*Available for rental at most home-improvement stores
+Tools are based on unfinished wood installation. Some may not be required for other products.
Hardwood floors are a natural for cabins — they’re durable, complement a variety of styles and can be installed almost anywhere. The question, however, is who should install them.
Cabin owners often jump at the opportunity to take on construction projects around their home, from something as simple as putting together shelving units to wiring the home for appliances and other electronics. Sometimes it’s for the sense of accomplishment that completion of that project provides; sometimes it’s a savings effort by eliminating labor costs. Regardless of which camp you may be in, it’s important to know your limits before embarking on a new task. Otherwise, you may end up with unintentional damage to your property and find yourself paying more to fix the situation.
To determine whether or not you feel comfortable tackling this project on your own, here are a few things you should keep in mind:
Sawing Safely: No one wants to lose a finger, but that’s exactly what can happen when improperly using a saw. Most are easy — and safe — if the correct instructions are followed. For hardwood flooring, saws are used to cut the boards to the appropriate length and to cut trim to allow boards for the outside edge of the room. (Flooring seams should be staggered 4 to 6 inches apart, so boards may need to be cut to fit.) For table saw use, damage could result from moving a thin piece of wood between the fence and the blade with your hand instead of a push stick, or raising the blade too high. Circular saws are prone to kickback if they bind in the wood, while miter saws can pull in wood and hands if the blade is released too soon or the fence is not properly utilized. All require serious attention and control over the wood and tool in question in order to ensure a safe, clean cut in the wood. If you have concerns about handling such tools, it’s probably safer to leave it to a professional.
Weight Training: Challenging construction tasks usually involve heavy labor in some form, and hardwood-floor installation is no exception. The tools alone can involve heavy lifting, with some of the necessary sanders reaching upward of 100 pounds and saws, in addition to the steady hand control noted above, ranging from 8 to 65 pounds. Other tools necessary to complete the job may not be quite as hefty, but given the repetitive nature of the tasks involved, a 12-pound floor nailer can feel closer to 50 pounds after a while. Add in the significant amount of time spent bent over, which can place added strain on your back, and you may be pushing your physical limits.
Solid Subfloors: To properly install hardwood flooring, the subfloor underneath it — whether plywood or concrete — should not differ more than 3/16 inch per 10 feet. It should also be structurally sound and free of any significant waves, trowel marks or burnishing, which, depending on the material, may require significant sanding or grinding, or additional plywood or concrete adhesive, to level. If your subfloor is in poor condition, you may want to call in a professional, because without a strong base, you’re already setting yourself up for a dysfunctional installation. Note: Concrete subfloors can handle 5/16-inch-thick planks and engineered wood, but not 3/4-inch-thick planks.
Aesthetics and durability play a big role in choosing the right flooring for your application. Your level of comfort with the items discussed above may also dictate the type of product you wish to use. Here are the three types you are most likely to install and the benefits of each:
Unfinished hardwood floors provide a greater margin for error and flexibility in style, but are more time- and labor-intensive to install and finish. Credit: Golden Eagle Log Homes photo
Pros: Unfinished boards provide a blank slate that can be stained to virtually any color or appearance you wish, with trim available to stain to match. The ability to sand them allows for a greater margin of error should you need to remove a nail, sand out scuff marks or clean up a bad stain job, and creates a more seamless look overall. If you plan to install hardwood flooring in more than one room, unfinished flooring can provide greater continuity between spaces.
Cons: Obviously, the project will be more time-intensive, with considerable time spent on sanding, staining and sealing the floor; the space will also be unusable during this time as you wait for the layers to completely dry. The fumes from the sealant — often containing polyurethane — can also create a temporary air-quality hazard.
Pros: Pre-finished boards take out some of the final steps of completing a hardwood flooring installation project, making it quicker and easier to install while still providing a quality, attractive product. The factory finish often provides better protection over wear and tear, and may even be under warranty by the manufacturer, providing you extra protection as well should anything happen.
Cons: Because they’re already stained and sealed, you’re limited to the color and style options available; should these styles be discontinued, it could be difficult to find replacement boards in the future. Also, if you make a mistake — be it a misaligned nail or scratch — you will need to toss the piece, rather than sand or buff the error out of the wood, as you can with unfinished planks. Because it is not sanded on-site, it may more easily show subfloor irregularities.
Pros: Because they are less likely to expand and contract than full hardwoods, engineered wood may be installed in areas prone to higher humidity levels, such as bathrooms and possibly basements, or over radiant-floor heating. Similar to pre-finished products, engineered wood also is ready to go after installation. Some require a nail-in, tongue-and-groove system; other products may use glue applications or floating planks — in which the planks are essentially locked together and float above the subfloor, allowing them to be easily installed over virtually any type of material.
Cons: Each board is essentially a hardwood veneer placed on top of other woods, so engineered wood floors may not be refinished in some cases because the top layer is too thin to be sanded, decreasing its durability in comparison to other hardwoods. That same veneer is also pre-finished, so the same cons as pre-finished wood apply. If using the floating-plank system, steer clear of moisture-prone areas, as water can collect between the subfloor and flooring, potentially causing the latter to rot.