Ultimate Guide to Hardwood Flooring

Red Oak hardwood floor
Red Oak hardwood floor

­If you want a surefire way to improve the look, durability and value of your home or apartment, hardwood floors are the way to go. Besides being beautiful and hard-wearing, hardwood floors are environmentally friendly as well. Wood is a natural resource that is both renewable and recyclabl­e. Most hardwood floors almost never need to be replaced and can add thousands of dollars to the value of a home. Hardwood floors offer an incredible array of aesthetic options, to­o. From the kind of wood to the finish to the design of the floor pattern, hardwood floors will suit almost any taste and circumstance.

If you've ever completed a home improvement project, you know the satisfaction of planning and executing it. You may not think that a typical do-it-yourselfer can install an entire hardwood floor on their own, but it is possible. All you need is the right planning, preparation and tools. If this sounds too daunting, or you're interested in a custom design, you can certainly work with a flooring professional. Whether you're going the DIY route or using a professional installation crew, you'll find lots of valuable information here.

In this article, we will examine various hardwood flooring options, describe, step-by-step, how to install and finish the floor yourself and discuss hardwood floor upkeep and maintenance.


Did You Say Do-It-Myself?

Hardwood flooring supplies
Hardwood flooring supplies

As you may know, there almost always are pros and cons to taking on a do-it-yourself (DIY) project. The positive side of a DIY effort is usually the cost. For home improvement projects, labor is often the single largest expense. Installing a hardwood floor yourself would eliminate this cost. Besides cost, there are other factors to consider:

  • Can you get a professional look on your own?
  • How much time will it take to install hardwood floors?
  • How much money will you save if you do it yourself?

There have been huge advancements in the construction of hardwood floors. These technological advances have made many types of hardwood floors easier to install. In fact, most hardwood floor suppliers can work with customers to find out just how much work they really want to do on their own. For instance, you can order wood floors that are pre-finished -- so there is no need to finish or seal the floor before or after installation. In fact, factory-finished floors can be installed straight out of the box. Because of these types of advancements, it is easier than ever to install a hardwood floor yourself.

Obviously, hiring a professional to install your floors will take a lot less time than doing it on your own. And, you're pretty much guaranteed excellent results. The professionals do it every day, after all. Remember, the real benefit will not be in regard to time saved or execution, but the money you could save.

If you consider that hiring a professional to install your floors could cost upward of several thousand dollars, doing it yourself may be worth the extra time. When installing your own floors, you only have to pay the cost of materials and tools or tool rental. Because you're not paying for the quality and craftsmanship of specialized labor, these costs are considerably less than what you would pay for professional installation. All in all, if you think you're up to the task, handy, and fancy yourself a wannabe Bob Vila or Vern Yip, this project is for you.

Types of Floors

Hardwood floor planks
Hardwood floor planks

Choosing the type of hardwood floor that best fits your space and DIY abilities is an important step in planning the installation of your new floor. Don't confuse floor type with wood variety -- we'll cover selection of wood variety in the next section.

For now, let's discuss the three main types of hardwood floors to consider.

Solid Wood Flooring

Solid wood flooring comes in three main types. Each type is available in both an unfinished and a pre-finished version. Unfinished flooring must be job-site sanded and finished after installation. Pre-finished flooring is sanded and finished at the factory -- so it only needs installation. The three main types of solid wood flooring are:

  • Strip flooring - This type of flooring is denoted by the thickness and width of the wood planks. Strip flooring has a set width, but the thickness can vary. Strip flooring ranges in thickness from 5/16 of an inch to 3/4 of an inch wide. It is available only in widths of 1 1/2 inches, 2 inches and 2 1/4 inches.
  • Plank flooring - Plank flooring only comes in two thicknesses, but unlike strip flooring, the widths can vary. It is available only in thicknesses of 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch and a range of widths from 3 inches to 8 inches.
  • Parquet flooring - Parquet floors have a very different look from typical hardwoods. They are made up of geometrical patterns composed of individual wood slats held in place by mechanical fastening or an adhesive.

Engineered Wood Flooring

Engineered wood flooring should not be confused with laminate wood flooring. Engineered flooring is produced by adhering layers of plastic laminate veneer with real wood. The main difference between this type of wood and laminate flooring is that laminate flooring contains no actual wood. Look for more on laminate wood flooring later in this article.

