Can you really install hardwood flooring in your house without a special pneumatic nail gun and an air compressor? Yes, you can. We did it, and with a few tools and some skill, you can, too.
First, the back-story. (If you’re just looking for a list of tools and tips, you can skip this part and scroll down to Step 3.) The bedroom we are re-doing was built in the 1970s, and it looked like this when we started:
The dark paneling took on a depressing, gray shade in the evening light.
The carpeting was extremely nasty. That color had to look almost as ugly new as it does now. So we’re going to not only replace the old carpet with hardwood flooring but also paint the paneling a lighter color. (Our oldest daughter did most of the painting.)
So the first step in re-doing your floors is to take up the old flooring and strip everything down to the sub-floor. (The sub-flooring is the stuff that sits on top of your floor-joists and supports the floor you actually walk on. There may be one or more layers. In old houses it’s usually solid-wood planking fitted together with tongue-and-groove. In newer houses it’s probably some kind of plywood.)
Removing the old carpet (and the pad underneath) is easy. We went at it with a sharp utility knife, cut it into big pieces, rolled them up, and carried them out. But what was underneath the carpet and pad was a little unsettling.
See the gray stuff? That is fine dirt and dust that was sitting under the carpet. We could have shaken a lot more out of the carpet as we carried it out, too. That’s the downside of carpet: no matter how much you clean the top, dirt will eventually filter through to the bottom and just stay there, accumulating a little more every year.
Step 1: Prepare the Sub-Floor and Remove the Trim
You never really know what you’re going to find when you take up old flooring. Your sub-floor may be in great shape, ready to receive your new flooring. Or it may be in terrible shape and need repair or even replacement before the flooring goes in. If you find soft spots in your sub-floor, or places that have deteriorated, take the time to correct the problems.
Do NOT install good flooring over a bad sub-floor. It won’t hold up, and eventually the new flooring will give way and reveal your laziness. Don’t be that person.
Do ensure there are no nail heads or staples sticking up out of the sub-floor. You can pull them up or just pound them down with a hammer. I prefer to pull staples up with needle-nose pliers if possible and hammer them down only as a last resort. Nails get pounded down. Then be sure you clean the sub-floor well, ideally with a shop-vac or something similar. Get as much dust and debris up as you can, because whatever you leave there will stay there for the next few decades!
Use a pry-bar (the kind called a “cat’s paw” is best) to carefully remove any quarter-round molding as well as the baseboards. You can leave the baseboards in place and cover any gaps with quarter-round molding at the end, but I prefer to use the baseboards to cover any gaps and skip the quarter-round altogether. It saves both money and space.
Step 2: Gather the Materials
A. The flooring itself. There are many types of wood flooring out there. The kind we used is essentially strips of pre-finished hardwood plywood. It has a couple layers of soft wood underneath a top layer of hardwood (red oak in our case), and the pieces fit snugly together with tongue-and-groove. You will need to carefully measure the space you are re-flooring and ensure you buy enough, generally 5-10% more square feet than you measured for. (Be sure to figure in any closet spaces or doorways.)
B. The moisture barrier. Don’t let this scare you: it’s the easiest (and cheapest) part of the whole process. Go to your local home center and get a roll or two of roofing felt (or “tar paper”). Not only will it serve as a moisture barrier, but it will also help prevent your new floor from squeaking.
C. Fasteners, including staples (for the moisture barrier) and plenty of nails. Nails should be fine finish nails, either 1 1/2″ or 2″. I prefer the 2″, as they seem to hold better. We used 2 1/2 boxes to lay down about 200 square feet of flooring.
Pro-tip: Skip the typical hardware store brands and buy Maze Nails, available at Lowe’s and other suppliers. These nails are made in the USA from steel that is demonstrably superior to the steel in other nails. They are well-formed and don’t bend easily.
Step 3: Gather the Right Tools
Professional flooring installers have a special pneumatic nail gun driven by an air compressor and designed for nailing down flooring. You can rent these tools from the local home center, but then you have to learn to use them, and that can take additional time. I seriously thought about renting the equipment, but in the end, we decided against rental and opted to install our flooring by hand. I’m glad we did.
