6 Easy Mistakes to Avoid With Hardwood Installation
When it comes to do-it-yourself renovation jobs, hardwood installation can seem deceptively easy. All you need are a nail gun, kneepads, a steady hand, and a whole lot of wood.
But laying hardwood comes with more quirks and potential snags than you might expect. But don’t let all the planning and the “what ifs” get in your head. Just avoid these common pitfalls, and you’ll be admiring your shiny, new wood floor in no time.
1. Buying exactly what you need
You’ve measured the room (twice!), and you know exactly how much wood you need. Good for you.
Now go buy more.
“You need to purchase enough wood to cover a reasonable amount of waste,” says Jason Hoenig, a hardwood flooring contractor in Plainview, NY.
Pros wouldn’t start a job without some material overage. These extra supplies keep the job going if a plank splits or your morning coffee spills and stains some wood. And remember: If you’re not a pro, chances are good you’ll need those extra planks.
Hoenig recommends purchasing at least 5% more hardwood than you think you’ll need. And if you don’t use it, you can always save your leftovers for the next room.
2. Not letting the hardwood ‘breathe’
No matter how antsy you are to lay down the new planks, you can’t skip this vital step. Because hardwood expands and contracts as the temperature changes, it needs to acclimate to the unique conditions of your space before you nail it down.
That means all of those pallets of wood need to sit there, untouched, for at least three days. Ideally, conditions inside need to emulate the day-to-day heat and humidity in your home. You need to spoil your hardwood floors; even if you’ve moved out during construction, your heater or AC needs to be churning to maintain normal conditions.
Flooring that hasn’t been acclimated will expand and contract after it’s installed—potentially ruining your room.
“You’re going to end up with a floor with spaces between the planks when they shrink down,” Hoenig says. Or your floor may become uneven as the wood expands.
To avoid disaster, install wood with a gap around the room’s perimeter. This gap should be equivalent to the flooring thickness—so a half-inch-thick plank would require a half-inch space.
3. Ignoring leveling concerns
Are you laying down hardwood in a living room that connects to a tiled kitchen? You need to ensure the transition is even, otherwise you might trip every time you sneak a late-night snack.
How do you know if your flooring is level to begin with? If you tear up your former carpet and find an uneven subfloor (the flat surface beneath the “real” floor, typically covered in plywood), you’ll need to level it before proceeding.
But you don’t have to alter the space-time continuum to do it. The most popular option is pouring down some self-leveling concrete, which automatically levels into a flat surface perfect for laying hardwood planks.
4. Making unintentional patterns
Few things in the DIY world are more disheartening than than nailing down the hardwood, wiping the sweat off your brow, and proudly stepping back—only to discover the layout looks seriously wrong.
The reason? You unintentionally created patterns in the way you laid the planks.
Sure, you’ll decide whether the hardwood should run vertically or horizontally. But unlike most interior decor, symmetry isn’t the goal of most hardwood installations.
“You want the floor to look random,” Hoenig says.
When installing the boards, look for a wide variety of patterns and colors to give your hardwood that natural, unintentional effect. Keep the edges from lining up by racking the boards, or staggering their layout.
Of course, there are a few times when you want patterned hardwood floors. If you’re angling for a herringbone effect, throw all this advice out the window—but be aware that you’ll need a greater level of precision to keep the lines clean.
5. Sanding carelessly
Your new hardwood is almost ready. You’ve laid down the wood and covered the planks with a stunning maple stain and protective polyurethane coating. But your floors need to go a few rounds with the sanding machine, in between coats of polyurethane.
Be careful here—sanding carelessly can ruin the whole job.
Sanding requires a deft hand and constant movement. Stand still too long, and you’ll apply too much pressure—and you might strip the stain you so carefully applied. Cue another trip to the home improvement store, and more hours spent stripping and reapplying stain. Suddenly, saving a buck by doing it yourself ends up costing you more.
Make sure to read the instructions for your preferred hardwood floor finish. Some will have specific instructions for sanding and how to apply the finish.
6. Leaving dirt on the floor
It’s not fair that installing hardwood requires multiple cleanup sessions. No, you can’t just wipe everything up at the end—you need to clear off the dust before applying stain or lacquer, and again in between each round of sanding. Otherwise, your finish will never look finished—just irregular, bumpy, and very, very sad.
Use a rag soaked in mineral spirits to remove any leftover dust and dirt before covering your floor with stain or lacquer. Repeat in between sanding sessions, which most definitely kick up dust. And don’t forget to wash yourself off, too, lest you spread debris onto your newly cleaned floors and end up with curious bumps on your finish.
And if you’re having a particular tough time getting it all right? Don’t be scared to call in a professional. Not everything has to be DIY.