Acrylic-impregnated Wood Flooring

Acrylic-impregnated wood flooring is infused with sealant and color throughout the thickness of the wood. So, what is normally a surface "finish" is actually consistent throughout the wood. This type of flooring is most commonly used in commercial, not residential, projects. This type of floor is very hard and it is highly resistant to moisture and scratches.

According to the World Floor Covering Association, once installed, it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between a solid wood floor and the other wood floors. Solid hardwood strip floors are the most common flooring option, although engineered flooring has become very popular due to its low cost.

So, which type of wood floor would be best for you? There are several things to keep in mind when choosing the appropriate type of wood flooring for your home. Solid hardwoods may require a little more upkeep than engineered wood flooring, but they can always be re-sanded and refinished. If maintained, solid wood floors will retain their value better than engineered woods. In addition, deciding between strip, plank or parquet is, for the most part, a question of taste. If you like thin, long planks of wood, you should choose strip flooring. If you prefer the aesthetic of very wide planks of wood, then plank flooring is the best choice. And, if you have a more decorative look in mind -- perhaps a geometric design -- parquet floors will be a perfect match for your taste. Remember that plank flooring may require some extra work during installation, and its cost can be higher than strip flooring.

Wood Varieties

Appalachian White Oak/Appalachian Red Oak
Appalachian White Oak/Appalachian Red Oak
Canadian White Hard Maple/Northern White Ash
Cumaru/Australian Cypress
Antique Kentucky Chestnut Oak/Oklahoma Heart Pecan

Another crucial decision to make when you decide to install a hardwood floor is what kind of wood to choose. There are issues of both substance and style that need to be taken into account. For instance, light wood may be more appropriate for a casual setting, while dark wood lends itself to more formal surroundings. There are no hard and fast rules, simply select what strikes your fancy and fits into your budget. Remember that different types of woods can vary greatly in price.

Obviously, there are too many species of wood to list in this article, but let's take a look at some common flooring choices:

  • Red oak - Red oak is the most popular flooring option in the U.S. Reddish in color with a coarse grain, it's a stiff and dense wood that resists wear, but not as well as white oak.
  • White oak - White oak is brown in color but can have a grayish cast. The grain is similar to red oak, with more burls and swirls. It is harder and more durable than red oak.
  • Birch - Birch can range in color from light yellow to dark brownish red. It's softer than red oak, but is still a strong wood.
  • Beech - Beech has a reddish brown color and a very consistent grain. It is quite durable and has excellent shock resistance.
  • Pine - Pine is a yellowish brown color and contains a lot of swirls and knots. It has a natural resistance to insects and is about as hard as red oak.
  • Cherry - Cherry wood is a light brown color. Because it's a soft wood, cherry isn't often used for a whole floor. Instead, it makes an excellent decorative or accent wood.
  • Douglas fir - Douglas fir is a yellowish tan color. This wood is about half as soft as red oak and can dent easily. It is only appropriate in certain flooring situations.

When pricing the different flooring options, it is important to remember that flooring is priced by the square foot. It's a good idea to get your measurements first. Once you know the square footage of the area to be covered, you'll be able to estimate the cost. On the less expensive end, you can figure that oak will run you about $2 a square foot. Woods such as birch and beech can run much higher per square foot. Though exotic and specialty woods can cost a great deal, you don't have to spend a lot of money to get a new floor. After all, parquet floors can be as inexpensive as 99 cents per square foot.

As you are deciding what variety of wood to use, you might want to consider the relative hardness of the wood. The table presented below shows a relative hardness rating for several different species of wood used in hardwood flooring. The relative hardness is based on the Janka Rating system, which measures the force required to drive a .444-inch steel ball into the wood, so that half the diameter of the steel ball is embedded. The higher the number, the harder the species of wood.

Another issue in regard to the wood you choose is the grading of the wood. Grading is a system created by The Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) to describe the appearance of hardwood floors. The grades take into account things like color, grain and markings. The best grades of wood are clear and select. These woods have fewer markings and are more consistent in appearance than the common grades, which may have a variety of markings.

Once you've selected the type of flooring and the variety of wood you want to use, it's time to consider the finish.

