows air flow through but also can trap moisture due to temperature differences and the insulation. The key to preparing this crawl space is to completely cover the ground with a vapor barrier. My research came up with 10mil plastic being sufficient to keep the vapor/ moisture from getting into the crawl space and eventually allowing the humidity to swell the flooring. If you've heard of someone who's had a bad experience with hardwood (esp. laminate/ engineered) flooring, it is usually related to moisture swelling the flooring, and this causing it to buckle. (This is also the reason you need a 3/8 - 1/2 inch gap around the border).

We had carpet over padding that was stapled to the subfloor. LOTS of staples! no, no you don't understand... hundreds of staples!

Next the underlayment. This is typically a heavy felt, red rosin paper, or this stuff : QuietWalk, which is a combination of vapor barrier and felt that is designed to seal to the next row you lay down. This provides a small R-value (insulation) and sound deadening. This is also the most expensive option of the three, but one of the most annoying things I’ve found about hardwood floor is the that hollow, echoing sound you hear when you walk in a room, especially in high heels…wait, no, when my wife walks in with high heels.

To remove the carpet, find a corner that you can grab hold of and lift up as straight as possible. You will hear some tearing as it comes loose from the tack strips (1 inch wide strips of wood at the wall edges with small brads or nails to hold the carpet in place.) A small razor or utility knife will be a big help. Cut through to the subfloor about 2 inches from the wall and roll it up this will leave a small strip on the tack so you can then use your demolition bar, pry bar, and pry up the strips. These aren't quality pieces of wood and will not be useful in the future unless they come out whole. It depends on the quality of the carpet but we plan on using it for area rugs until we can find exactly we want.

The underlayment, either rosin paper or felt or very expensive QuietWalk goes down next. I stapled the ends down and the edges seal together by removing the adhesive strip cover. All this preparation will prevent cupping the edges of the boards, reduce squeaks, and slow water vapor from warping your floor.

Acclimating the flooring to the house is another important step. We brought in and un-boxed our wood a couple weeks prior to starting the layup. The store recommends 2-4 days. Your environment, type of wood to be put in and how your house breathes will all affect the amount of time needed to acclimate the new flooring. Some local installers have told our friends to store it in the garage but my garage is NOT air conditioned or insulated like the interior of my house!

Step 3: Find Your Center, (No, Not Like Yoga...)

.... of your room, not the Yoga stuff!
You need to leave 3/8 to 1/2" space around the room edge to allow for the flooring to expand and contract. Spacer are good for maintaining the distance but once you decide which direction the flooring is going to lay,finding the center of the room is hte next step.

  Most rooms are generally retangular so this will MOST of the time. Take three measurements at the front, mid and end of the room, (my dining rrom was 153, 153.25, and 152.75), get the average (mine is 153), divide that by 2, ( 76.5). I split that in half again and put down a chalk snap line to help me visually track the progress of my board laying. A minor misalignment on one side of a room can translate to a dramatic misalignment later.

Using spacersagainst the wall, I started laying in boards to see what the pattern would look like. The instructions for the company I bought the flooring from said to ensure the first 2-3 rows were perfectly straight. (This was very stressful since we had never done this before and I was worried about destroying, the wood, my home's value, my sanity!) I had a laser line I picked up from a gentlean at a local yard sale, so between the chalk lines and the laser line my first rows went well, until....the first banana board, *theatric horror novie scream* AHHHHHHH!

Step 4: Banana Boards and the Other Side of the Room

  "Banana boards
 The hardest part of laying the flooring was not making sure the edge edges didn't meet, or getting the the rows straight but laying in a board that was bent up and away from the sub-floor. The trick I found worked best was to put a 2x4 next to it; screw the 2x4 down and pull the bent  Banana board in tight with a crowbar. Using my knee, I'd hold the crowbar in place and hammer the banana board in place.
  Most of the time board will relax after the next row goes in. The longer the Banana board the easier it will be to bend into straight.
   The next biggest challenge is the other side of the room. The goal is to create the illusion of the wood continuing into the next room, so the last row of boards takes a lot of attention to detail. The baseboard and shoe molding will cover the top nailed boards, since the nailer won't fit in that those close to wall. This meant pulling out the drill with a flexible shaft (see tool pics) and drill bit holder to make pilot hole in order to hand nail these last boards.

Step 5: I DONT Recommend Trying This!

My wife thought it would look cool if we did a Herringbone pattern in the entryway. We had an easy time on the firs troom so I thought, why not? OMG... it took 6 times longer and even though the pieces were all 18 inches long, laid in at 45 degrees. It was amazing how hard it was to keep the gaps between boards small and fit close. The stairs and wall are at  approx. 35 degree angle and unevenly spaced, with a decreasing width from the front door to the living room entance. I had to hand bevel the edges. Using the Patagonian Rosewood didn't make things any easier but I got it done.

The Sliding Bevel was a life saver at this point. None of my walls are squared from one to the other. This held true for the stairs to the hallway and the sliding bevel kept me sane. Taking the angle with the sliding bevel, I could set the angle on the chop saw to exactly what I needed. (*Noteworthy* don't forget to account for the kerf; an error of 1/8th inch cut doesn't sound like much but 6 feet later while laying boards you'll see an exponentially bigger gap than you expect!)   

