How to Lay Hardwood Floor With a Contrasting BorderUpdated: Feb. 06, 2023
Strips of Brazilian cherry take this floor beyond the ordinary. Here's everything you need to know to install it yourself.
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Step 1: Design the floor and gather tools and materials
Installing a hardwood floor is one of the most striking home improvements you can do. This story will demonstrate not only the basics, but also how to add an exotic wood border that will transform a simple wood floor into an architectural masterpiece. It’s a level of artistry that you would expect to find only in a turn-of-the-century mansion.
Laying a hardwood floor with a border is surprisingly straightforward and intuitive. If you’re an intermediate to advanced do-it-yourselfer, you can achieve first-rate results by taking your time and paying attention to the details. The photos will help you overcome any head scratchers you encounter as you put two different wood floors side by side.
Wood floor inlays installation is easy compared with sanding, staining and clear coating. If finishing the floor intimidates you, hire a pro for that task. In fact, you can set this up ahead of time: Contact a pro for ordering materials and line up the same person to finish the floor after it’s laid. If you tackle the job yourself, be aware of two things: One, you’ll have to rent some sanders and buffers that are both heavy and tricky to operate. And two, the smoothness of your expensive floor may be jeopardized in the hands of an amateur (you!).
You’ll need to rent a floor nailer for installing nearly all the flooring. However, you can save on tool rental costs by pre-drilling and hand-nailing the border pieces. That way you won’t have a rented floor nailer sitting idle for most of the day while you’re planning and installing the border.
Tool rental stores carry manual and air-assisted nailers or staplers. Our pro believes that staples hold best. If you have access to a compressor that is adjustable to 85 psi, you can rent the gun alone. Or rent the manual model. It takes substantially more thumping power to set fasteners with a manual nailer, so go with the air-assisted unit if it’s available.
Time and money:
Laying a floor without a border in this 16 x 16-ft. room won’t take long. Assuming all prep work is done ahead of time, you’d have to take a lot of coffee breaks not to finish in a weekend. Add a border, though, and this project becomes a bigger challenge (albeit a doable one). Laying this floor took us two days, not including the sanding. You’ll pick up speed after learning some of the nuances of working with the materials and special tools, but you should plan on a couple of weekends of installation time for an average-size room. Add another few days for sanding and finishing the floor and replacing the trim, and realize that the parlor will be out of commission for a while. (But you’ll have the coolest floor within 10 miles of your house.)
We chose maple for our wood floor inlays. Maple is hugely popular these days, so prices have gone through the roof. The select grade (nearly perfect, knot-free wood) maple in this floor cost about twice as much as red oak. We made our border from two 3/4-in. wide strips of Brazilian cherry separated by a strip of the same 2-1/4 in. wide, 3/4-in. thick maple as the “field” (the main part of the flooring inside the border). Add in the cost of rental tools and any subfloor materials, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what your floor will cost.
Designing With Accent Borders
Brazilian cherry is popular because its deep red hue contrasts with the lighter shades of standard flooring woods such as oak, ash, maple and hickory. Feature strips arrive with machined tongues and grooves that mate with the tongues and grooves of standard flooring. They’re sold in the same 1-1/2, 2-1/4, 3-1/4 and 4-in. widths as standard flooring boards, as well as in 3/4-in. strips. We opted for the 3/4-in. strips, but you can make installation much simpler by either using feature strips that are the same dimension as the main flooring or eliminating any “inside corner” jogs like the one we did around the fireplace hearth. Either choice will save you the headaches involved in fitting the flooring around inside corners and many layout hassles.
Step 2: Prep the old floor
Photo 1: Remove the old flooring
Rip up particleboard underlayment to expose the solid plywood subfloor. Use a cat’s paw to remove most of the nails, and lift or pry up the sheets with a pry bar.
Photo 2: Smooth the subfloor
Grind down high ridges of the plywood subfloor with a hardwood floor edge sander ($25 per day to rent) with 50-grit sandpaper. If you have only a few ridges, you can use a belt sander or high-speed disc sander with coarse-grade paper.
Photo 3: Eliminate squeaks
Fix those squeaks. Screw down loose flooring with 2-1/2 in. drywall screws to eliminate squeaks. Angle screws at butt joints to make sure screws don’t miss the floor joists.
Photo 4: Add underlayment
Install additional plywood underlayment if needed. Alternate 1/2-in. underlayment end joints at least two floor joists away from the end joints of the subfloor and from each other as well. Mark floor joist locations on the walls so you can find them after the underlayment is in. Tack the sheets with 8d nails and use the floor joist marks to snap chalk lines for nailing. Nail every 6 in. with 2-3/8 in. ring shank nails.
