Hardwood Flooring Installation: A How-To Guide

living room with hardwood flooring and area rug
credit: Stephen Paul for Hunker
Installing hardwood flooring requires a significant amount of research and preparation.

Installing hardwood flooring is a straightforward process that requires a lot of forethought and preparation. The first step is to decide what kind of hardwood flooring you'd like to use and then purchasing the proper amount. After that, you'll need to prep the installation area, and only then can you move on to the actual installation process.

Engineered or Solid Hardwood Flooring

Before you install a new wood floor, you'll need to decide on engineered or solid hardwood flooring. Both have advantages and drawbacks. Solid hardwood is more expensive and can be more difficult to install. However, it can last much longer since it can be refinished numerous times, whereas engineered hardwood can only handle refinishing a few times.

Generally, if you think you might want to redo your floors within a decade, engineered hardwood is the way to go, and if you want a floor that will last generations, solid hardwood is the way to go. Engineered flooring is cheap and quick to install, but solid hardwood will increase your home's value far more.

Old House Journal explains that engineered hardwood might be a better option for high-humidity areas or bathrooms since it is more water resistant, but there are some hardwoods that have natural water-resistant properties, or you can use a thick layer of protective finish as well if you prefer solid hardwood floors.

For basements, you may need to install engineered floors, as solid hardwood cannot be installed more than 3 inches below the exterior ground level. These underground areas are typically high in moisture, which can damage solid hardwood floors even when they have sufficient finish on the top layer.

alley-style kitchen and living room with grey hardwood
credit: Stephen Paul
Homeowners will need to choose between solid and engineered hardwood.

Choose Your Finish

If you decide to use solid wood for your new floor, you'll then choose between buying prefinished planks or DIYing the stain and finish. While engineered flooring is always sold ready to go, solid hardwood planks can be prefinished with stain and finish already applied, or they may be left unfinished so you can customize your results.

Buying prefinished planks means you'll know exactly what you're getting, saving you some effort. Onsite finishing is cheaper and lets you choose your stain and finish options, letting you customize the final look, but since the finish isn't usually added until you've nailed down the floor and sanded it, you won't know what you're getting until the very end.

Measure the Flooring Area

Now that you know what you want to buy, measure the length and width of the room at the largest points and multiply them to find the total number of square feet in the room. Buy around 10 to 15 percent more flooring than you measured.

If the price per square foot of your flooring is particularly expensive, you might be hesitant to spend the money on extra materials, but you don't want to find that you have too little flooring partway through, and you really don't want to find out that your flooring is sold out.

living room with hardwood
credit: Stephen Paul for Hunker
Installing new hardwood requires ensuring your subfloor is in good condition.

Prepare the Subfloor

You can use many things as a base for your hardwood floor installation. Depending on whether you are using engineered or solid hardwood flooring, you may be able to use an existing floor in good shape, a plywood subfloor or a moisture-proofed slab of concrete. For example, concrete subfloors can work for engineered wood, but because it cannot be nailed into, it will not work for installing solid hardwood floors. Ask the salesperson or consult the manufacturer instructions for the best subfloor and underlayment options for your choice of flooring.

If your existing wood or tile floor is in good condition, this can save you some effort since you won't need to remove the old floor, and you'll have an extra level of soundproofing, but you'll still need to correct any damage or irregularities in the old floor first. Also, before installing, check that your doors can still open and close over the new flooring. If you aren't installing on existing flooring, you'll need to remove the existing carpeting, tile or wood floor and prepare a subfloor.

Regardless of what you choose for subflooring, it needs to be structurally sound, clear of any surface bumps, squeak-free and level. Remove your baseboards and then check for unevenness in the subfloor or existing floor using a long, straight board and a level and then sand down bumps and use leveling compound to fill any dips.