Wood Finishes

Satin and glossy finishes
Satin and glossy finishes

A finish is a top coat that will protect your floor from everyday wear and tear. The finish is also what gives the floor its color and luster. Finishes are a great way to personalize your hardwood floors. Whether you like light-colored wood or dark, a satin finish or high-gloss, the options are endless.

When considering finishes, you need to decide whether you want to apply it yourself or buy pre-finished flooring. Pre-finished flooring offers a wide variety of wood species and saves hours of labor and cleanup, while unfinished wood floors allow you to have a customized finish. Though pre-finished flooring can cost as much as $1.50 more per square foot than unfinished, it may save you some mistakes. You also get an extended factory finish warranty with pre-finished floors. Regardless of whether you opt for pre-finishing or finishing the floor yourself, you will need to know what types of finishes are available.

There are two kinds of hardwood finishes: surface finishes and penetrating finishes.

Surface Finishes

Surface finishes are the most popular kind. They require a stain to achieve the desired color and then a top coat of polyurethane or varnish for protection. Surface finishes are easy to maintain and quite durable. The four surface finishes are:

  • Oil-Based Urethane - The most common surface finish, oil-based urethane is applied in two or three coats and is available in gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens. The downside to this type of finish is the drying time -- up to 8 hours for each coat. You will also need adequate ventilation. And, keep in mind that oil-based urethane finishes do yellow with age.
  • Water-Based Urethane - A good option for the DIY-er, this finish dries quickly and cleans up easily with soap and water. Water-based urethane has less odor than oil-based urethane and doesn't yellow over time.
  • Moisture-Cured Urethane - Slightly more durable than others, this finish is most often used on commercial projects and is best handled by a professional.
  • Conversion Varnish - Because of the strong odor and fumes, this finish should only be applied by a professional.

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes penetrate the wood deeper than surface finishes. The finish soaks into the wood and then a wax is applied to give a low-gloss sheen. With this finish, wax needs to be reapplied periodically and only certain cleaners can be used on the floor. For this reason, surface finishes may be a better bet for the non-professional installer.

Next, as if there weren't enough options already, you also have to select the sheen of your finish. Sheen is the shine of the floor. You can choose from high gloss (very shiny), low gloss or satin finish.

Though high-gloss finishes look professional, they show scratches more easily. Low-gloss or satin finishes are typically used in residential hardwood floor installations. Keep in mind that if you go with pre-finished flooring, you will need to make the finishing decisions when you order the product.

Fancy Flooring

Sample plank of Cumaru with Maple inlay
Sample plank of Cumaru with Maple inlay

Beyond the main stains of standard flooring, there are a number of techniques and decorative options. Just about anything you can imagine can be done with hardwood floors. You can pickle them, a technique that makes the wood appear whitewashed. Or, you can antique the wood to make the floor look aged. Some other decorative options include:

  • Borders - This is one of the most common decorative options. With this technique, the main area of the floor is one type or color of wood and it is bordered with another type or color of wood.
  • Inlays - This decorative art is centuries old. It involves using different pieces of wood, often in different colors, to make a design within the floor. Inlays can be purchased or custom-designed.
  • Medallions - These designs are a form of inlay that has been used in many historic homes and castles.

It may be tempting to think about the endless design possibilities, but if you're going with the DIY option, you should probably leave the fancy stuff to the experts. These techniques are best executed by professionals.

Installation Methods

You've chosen the type of floor you want. You've even chosen the type of finish you want. Now, it's time to install your new floor. But, first, you have to make one last decision. There are four hardwood floor installation methods from which to choose:

  • Nail Down - Nails are used to fasten the wood to the subfloor. This method is often used with thin wood flooring.
  • Staple Down - Staples are used instead of nails to attach the floor to the subfloor. This method is simpler than the nail down method.
  • Glue Down - Engineered wood floors and parquets can be glued down. The wood is adhered to the subfloor with a strong adhesive.
  • Floating - This is the fastest and easiest method of installation. Floating floors are not attached to any subfloor, they simply float above it. Either adhesive is applied to the boards to keep them together, or the boards are made to simply snap together. Usually a pad is placed between the wood floor and the subfloor to protect against moisture and reduce noise. Floating floors can be installed over almost any surface.

