What’s under your feet (or however you get around) is as important as anything when it comes to home. That’s why this fall, we collaborated with The Home Depot on an A to Z guide that’ll give you the confidence to make flooring choices you’ll love. Check out the A to Z handbook here.
Flooring trends may come and go, but hardwood is the classic, last-for-generations material desired by the largest segment of US homebuyers. What many first-time installers don’t realize, though, is that there is a flow-chart of choices to make when selecting an ideal hardwood. Your decisions can shape not only the installation process, but how to care for your floor for years to come.
Not to worry, though: The Home Depot has products, resources, and installation help to assist along the way—and here’s a step-by-step guide of what to look for when making decisions.
Hardwood vs. Engineered Hardwood
The initial decision is a major one: selecting either solid hardwood (a dense plank of timber) or engineered hardwood, which has a thin layer of visible hardwood veneer over several layers of (not visible) plywood.
Engineered wood can often be simply glued straight down to the substrate or installed using an easy “click-and-lock” technology, whereas solid hardwood requires a plywood underlayment, nailing, and plenty of elbow grease. Despite the breezy installation process, engineered hardwood often can’t be sanded and refinished in case repairs are needed down the road—a risk many aren’t willing to take.
“The warmth of solid hardwood floors is a nice reason to go for it,” interior designer Laura Umansky says, even though it is generally pricier. “They’re also a good option because they can be re-sanded and maintained pretty easily.” Plus, due to its long lifetime, hardwood flooring can often positively affect the value of a house if a homeowner is looking to sell.
Choose a strong finish
If you’ve decided to head in the solid hardwood direction, your next few choices will bemore aesthetic ones: type of hard wood, prefinished or unfinished boards, and the style of finish. (As you might’ve guessed, due to the nature of its construction, engineered hardwood is pretty much always prefinished.)
The fun choices that will dictate look—like selecting the type of wood, grain, and plank width for your room—are mostly a matter of personal taste. Oak, hickory, walnut, and ash, along with all the variants therein, are frequent choices for interior hardwood due to their attractiveness and durability (to learn more about the wood hardness and the Janka Scale, head to letter J!), while plank width can range from the more traditional 2-to-3” boards to ultra-wide 7”, which can show off the intricacies of the wood grain.
With prefinished boards, you’ll be able to choose the exact shade, grain, and finish of your hardwood floors from the get-go. This allows for a more concrete vision of what the flooring will look like when fully laid out (with no unwanted surprises). Unfinished boards—which are installed first and stained later—make for a more customized look, but are something of a gamble if the stain doesn’t turn out quite the way you envisioned it.
“I think hardwood is timeless,” says general contractor Jessica Pleasants. “And the finishing product you use—whether it’s a penetrating oil, polyurethane sealant on top, or a prefinished material—will greatly affect the overall final look of your floors.”
There’s a whole range of finishing products for hardwood floors, and to select which one is best for you, it’s important to (once again!) think about the space you’re tackling and its day-to-day uses.
- Polyurethane finishes, whether water-based or oil-based, are durable and long-lasting, making them strong contenders for high-traffic areas.
- Penetrating oils, on the other hand, has a more matte look, which works to accentuate the grain of the wood but are much less resilient. They are often paired with wood stains, and sometimes come as a combination oil and stain.
It can be enough to make your head swim—semi-gloss versus satin gloss; the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) you’re comfortable with; estimating resistance to scratches and scuffs (whew!)—but know this: like Goldilocks, there’s a finish out there that’s just right for your room.
Installation is no joke
Consider your hardwood flooring a living, breathing part of your home and you’ll be on your way to success.
Solid hardwood boards should be allowed to sit in the room where they will be installed for upwards of a week prior to nailing them down. This will allow the hardwood to expand (or contract) in response to the exact temperature levels and moisture point in the room. Otherwise, you might be left with gaps between boards or buckling if they haven’t properly acclimated. (Engineered wood, on the other hand, only requires about 24 hours to get adjusted to its new surroundings.)
The next step (and, no, you’re not nailing yet!), is to lay out or “rack” the boards in the order you’d like to see them on the floor, running parallel to the longest wall in the room. Think of this part like a giant jigsaw puzzle, mixing and matching boards from various bundles side-by-side to ensure there aren’t homogenous patches throughout the space.
You’ll also want to leave at least a half-inch of space around the perimeter of the room—called an “expansion gap”—to account for board expansion. These gaps will eventually be covered by baseboards or moulding. (More on that under letter M for Molding!)
Yes, you have to make nail choices
Hardwood floors are held in place with nails—also known as “cleats”—or alternatively staples, and most often rely on a pneumatic floor nailer to help lock boards in place. Nails should be just long enough to sink into the subflooring, but no longer, making exact measurements (and following the manufacturer’s instructions) key for installing a solid, sturdy floor.
Visible nails in new hardwood floors are less prominent than they used to be. The rise of tongue-in-groove construction hides nails through a method called “blind-nailing,” where the groove of each subsequent plank hides them in the tongue of the plank before it, and so on. “Face-nailing”—hammering a nail into a pilot hole—is used closer to walls, where a nailer often doesn’t fit.
For those who are interested in nails that are more exposed and have a vintage, oo la la factor? There are a growing number of decorative flooring nail options, like square heads, antique versions, brass, and everything in between. Just make sure you don’t sacrifice form over function for these sharp little beauties.
The finishing touches matter
The grand finale of installing hardwood will often include trimming (likely using a jigsaw) the last row of boards to fit, and then face-nailing them. If your flooring is skirting any sort of obstacle—like a fireplace or kitchen island—the wood will also have to be custom cut in a similar fashion. And, if you are DIYing, always protect your physical health during the process by clearing out sawdust and wearing kneepads during an installation.
While the material is pricier, solid hardwood is a no-brainer for those looking to invest in their home for decades to come.
“For my money, a prefinished hardwood floor not only delivers the best value, but it’s probably the most accessible to install from a tools standpoint,” says general contractor Mark Clement, who points out that even the slightest slip-up on installation procedures with engineered “click-and-lock” hardwood can lead to a cancellation of the manufacturer’s warranty.
“With prefinished—or even unfinished—solid hardwood, there is a certain physicality to it that the [engineered] flooring doesn’t have. And once you get everything in place during installation, you’re off to the races.”