If you’re thinking about installing flooring, whether it’s below grade or above, an engineered wood floating floor is the way to go – especially if you’re planning on installing it over a concrete slab. Nothing adds beauty and warmth to a home like hardwood. In this first of our series on how we installed engineered hardwood flooring in our basement (a part of our broader Homeowner DIY Series for 2018), we’re exploring how to shop for it first. We wondered if engineered hardwood would be as good as solid wood and were surprised to learn that neither one is better. Only by weighing the pros and cons of each can you determine which one is a better fit for your own situation.
If you’re not really sure about the differences between engineered and solid flooring, engineered wood is produced with three to five layers of plywood topped by a wear layer of real wood. The wear layer can range in thickness; thicker layers can be re-sanded just like a traditional solid floor. Each layer is stacked in a cross-grain configuration and bonded together under heat and pressure to make it dimensionally stable. As a result, engineered wood flooring is less likely to be affected by changes in humidity and can be installed at all levels of the home. As far as installation is concerned, there are far more methods to choose from with an engineered product: you can staple, nail, click or glue.
The picture above shows a cross section of the engineered hardwood flooring we ultimately chose for our basement. It’s a rustic-looking wire brushed fumed oak which gets its colour naturally from the smoking process (there’s no stain or dye-lots).
Solid wood on the other hand is milled from a single piece of wood (notice that you can see the ring formations of the tree on the cut edge below). Because of its thickness, a solid hardwood floor can be sanded and refinished many times over generations of use (the wear layer is typically around 1/4″ thick). Solid wood flooring expands and contracts with changes in your home’s relative humidity but doesn’t stand up well to moisture. It can be nailed or stapled.
If you plan to install over concrete, which is prone to dampness, solid wood isn’t an option: you must use an engineered product to ensure structural integrity. It’s less likely to warp or flex than solid wood if it comes into contact with moisture. For us, engineered hardwood was the perfect choice for our below grade application: it has the look of wood (because of the real wood top layer) but it’s especially practical for basements because it can hold up to some moisture exposure. You can increase it’s durability even more by installing an underlayment as a moisture barrier too. Here’s the one we used (more about it later):
Before You Shop
Before you shop, you need to make some decisions. There is so much more to consider than just how much you want to spend (although budget is, of course, a big consideration). What else is important to you? Do you want to purchase a sustainable product? What about health standards: do you want something that is manufactured without solvents, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or formaldehyde and meets the strictest health standards? Off-gasing can be toxic and when you consider the totality of square footage of these materials in your home, it’s something you should give serious thought to – especially if you have young kids.
What about the look: wide planks or narrow? Dark or light? Rustic or smooth? Those are decisions you can think about then narrow down once you are out shopping.
Determine Layout and Square Footage
Start with a blank layout, then add the dimensions for each room so you can calculate the square footage. If there are lots of jogs in the floorpan (like our basement example below), break it down into manageable rectangular areas, multiply the length and width of each and add them all up to get the total square footage. Our total square footage came to 794 square feet, as shown in our floor plan.
After calculating square footage, don’t forget to factor in an additional 10% for waste (or more if you are laying on the diagonal or in a herringbone pattern) to determine how much you need in total. Most flooring has a dye-lot so if you run out and have to buy more, the difference in colour can be noticeable. Additionally, if you run short and the floor is suddenly discontinued you’ll be completely out of luck!
We ended up purchasing a total of 875 square feet of flooring for our basement. It’s good to know your measurements before you go shopping because a higher quantity can affect the final price. For instance, buying for an entire level could qualify you for a lower per-square foot price vs. only one room. Knowing this before-hand will help you accurately calculate your final spend and keep you on budget. Alternately, if you were planning on staging your renovation and doing different rooms with different flooring over time, you might want to consider using a consistent floor and buying it all at once to save money.
The next thing you have to think about is the flow of the flooring. Are you installing hardwood in just one room or an entire level? If the flooring is going into multiple rooms and you are laying it yourself (like we did), you’ll likely need to purchase one or several splines. A spline can help you change direction as flooring moves through doorways from one room to another.
