Install Prefinished Wood FlooringUpdated: Feb. 17, 2023
Lay this hardwood floor, start to finish, in one weekend
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Engineered wood flooring
Engineered wood flooring is a prefinished tongue-and-groove flooring that has alternating wood grain laminations much like plywood, but with a 1/8-in. or thicker solid hardwood layer on top. The factory finish is very durable, but it can be sanded if it ever needs refinishing.
Use a special narrow crown stapler to fasten engineered wood flooring to wood subfloors. The stapler has a special nose that guides the staple through the tongue at the perfect angle. You can rent staplers and compressors at a local rental outlet.
Installing a new hardwood floor used to be a lot of commotion. You had to schedule an installation and have the installer haul in a pallet of raw hardwood flooring and bang it in with a huge mallet and floor nailer. The next day the work area had to be sealed from the rest of the house as the big sanding machines rolled in and created bags of sawdust. For the next three days, the staining and finishing process stank up the whole house, and it took at least a week for the finish to harden before you could bring in the furniture. If you don’t want to install a new one, learn how to replace hardwood floor boards.
However, prefinished flooring has changed all that. Now you can install a new wood floor that’s completely finished from A to Z in a single weekend. You’ll be amazed at the beauty, practicality and speed of installation of a staple-down prefinished wood floor. You can literally start installing one day and be using the room the next day. And don’t confuse this flooring with wood look-alike plastic laminate flooring. The type we show here has a wear layer that can be resanded a couple of times years down the road when the tough factory finish is finally compromised. Most experts agree that this is a 50-year or more floor.
In this article, we’ll show you how to install your own prefinished wood floor. We’ll give you tips on buying, cutting and layout and explain how much prep is needed before you start. We’ll also give you tips on how to deal with transitions from one room to another.
We chose a special type of prefinished flooring, called “engineered” flooring. It’s about 3/8 to 1/2 in. thick and usually made of three layers of wood laminated together. The wood grain in the middle runs opposite the grain in the bottom and top layers. This method of construction creates a floor that’s more stable than one made of solid wood, with less seasonal movement and fewer cracks between planks during the dry season. In fact, engineered flooring is so stable that manufacturers allow its use in areas like basements as long as there isn’t a moisture problem. Most engineered flooring can be glued down instead when stapling isn’t possible, for example, where in-floor heating lies directly below. The thin profile of engineered wood flooring makes it a great candidate for remodeling because you can install it over an existing floor without significantly changing floor heights and transitions from one room to another.
For tools, you’ll need a flooring stapler and an air compressor. An air-powered finish nailer is handy but not necessary. A jigsaw will cut lengths and intricate cuts around vents and doorways, and a table saw is best for rip cuts near a wall. The other tools are inexpensive. You can get a tap block (Photo 5) and a pull bar at a home center. Follow the step-by-step photos for the basics and then read the text for tips and special instructions.
Figure A: Engineered Wood Floor Details
Engineered flooring has the dimensional stability of plywood, but the top wear layer can hold up to many years of use and even be resanded a few times when the finish starts to wear.
Picking out the flooring that’s best for you
For a wide selection, shop for engineered wood flooring at any retail store that specializes in flooring. Bring a few samples home and live with them for a few days. Then choose the type of wood, the texture (some look hand-planed for a rustic look), the stain color and a satin or gloss finish.
As you shop for flooring, you’ll find three basic edge designs. We chose the square edge design that looks just like traditional wood flooring. This type may have a bit of “over” wood (a slight edge variation from board to board that you can feel with your bare feet). To avoid this, you can choose a micro-beveled edge that is hardly noticeable underfoot (or visible, for that matter). You can also choose a larger, bolder bevel to visually separate the individual planks.
Calculate the area you want to cover and buy an extra 10 percent for waste. Just remember to buy your flooring several days before you start and leave it in the house to acclimate to the ambient temperature and humidity. Also ask the flooring retailer to recommend the appropriate floor stapler and the right length nails. If the store doesn’t rent floor staplers, check with your local tool rental outlet. We rented a stapler (Photos 4 and 5) and purchased staples at a home center.
