Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

With our subfloor in place and our walls painted, we were finally ready to install our hardwood floor.

In June we purchased our 1¾” wide, ⅜” thick red oak strip flooring with plans of installing it within the following weeks. There were several things that delayed us: our fireplace reno (see herehere and here), transportation challenges, the load-bearing wall, and general inexperience.

Five months later, our installation finally began.

Acclimation

Wood expands and contracts with different moisture/humidity levels. When there’s lot of moisture in the air (like in summer), the wood expands. In the winter, when things are very dry, the wood contracts. If you install the wood at its most expanded point, you’ll get huge gaps in the winter – and vice versa.

Every site I read recommended acclimating the wood – allowing the moisture content of the wood to adjust to the normal living conditions of the room. I’ve seen recommendations from 2 days to 2 weeks. Since our hardwood has been sitting in our spare bedroom for 5 months now, I think it’s good and acclimated.

Apparently Fall and Spring are the best times to install hardwood floor. Our delays have fit us perfectly into that time frame. It’s all about the silver lining at this point…

Tools

Before we began the flooring job, we had some issues figuring out what tools we needed. My dad, who was supplying the tools, wasn’t aware that different flooring required different tools. And we weren’t either.

We did some test runs with his nailer and nails and they destroyed the tongue. Like, obliterated it. After some quick Googling, we realized that we needed a different gauge nailer and different sized nails (or cleats). We found a website that helped us figure it out.

We learned that most hardwood flooring, which is usually ¾” thick and at least 2½” wide, requires a 15½-gauge nailer. Our hardwood, which is ⅜” thick and 1¾” wide, requires an 18-gauge nailer and 1¼” nails (or cleats). I don’t know anything about gauge, but apparently the higher the gauge, the softer the punch. Since our wood is narrower and thinner, we needed a softer punch, or larger gauge. Makes sense.

I frantically called around on Friday morning to see where we could rent such a beast. None of my go-to rental places had them. Luckily for us, our local Home Depot did. I usually try to avoid them like the plague, but I was desperate. Luckily they had 5 in stock and there’d be one waiting for us in the morning. Yay!

The cleats were also a challenge to find. Home Depot’s smallest cleats were 1½”. Again with the help of the internet, Alex found a supplier of 1¼” cleats. Great. He picked them up Friday afternoon.

On Friday evening, just hours before our scheduled install, I called Home Depot back to confirm that the boot of the machine was adjustable for ⅜” flooring (apparently the machine also has to have an adjustable boot). The person I spoke to was extremely confused and claimed that they had no such machine. I was not a happy camper. And I was panicked.

Luckily we had a car so I called another Home Depot location. They confirmed that they had a machine and even tested it before we drove out to pick it up. We got to Home Depot around 9:45 – just 15 minutes before closing. When we arrived, the rental guy showed us how to use the machine and discovered that it was suddenly broken. Son of a…

He was fairly helpful, so we asked him to check if our local Home Depot had the machine in their system (even though they claimed they did not). Sure enough, they did! He then called them to explain what had happened and confirmed that they did, in fact, have TWO 18-gauge nailers. The problem, we think, is that Home Depot calls these nailers “bamboo nailers.”

We went to Home Depot early on Saturday morning to pick up the nailer. Sure enough, it was broken and not shooting any nails. We then strongly urged the rental guy to find the other one, which he claimed did not exist. We disagreed and gave an impatient face. Eventually, the nailer was found. This is why I avoid Home Depot.

After a bit of tool rental drama, we had our nailer. Our glorious 18-gauge nailer.

The nailer is only one of many tools that we needed. We used an array of saws.

A table saw to cut and rip the wood:

A mitre saw for cutting angles (for the frame around the fireplace):

A brad nailer for the pieces near the wall:

A nail gun for the transition pieces (because it had bigger, stronger nails):

And a bunch of random tools like pliers to undo nailer mistakes and crow bars and hammers to wedge the wood in place. We also used a planer to plane our threshold pieces to the right size and to make the splines when we changed direction.

The loudest tool we used was a giant compressor that hooked up to the floor nailer.

I would say that installing unfinished hardwood requires too many tools for the typical DIYer. It would cost more to rent/buy the required tools than just paying for the install. Luckily my dad had everything except the floor nailer, so it didn’t cost us much. 

