Installing Floating Floors
Doing renovations, I have installed my fair share of flooring. As is often the case with those working in construction, my own home had dropped off the radar. The main floor remained a landscape of painted plywood five years after we first moved in and ripped up the allergen-laden carpet. After an especially long winter, family patience had run its course; the flooring needed to be finished. A floating floor system was the natural choice due to the relative ease of installation and reasonable cost. Including both laminate and engineered hardwoods, these DIY-friendly alternatives to traditional nail-down strip flooring allow an enthusiastic person to lay a couple of hundred square feet in a weekend.
A Helping Hand
Kinzel uses a rolling cart to keep his tools from damaging the newly laid floor but still have easy access to them. The cart also ensures he doesn’t trip over tools and materials – a frustrating and dangerous occurrence.
Install underlay before laying any boards. It should go right up to the walls, and can be taped down.
Use a piece of flooring and a small section of underlay material to get the right dimension.
Know When to Stop
By adding a transition strip, you may save yourself a lot of hassle in the long run.
Lay Out Then Cut
To keep your floor gap free around the perimeter, carefully mark then cut the waste portion of the board. Baseboard will hide the rest.
To cut the last board in a row, turn it end for end, butt it against a ¼" spacer then mark it against the mating board. It’s quick and accurate.
It’s much easier to use two different pieces when working around heat registers. Cut the first board in the course so the joint ends up straddling the register.
Assembling the Tools
Measuring and layout require only a sharpie marker and tape measure, although a combination square is very handy for laying out cuts around outside corners and heat registers.
Cutting the flooring can be done with a mitre saw, jigsaw, table saw, circular saw or handsaw; the quality of the cut is not paramount as all cuts will be hidden by the baseboards, so use the tools you’re already familiar with. As mentioned by Steve Maxwell in the Aug/Sept 2009 issue, a jigsaw is a good alternative for someone looking for an inexpensive tool that can handle cross cutting, ripping, and plunge cuts with relative ease and safety. For undercutting door casing/jambs, and completing non-through cuts, a sturdy Japanese pull saw is a valuable asset to have within arm’s reach and will come in handy for any future interior finishing projects.
A laminate flooring installation kit is required to snug pieces together without damage. These kits come with plastic shims that work well to keep the perimeter gap in check, but standard wooden shims are fine.
I consider kneepads to be as essential as my saw, both for laying the flooring and for completing the baseboard; go with a style that will protect the surfaces you have already completed. This is not the place to save a few dollars, as your knees can take a beating laying a floor.
To make the work go a bit smoother, I use a rolling cart to keep all the tools and materials off the floor’s surface, but within arm’s reach. If your flooring task is to finish one small room, this cart is overkill, but for larger jobs something along these lines can make your time more enjoyable and productive.
Prepping the Floor
Any firm, flat, and dry surface is appropriate for laying a floating floor. Take a walk throughout the room checking for any squeaks or instability; usually all that is required is to snug the odd section of sub-flooring back down using 2″ deck screws. It’s essential to remove any debris or imperfections from the underlying surface. Quite often the new floor is intended to modernize an area that was previously carpeted and more often than not I find myself on the floor for a couple of hours pulling staples that were used to secure the carpet underlay. If you will be installing over concrete, ensure that the slab is dry and that there is no risk of moisture accumulating underneath the flooring.
Underlay specific to floating floors is placed underneath the flooring in all installations and can be purchased in a variety of densities to minimize sound transmission. The difference can be quite profound, so consider spending more if you will be installing above another living space.
The flooring should be left inside the house to acclimatize for at least a couple of weeks in order to minimize shrinkage. Check your manufacturer’s recommendations.
The first challenge is to determine which direction to lay the flooring. Unlike with solid wood, you do not need to consider which way the joists run. All else being equal, the general rule is to run the flooring parallel to the most dominant natural light source in the room. This minimizes the shadow lines that are created when the light hits the flooring at right angles. In some instances, you may want to ignore this rule and consider other variables such as the orientation of flooring in adjoining spaces and the shape of the space you are flooring. For example, my personal preference is to run flooring at right angles to the doorway to enhance the perception of depth upon entering the room.