Step 6: Another Difficult Installation, Fireplace Surround

The front of fireplace in our livingroom has a slate piece that deserves a nice surround. So I'm thinking a 1 inch peice around the perimeter...but Kuhlmom wanted something a little more artistic. A 1 inch perimeter surrounded by 3 inch squares, surrounded by another 1 inch perimeter. Sounds simple right?.?! Uhhh no... The transition around the corners needed to have a special piece to allow them to fit together! AHHhhhhhh! Time to break uout my secret weapon:  foam board to cut out a template. The precise shape traced onto the wood and some precision cutting and shaving with the skill saw and multi-tool.
 (Update, Spring 2011: I failed to credit Kuhlmom for a major piece of the sucess of the fire place surround inlay. She was doing the demolition and attempted to lift the slate slab off the subfloor. It came up part way but then stopped. If she had put too much pressure on the slate to break it loose it probably would have cracked! From 6 feet out she gradually planed down the subfloor so that the hardwood being installed was at the same height as the slate slab. She did such a good job creating the subtle shift in floor height that you don't even notice the change!)

Step 7: Upstairs Bedrooms

Bedrooms are being done the same method as the living area. Determine the width, mark your centerline, set your startline next to the wall, allow for non-square walls/ rooms, offset by 3/8"to 1/2" from your starting wall, get the first row PERFECT ( this will be your anchor and determine how straight your rows will be!).

The parquet pattern is made of 4.75" squares, install with the grain 90 degrees to the long pieces. The long pieces are 14.25".  
IMPORTANT: If you choose to do this pattern using pre-finished flooring, the cuts need to be VERY precise. Under or oversized pieces will show very quickly in the gaps in the pattern.

 The other challenge that presented itself was squaring the pattern to three finished rooms. We started at the stairs and Kuhlkid's room then worked with the pattern until we reached the materbedroom. Visually from the landing of the stairs it will be apparent if this is not square to these transition points.  

Step 8: Challenging New Pattern- Basket Weave!

Kuhlmom and I decided to try a different pattern for the installation of the upstair hallway. The newel post and transitioning from the stairs to hall to the bedrooms presented some serious challenges and creative, "speciality" cuts to make it visually appealing and symmetrical. The problem, again, is that this house doesn't have a straight wall anywhere in it! Most of the time we spent was verifying the pattern was square to whatever the "visual" reference was. Simply put... making look right.

(I apologize for the poor picture quality, the phone camera isn't best choice.  I'll post better pics later.)

Step 9: The End...for Now.

This has been one the most challenging DIY projects I've ver attempted. This has been because of a couple factors:
1. This my home and I really don't want it to look amatuerish.
2. I am a Type-A personality and work in thousandants of an inch in my profession. Wood has natural curves and personality that doesn't allow for perfect fits on seams and transition sections.

Fortunately my wife, (also a perfectionist), has kept me balanced and was extremely encouraging throughout the process.

I'm grateful for all the help I received from; websites, Blogs, my Little Dude, and the Weegies (our Norwegien Forest Cats from the local SPCA).

Last bit of advise:
Don't rush this project; if you do the results are dramatically different, (cupping boards, huge gaps, and tons of squeaks). Buy quality over quantity which applies to BOTH the work and the tools.
Finally, do your homework, ask questions and feel free to email me. Thanks for visiting my 'ible- Kuhldad

Update: February 2013, we've lived with the floors for 2 seasons and I'm still amazed at the amount of flex and movement in the floor. All the vapor barriers and preventative work to avoid excessive moisture doesn't change the humidity in the air or the temperature changes that the wood reacts to. The lesson I take away from this is that even though the wood is not alive it still "breathes" which is why it is so important to maintain those 1/2" to 3/8" gaps around the borders to allow for expansion/contraction that comes with the seasons.

Update: February 2015, we still love our floors and the only downside to them that I've seen so far is that dark hardwoods show EVERYTHING. Every speck, dust bunny, Weegie tumble weed (loose hair that somehow gather and rolls along the floor), grain of rice, broken potato chip and dirt.The best cleaning process we have found so far is a combination of a good broom and a steam mop. (Their are many brands, Hass, Shark, Eureka, Dirt Devil etc. and just as many opinions on their quality.) The best thing about steam is it is very effective at cleaning, dries quickly and won't damage the finish of the floor IF you follow the instructions.

We still have different gaps, in different places in the floor planks each year, but it seems to follow the seasons and the amount of snow/rain we get here in the eastern USA. The rosewood is very photo-reactive but is darkening beautifully with coppery resin accents, which is very obvious when we move the area rugs.

Update: January 2017; six months ago the dishwasher leaks about 2-3 feet into the kitchen flooring which made the wood swell and buckled at the edges. I pulled and replaced the dishwasher and put a floor fan blowing across the area for a week to dry it out. The rosewood is very forgiving and now is completely flattened out, no cupping, no visual indication there had ever been a water leak!