Prepare Door Casings

Prepare to install the floor under door casings by carefully cutting a gap the height of the floor plus any underlayment under the casings using a dovetail saw. It always looks better to have the floor cut under the door casings than to try to cut the flooring around the door casings.

green kitchen with hardwood floors
credit: Stephen Paul for Hunker
When installing hardwood flooring, begin on the longest straight wall.

Plan Out Your Floor

Before you get started, plan how to install your hardwood floors. Installation should begin on the longest straight wall that is the most visible. Roll out a floor underlayment to provide moisture protection and reduce noise under the floor. Use a utility knife to cut the underlayment so it fits around objects such as hearths or closets. Secure the underlayment to the subfloor.

Then, mark where all of the joist (support) beams line up on the subfloor — this is the best spot for nailing down your floor. However, this is unnecessary for floating engineered floors installation.

Lay out your boards starting along the longest wall to figure out how they will fit when you start going. Ideally, you'll want to lay out the boards in a way that will minimize the number of cuts you'll need to make in the boards. Alternate boards from different boxes of flooring, as the shade and patterns may slightly vary from one box to the next. If the last row will be thinner than 2 inches, cut the first row of boards as well to ensure both are at least 2 inches long.

Installing Floating Engineered Hardwood Floors

Interlocking engineered hardwood floors are a favorite among home improvement novices because they are simple to install. Put a 3/8-inch spacer between the boards and the walls and apply glue to the groove before locking the first row of boards together. Then, measure and cut the last piece with a table saw so it fits, allowing for a 3/8-inch expansion gap. Always remove excess glue with a damp cloth before moving on to the next board.

Start the following row with the piece cut off from the first row so the joint is at least 12 inches from the end joint on the previous row. Apply glue and then put the tongue in the groove and push while rotating toward the floor until you hear a click indicating the boards have locked together.

Apply glue and snap the next board into the first row, leaving a 1/4-inch space between it and the previous board. Snap a scrap piece of flooring between these two boards, apply glue between the ends of the two boards and then use a tapping block and mallet or hammer to close the gap before removing the scrap.

When you get to the last board in the row, use a last-board puller tool by hooking it over the end of the plank and then tapping it with a hammer to connect the end joints. Follow the same procedure to install the rest of the floor, using the last-board puller tool again to install the last row.

Allow glue to cure for 12 hours before removing the spacers and installing baseboards to hide any gaps between the wall and the end of the boards.

dining room with hardwood floors
credit: Stephen Paul for Hunker
Hardwood flooring must be acclimated for a few days before installation.

Acclimating Solid Hardwood Flooring

Solid hardwood requires a few days to acclimate to the climate and humidity of the room before you get started with installation. Just bring it in the room where it will be installed, set the cartons on something raised off the ground and then cut them open to allow for airflow. Other than this, the process for installing solid wood flooring and engineered wood flooring with nails is the same.

Nailed-In Hardwood Floor Installation

For the first few rows, you need to face nail the boards, meaning you need to nail through the top of the boards. Work with a drill to create pilot holes and then either hammer the nail in or use a power nailer.

Fill the nail hole with wood putty that matches the floor. Always use a spacer to leave a 3/8-inch gap between the floorboards and the wall. To start on the next row, use a scrap piece of floor or a tapblock and a hammer to help knock the boards into place. Keep joints more than 6 inches away from the joint on the next row over and make sure joints in the same area are at least two rows away from one another.

After the first few rows, you can switch to blind nailing, meaning you'll be placing the nails at an angle. Use a flooring nail to drive the nails through the tongue and into the subfloor. When you get to the final row, you'll need to switch back to face nailing, nailing the boards as close to the wall as possible. When the floor is fully installed, remove the spacers and then install baseboards.


Jill Harness

Jill Harness

Jill Harness is a blogger with experience covering architecture, design and decor trends from around the globe. As she lives in what would politely be called a "fixer upper," she is particularly interested in writing about DIY projects and repairs. Most of her home design writing can be found at www.homesandhues.com. You can find out more about Jill's experience and learn how to contact her through her website, www.jillharness.com.