Avoiding Hardwood Floor Mistakes

This article is part of a series of articles I have written recently describing the process of installing hardwood floors in your home as a DIY project.

Before actually purchasing and installing the boards yourself, there are several things you should consider in choosing the right type of wood flooring. You should also become familiar with the type of tools that will be involved in the installation.

This article will focus on some of the common problems associated with hard wood floor installation after a certain period of time. Knowing how these types of common issues occur can help you avoid and prevent costly repairs in the future.


Hardwood Floor Cupping

One of the most common complaints about hardwood flooring is the tendency of the boards to cup or buckle in as little as six months.

Issues associated with wood floor buckling, cupping or crowning can usually be attributed to moisture or humidity in the room.

To avoid this issue, you should select the right type of wood flooring based on the humidity and build of your home. If you home sits on a concrete slab, you may have high moisture levels. Solid wood flooring does not do well in this environment so an engineered wood product may be a better choice.  Testing of wood sub-floors should be performed and moisture levels should not exceed 12-14%.

If you home is built on a crawl space several feet above the ground, you may still have issues with high moisture levels if you have not installed a 6 mil polyethylene vapor barrier on the ground below. This prevents moisture from the soil from rising and absorbing into the sub-floor.

If you have these issues but have your heart set on real wood flooring, there are test kits that can determine the actual moisture level in your flooring. Most professionals recommend that the moisture level in wood sub-floors not exceed 14%.[1]

There are some types of solid wood planks that do much better than others, so be sure to consult with a professional or seek advice from a retail floor cover store on the best products for your situation. They can give you the best advice on the stability ratings of wood.  Hickory and maple wood in particular do not do well in homes with wide temperature swings during the year.

One of the best ways to prevent cupping or buckling issues is to allow your solid wood planks to sit in the actual room where they will be installed for several days. This is referred to as acclimation and it allows the wood to become accustom to the moisture level in the room so they can expand or contract slightly before installation. If you have ever worked with wood outdoors, you know that it expands and contacts when weathered. This also occurs inside your home believe it or not.

Acclimating Engineered Wood Flooring

Acclimation is not as important for engineered or laminate wood planks, but it is still a good idea to sit the boxes in the room they will be installed anyway for a few days to get them out of your way. If you are installing flooring throughout your home as one project, there will be a lot of boxes.

Be sure to follow any instructions provided by the engineered wood manufacturer on job prep. In fact, you may want to avoid attempting to acclimate tongue and groove snap-together flooring because it could cause swelling or shrinking making installation difficult. Snap-together products are engineered with precision so any slight alteration can affect the fit.

Time of Year Matters

When trying to acclimate your flooring, time of year can be an issue in certain parts of the country with high humidity. If you live in an area with hot, wet summers, try to avoid installing your flooring in the midst of the summer months. If that cannot be avoided, allow your boards to acclimate for a month in the rooms where they will reside.

Dealing With Gaps in Wood Flooring

Hardwood Floor InstallSolid wood will expand and contract as seasons and moisture levels change. As individual planks lose moisture levels, they dry out and shrink. Home owners typically begin to see gaps in hardwood flooring during the winter months in as little as 3 – 6 months after installation.

Initial gapping is usually caused by wood planks that were installed during the high humidity summer months which is why you should avoid this if at all possible. Even acclimating the wood before installation will not solve the gapping issue in the future since the humidity levels in your home are much higher in the summer than in the winter when the heat from the furnace dries out the air, and consequently the wood floors.

So what can you do?

  • Do not install solid wood floors in the summer.
  • Do not allow a floor installer to come out with the product and install it the same day. It may make you feel better to get it all done in one day, but you will regret that decision months down the road. Gapping can also be caused by poor installation and an inattention to detail so be weary to any promises of fast installs by contractors.
  • Choose thinner wood planks. Wider planks contract more as they dry out.
  • Use a whole house furnace humidifier during the winter months. If that is not possible, consider placing a humidifier in several rooms of your home during the winter when the heat is on high.

Avoid Squeaky or Bouncy Hardwood Floors

After installation, nails or fasteners become loose causing the boards to slide along the nail ever so slightly. However that small amount of movement is all it takes to cause a squeaky or creaking sound.

Most professionals feel that the best option for fastening wood floorings are staples inserted into the plank grooves from a pneumatic nailer or cleat stapler.

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Expansion Gaps

  • Solid wood flooring requires between a ¼ to ¾ inch expansion gap at the walls. The difference in the recommendation depends on the size of the room, the width of the planks and the type of solid wood. Consult the product manufacturer instructions.
  • Engineered floors do not require an expansion gap when stapled to the sub-floor. Each individual plank will expand and contract slightly but it is not noticeable. Again, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.
  • Floating floors need an expansion gap because they act as one solid piece of flooring, expanding and contracting as one unit.

Fading Wood Floors

Squeaking Hardwood Floors
Credit: mjpyro

All types of wood will change color over time, especially if it is located in areas of direct sunlight from a window. The best way to avoid this situation is to use blinds or heavy curtains in those areas.

There are also differences in the manufacturing process so that boards from different boxes will have slight color variations. Before installing, open all of the boxes and mix up the planks so you get a random and consistent color throughout your home.


If you know where some of the potential future pitfalls are with hardwood flooring, you can avoid them with the right preparation and education before attempting to install them your selves.

However, keep in mind that these same issues can occur with a wood floor installation service. The best advice I can give you is to go slow whether you are doing it yourself, or hiring someone.

This is not the type of DIY project that you want to finish with in one day. Anyone that promises to do that should be avoided because your goals are very different from theirs. You are the one that will have to deal with the issues later on, not them, and they are almost certainly not going to deal with any problems 6 months to a year down the road.

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