Save money installing hardwood floors

How a California family finished project in two days

Our friend Wes Clark is an inveterate golfer. He’s a whole lot more comfortable swinging a pitching wedge than a hammer. So, on a recent warm Saturday morning — perfect weather for 18 holes — it was strange to see him on his hands and knees in the spare bedroom of his Castro Valley, Calif., home, nailing down a hardwood floor.

"I talked it over with my friends. One by one, they all said, ‘Don’t do it, you’ll mess it up.’ That made me want to do it more. Hey, I took wood shop in junior high, even built a telescope from scratch once. I’m comfortable with tools and I figured it couldn’t be that hard."

Having made the decision to be do-it-yourselfers, Wes, 57, and his wife, Hui Ping, headed off to the land of "You can do it. We can help." After spending a half-hour or so in the flooring aisle of Home Depot, they decided on prefinished tongue-and-groove stick flooring in a scraped Manchurian walnut.

"We were making the room into an office; we wanted something rich and dark. The walnut complemented our furniture, and it contrasted nicely with the white walls," Clark said.

Wes and Hui Ping had plenty of choices. Not only are there dozens of types of wood and finishes, but there are also various types of materials and installation methods. And prices can range from as little as $2 per square foot to $20 or more.

They could have chosen a floating laminate floor, which is made of a dense fiberboard core with a paper pattern layer sealed under high pressure with polymers. No nails or glue needed. It is sold as planks that snap together to form a monolith that "floats." Laminate flooring is the least expensive choice, but top-of-the-line versions look anything but cheap. It’s also very durable and scratch resistant. It sells for about $2 to $7 a foot.

Another choice, and usually a step up in price, would have been an engineered hardwood floor. These look similar to laminate floors and are installed the same way. What makes them different is that the top layer is hardwood. They can be sanded and refinished. An engineered hardwood floor is less durable than laminate, but many people prefer the warmth and patterns of natural wood to laminate. Engineered hardwood flooring sells for about $4 to $10 a foot and up.

Wes and Hui Ping chose a nail-down stick floor. This type of flooring is all wood. Traditionally it came in different lengths that were butted together, and then face-nailed to the subfloor. The nails were countersunk and the holes were filled before the floor was sanded. Nowadays, most of this flooring is tongue-and-groove. The nails are put in at an angle through the tongue so that they are sunk below the floor’s surface. No filling and no visible nails. This flooring can come finished or unfinished. It can cost as little as $3 a foot and as much as $20 or more.

The Manchurian walnut was on closeout, and the price had been reduced to $5 a foot. Wes and Hui Ping put in their order for 15 boxes, or about 250 square feet. It would take three weeks to arrive. On the way out of Home Depot, Wes picked up a book: "Flooring 1-2-3."

While waiting for their new floor, Wes and Hui Ping got busy with the prep work. They pulled out the carpet and carefully removed the baseboard, having drawn a diagram and numbered the pieces so they could be replaced easily after the new floor was in. They put a fresh coat of paint on the walls and ceiling and stapled a layer of building felt to the subfloor.

Wes bought a portable table saw and a finish blade for it. He reserved an air compressor and two pneumatic nail guns at a nearby tool rental store.

As a serial remodeler, Bill can’t resist this type of project. He figured he could lend a hand and maybe offer a few pointers. When Bill arrived at midmorning that warm Saturday, he could hear the pop-pop of the nailer and the rattle of the compressor. Wes, Hui Ping and their teenage daughter, Julie, were hard at work.

A pro could have installed the floor in a few hours. It took a lot longer for this crew, which worked slowly and was always careful to measure twice and cut once. Wes handled the nail guns and manhandled the heavy boxes of flooring, while Hui Ping and Julie selected the boards and did the measuring and marking. Bill ran the table saw, making untold numbers of trips up and down the stairs from where Wes had set up the saw on the back patio.

By day’s end, 80 percent of the floor was in — and looking pretty darn good. It helped that Julie wouldn’t tolerate slipshod work. For her, perfect was good enough.

Bill came back at 8 a.m. Sunday. Fueled by Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Wes, Hui Ping and Julie had already been at it for an hour. By 11 that morning the floor was in and the baseboard back up. Wes, Julie and Hui Ping were able to make the 1 p.m. curtain for a play in San Francisco.

Was it worth it? And wouldn’t Wes rather have been out on the golf course?

"When we first started looking, it seemed that if we hired an installer, we would have to spend $5,000 to get the type of floor we wanted. Well, we got what we wanted and ended up spending a grand," Clark said.

"The actual installation is the fun part. It’s all the stuff beforehand — moving furniture, painting, hauling 80-pound boxes of wood up the stairs — that’s the drudgery."

Would he do it again?

"Well, I wouldn’t do a whole house, but another room or two? Sure. This really built my confidence. My parents were do-it-yourselfers back in the ’50s, when people didn’t have too much money. They taught me about the satisfaction of a job done well."

Does he have any advice for others who are thinking about installing their own hardwood floors?

"Buy a good pair of kneepads."

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