Aside from the decision of choosing that you want an engineered timber floor in your home, could there be a more significant decision than choosing whether to float or direct stick your floor? We think not and we have a feeling this information won’t go unread.
There are positive and negative implications associated with direct sticking and floating floors (usual bias to the writer’s preference), and we felt it necessary to write a comprehensive blog on this hot topic which weighs fairly both sides of the argument. Later on, we also include a third option for solid timber flooring insulation.
So what’s to consider, we hear you ask?
Well, in general terms, we feel the two overarching points are:
- One method is final and permanent & one is adaptable for change and more DIY-friendly
- The bias of many suppliers and installers to favour one option that may suit them over another
We ask you the reader to apply the information below with the following points in the back of your mind:
- Do you want the flooring to be a long-term option?
- What is your subfloor?
- Will you take the DIY path?
- Acclimatisation of the product.
Pros and Cons of Floating Your Engineered Floor
Floating floors are called floating floors because they float on top of a subfloor. The subfloor is the structural floor of your home, whether it is concrete, chipboard or timber. What you are laying your flooring product over the top of is your subfloor. A floating floor is not permanently bonded to the subfloor; in fact, it’s not bonded to the subfloor in any way. It is the product’s weight and friction that holds it in place.
A floating floor board itself is made up of different layers of hardwood meshed together offering excellent strength. A typical Engineered Timber floating floor may weigh between 10 and 15 kilograms per square meter. If you lay 80 square meters of flooring, there is a significant weight that will hold the flooring in place, with a large surface area creating friction. Provided the product is acclimatised properly (we cover below), floating floors are designed to expand &contract with humidity levels in a range of environments. Although easily changed, floating floors are designed with longevity in mind.
Compared to floating other types of flooring such as laminate; engineered hardwoods are more durable and offer longevity provided you go for the thicker option and can also be refinished.
Pros of a Floating Floor
- More DIY-friendly option
- Much faster installation time
- No drying time with adhesives: The floor can usually be walked on immediately.
- Less expensive installation
- Easy to remove the flooring later if you ever want a change
- Easier to replace a single floorboard or part of the flooring if need be
- You can sell your old floor on eBay or Gumtree years down the track if you want to
- If you are trying to install a floor over a surface a direct stick floor cant go over the top of it may be more convenient just to float the floor instead of changing the sub-floor composition
Side note: The floating floor concept came about in Europe, where people tended to take their kitchens, lights and their floors with them when they moved house.
Cons of a Floating Floor
- Acoustics are not as good, and it has a hollow sound that a lot of people don’t like. It is often referred to as ‘click-clack’ flooring
- You can feel movement underneath you with a floating floor because it is not fixed. It does not feel as solid under your feet
- The floating floor will grow and shrink more than a directly stuck floor
- It is difficult to sand and recoats a floated floor. Floating floors tend to bounce when a sanding disk from a poly-vac machine is applied. This can cause radial ring marks throughout the floor
- Floating floors require a separate underlay which adds to the cost
- More susceptible to moisture
Side note: Floating floors will still hold enough weight even for small areas such as a 3 x 3.5m Bedroom.
Side note: Creaking in floated flooring generally occurs due to changes in temperature and humidity. The slight changes of size and shape in the individual boards create latent energy which is released as the floor is walked on and manifests as noise. This can be avoided by gluing the joins on a floated floor.
Pros and Cons of Direct Sticking Your Engineered Floor
Direct Sticking an Engineered Timber floor is essentially the opposite of a floating floor in nearly every way. It is bonded directly to the subfloor.
With a floated floor, the individual boards are locked or glued to each other. You don’t glue them to the subfloor.
With a direct stuck floor, each board gets individually glued to the floor with adhesive. The individual boards are not stuck to each other.
Subfloor Considerations: In any case, if you want to have a flat subfloor, adhesive can be a great way to even up a marginally uneven floor. With a floated floor, you must adhere to the supplier’s guidelines, which are far stricter than Australian standards.