Underlayment

Underlayment is a layer of material that sits between the subfloor and the hardwood floor. It acts as a moisture barrier and, with some underlayment, a sound barrier. We chose Aquabar “B”, which consists of 2 layers of kraft paper laminated with asphalt. I’m a big fan of this stuff and it wasn’t that expensive at all (~$30 for 500 square feet).

We installed the Aquabar as we went, making sure to vacuum the floor and underlayment thoroughly before installing the hardwood.

Fireplace Frame

The first pieces of wood installed was the frame around the fireplace. We used a mitre saw to cut a 45° angle. Once the pieces were cut, we dry fit them to ensure they didn’t have any major gaps. We then used a finish nailer to top-nail the pieces in place.

First Row

The first row is the most important row. It becomes the “straight line” reference point and can make or break an installation.

When we built our fireplace hearth, we spent a lot of time trying to make the mold align with the original subfloor boards, which were a visual straight line in the room. It’s a good thing, because we used it as our straight line.

We also spent a good deal of time testing the nailer to make sure the settings were right before starting. There’s a lot of things you can adjust: the pressure (it’s hooked up to a compressor), the boot and the angle. It took a while to get the hang of things.

When we were ready to go, we laid the first row with the help of a laser level and some measuring.

Once we had the line marked, we screwed in pieces of plywood to act as a solid backing for the wood. This plywood allowed us to use the nailer to nail in the first row. Otherwise, we would have had to top-nail the wood because the force of the nailer would have knocked the boards out of place. After a few rows were installed (~4) and we were sure they wouldn’t move, we removed the plywood.

We’re not starting at the wall because we wanted to use the fireplace as our starting point. To finish the rest, we had to change directions by using a spline. More on that later.

Expansion Gaps

It’s also important to leave an expansion gap at each end of the row. I found a source online that indicated that a good rule of thumb is to leave an expansion gap that is equivalent to the thickness of the wood. For us it should have been ⅜”. We left ¼” because we had plywood on-hand that we could use as spacers and our manufacturer’s instructions also indicated a ¼” gap was acceptable. Perhaps we should have left more of a gap, but I’m really hoping this works out. If not, we might get buckling during the more humid months…

Racking

Racking is a process of laying out the wood before installing it. This step helps move the process along, but I found that if I laid out too many pieces of wood, they’d get knocked out of place and I’d just have to redo my work. Once we had a pretty good rhythm, I was able to lay out a row while my dad nailed down the previous which meant we didn’t have a lag in the process but also didn’t have to worry about mixing up the racked pieces.

We had a pretty good system to help with our layout. Alex opened several packs of the hardwood and then sorted by size. Not only was this convenient for when I needed “something 2 inches longer!” but also created variety in the colour of the wood. As I racked, I became fairly obsessed with finding the perfect piece – both in colour and length – so this system was great.

Layout

Layout is an extremely important component in floor installation and poorly laid boards look unprofessional. The standard rule is that board “seams” (as I call them) shouldn’t be less than 6″ apart.

As a rule, I tried for at least 7 or 8 inches between seams, but also looked for other funny-looking patterns, like H’s or steps. I couldn’t find super obvious ones from our installation (because we’re super floor installers), but I found some upstairs.

Look at this step pattern!

Seam overload!

Floor Nailer

The floor nailer is a funny little machine that sits on top of the wood and drives a nail, or cleat, into the tongue of the hardwood strips when hit with a hammer.

It’s extremely important that the nailer is positioned at the right angle so that it hits the tongue in the perfect spot, otherwise cleats are misfired into the floor (totally missing the wood) or in the top of the wood (ruining the piece). Misfiring happens and it’s annoying.

We also had a bit of marking from the machine, which we later figured out was because the pressure was too high on the compressor. The suggested pounds per square inch (PSI) was 80-100, but 75 was more than enough to drive in the nail and not leave any gouges.

Installation

It took us almost the entire morning to get into an installation rhythm. My dad nailed the wood, I racked and Alex ran up and down to the basement cutting the pieces to size. By the time we got moving, we were doing above a foot an hour. With a 26′ long room and 1¾” wide flooring, that’s not half bad.

The slowest part was when we had to stop to make cuts. Most cuts were for the end pieces, which were generally fairly easy and Alex could do in the time it took my dad and I to nail a row.

Other cuts were less easy, particularly around the vents and usually stopped the work while we fiddled with the perfect length. I wanted to make sure that the wood make the vent cover sit in a straight line (since we weren’t so great at cutting straight holes in the subfloor).