Get your room ready
Photo 1: Prepare the trim and base
Remove the baseboard. Undercut the bottoms of the doorjambs and casing so the flooring can slide under them. Place a piece of flooring under a flexible trim saw and carefully cut the trim.
Engineered wood flooring can be stapled down over a sound plywood or OSB underlayment grade subfloor. You can also staple it over an existing hardwood floor or a vinyl floor (one layer only). Just be sure the existing subfloor or floor is solid underfoot. You may need to add screws to get rid of squeaks or remove carpet or even a layer of floor covering.
If you’re laying your new floor over subfloor like we did, make sure the edges of the plywood meet smoothly without ridges between them. If there’s a slight raised edge, try adding a few screws, or as a last resort, use underlayment filler and trowel it to feather out imperfections. Scrape away any paint globs or drywall chunks and thoroughly vacuum the whole area before starting the project. Also slide a 6-in. scraper along the surface to find any raised nails or screws and drive them down.
I like to remove the baseboard in the room so I can install the flooring closer to the wall. Most manufacturers want you to leave at least a 3/8-in. and sometimes a 1/2-in. expansion gap between the wall and the flooring.
If you have doors between rooms instead of archways, cut the bottoms of the casing and the jambs with a block of flooring and a crosscut saw. A Japanese saw (available at home centers) works great here because it has a thin, flexible blade. Concentrate on keeping the blade parallel to the floor for a clean, even cut. Vacuum the sawdust.
Cover the subfloor with rosin paper as shown in Photo 2 to create a slip area between the floor surfaces and help quiet any potential squeaks. Some manufacturers prefer 15-lb. felt instead of rosin paper, so be sure to follow your manufacturer’s suggestions.
Start along the straightest wall
Photo 3: Nail the first piece
Nail the flooring (tongue out) along the line every 16 in. Use long pieces of flooring to establish an absolutely straight start. Slip a short piece into the doorway behind this first strip if a doorway is along the starting wall. It would be difficult later.
Photo 4: Tap the next rows in
Tap the second and third rows into place, making sure the ends and the sides fit snugly. Power-staple through the tongues every 6 in. Avoid placing joints of adjoining rows closer than 4 in., and place the joints as randomly as possible by choosing varying lengths of flooring.
Photo 5: Staple each piece
Staple through the tongues of the flooring, making sure the boot of the stapler is in full contact with the floor surface. Practice a few shots before you begin, and adjust the pressure from your compressor to 70 to 80 psi, so the driven staple is flush with the wood of the tongue.
Photo 6: Cut on the bottom side
Cut the flooring from the back side with a fine-tooth blade to avoid splintering. A jigsaw works well, especially for intricate cuts in doorways or around floor vents. Use a small table saw to rip pieces that lie against the end wall. Cut in another room to avoid dust.
Decide which direction you’d like the flooring to follow. Hallways look best with the planks running in the long direction; other rooms are a matter of taste. Some manufacturers recommend laying the floor perpendicular to the direction of the joists, but if you have a solid 3/4-in.-thick subfloor, either direction is fine.
Measure the width of a plank including the tongue and then add the appropriate wall clearance measurement to that. We needed 1/2-in. clearance. Mark that distance out from the wall at two spots about 1 ft. away from the corner. Measuring from the corner isn’t always accurate because of a buildup of drywall compound. Tap in a nail at one mark and then pull your chalk line tight through the marks and snap a starting line onto your paper (Photo 2).
If this starting wall has a doorway, be sure to fit a strip of flooring under the casing and jamb because it’ll be difficult to slip in later. However, don’t nail this piece in until you nail the first row into place. Bring in three boxes of flooring and then select boards from them randomly. Some boxes might contain more light or dark boards, so drawing from several boxes will keep the floor from looking patchy.
Select long strips for the first couple of rows because it’s easier to align them with your chalk line (Photo 3). Start 1/2 in. away from the end wall. Face-nail the flooring with pairs of nails every 16 in. Make sure your nail gun sets the nail head just below the surface. Fill these holes later with a matching color putty. The face nailing is necessary because the stapler won’t fit that close to the wall at this stage. If you have a piece in the doorway, tap it in and nail it now. Continue with a second row, making sure to alternate end joints by at least 4 in. from the previous row.
