Doing It Right: Flooring Installation

Consumer Reports News: July 30, 2007 04:44 PM

How to get the best installation for your new floor

Installing a wood or laminate floor is a big job that can take over a room for days. Whether you’re doing the job yourself or hiring a contractor, proper preparation and attention to detail are essential for high-quality results. To ensure a beautiful, level, squeak-free floor, follow these dos and don’ts.

Buy more material than you need. Most wood or engineered-wood (plywood covered by a wood veneer) flooring should be matched for color and grain by the manufacturer. But there could be variance from batch to batch, so buy all the flooring you’ll need all at once and from the same manufacturer. Experts advise buying seven to 10 percent more flooring than you need for your project to allow for mistakes, bad boards, and waste.

Plastic-laminate floorboards are essentially fiberboard with a picture of wood grain under a clear protective layer. But laminate panels can have similar patterns, so you may want to pull from multiple packages when installing to avoid repetition.

Inspect the subfloor before installation. Solid-wood flooring must be nailed to a plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) subfloor. Engineered wood can be nailed or glued to a subfloor or glued directly to above-grade concrete. Laminate flooring locks together and goes over a vapor barrier and foam padding in a process called “floating.”

You can check that the subfloor is level by stretching a string or laying a 2x4 on its narrow edge against the surface. It should be level within 1/8 inch within 10 feet in any direction.

If the flooring is going over above-grade concrete, be sure the contractor inspects the subfloor for excess moisture before installation.

Acclimate the boards. Wood or engineered wood should be unpacked and left to acclimate to the moisture level in your home for 24 to 72 hours before installation (laminate flooring may or may not need to acclimate—check with your manufacturer). “Almost all the problems with wood floors are because of moisture,” says Ken Schumacher, of Schumacher & Co. Custom Hardwood Floors in Newport, Kentucky, and the chairman of the board of the National Wood Flooring Association. “If conditions are right before installation, you won’t have problems down the road.”

Allow for expansion.
Molding should be removed from the walls during installation, and the installer should allow a 1/4- to 1/2-inch gap between the edge of the flooring and the wall (often done with spacers). To avoid ending up with overly thin boards at the finish wall, measure from the start to finish wall, then divide by the width of the boards. If the remainder is less than one half the width of a board, trim the lead boards by one half the remainder. (The same principle applies to the start and lead walls, widthwise.) Be sure to measure each board at the finish wall before cutting to allow for irregularities in the wall.

Know your sealant. Laminate floors need no stains or sealants. Your installer will, however, need to sand solid-wood floors and some engineered-wood products and treat them with three to seven coats of polyurethane. Water-based poly dries faster (about one hour per coat) than oil-based sealant (about a day per coat) and leaves less of an odor, but might need an extra coat to fill in the wood grain. In between coats, the installer should use a buffer or sander to prepare it for the next coat. Newer, prefinished wood boards are more expensive, but allow for a faster installation with less mess and fewer fumes. With prefinished boards, you might also notice small gaps between the edges since the boards are beveled.

Protect the floor. Sweep or vacuum floors with a soft broom or brush and clean with a damp but not overly wet mop. Consult the manufacturer’s guidelines for suggested cleaning products. Finally, put felt pads on the bottom of all furniture to prevent scratching.

Essential information: Read our latest flooring report, which covers five different types of flooring and includes Ratings of more than different products.  Also refer to the illustrations on this page, which show you what to look for in a topnotch installation.

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