You won’t get another chance to fix the squeaks once the new floor is installed, so do it now. After ripping up the carpet, turn off the radio and walk around the room with a bounce in your step to locate the squeakers. Use a screw gun and drywall screws (see Photo 3) to anchor plywood to floor joists in any problem areas.
Most squeaks are caused by plywood rubbing against the sides of nails in areas where the plywood is slightly humped above the floor joists, but there can be other reasons. Sometimes you’ll have to work underneath the floor to shim bearing walls or metal connectors or even to isolate heating ducts from framing. It’s not always easy to track squeaks down. Try the drywall screw technique first.
A solid hardwood floor must be fastened to a solid base.
If your home was built in the 1960s or later, you probably have a layer of plywood (called subfloor) nailed directly on top of the floor joists (the framing members that support the floor). Any second layer of particleboard, like we have in this room, or plywood over this layer, is called the underlayment. To determine the type of floor surfaces you have, pull off a heating grate and pry a little of the ductwork aside so you can view the exposed edge of the flooring.
Here are the common surfaces and the instructions for preparing them for the new hardwood floor:
- 1/2-in. plywood subfloor under 5/8-in. particleboard (tiny chips of wood compressed into a sheet with glue) underlayment: Remove the particleboard and replace it with a layer of 1/2-in. CDX plywood. Many installers will lay hardwood over one layer of 1/2-in. subfloor as long as it’s plywood and the hardwood direction is perpendicular to the floor joists. We chose to add a second layer because some of our flooring runs parallel to the floor joists.
- 3/4-in. plywood only: You are good to go. Drive screws into the joists to eliminate any squeaks and you’re ready to clean the floor and lay the rosin paper (Photo 5).
- 3/4-in. oriented strand board (OSB): You can recognize this by the large chips of wood making up this plywood substitute. OSB won’t hold the hardwood fasteners as well as plywood, so we recommend adding a layer of 1/2-in. CDX plywood.
- Two layers of any size plywood composing the subfloor and the underlayment: Fix the squeaks and this floor is also ready for the hardwood.
- A vinyl floor over 1/4-in. underlayment over any 1/2-, 5/8- or 3/4-in. plywood: Fix the squeaks and
install the flooring right over the vinyl, skipping the rosin paper step.
If you have to add plywood underlayment, nail it down with 2-3/8 in. ring shank nails or 2-1/2 in. drywall screws. Big areas will take forever to fasten by hand, so consider renting an air nailer (framing gun; see Photo 4).
Finish the prep work:
- Remove the baseboards, saving them to reinstall after your hardwood floor is completely finished.
- Replace any soft or rotted subfloor.
- Remove carpet and padding staples.
- Pull or drive down any nails that have worked their way up.
- Crawl around with a 4-ft. level and check for any high seams between the edges of the plywood. If the level indicates humped ridges higher than 1/8 in., sand them down with a rented edge sander (Photo 2) fitted with coarse paper.
- Finally, install rosin paper over clean underlayment. The clean paper surface makes it easier to spot any junk that may find its way under your new floor during installation. It’ll make drawing layout lines a snap, and the paper’s slippery surface helps the flooring slide easily into place. Tape the seams to keep the paper from ripping, and to prevent debris from getting between the paper layers.
Step 3: Lay out the wood border
Photo 6: Mark the border edge
Stretch mason lines about 1 in. above the underlayment to mark the outside edge of the first border. Tie the lines to nails positioned outside the border. To get exact spacing for the border corners, lay them out using mock-ups of short pieces of real material. Keep the borders a consistent distance from inside and outside corners. (Sometimes you’ll have to compromise.) Draw pencil lines on the paper as needed to show precise positions and keep everything perfectly square.
Photo 7: Screw backer boards along the border
Screw a straight 1×4 backer board to the floor with 2-1/2 in. drywall screws spaced every 12 in. on the outside of the first border, sighting down the tops of the strings to keep board edges perfectly straight. Space the two side 1×4 backers the correct distance from the walls and check squareness using the 6-8-10 technique before screwing them to the floor.
First, lay out and install square borders to make the rest of the floor go smoothly.
Resist the temptation to use just the walls of the room to position your borders because they can be notoriously out of square. Measure off one wall to set the first border and use that one to square and set the other three borders. Otherwise you may wind up ripping tapered cuts and cutting dozens of small angles. Position some short lengths of flooring together and set them against a wall to help you decide how many widths to space the border from the walls. Smaller rooms look best with borders close to walls, while larger rooms should have borders farther away. Our room looked best with the border spaced five widths of flooring away from the walls, or about 11-3/4 in. (including a 1/2-in. expansion gap).
Leave a 3/8- to 5/8-in. expansion gap along the wall. This gap is important because the flooring will expand in hot, humid weather and the flooring could swell and buckle if it’s trapped against walls. The gap will be covered by baseboard trim after you finish the floor (3/8-in. base plus 1/2-in. base shoe). This also gives you plenty of fudge room for walls that are out of square.