When deciding which side of the room to start your first course, give special consideration to where any existing door jambs are located. Jambs and casing have to be undercut with a flush cut saw so that the flooring can be slipped underneath and this is much easier to do if the piece to be slipped under is the first piece in the row. In order to get an exact cut line on the jamb, use a piece of flooring with a scrap of underlay underneath it as a cutting guide.
One more critical step before laying the flooring is to ensure that you are not left with a thin strip when you have worked your way to the far side of the room. This looks unprofessional and accentuates any taper cuts needed to compensate for walls that are not completely squared. Measure from wall to wall in three places and take the average to set your overall room width, then compare this to the width of your flooring. If you are left with a space that gives you a final row under half the width of the flooring, you will need to rip the pieces that make up your starter row to compensate. Take equal amounts off the first and last rows to even things out.
I recommend resisting the temptation to run the flooring in one continuous field throughout the house. By separating the rooms with a transition strip, you will minimize the potential for any gaping that could occur, as well as simplifying any future repairs you may have to do. Also, you are almost certain to have difficulty getting a balanced layout in all rooms.
Laying the Floor
Your first course will need to be shimmed ¼” out from the wall. This allows for any movement in the flooring. If you find that you have a hard time maintaining this spacing due to irregularities in the room, you can gain some wiggle room by trimming away the bottom ½” of drywall. This creates a space behind the trim for the flooring to expand into.
During the course of laying the floor, you’ll have to cut or notch the floor boards to precisely fit around any obstacles. In this case, use tape to ease visibility. Put the board in place as best as you can then mark where the cuts need to be made. It is best to use a square or straightedge (and some forethought) as you want to keep everything as tidy as possible.
The first couple of courses require special care to assemble and keep straight. Shimming to support these rows is essential. For subsequent rows, you will also want to shim behind the first piece to ensure that your expansion gap is maintained should you need to tap the subsequent pieces into place.
As you lay the boards, strive for a regularly irregular design; in other words, consciously avoid having a recognizable pattern. A general rule is to have end joints separated by at least two dissimilar rows. The offcut from the final piece in a row is generally used as the starter piece for the next, but do not hesitate to cut a new starter piece if this is required to maintain an irregular look.
When possible, skip the tape when you measure boards. Instead, place a ¼” spacer against the wall, set the board roughly in place, press the end not to be cut against the spacer, and then mark the end to be cut.
Not all laminate/engineered flooring is created equal. Some of the cheaper laminates can require a bit of coaxing to snap into place; this is best done with the rubber block provided in the installation kit. If a piece does not seem to fit, stop and check that the tongue is intact and that no debris is stuck between the boards. It is also possible that the previous row is not properly lined up. The problem of misaligned boards is very rarely solved by brute force and nothing is more disheartening in the flooring world than damaging materials already installed.
The large metal hook provided with the installation kit is meant to hook the end of the last board in a row so you can to tap it into place. Don’t use this tool on any of the boards within the field or you will damage the tongues.
It can be helpful to add a small dab of glue to the end of the boards to keep everything aligned if the ends do not snap together. This is especially true for outer rows that need to be ripped. I would caution against more than a small drop on the end. On occasion, a section of flooring may need to be taken up to replace a damaged piece or to allow for a future renovation. A glued floor cannot be successfully reassembled.
Cut outs around heat registers are best handled with at least two separate pieces as you can then mark the pieces in place and do not need to plunge cut. Use your square to finish up the layout from your marks. A jigsaw is the tool of choice for removing the waste. It is advisable to have the actual register with you to test the fit before moving on; chipping out laminate flooring with an old chisel has to be one of the more frustrating experiences available to the home renovator.
Take it slowly and remember the quality of the installation is in the details.