How to Install Hardwood Floors

Discover our best tips for installing hardwood floors or planks, plus some helpful ideas for refinishing hardwood floors.


Although installing hardwood floors is generally more expensive than carpet or vinyl, it should last for decades. You'll find a number of hardwood flooring options to choose from.

Solid wood flooring is made from one continuous piece of solid wood, typically measuring 3/4 inch thick. Wood strips are anywhere from 1-1/2 inches to 2-1/4 inches wide. Planks are wider than 2-1/4 inches. Most strip and plank flooring is milled with tongue-and-groove edges so boards will fit together, but some planks are flat-edged for a more rustic look. Wood strips or planks are generally nailed to the subfloor.

Before Installing Hardwood Floors

Stack and acclimate the wood planks or strips in a part of the room that you plan to floor last so the stack isn't in the way as you work. A bay window served as an out-of-the-way spot to store this supply of wood strips.

Because wood expands and contracts, it is important to let the flooring planks or strips acclimate to the temperature and moisture conditions in your house. Have it delivered at least 72 hours in advance of installing, and store it in the room where it is to be installed.

For storage upon an on-grade concrete floor, provide a 4-inch airspace beneath the stacks or cartons of wood.

The ideal room temperature for two weeks prior to installation and throughout installation is 60-75 degrees F with humidity at 35-55 percent.

Step 1: Locate Joists

Installing Wood Floors

Working near one end of the longest wall that's perpendicular to floor joists, drive a nail partially into the floor as a joist locator. (Nails securing subflooring offer clues to joist locations.) Use a measuring tape to find subsequent joists, which are usually 16-24 inches on center; mark this end of each joist with a protruding nail.

Step 2: Cut Casing

Installing Wood Floors

Undercut the bottom portion of the casing so planks or strips fit neatly below. Lay a wood plank or strip alongside the casing and rest the backsaw on top. The plank or strip keeps the saw at the correct height as you cut.

Step 3: Secure Underlayment

Installing Wood Floors

Staple one layer of hardwood-floor underlayment onto the subfloor, running the lengths perpendicular to joists and overlapping edges by about 4 inches. (Allow the nail markers you've driven into the subfloor to poke through the felt.) This cushioned layer helps prevent squeaks.

Step 4: Mark Joists

Installing Wood Floors

Snap a chalk line between the nails marking the joists. You'll use this line later on when you're nailing down your boards.

Step 5: Create Chalk Guide

installing hardwood flooring

To serve as a guide for laying the first course straight, snap a chalk line perpendicular to the joist lines and near your starting wall. The first course in the installation shown here abuts an existing wood floor. Start the first course with the groove side facing the wall or existing flooring. You'll use these lines to make sure your boards are installed in a straight line throughout the floor.

Step 6: Rack Planks

Installing Hardwood Floors

Because strips or planks tend to look the same within a bundle, unwrap several bundles of flooring and lay the pieces out (a process called racking). Mix them up for a balanced appearance, and stagger joints across the entire floor.

Step 7: Drill Pilot Holes

installing hardwood flooring

First and last courses must be nailed through the face of the planks or strips, 1 inch out from the wall. Predrilling 1/16-inch pilot holes through the board face prevents nails from splitting the board.

Step 8: Lay First Boards

installing hardwood flooring

Lay the first board so it parallels the guidelines you established for square. Use spacers supplied (or suggested) by the manufacturer to position the course at the prescribed distance from the wall. (This gap -- usually 3/4 inch -- allows for expansion of the wood.) Use a hammer or a pneumatic face nailer to secure the first board. Follow your guideline as you lay subsequent boards, abutting planks or strips end to end, drilling pilot holes, and securing the flooring with face-driven nails. The end of the last board should be cut to leave a 3/4-inch gap between it and the wall.

Step 9: Install Next Row

Installing Hardwood Floors

To install the next row, cut the board so these end joints are offset from the previous row by at least 6 inches. Snug the boards tight, end to end and row to row. These rows are still close enough to the wall that you need to use the face nailer or a hammer. Drill pilot holes and nail through the tongues for best results.

Step 10: Utilize a Nailer

Installing Hardwood Floors

After the third row or so, you should be able to use the side nailer. (The nailer requires about 6 inches of space to operate.) Position the nailer so the lip fits over the edge of the plank. Strike the knob with a rubber mallet to release the nail and air pressure, which drives the nail through the tongue at the correct angle and into the subfloor. Drive nails 4 inches from each end and space subsequent nails about 8 inches apart.

Load the power flooring nailer with nails recommended for your type of floor. Experiment with depth settings; the nail heads should just barely sink below the wood surface. Fit the nailer to a tongue, make sure it rests flat, and hit it with the mallet.

To keep the courses parallel, tap the boards together before nailing. Use a wood scrap as a driving block to protect the flooring. Or use the neoprene head of the power-nailer mallet.