By the third row, you’ll have enough space to use the floor stapler. Before you use it, check the pressure at your compressor. Dial it to about 75 psi and test-staple a piece through the tongue somewhere along the floor. If you drive it flush with the wood surface at the tongue, it’s perfect. If the staple is too deep or is still protruding above the tongue, adjust the pressure. Drive staples every 8 in. along the rows and get at least two staples in short planks. Tap the ends together and knock the plank sides together with the edge of your tap block (Photo 5).
The flooring is precisely milled, so you should never have to drive the tap block hard with your hammer. If the grooves aren’t fitting into the tongues, check for splinters or crushed tongues and remove them or cut them back with your utility knife.
Continue installing the flooring, leaving a 1/2-in. expansion space on each end. Drive hard-to- get-at end pieces into place with a pull bar as shown in Photo 7. If you don’t have a pull bar, you can position a pry bar between the wall and the end of the flooring. To avoid crushing the drywall, pry against a drywall knife.
Fitting special spots
You may encounter heating vents in the floor and along walls or even radiators in older homes. Floor registers (Photo 11) are easy to cut around. Just be sure to measure the bottom of the register so you get the opening the right size. Wall-mounted registers that meet the floor can often be removed and then repositioned on top of the flooring. Cast-iron radiators are the toughest and will have to be removed before you start and then reinstalled later. You may need a professional to help drain the system, remove the radiator, and then reinstall and refill the system later. Hot water baseboard heat has metal covers along the wall. Lift the covers off (look for clips), then unscrew the metal back plates. You can reinstall them later over the flooring.
After working your way across the room, you’ll find that the nailer won’t fit for the last two rows. Face-nail instead (Photo 8) and rip the last piece to fit. Use a pull bar to tighten the gaps and then nail the last rows about 1/2 in. back from the tongue edge. There’s no need to pair up the nails here because you won’t be tapping other pieces into them as you did on the first rows. Rip the last strips using a table saw and make sure to allow for an expansion gap as you did at the start.
Photo 9: Reverse nailing direction
Rip a “reverse” tongue from scrap wood and glue it into the groove when you need to switch directions.
You can easily continue the flooring through a doorway into another room, but if you want to continue in the opposite direction from your starting point, buy or make your own tongue to glue into a groove as shown in Photo 9. Rip a thin piece from 3/4-in.-thick stock on your table saw and then cut it to width with a straightedge and a utility knife. Check the fit and then glue the tongue into the groove of the plank and tap it into the groove of the existing spot as shown in Photo 10. This is a great way to avoid face-nailing through planks, especially in doorways, where they’re most visible.
Once your flooring is completed, nail your baseboard back into place and cut your base shoe to fit. Fill the nail holes with matching putty. Don’t nail the baseboard or the base shoe through the flooring, only into the wall studs. If you need to move heavy appliances like stoves or refrigerators back into the room, roll or scoot them onto thin sheets of Masonite or 1/4-in. plywood and jockey them into position. Use felt pads under tables or heavy chairs to avoid scratches.
Transitions to other flooring
Blending one kind of flooring into the next may call for a bit of improvisation and creativity. You can buy several options of prefinished transition pieces from your supplier to solve almost any floor height difference from one room to the next. You may have to modify them slightly with your table saw to make the transition as smooth as possible. For carpeting, it’s best to position the last strip of flooring in the center of the doorway or directly under the door. If necessary, pull the carpeting up in the doorway and then restaple it as shown in the photo.
When you’re installing flooring up to an existing vinyl or wood floor, leave an expansion space between the floors and then nail a transition piece over the gap. Be sure to cover the edge of the vinyl to keep it from lifting.
If you can’t get a prefinished transition piece to work, make a piece from the same type of wood and then stain it to match your new flooring. The idea is to make the transition as shallow as possible but still sturdy enough to take heavy foot traffic.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Air compressor
- Air hose
- Brad nail gun
- Chalk line
- Cordless drill
- Framing square
- Hearing protection
- Knee pads
- Miter saw
- Putty knife
- Shop vacuum
- Table saw
- Utility knife
- Wood chisel
Required Materials for this Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- Engineered wood flooring
- Narrow crown staples
- Painter's tape
- Rosin paper
- Transition pieces