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
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
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
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).
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Cover gaps with base trim
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).