Properly laying the first three boards in a hardwood flooring installation is essential to a quality install. The first three boards set the tone and direction for the floor. They must be absolutely straight and laid without gaps or bends. Since wood is a dimensionally-imperfect material, this can be a challenge to get right, but the extra effort is worth the time investment. After all, no one wants to spend thousands of dollars on hardwood floors and have the installation lead to a sub-par surface.
We’re laying 1100 square feet of Brazilian Walnut hardwood floors across the first floor of our colonial home. This is the third in a series of more than a dozen articles that describe how to install wood flooring. Subscribe by using the buttons at the right (RSS or by e-mail) to keep up with the project.
Determining the Best Starting Point for Hardwoods
Every hardwood installation has to start somewhere. In a simple rectangular room, the starting point will be against one of the walls. In more complex rooms, you will want to pick a starting point that eases the installation.
As a first step, identify starting points that allow for the least number of complicated rejoining efforts. Rejoining efforts occur when the field of hardwoods is broken for some reason (such as to go around a stair case in the center of the room through two doors on both sides of it). Rejoins require you to work carefully in separate sections, ensuring the hardwoods remain tight and even, so that the rejoin on the other side of the object doesn’t require special cutting or routing steps.
It is also ideal to choose a location that requires the fewest groove-to-groove joins, as these will require a extra double-tongue splines. While not at all complicated to install, it is an extra step.
No matter where you decide to start the floors, you want to consider visual elements throughout the space that will be affected by the very first board you lay. For example, look at the picture in the upper right. Let’s say that in the middle of two rooms there is a doorway. You want the wood to cross the doorway accurately parallel to the horizontal walls. If you start at the end of one room on a wall that is not perfectly square, the wood may cross the doorway unevenly. It is better to have the uneven boards hug an exterior wall than to have the boards cross the doorway out-of-line.
In the installation we’re sharing with you, we’re dealing with six different rooms on the first floor (the floor layout is below). We decided to start the wood at the front of the house in the dining room and study because it provides a contiguous, full-length perspective on the house.
In this layout, we have three doorways to get through. It is more important in our installation that the wood cross each threshold parallel to the doorways. We decided to start at the front of the house, but measure our starting line based on the doorways. Indeed, the front exterior of our home is about 1/2″ out of square from side-to-side. It isn’t noticeable to the naked eye, but it would be noticeable if the hardwoods crossed the thresholds out-of-square.
Step 1: Before measuring a starting point, lay red rosin paper over the subfloor. Red rosin paper reduces squeaks between the subfloor and hardwoods and serves as a partial moisture barrier to prevent moisture wicking from the subfloor below to the hardwoods. (Note: some people prefer 15 lb. roofing felt for this step. Roofing felt isn’t necessary, and it is much messier than rosin paper).
You only need to lay one sheet at a time as you can lay more as you work through the floor, overlapping the paper by 3 inches each time. A simple manual staple gun is sufficient to hold the paper down. There’s no need to go nuts with the stapler either – a few staples here and there are sufficient.
Step 2: Measure and mark the starting point for the first board. We took several measurements from the middle of the room (where the doors are into the neighboring room), back to the starting point. We found that our exterior wall was out of square with the interior wall, and so used the interior wall as a guide, even though our preferred starting location was against the exterior wall. The goal is to make the boards start about 1/2″ from the exterior wall on both the back side and edge. Since the wall was out of square, this varied as much as 1/2″ along the perimeter.
In every hardwood installation, you should leave 1/2″ expansion joints between the flooring surface and the exterior wall. These will be covered by molding and allow the floor to expand and contract with changes in humidity and moisture.
It is possible that a wall varies so much you may have to rip parts of boards to ensure full coverage on the floor while still leaving a 1/2″ gap. This is not difficult to do and is covered in another article in this series.
Step 3: Once you have several reference points for your starting line, snap a chalk line down your red rosin paper connecting the lines.
Step 4: Place the first board on the chalk line, ensuring perfect alignment with the line. I generally lay out the first 2-3 boards horizontally on the floor end to end and visually “check” to make sure everything appears to line up.
Step 5: Blind nail the first board into place, using shims or an assistant to ensure the board doesn’t move during blind nailing. Blind nailing means using a finish nailer to insert a nail above the tongue of the board down through the board into the subfloor at a 45 degree angle. This way the nail remains hidden by the next board installed. We used a Duo-Fast Floormaster 250BN for this task (review to come later in the series).
Some installers will top-nail the back edge of the first board since it will likely be covered by baseboard and shoe molding. This can prevent the board from slipping out of place as you add second and third boards. We don’t like to do this because it can split the board. Instead, for the first board, we blind nail about every 4 inches to ensure sufficient fasteners in the subfloor. We sometimes shim the first board away from the wall temporarily to avoid it moving when nailing subsequent boards.
Step 6: Work your way down the floor, ensuring boards stay square edge-to-edge and in line with the chalk line. If you’ve done it correctly, you should be able to drag a 4 foot or 8 foot level down the edge of the boards with no deviation in straightness.
Step 7: Install the second hardwood flooring row across the house. It is imperative that during this step you ensure the first row does not move. We recommend temporarily shimming between the wall and the first board, ensuring sufficient fasteners in the first board, and regularly rechecking the measurements to ensure no movement.
Step 8: Install the third row of hardwood flooring. If you’re using 2.25″ traditional boards, you’ll likely still have to blind nail as a hardwood flooring nailer will not fit yet. If you are installing 3.25″ boards or larger, the third row can be installed with a flooring nailer/stapler. We used and recommend the DuoFast 15-gauge Hardwood Flooring Stapler for this job.
Once the third board is installed, you can remove the shims between the wall and the first board. It is unlikely that the floor will move at this point, even under the shock of a flooring stapler.
Summary of Tips for Installing the First Few Boards
- Consider room obstacles and layout to determine starting position.
- Lay red rosin paper before beginning installation.
- Snap a chalk line and follow it religiously for the first board.
- Make sure the first board doesn’t move when installing the second and third boards–consider shimming against the wall, installing more blind nails in the tongue, or top nailing the back of the board under where the baseboard and shoe molding will be.
- Use the hardwood flooring nailer/stapler as soon as you get far enough away from the wall for the tool to fit.
- Don’t rush! The first few boards are the most important to get right. Everything else practically lays itself 🙂
What do you think? Feel free to add your own tips below!