At minimum, here’s what you will need (details on several tools discussed below):
- Claw hammer (at least 16 or 20 oz.)
- Nail set
- Staple gun and staples (we have a Bostitch electric staple gun, and it works well)
- Drill and small bit
- Pull-bar and a couple wood scraps
- Miter saw (to cut the flooring)
- Handsaw (for trimming stuff that your miter saw can’t handle)
- Knee pads
A few notes:
The drill is necessary for drilling a few pilot holes along the edges of the room. You won’t be using it extensively, and you need only one small bit approximately the same size as your nails.
The pull-bar is one of those special tools that probably costs the manufacturer $1.50 to make but sells for $12. Buy it anyway. You need this tool for pulling pieces of flooring together tightly around the edges of the walls. You can (and should) make a wooden variety for for use near but not at the wall. A 12″ strip of hardwood with a chunk of wood screwed to each end (as seen above) will be useful until you get to the very edges, and then you will need the manufactured pull-bar.
Knee pads: you will be spending all day on your knees. Even a cheap pair of knee pads will make this whole process a lot easier on your joints.
You will be using your nail set a LOT. Nail sets come in several sizes, to be used with different kinds of nails. Some finish nails have dimples in the center of the head, and they can be set with a nail set with a fine point that fits into the dimple. The Maze nails we bought do not have the dimples, so we used a larger nail set that fits over the head of the nail. Be sure you have a nail set that fits your nails.
If you’re not comfortable or experienced in driving and setting nails, this may be the time to stop and ask yourself whether you really want to tackle this installation yourself. A couple errant hammer blows can ruin the edges of your new flooring.
You need a reliable saw to cut pieces to length. It can be done freehand with a handsaw, or you can use an electric miter saw to cut your pieces of flooring to length. I happen to have and old, hand-powered model, which I clamped to a sawbench. It works pretty well.
No matter what kind of saw you have, be sure the blade is freshly sharp.
Step 4: Staple Down the Moisture Barrier
Roll out the roofing fabric, cut the pieces to length with a utility knife or heavy scissors, and staple it down.
See how easy that was? Yeah, don’t get cocky just yet. The hard work is just ahead.
Step 5: Open the Boxes of Flooring and Start Laying It Down
If you’re tackling this job yourself, a lot of what you have to do will be obvious as you go along. Do open a couple packages at a time and select the floorboards you will want adjacent to each other. Also watch out for damaged pieces (it happens), which you can often cut shorter for use at the ends of rows.
To begin, lay your first row of flooring up against one wall. Put the groove side of the flooring up against the wall. Leave a little space between the flooring and the wall to allow for seasonal expansion and contraction of the floor. About 1/4″ will do. If you’re not sure about the measurement, you can use a spacer (like a couple pieces of plywood) to ensure a consistent gap. Drill pilot holes about a foot apart all along the edge of the flooring and nail the boards down.
As you add pieces of flooring, you will be nailing into the tongue side as you go. Here’s how:
Start the nail in the corner where the tongue starts. (I have my home-made pull-bar in the shot only so you can see the nail.) Drive it in at about a 45-degree angle as far as you can. Then use the nail set to drive it in the rest of the way. If you find the nails difficult to drive in, you may wish to use a drill to bore a shallow pilot hole for the nail , but it’s an extra step and will make the whole job take even longer.
How many nails should you put into each floorboard? At least one every foot, and probably more. We found that 5-7 nails per floorboard kept them in place quite well. Keep in mind that we are laying down thin strips of flooring, so that’s a lot of nails per square foot. If your floorboards are wider, consider using more nails.
One little issue we had with our flooring was that sometimes the tongue collapsed around the nail as we were setting it.
Use the nail set or a flathead screwdriver to carefully clear the chip out from underneath the tongue, otherwise the chip will prevent the next piece from going in all the way.
When you come to the end of a row, you will have to cut the last floorboard to length.
To measure how much to cut, simply flip the piece around, set it at the wall, and mark it with a pencil. Then take it to your saw and cut it to length. (This is where it really helps to be working with a partner.)