Several manufacturers have created floating installation systems that are very easy for the consumer to install themselves -- making this an excellent option for those of you interested in a DIY project. Because this is the best possible option for DIY-ers, let's go over the steps for installing a floating hardwood floor.

Installing a Floating Wood Floor

Note how the flooring in this photo changes direction.
Note how the flooring in this photo changes direction.


Before you begin installing your hardwood floors, you must first read all the manufacturer's instructions. These instructions will tell you the exact method of preparing and laying the floor. Different wood floors may need different treatments, so make sure your read the instructions carefully.

Because the hardwoods are not actually being attached to it, a floating hardwood floor can be installed over almost any kind of subfloor. Preparation of the subfloor is extremely important. First, the subfloor must be clean. Then, make sure the subfloor is level or even. You can test this by laying a plank of wood on its edge. Is there any space between the wood and the subfloor? If there is space of more than 3/4 of an inch, you will need to spread some self-leveling joint compound on the floor. Once it dries, your subfloor should be adequately level. Next, you'll want to decide in what direction you intend to lay the flooring. Many people will take into account where the light enters the room as well as the entrances and exits. Usually, floating floors can be laid in any direction. Pick the one that best suits your tastes and the environment. Now that the preparation is complete, let's take a look at the tools you'll need to complete the job.


In general, the tools you will need for this job are:

These tools can be purchased at any home improvement store. Don't forget to check the manufacturer's instructions to see if any additional tools are necessary.


The first three rows of the floor are the most important. They should be straight and the all the joints should fit snugly. Use clamps and straps to keep all the connections tight. Your goal is to prevent the installed planks from opening up as you tap the next planks into place.

The most common way of attaching planks of wood in a floating installation is to use an adhesive between the joints of the wood planks. To apply the glue, you will run a bead of glue along the joint or edge of the wood. You will then snap that piece into the first piece you set down.

Plan where you want the planks of wood before you begin gluing. Remember that the glue dries in seven to ten minutes, so you want to be clear on placement. Try not to use too much glue. You can wipe away any excess glue with a rag. You'll also have to make wood cuts during installation. It's a good idea to measure twice. You don't want to end up with a lot of useless scraps instead of adequate floor boards.

Insert the plank and knock the pieces together with a hammer and a tapping block (a small scrap of wood). A tapping block is used to protect the tongue or edge of the plank from damage. Never knock on the tongue without a tapping block and always hold the tapping block tightly pressed to the tongue. Knock very gently to close the gaps. It's better to knock often, but softly, than it is to knock a few times forcefully.

Pieces of plank flooring lock together

If the planks are not fitting together, check for something trapped underneath the floor, too much glue, or dirt in the grooves. There should be no space between the joints if the planks are installed correctly. If any tongue is visible between the planks, gently wiggle the planks free and check for problems. If the problem isn't evident, you may want to use a different plank. Re-glue before replacing the planks.

While knocking the planks together, drive in the direction of the joint that you are trying to close. Remember that it's virtually impossible to adjust the joints once the floor has set. So, you need to plan your work carefully.

Continue laying the floor by gluing planks together and gently tapping them into place. You must leave space around the edge of the room for the wood to expand and contract. Keep in mind that wood is a living thing and changes with time and temperature. Molding will usually cover this gap. The manufacturer's instructions can also give you tips about how much space to leave for expansion.

When you have most of the floor installed, you will run out of room for a tapping block. At this point, use a pulling iron and hammer to draw the planks together. Again, it's a good idea to use a small scrap of wood with a groove, in order to protect the wood.

To protect the floor's finish while you're completing the installation, make sure you have a towel or soft cloth available on which to set your tools and kneel.

After you've finished installation, it's time to add transitions, trim and base molding to cover all the expansion spaces. Then, let the floor set according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Finishing the Floor

Installing hardwood floors on your own can be an arduous task. You may not want to make your job any harder by deciding to finish the floor yourself, too. Remember, you can always use pre-finished wood. But if you'd rather do it all yourself, you can get a professional look on your own. It just takes planning.

Here's a quick list of what you need to do to finish the floor yourself.