Since we started our install at the fireplace, at some point we had to change directions (since you always have to install the floor with the tongue facing the install direction).

To do this, we basically needed to recreate a tongue. My dad built a spline (or double tongue) out of a few slats of oak from Home Depot. He first used a planer to get the pieces to the right thickness and then cut their width with the table saw. They were tiny little things but had to fit just right or the boards would have large gaps. There was a lot of back and forth between testing the fit and using the saws.

He then used wood glue to glue the splines into the existing row and hit them in place. Next he glued the new directional piece in. Once in place, he could nail the new piece with the floor nailer and proceed as usual. 

Eventually we made it all the way across the room.

At some point we were done with the floor nailer because we were too close to the walls. 

About 8″ from the wall, we had to switch from using the floor nailer to installing the floor with the brad nailer. This was the most challenging bit. We nailed into the tongue where possible, but eventually we had to top-nail for the last few rows.

The trickiest part of it, though, was that it was extremely difficult to get the boards tight without the force of the floor nailer. The nailer, which has the power from compressed air, does a great job at closing any gaps between the boards. Without it, it was very difficult to get the same results – especially when the boards bowed or weren’t perfectly straight. We used a few different methods, but the most effective was creating a small gap between the hardwood and the wall (with a 2×4 or plywood) and using a hammer or pry-bar to force the wood in place. We had to be very careful not to damage the top of the boards.

But this was the best method:

I don’t think I can properly articulate how much I hated those last rows.

For the very final boards, we had to rip them because we didn’t quite make it all the way. Not a huge deal, but an extra and time-consuming step.

Door Threshold

For most of the door thresholds (the little bit of wood that acts as a transition between rooms), we just used a piece of hardwood. At the most visible end, we made sure that we used the tongue and groove system so that there was no gap between the boards and the tongue.

For the threshold between the dining room and kitchen, we required a larger piece of wood. We bought a ½” thick piece of oak and used the planer so it was flush with the hardwood (which is only ⅜”).

We then cut it to the right length and width and installed it.

Leftover Hardwood

Everywhere I read said to account for 10% waste. Our living and dining room is just under 400 square feet, so we should have bought 440 square feet worth of flooring. When we went to purchase the floor, the sales rep recommended we only account for 5% waste. So, we bought 414 square feet of hardwood and crossed our fingers.

The sales rep was right. During the installation, we didn’t have that much waste. We lost a few boards to some floor nailer mishaps and damaged some wood while trying to close gaps, but it was nowhere near 5%.

We also had some “ugly boards” that we chose not to use, but even those didn’t add to 5%.

All in all, we probably wasted 1-2% tops.

We also had quite a bit of left over wood. As we neared the end of the installation, we made sure to use all the longest pieces so only the short pieces were left over. I estimated that we had about 30-40 square feet of leftover wood.

I think we actually had the perfect amount of leftover wood because it allowed us to be somewhat choosy and use the largest boards in the bundles. It also gave us the flexibility to find the right sized pieces to help with the layout. This extra wood probably represents about $100, but it was well worth it. We can also use the extra to install hardwood in our bedroom closet, which currently has plywood as a base.

I also went to the trusty internet for advice on how to store the wood. I didn’t find anything overly creative; only not to store it in the garage or basement. Since we don’t really want to store it in our bedroom, we decided store it in plastic bins in the basement, keeping it as high off the ground as possible. It’s possible that this will warp the wood beyond use, but it’s not like we have that much left. I really only wanted to keep it in case we require repairs in the future. It’s good to have the actual wood on-hand than try to find another piece to match.

Total Cost

I thought installing new oak hardwood was going to break the bank. It was certainly more than my original idea to simply refinish the existing floors. However, at the end of the day, given how beautiful our floors are, it was well worth the money. With the added benefit of DIY-ing without major tool costs, it was definitely affordable.

Here is the cost breakdown:

MaterialCost/UnitTotal RequiredTotal Cost (w/tax)
Aquabar$24.99/500 sq ft500 sq ft$28
Harwood$3.29/sq ft414 sq ft$1540
Cleats$20/box of 2,0002 boxes$45
Nailer Rental$27/day4 days$122
Total$4.30/sq ft$1735

The grand total was $1,735, or approximately $4.30/square foot. The installation alone only cost us $195 or $0.49/square foot. That price can’t be beat!

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