Step 11: Work Across Room

Installing Hardwood Floors

Continue laying hardwood floors row by row, working your way across the room. The nailer should be driving nails to about 1/16 inch below the surface of the flooring tongue. If the nail isn't sunk to the desired depth, adjust the air pressure accordingly.

Step 12: Fix Bowed Planks

Installing Hardwood Floors

Avoid using bowed planks if you can. However, if you're running low on material and must use one, screw a piece of lumber to the subfloor about 1 inch from the plank. Use the lumber as a brace while you drive a wedge of lumber into the space between the lumber and the bowed board. Once the plank is straight and in position, nail it in place.

Step 13: Master Obstacles

Installing Hardwood Floors

When you need to apply flooring around an obstacle, such as a built-in cabinet or fireplace hearth, frame around the base. You may need to miter the ends of the boards to get a snug fit. If the tongue will abut the cabinet or other obstacle, slice it off. Since you are working close to an obstacle, face-nail these planks.

Step 14: Cut for Corners

Installing Hardwood Floors

Where a plank will meet a corner, position the end of the board against the wall and mark where the corner meets the board. Cut the necessary notch using a jigsaw, allowing a 1/2-inch gap for expansion.

Step 15: Lay the Final Row

Installing Hardwood Floors

Lay all of the planks for the last row before nailing them into place. Because these are too close for using the side nailer, you'll have to drill pilot holes and face-nail.

Step 16: Finalize the Last Row

Installing Hardwood Floors

You may need to rip-cut the last course. Protecting the wall with a wood scrap, push the last courses tight with a pry bar. Drill pilot holes and drive flooring nails through the face of the boards. Set the nails and fill with wood filler.

Step 17: Mind the Gap

Installing Hardwood Floors

Conceal the gap between the last row and the wall with baseboard and shoe molding. Align the bottom edge of the baseboard so it is flush with the top of the wood floor; secure the baseboard to the wall. Secure the shoe (or quarter-round) molding to the baseboard slightly above the wood planks.

Refinishing Hardwood Floors

raised ceiling modern door after

Today's polyurethane finishes allow hardwood-floor installation in kitchens and half-baths, as long as you take precautions to minimize water spills. Engineered woods are considered more stable for kitchen and bath applications.

Unfinished wood flooring gives you almost unlimited color stain options. The drawback: Unfinished flooring must be sanded and finished after installation, which typically requires the expertise of a professional and puts the room out of service for several days.

Prefinished flooring features a factory-applied finish that homeowners sometimes favor because it eliminates sawdust and finish vapors, and the room can be used within 24 hours after installation. The color options for prefinished flooring are not as varied as for unfinished flooring. Most engineered wood flooring is prefinished.

Hardwood Floor Factory Finishes

A factory finish -- usually four or more coats of ultraviolet-cured urethane resins -- is one that the manufacturer applies at the plant. Because the finish is applied under strict environmental controls, manufacturers say it is more consistent and durable. Factory-finished floors can be installed right out of the box, making them stress-free when you are living in a house as the floors are being replaced. There are many different stain colors and finishes from which to choose.

Hardwood Floor On-Site Finishes

On-site finishing allows the builder to custom-fit and finish your floor to the space. Many flooring professionals maintain that the smoothest finish can be achieved by sanding and finishing a floor on-site. Custom finishing gives more versatility in colors, too. You do have to put up with the messy and time-consuming tasks of repeated sandings and finish applications.

Engineered Wood Flooring

white kitchen with wood floor

Engineered wood flooring is made from layers of wood stacked and glued together under heat and pressure. There are usually three or five layers stacked with grains running perpendicular to one another. All wood expands and contracts with heat and humidity, but engineered wood is more dimensionally stable because the layers keep the movement in balance. Because it is less inclined to swell and shrink, engineered wood can be laid in areas where solid wood cannot, such as over concrete or in high-moisture areas. Engineered wood flooring comes in types that are nailed or glued to the subfloor or glued edge to edge (tongue and groove). Engineered wood floors are also available that simply click together.

Parquet Flooring

banquet dining chris benz home

Parquet floors are made from custom-crafted wood tiles that are used to create a patterned floor. Parquet tiles are generally glued down to install.

Most parquet tiles are cut with tongues and grooves, which makes installation easy. In the long run it pays to purchase the highest-quality tile you can afford. A higher-quality finish offers greater longevity and quicker installation time. The tongues and grooves of less-expensive tiles may not fit together smoothly.

To seat the tiles against one another, tap them with a hammer and a block of wood. Avoid sliding the tiles, and kneel on a sheet of plywood as you get deeper into the project. Be sure there is no adhesive between the knee board and the tiles. Otherwise, you'll pull up the tile when you move the board.

Take special care in laying your first 10-12 tiles -- these determine how well the joints on the rest of the floor line up. If any adhesive gets on the tiles, clean it immediately with a rag soaked in solvent. Never apply the solvent directly to the tiles; it could mar the finish. Leave a 1/2-inch gap between the edge tiles and the walls.

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