A note on the orientation of different lengths: When you start a new row, make sure that the individual pieces don’t end closer than 6″ to the end-joints in the previous row. Also, lay out a whole row of floorboards at a time, not only to make sure you have a nice variety of coloring and figure, but also to make sure you don’t have to try to nail down a 1″ piece at the very end.
If you plan it out right, you should have a regular pattern of alternating floorboards. We didn’t quite get it as regular as we could, but we got close. I now wish we would have planned it out a little more carefully than we did.
As you lay down each floorboard, you will need to tap it in nice and tight. This does not mean that you hit it hard, though! Several light taps are better than one big wack. Also, never hit the flooring with the hammer alone. It may deform the tongue or otherwise mar the flooring. Use a scrap of wood such as pine or plywood instead. I found that a 2″X8″X1/4″ piece was about perfect. Be sure to tap the end of each floorboard as well as the side. The most difficult gaps to close are the ones at the ends.
When it comes to closing gaps between floorboards, do not settle for “almost.”
These boards are nearly together, but there is still a visible gap between them. Dirt will eventually get into that gap, and the wood at the edges can chip and otherwise deteriorate. One more sound tap and the gap will be closed.
Now the boards are seated properly, with no gap whatsoever. You may find that you need to get one end of a floorboard seated properly, put in a nail or two, and then proceed down the floorboard alternately tapping and nailing. Use the pull-bar every time you come close to the edges of the room.
90% of your time will be spent tapping boards into place and nailing them down. You’re going to get VERY good at this after a couple hours.
One of the challenges of putting in new flooring is working around existing moldings, especially at doorways. (Yes, you will find that you spend approximately 50% of your time working on 10% of the room.) Here’s how to get everything fitted well.
We need to make space underneath the door trim for the flooring to go, so we need to under-cut the trim with a handsaw.
First, use a spacer such as a scrap of the flooring to establish your depth. If you are extremely fastidious, use a spacer that is just a little thinner than your flooring, so that the spacer plus the thickness of the saw’s blade is equal to the thickness of the floorboards.
Saw into the trim, making sure that the saw teeth do not touch the new flooring at all. (Put masking tape over any nearby new flooring if you’re really worried about it.)
Mark your piece to fit underneath the trim.
You will need to use a handsaw to cut this notch out, too.
If all has gone well, the board should fit nicely into the gap.
Step 6: Enjoy Your Process
With your nose to the floor all day, it’s easy to get so focused on the details that you can’t see the whole thing. Occasionally, you should stand up, step back, and look at the big picture.
You should also regularly clean up any scraps, dust, chips, and debris.
Step 7: Coming to the Other Side
One of the most difficult parts of laying the flooring is approaching the far side of the room, where you will almost certainly need to cut the last pieces long-ways to fit. In our case, the last pieces needed to be only a fraction of an inch wide.
Our solution was to glue two pieces of flooring together with wood glue and let them sit for about an hour to let the glue dry. (It was lunchtime anyway.) Then we ripped them down to the necessary width on a bandsaw. You can use a table saw, track saw, or even a circular saw if you’re careful. It was much easier than trying to tap an extra-thin strip of a floorboard into place.
Do ensure you leave the same gap between the last floorboard and the wall on this side that you left on the opposite side. And just as you drilled pilot holes and nailed down one side directly through the floorboards, do the same on this side. If you’re careful, the baseboard will eventually cover the nail heads.
Step 8: Put Everything Back into Place
Once all the flooring has been nailed down, you can reinstall the base boards and any other trim pieces you removed. Be sure to nail the trim back into the wall studs.
Now let’s see some before-and-after pictures:
It looks like a whole new room.
The results look great.
Yes, it was a lot of work. We put in about 2 1/2 days on the flooring, though we could have done it faster had we not made extra trips back to the home center for tools and supplies that we should have had in the first place. By the end of it, my knees and back were aching, my hands were seizing up, and every time I closed my eyes I could still see floorboards and nails.
But we proved to ourselves that, with a few simple tools and a lot of perseverance, we could install hardwood flooring ourselves without having to rent specialized power tools. And our new bedroom is cheerful and comfortable–at last!