As you can see on our blank plan below, the red line represents where we will need to insert a spline so we can change direction. We ended up making our own spline, but they should also be available where you get your flooring so know how much you’ll need to purchase. I’ll explain more about splines in my next post (Part 2) on installing engineered hardwood.
Shopping for flooring can be daunting. Here are our shopping tips for finding your floor and getting it for the best price.
- Start early. It could take weeks before you decide what to purchase so give yourself enough lead time so you have it when you need it. This is especially important if you’re working with a contractor (time is money!). Most wood is already kiln dried, so it may not be necessary to let the wood sit in your home to acclimate before it’s installed. However, check to see what the manufacturer recommends: I would still plan to leave the wood in your home for 48-36 hours before installing if you can, so factor that time into the schedule.
- Map out flooring stores in your immediate area (yes on a map!) and make a list. You will cut down on gas and the time it takes to drive around in circles by mapping out your plan of attack first. Browse stores as time allows to determine what you like and don’t like. Check off the ones you’ve been to and only expand your search area if you can’t find what you want. Believe me when I tell you that being organized and knowing where you’ve already looked will help keep you sane 🙂
- In addition to your layout/square footage calculation, if you have a story board, take it with you. At the very least, make sure all your paint colours and other finishes are already selected before you start shopping (you can throw paint chips and pictures of items, such as cabinets, into a folder so you have an idea of what colours will work with your decor. It will help you rule out some of the choices once you hit the stores.
- Take a camera with you (or phone) so you can photograph flooring samples. Pictures are a great way to remember what you saw and be able to find it again once you’re ready to narrow down the choices. Don’t forget to take close-up pictures of the labels on each sample board too if there’s something that catches your eye. You won’t remember what it was just from a picture of the wood alone!
- Ask questions! Sales people are there to help. When I was a hardwood newbie, I didn’t realize that certain types of wood are harder wearing than others (i.e. a hardwood such as Oak is more durable than a softer wood such as Pine). With further research, I discovered that woods are rated by the Janka hardness test which measures the resistance of a sample of wood to denting and wear. The standard hardness for a traditional hardwood floor, such as Red Oak, is 1290. Exotic species such as Brazilian Walnut are 3684. Here is one example of a Janka scale chart you can use to compare different woods:
- Know what you’re getting! Flooring always looks wonderful on the sample board but what are you actually getting in the box? Some manufacturers have a good selection of varying lengths, while others have nothing but short boards which might ruin the look you’re going for. Consider asking to buy or sign out a few actual floor boards too so you can lay them out on-site. As you can see below, you can’t get a good idea of the plank lengths just from the sample boards (which are all a consistent size within each store for display purposes). If you’re lucky, the floor you like will be laid out in the showroom so you can visualize it. Withstanding that, you need to see the actual length of the wood planks.
The flooring we purchased had four different lengths, the largest of which was 73″. We loved the overall look of the proportions. In almost the same view of my craft studio shown above, below you can see how the various lengths are staggered in the finished space.
Here’s an illustration of the dos and don’ts of staggering the joints. You never want ends to line up side by side.
- Select the colour. Some collections have an overwhelming number of colour choices making it hard to narrow them down in the showroom. Once you settle on brand and type of wood, sign out sample boards and take them home to see which colour looks best (if you didn’t already cover that off in #6). You may have to put a returnable deposit on them, but it’s well worth it as long as you don’t forget to return them on time! Seeing samples in your home will help you determine how the floor will look in the setting once it’s installed. As you can see in the first picture, there isn’t enough light and there are no finishes in this room to compare against.
This next picture is better: we moved the samples into the laundry room and added additional lighting so we can now compare the floor against some of the actual finishes in our space.It might even be helpful to hold samples right up to your cabinets. The one shown below was eliminated this way.
The picture below shows our finished laundry room/craft studio. The engineered hardwood we chose looks great against the other finishes; it’s neutral enough to work with everything.