Pros of a Direct Stuck Floor
- In every way, to all but the most educated eye, a direct stuck engineered floor is indistinguishable from a solid timber floor once it is laid. It will sound, look and feel like a solid timber floor
- Easier to refinish. There is no movement or bounce during the floor sanding process. This is because the floor is stuck directly in place
- A direct Stuck Floor will grow and shrink less than a floated floor because it is fixed and restrained in position.
- A direct stuck engineered floor will grow and shrink less than a solid timber floor because of its engineered, cross-laminated construction
- Minimises the size and frequency of expansion breaks in your floor
- If your flooring is slightly more unlevel but still within reason; a direct stuck system can be a more favourable option to avoid having to be too fanatical about levelling
- Holds its value
- Less susceptible to moisture
Cons of a Direct Stuck Floor
- Damage becomes hard to repair. You will need to rely on other options such as repair kits, wax & fillers. To be clear, though, this is usually how timber floors are repaired anyway
- Additional flooring (other floating floors,) should not be laid over the top of a direct stick floor because the floor needs to be able to breathe. The direct stuck floor can grow and buckle if it cannot breathe, breaking through the additional floor covering
- The direct stuck floor is considered a permanent fixture. The amount of work involved in removing and preparing the subfloor can make changing the floor cost-prohibitive
- Cost is higher for installation and materials
- Far less DIY-friendly for reasons explained above
- Most adhesives require a moisture barrier to be added to the subfloor, which will add cost
- You cannot direct stick to a yellow tongue or chipboard floor: ply sheeting needs to be screwed in place over these flooring types before you can direct stick. This is yet another cost, and will also increase the height of the floor
Solvent Based & Solvent Free Adhesives
If you decide to use the direct stick method, we aren’t too fussed about the adhesive brand, as long as it is solvent-free. Solvent-based adhesives dry very hard, in a very similar way to Plasti-bond. If there is any slab movement underneath the floor, the adhesive can crack because it has little to no flexibility. If you are dual bonding over a rubber underlay (for acoustic reasons,) solvents will also break down the rubber over time. Solvent-free (rubberised) adhesives are flexible, allowing for a small amount of slab movement that will not crack the Adhesive’s bond to your flooring as a solvent-based adhesive can.
DIY / Installation Comparison
In case you haven’t already guessed, floating floor installation is more straightforward than direct stick application. Working with adhesives in both their use and understanding is an area that skilled tradespeople spend many years developing. For this reason, unless you are a very skilled handy-person, it is best to have a licensed professional install a direct stuck timber floor.
As expected, the type of locking system on the flooring will have a bearing on DIY installation. For direct sticking to the subfloor, a tongue and groove system is the easiest option to use. The tongue and groove slot into place, and the adhesive sets with the floor in that position. There is no trying to get joining systems together while the adhesive is setting. You simply put the plank into the adhesive and then slide it into position.
For a floated floor, using a locking system is the easier option, as you do not have to use adhesives for the most part. You also do not have to worry about movement on the floor creating gaps between boards as the adhesive is setting. The locking system pulls itself tight.
A tongue and groove system can still be used in a floated application and a locking system can still be used in a direct stick application. There is no issue in either case: all will work. It is simply a question of which is easier.
Refinishing Engineered Flooring – Can It Be Done?
Refinishing involves cutting the wear layer (polyurethane) from your floor with a sander and reapplying a coating of some form. When you do this, you typically lose about 1mm of the timber from your floor. This then gives your floor a limited lifespan before you have cut the veneer away totally.
Instead of letting the floor go in this manner, you can do what is known as a light cutback. You can choose to do this after about 3 years, and rather than taking the coating (and timber,) off completely, the coating is just roughed up with light-grade sandpaper. A single coat of Polyurethane is then applied, and your floor is back where it began. This may appear to be a more expensive option, but the reality is you leave your veneer close to 100% intact. The life of the engineered floor then becomes indefinite.
‘If you do decide to take the coating off of your floor, a wide world of other finishing options become available to you, as you are essentially back to bare wood. Oiling is an option that requires more regular maintenance but never requires you to apply a sander to your floor. Oil can also make scratches instantly disappear. Oiled Floors if kept healthy have a natural look that is hard to replicate.