Use the 3-4-5 carpentry trick (6-8-10 in this case for more accuracy; see Photo 7) for squaring side borders. This technique will ensure perfectly square corners. Locate the last border exactly parallel to the first by measuring and setting it at a 2-1/4 in. increment so the last piece of flooring within the border will drop right in. If it doesn’t, you can cut the last board narrower or use flooring from that extra bundle of wider boards you ordered.
Before installing the first wood border, screw a straight 1×4 backer board to the floor (Photo 7) to keep the boards from shifting when you’re driving in the fasteners.
Step 4: Install the wood border
Photo 8: Mate ends tightly
Chisel off chunks of tongues to get tight unjoined ends when grooves are missing from adjoining pieces.
Photo 9: Nail the border
Install the outside border strip around the room by face-nailing and blind-nailing (see Photo 10) to the underlayment. Orient the first border with the tongues facing the field (see Photo 12). Orient the left side border (the French door side) with the grooves facing the field, and the opposite border with the tongues facing the field. The border at the far end of the room will have the grooves facing the field.
Photo 10: Blind-nail when possible
Blind-nail where necessary by predrilling 1/16-in. holes at a 45-degree angle through the inside corner of the top of a tongue (the most common place) or through the bottom inside corner of a groove. Then hand-nail with 2-in. finish nails, setting the heads with a nail set so that the nailhead is flush with the wood.
Then install the first of three border strips (Photo 9). Orient the tongues of this border to face away from the wall on the side you’ll start laying from. This sets up the primary floor-laying direction so you can nail the tongues of each board in the field with the floor nailer (Photo 11). Fig. A shows the installation sequence for our border and the direction the border tongues and grooves should face to mate with the tongues and grooves of the field flooring. In most cases, the tongues and grooves at the ends of each board in the field will interlock with the border.
Figure A: Tongue and Groove Orientation
Laying Direction – Key:
G = Groove
T = Tongue
Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in the Additional Information below.
Step 5: Fill in the perimeter and alcoves
Photo 11: Nail the first row
Install the first row of field flooring with a floor nailer. (Another straight 1×4 backer board is screwed in place temporarily to bridge gaps in the border.) Nail (or staple) with 2-in. fasteners every 6 in. To prevent splitting, keep fasteners 4 in. away from the ends of boards.
Photo 12: Reverse tongue and groove direction
Reverse tongue direction to get back into alcoves, closets, hallways or other rooms by installing a slip tongue into the groove and continuing the flooring in the opposite direction.
Photo 13: Cut the last piece to fit
Infill the last piece of flooring by using a table saw to cut off the bottom of the groove so you can slip it by the tongue on the last piece. (Sometimes you’ll have to cut off the tongues on boards to drop them in.) You must face-nail the last fill-in pieces.
Photo 14: Match flooring lines
Rip flooring to width on a table saw when necessary to keep field flooring lines consistent through the borders.
Photo 15: Rout new grooves
Rout grooves in ripped boards and slide in a slip tongue to join to grooved flooring. If you don’t have a router or bit, face-nail the unjoined side to the plywood subfloor.
Photo 15A: Grooving bit
You can buy a special router bit that cuts grooves that match the grooves in the flooring.
Photo 16: Weave corners
Weave outside corners by overlapping the ends. Dry-fit (no fasteners) each piece before installing and mark lengths with a utility knife for accurate miter saw cuts. Install the strips parallel to the borders.
Use the rented flooring nailer to fasten the strips in alcoves (Photo 11) and on the perimeter. Sometimes you’ll need to reverse board orientation to get back into alcoves, closets, hallways or other rooms. The tongues will then face the opposite direction for nailing. To reverse direction, install the boards groove to groove, joining them with a factory-manufactured “slip tongue” (Photo 12), then continue installing and nailing the flooring in the opposite direction.
The first board of the field in this floor runs against the border in front of the fireplace and spans the spaces on each side of the hearth (Photo 11). To fill in the voids behind the first field boards, use slip tongues as we did on both sides of the hearth (Fig. A). When you have to rip grooves off boards for a custom fit, you can recut them with a special grooving router bit (Photo 15) and add slip tongues as necessary. This bit is expensive, but it’s a good investment only if you have a lot of flooring to lay with many direction reversals. If you have only a few of these scenarios, it’s OK to drive nails through the top of the flooring (face-nail) into the underlayment.
When you get too close to walls to use the floor nailer, you’ll need to blind-nail (hand-nail so the nailheads are hidden beneath the next piece of flooring; see Photo 10). Closer yet and you’ll need to predrill and face-nail through the tops of boards and set the nailheads 1/8 in. below the surface. Fill face-nail holes with wood filler and sand them along with the rest of the floor.
