Buying advice and the tools you need
The flooring we're using is similar to snap-together plastic laminate floors except that it has a surface layer of real wood. The 5/16-in. thick flooring has specially shaped tongues and grooves that interlock to form a strong tight joint without glue or nails. Once assembled, the entire floor “floats” in one large sheet. You leave a small expansion space all around the edges so the floor can expand and contract with humidity changes.
The cost of wood veneer floors (often called engineered wood floors) varies, depending on the species and thickness of the top wood layer. Most home centers sell a few types of snap-together floors but you'll find a better selection and expert advice at your local flooring retailer. You can also buy flooring on-line.
Before you go shopping, draw a sketch of your room with dimensions. Make note of transitions to other types of flooring and other features like stair landings and exterior doors. Ask your salesperson for help choosing the right transition moldings for these areas. You'll need a few special tools in addition to basic hand tools like a tape measure, square and utility knife. We purchased an installation kit from the manufacturer that included plastic shims, a tapping block and a last-board puller, but if you're handy you could fabricate these tools. A pull saw works great to undercut doorjambs and casing (Photo 3). It's difficult to get close enough to the floor with a standard handsaw.
You'll also need a circular saw and a jigsaw to cut the flooring, and a miter box to cut the shoe molding. A table saw and power miter saw would make your job easier but aren't necessary.
Prep the room for the new flooring
Photo 1: Use plastic to test for moisture in concrete
Test for excess moisture in concrete floors by sealing the edges of a 3-ft. square of plastic sheeting to the floor with duct tape. Wait 24 hours before you peel back the plastic to check for moisture. Water droplets on the plastic or darkened concrete indicate a possible problem with excess moisture. Ask your flooring supplier for advice before installing a wood floor.
Photo 2: Check for low spots in the floor, then fill them in.
Check for low spots in the floor with an 8-ft. straightedge and mark their perimeter with a pencil. Fill depressions less than 1/4 in. deep with layers of building paper. Fill deeper depressions with a hardening type floor filler available from flooring stores.
Make sure your floor is dry. Don't lay this type of floor over damp concrete or damp crawlspaces. Check all concrete for excess moisture. As a starting point, use the plastic mat test shown in Photo 1. Even though some manufacturers allow it, professional installers we spoke to advised against installing floating floors in kitchens, full or three-quarter baths, or entryways, all areas where they might be subjected to standing water.
Then prepare your room for the new flooring. You have to make sure the existing floor is smooth and flat before installing a floating floor overtop. Clear the old floor, then smooth it by scraping off lumps and sweeping it. If you have wood floors, now's the time to fix squeaks and tighten loose boards by screwing them to the joists with deck screws. Check the floor with an 8-ft. straightedge and mark high spots and depressions. Sand or grind down ridges and fill low spots (Photo 2). Most manufacturers recommend no more than 1/8-in. variation in flatness over an 8-ft. length.
Allowing the floor to expand and contract freely is critical. Leave at least a 3/8-in. expansion space along the edges. You can hide the gap under the baseboards or leave the baseboards in place and cover the gap with base shoe molding or quarter round as we did. Cover the expansion space at openings or transitions to other types of flooring with special transition moldings (Photo 13). Buy these from the dealer.
Finally, saw off the bottoms of doorjambs and trim to allow for the flooring to slide underneath (Photo 3). Leaving an expansion gap at exterior doors presents a unique challenge. In older houses, you could carefully remove the threshold and notch it to allow the flooring to slide underneath. For most newer exterior doors, you can butt a square-nosed transition piece against the threshold.
Follow these simple installation techniques
Photo 5: Install the underlayment and the first row of flooring
Unroll the underlayment and lap it up the baseboards or walls 2 in. Temporarily secure the edges with masking tape. Butt the sheets together and seal the seams with the tape recommended by the manufacturer. Cut the first row of boards narrower if necessary to ensure that the last row of flooring will be at least 2 in. wide. Then start the installation by locking the ends of the first row of flooring together. Measure and cut the last piece to fit, allowing the 3/8-in. expansion space.
Photo 6: Use a leftover piece to start the second row
Start the second row with the leftover cutoff piece from the first row, making sure the end joints are offset at least 12 in. from the end joints in the first row. With the board held at about a 45-degree angle, engage the tongue in the groove. Push in while you rotate the starter piece down toward the floor. The click indicates the pieces have locked together. The joint between boards should draw tight.
Photo 7: Tap the flooring pieces tightly together
Leave a 1/4-in. space between the next full piece of flooring and the previous piece. Snap this piece into the first row. Snap a scrap of flooring across the ends being joined to hold them in alignment while you tap them together. Place the tapping block against the end of the floor piece and tap it with a hammer to close the gap.
Floating floors must be installed over a thin cushioning pad called underlayment (Photo 5). Underlayment is usually sold in rolls.
Ask your flooring dealer to suggest the best one for your situation. Some types combine a vapor barrier and padding. Install this type over concrete or other floors where moisture might be a problem. Others reduce sound transmission. Take extra care when installing underlayment that includes a vapor barrier. Lap the edges up the wall and carefully seal all the seams as recommended by the manufacturer. Keep a roll of tape handy to patch accidental rips and tears as you install the floor.
You may have to cut your first row of flooring narrower to make sure the last row is at least 2 in. wide. To figure this, measure across the room and divide by the width of the exposed face on the flooring. The number remaining is the width of the last row. If the remainder is less than 2, cut the first row narrower to make this last row wider. After the first few rows, installation is a snap. Simply follow the guidelines in Photos 6 - 8.
Special techniques for corners and transitions
Photo 9: Prep flooring to fit around doorjambs
Plan ahead when you get near a doorjamb. Usually you have to slide the next piece of flooring under the jamb rather than tilt and snap it into place. To accomplish this, you must slice off the locking section of the tongue from the preceding row with a sharp utility knife before installing it.
Photo 13: Install the transition strip
Cut a transition molding, in this case a square nose transition, to fit between the doorstops or jambs. Spread a bead of construction adhesive only on the area of the concrete floor that will be in contact with the transition piece. Set the transition in place and weight it down overnight.
You can't use the same tilt and snap installation technique where the flooring fits under doorjambs. You have to slide the flooring together instead. Photos 9 - 12 show how. If the opening requires a transition molding, cut the flooring short to leave space for it (Photo 13).
Cover gaps with base trim
Photo 14: Reinstall the shoe molding
Complete the flooring project by trimming off the protruding underlayment with a utility knife and installing shoe molding. Predrill 1/16-in. holes through the shoe. Then nail the shoe molding to the baseboard with 4d finish nails. Set and fill the nails. Do not nail down into the flooring.
Complete the floor by cutting the last row to the correct width to fit against the wall. Make sure to leave the required expansion space. Finally, reinstall the baseboards if you removed them, or install new quarter-round or shoe molding to cover the expansion space (Photo 14).