Hard Wax oil is also an option and falls somewhere between an oiled floor and a lacquered floor in terms of maintenance. It also has a beautiful, natural look that is hard to replicate. You may also decide that you want to recolour your floor, apply reactive stains, or any combination of options that are generally not available ‘out of the box’.
Acclimatisation of Solid & Engineered Timber Flooring
Some (not all) installation guides from suppliers are simple to cut and paste from documents made for other flooring markets. They are not written with the Australian climate in mind and are instead targeted at much smaller environments. Australia has a vast range of climates compared to most other countries, and this needs to be considered with natural flooring like Timber.
Acclimatisation is a significant factor for any timber flooring and should happen before the timber is installed for the safest installation. Timber is a natural product that wants to meet equilibrium with your climate and will take in (grow,) and release (shrink,) moisture accordingly.
Typically a timber floor will be cured in a factory overseas with between 7- 9% Environmental Moisture Content (EMC). When you transport this product to the Eastern Sea Board of Australia, it’s going to rise to 14 – 15% EMC when opened and aired. That means it can be up to 8% EMC higher than the time you take it out of the box.
To put this in perspective: according to an extensive study on timber flooring growth rates by ATFA (Australasian Timber Flooring Association,) timber with a ply core, will typically grow .6mm per metre for every additional 5% that it rises in EMC.
From here, you have two choices:
- Do nothing to acclimatise your flooring and deal with product growth or shrinkage problems later.
- Acclimatise the product and let it come close to equilibrium before you put it on the floor.
In very real terms, not acclimating your floor can be like putting a restrained spring on your floor and letting it loose.
Of course, from our point of view, you are far better off acclimatising the floor before the product is laid. It can then equalise with the environment before installation. From here, it will still grow and shrink a little with the seasons, but the initial growth cycle will already have occurred. You may get lucky in the sense that your product has come from a warehouse with similar environmental conditions to your home. But without measuring the Moisture Content of your floor, there will be no way to know this.
So here is how to acclimatise your floor:
- Take the boxed flooring into your house before installation (not the garage). Stack the boxes in piles on your floor.
- Open the ends of the boxes. If there is an internal plastic membrane around the timber, tear it open.
- Let it sit like this and breathe for a few weeks.
Simple right? Nearly time for a beer but let’s learn the theory behind it.
This will allow the timber to get used to the environment. If you are in a dry or moist environment, you may want to give it a little longer. In general, the longer that you acclimatise your floor, the better off you are. You only need to open the ends of the boxes because this allows layers of the flooring to acclimate in a restrained state. This will help the floor boards to maintain their shape and prevent warping that will occur if the boards acclimate without restraint. This will also help to reduce any noise normally associated with a floated floor.
Although most flooring stores won’t approach the issue, acclimatisation is essential in Australia. Not addressing this issue is a bit like deciding to play in the middle of a highway: You may not get hit, but there is a pretty good chance that it is going to happen and the result will not be pretty.
Secret Nail Direct Stick Application & Solid Flooring
We couldn’t finish a blog without addressing the elephant in the room: solid timber flooring.
Everything we have discussed above has been regarding engineered flooring; to be clear, there is no floated option for a solid timber floor. No Caveat.
For Solid timber flooring, we strongly recommend using only a professional installer. Again, no caveat.
You can direct stick flooring to concrete, but with subfloors such as chipboard and yellow tongue, you are unable to use adhesive to fix your flooring down.
In all cases case, the following needs to occur:
- Screw plywood over the top first
- Direct stick the product to the plywood
- As you lay each row of flooring, apply secret nails
Simple in theory, a headache in real life.
Secret nailing on tongue and groove timber starts with top nailing your first row of timber on the side of the plank that meets the wall that you are laying away from. From here, you secret nail each piece of timber to the floor with a nail through the internal bottom corner of the female join using a nail gun.
It is best to use a combination of direct sticking and secret nails with solid timber floors. The plywood bonds well with the adhesive, and the secret nail application further increases the likelihood of a successful installation. Recent fluctuations in weather conditions have caused timber flooring to undergo enormous stress, and this method helps to safeguard against that and provides an extra level of security.