Step 6: Lay the field
Photo 18: Lay out and nail the field
Lay out the field flooring by staging several feet of flooring ahead of installation. Stagger all end joints at least 6 in. Before fastening, tap the flooring into place with the floor nailer mallet. Work inward from each side.
Nail the field with the flooring nailer, cutting board ends to fit precisely against the border.
Step 7: Finishing details
Photo 20: Install transitions
Glue down reducer strips with silicone caulk on hard surfaces such as tile.
Photo 20A: Special transition boards
Either buy special transitions for various situations or make your own on a table saw.
Make smooth transitions to carpet, tile and vinyl and to other wood floors. Wherever your hardwood floor ends, you’ll likely have a height difference between it and the neighboring floor treatment. Tile floors can be as much as 1/2 in. higher than the new floor; a vinyl kitchen floor can be 3/4 in. lower. Pre-manufactured beveled boards called reducer strips are available in 1/4-, 1/2- and 3/4-in. thicknesses to ease the transition between different thicknesses of flooring and eliminate toe-stubbing and tripping (Photo 20A). Glue down reducer strips with silicone caulk on hard surfaces such as tile (Photo 20). Pre-drill and nail down reducers on wooden-backed surfaces like plywood below carpeting and vinyl.
Carpet can be handled two ways. If you’re replacing carpet with hardwood and the same carpet flows into another room, cut the carpet ahead of time about 6 in. into the hardwood area and fold it back out of the way. After the hardwood is finished, cut the padding back 6 in. from the transition and fold the carpet underneath until the edge of the fold is tight against a reducer strip. Tack or staple through the carpet to the plywood subfloor or underlayment. If the carpet style or color changes between rooms, use a metal carpet gripper. Screw or nail it to the floor and clinch the carpet down between the jaws.
Handle ledges around stairwells and sunken rooms with either 5-1/2 or 3-1/2 in. wide nosing boards. They come with grooves ready to receive the tongues (or slip tongues) of standard flooring. Generally, you’ll use the wider of the two when you need more surface area for better nailing or for resting a guardrail on the nosing. Using a scrap of flooring to simulate the finished floor height, cut off door jambs with a thin-kerf handsaw. The flooring will slip under the jamb for a neat, clean appearance. Plan transitions between rooms so reducer strips will center under doors.
How to Buy Hardwood Flooring
The type of maple we used on this floor must be purchased from a professional floor installer or special-ordered from a full-service lumberyard. That’s true for most other wood types too, except for the most common flooring, 2-1/4 in. wide red oak, which is available at home centers. Pros buy their materials from wholesale suppliers that generally won’t sell to the public, but you’re welcome to visit their showrooms to see samples of wood types. But you’ll probably have to order from an installer or lumberyard.
Matching existing species of hardwood in your home is usually easy. You most likely have either maple or red or white oak. Oak has strong grain patterns, while maple has nearly invisible, light-colored grain. However, telling the difference between red and white oak, and matching wood grades, stains and clear coats is a little trickier. Flooring can be select, No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 grade. The cheapest, No. 3 grade has significant variations in color and grain and small knots, while select, the most expensive, is nearly flawless with knot-free, nearly identical boards. Paying a pro to come and help you match wood types and finishes is the safest way to get new floors to blend well with old ones.
Order 5 percent extra flooring for waste and mistakes. Also order a bundle of the next widest size to fill the areas where the flooring is just a little too narrow to do the job. That way you can avoid cutting sliver-thin strips of flooring to fill in areas near walls or against borders.
The you’ll-be-sorry-you-don’t-have-’em tools
Typical nail apron tools, including a hammer, a chalk line, a mason line, a utility knife, a good sharp chisel, a nail set and, of course, a 25-ft. tape measure.
- Power miter saw for accurate, square cuts ($20 per day to rent).
- Manual or air-assisted floor nailer or stapler with 2-in. fasteners.
- Carpenter’s square for laying out and checking small areas.
- Power jigsaw/saber saw for notched flooring pieces.
- Table saw.
- Fine-tooth, thin-kerf handsaw for cutting off door jambs.
The nice-to-have-on-hand tools
- Air-powered framing nailer with 2-3/8 in. ring shank nails for nailing down large areas of underlayment.
- Air-powered trim gun (Photo 14) with 2-1/4 in. nails for face-nailing flooring and reinstalling baseboard trim.
- Router and grooving bit (Photo 15a) for grooving ripped flooring for slip tongues.
Required Tools for this Wood Border Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Chalk line
- Drill/driver - cordless
- Framing square
- Miter saw
- Nail set
- Pry bar
- Table saw
- Tape measure
- Utility knife
- Wood chisel
Required Materials for this Wood Border Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- 1 x 4s
- Construction adhesive
- Drywall screws
- Floor finish
- Rosin paper
- Tongue and Groove Flooring
- Transition boards