  • Let the wood rest at the site before attempting to finish it.
  • Prepare the room by sealing off doorways with plastic. This will help maintain a consistent temperature and level of humidity.
  • Hardwood floors need to be sealed on all sides. You may want to pre-coat areas that you won't be able to reach after installation. You don't need to seal the back of strip flooring, but it is recommended for wide plank flooring.
  • Hardwood floors require a minimum of three sandings. Each one with increasingly finer grades of sandpaper. Make sure you sweep and vacuum up dust thoroughly after each sanding.
  • Apply stain generously with a brush or rag. Let the stain sink in and then remove the excess.
  • Brush on the finish coat when the stain is dry. Let it dry according to the product's directions.
  • Sand the floor with 150-to-180 grit sandpaper, steel wool or an abrasive pad. Then, wipe the surface clean.
  • Sand, clean and coat the floors again. It usually takes multiple coats to get the look you want.

Refinishing Your Floors

The great thing about wood floors is that they can last forever with proper care. No matter how careful you are with your hardwoods, though, you will still have to refinish them at some point. If your floors take a beating, from pets for example, you may have to refinish more often. Some floors only need to be refinished every three years, while some high-traffic floors may need more frequent refinishing. If you've ever finished a wood floor yourself, then refinishing will seem easy. To refinish a floor, all you do is sand it and reapply the finishing product to protect and seal the wood.

If you're wondering how you can tell that your floors need to be refinished, there is a test you can take. First, find a high-traffic area where the finish is likely to be most worn and pour a tablespoon of water onto the floor. If the water beads up and you can wipe it without a trace, the finish is still working and you don't need to refinish. If the water slowly soaks into the wood floor creating a moderately darkish spot, the floor is partially worn. You don't need to refinish right away, but you'll want to save room on your "to do" list. If the water immediately disappears into the wood leaving an obvious dark spot, it's time to refinish the floor.

Wood or Laminate?

With the popularity of laminate flooring growing every day, many people often ask which they should choose, hardwoods or laminate. This is not a simple question to answer. Many people have used laminate flooring with no problems. Other people prefer the ease of dealing with scratches and dents on wood floors.

According to Floor Shop, laminate flooring is typically constructed with a high-density fiberboard core, sandwiched between a melamine laminate backing, high-quality photographic paper with an image of wood, stone or other natural flooring, and a melamine laminate top. There are a few new hybrid products that replace the photographic paper with a very thin slice of real wood veneer.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both hardwoods and laminate flooring. Hardwood floors can be scratched, but scratches are pretty easy to repair. If a laminate floor is scratched or tears, it is not very easily repaired. Where a hardwood floor can be sanded to remove imperfections, the same is not true with laminate floors. Laminate flooring companies do make touch-up and chip repair kits as well as offer plank replacement. With hardwoods, though, a simple light sanding may do the trick. If you have pets or foresee a lot of scratching and scuffing in your floor's future, hardwoods may be a better option than laminate.

One of the benefits of laminate over hardwoods is that laminate flooring does not yellow or fade from sunlight or other elements. Most stained wood floors will change color over time. Unlike laminates, though, wood floors can always be restored to their original beauty. On the other hand, laminate floors never need wax or polish. Both hardwood floors and laminates can be affected by excessive moisture, but it is only laminate flooring that can really hold up to being put in a kitchen or bathroom. Rooms that get a lot of moisture are not ideal for hardwoods. Finally, a special padding is required under laminate floors to reduce the floor's potential for noise. Ultimately, the decision to go with hardwood floors or laminate flooring is best made by examining what's best for your personal needs.

Keeping Up Appearances

Hardwood floors are generally easy to maintain. You just need to remember that water is the biggest enemy of hardwood floors. Your floors can warp, shift and lose their luster if you allow them to get wet. The best way to avoid these problems is to wipe up spills with a dry cloth and never use a wet mop to clean the floors. Keep floors dirt-free with a broom or vacuum and only use cleaning products that are safe for wood floors.

You can also extend the life of your wood floors by placing rugs in high-traffic areas. If you are moving furniture around the room, make sure you use felt gliders or some other fabric to protect the wood. Sunlight can also damage wood, so keep an eye on the parts of the floor that get direct sunlight. You can use curtains or blinds to limit the sun.

If you take good care of your hardwood floors, they will last a lifetime and require only periodic refinishing. The best part of hardwood floors is that scuffs, scratches and imperfections can be sanded out every few years, so that your floors will continue to look like they were just installed.

For more information on hardwood floors and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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