- Consider an underlay. An underlay can act to limit noise tranfer and provide optimal water resistance. In condos, there are even regulations that require you to install an underlayment for noise abatement. Know what your particular regulations are. A dimpled membrane, such as DMX 1-Step, deadens noise, is a great choice over concrete or subfloors, and makes the floor warmer with the all important peace of mind of moisture and mold protection (it’s waterproof on both sides). All you have to do is roll it out leaving a quarter-inch gap between the wall, tape the seams and cut around obstructions. As you’ll see in Part 2, it’s easy peasy! If you are a regular reader, you’ll know that our underlayment was put to the test when we had a water leak in my craft room right after finishing our basement. It passed with flying colours and we would highly recommend it (and no, we don’t get anything to say that).
- Be wary of too good to be true pricing. When stores offer super cheap prices, the product is probably a second. There will likely be flaws in the boxed product, vs. the beautiful sample you see in the showroom, that you can’t live with. Again, be sure you find out what you’re actually getting before it’s too late. Where flooring is concerned, you really do get what you pay for.
- Comparison Shop!! Once you’ve made your selection, go online to search for the website of the brand you’ve chosen to see what other stores distribute it. Once you find out all the distributors, make a list of each store in your City, then call each one to compare pricing. Some won’t give pricing over the phone so you may have to visit in person. By doing this, we found drastic fluctuations in price and were able to save hundreds of dollars on our final purchase. Don’t forget to also ask about the price of delivery and factor that in too – it all adds up! We paid $130 to have the boxes delivered right to our basement. Some companies won’t bring the delivery further than just past the front door so it was worth every penny to us for the convenience of not having to lug the boxes down the stairs ourselves.
- Look on Craigslist. You never know what you’ll find! A friend of ours purchased a whole house-worth of high-quality flooring and then changed his mind about installing all of it. He had to drastically cut the price to get rid of the portion he decided not to use. Someone’s loss could be your gain.
- Purchase/Rent Accessories. Once you’ve settled on your engineered hardwood floor, you might think your shopping is done, but it’s not! If your subfloor needs repair or replacement, put tongue and groove plywood on the shopping list. For above grade installation you can rent a pneumatic nailer and buy nails to suit the thickness of the flooring (however if you found an engineered hardwood with a ‘click’ floor system that is designed to lock into place, you won’t need additional fasteners or adhesive).If you’re installing in the basement however, as we did, we suggest floating the floor by gluing the tongue and groove together along the seams (not to be confused with glue you use to completely adhere the planks down to the floor). The glue we used is shown below. Purchase an adhesive that’s specifically designed for the installation of engineered floors over cured concrete; it should be moisture resistant and easy to clean from the surface of the wood if you get drips. We don’t suggest buying this type of glue in bulk. The applicator bottle makes quick work of applying it to the seams (and there’s no chance of spilling it while trying to transfer it from the bulk container to an applicator!).To work in conjunction with the glue, we used 3M painters tape to hold the planks in place as they dried.
The next accessory is a ‘must have’. Buy a thick memory foam kneeling pad, like the one shown below. It’s far better than knee pads! Hubs has tried just about every knee pad on the market and can’t stand the straps; they are painful and restrictive to use.Lastly, buy an installation kit, as shown below. Lucky for us, we were able to borrow one from our brother-in-law. The tapping block (bottom) will keep the wood from getting damaged when it’s struck with a rubber mallet (which you’ll need too). The pull bar allows you pull planks together in tight areas – such as installing the last plank up against the wall. Although it’s made for laminate, it works perfectly for engineered hardwood as well. The kit also comes with spacers, but we made our own out of MDF (as you’ll see in Part 2).
Here’s another view of what our flooring looks like installed above ground – from the manufacturer’s brochure. The natural light and expansive space makes it look even more beautiful! Stay tuned for the DIY tutorial on how we installed it as a floating floor in our basement.
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If you’re an avid DIY’er, like we are, you’ll want to follow the Homeowner DIY Series we launched this year. Along with the second part of this post (How to Install an Engineered Floating Floor), we’ll be giving you tips on water leak prevention, getting a professional look for mudding drywall (how to achieve a level 5 drywall finish!), installing baseboards and finishing a basement.
In case you missed it, check out our post on installing a frost proof faucet.