Dear Gals and Guys:

We are in the precarious position of having to decide whether we want the floor to run east–west or north–south (toenail) (butt joint). Because this is the house of our dreams, it is essential that we get everything just right. We would be grateful for your feedback on issues such as the mobility of the wood, how it looks, how easy it is to tile over it later, etc. Please let us know if you have installed a floating floor in a location other than over an already existing subfloor and tiled straight to the floating floor without adding OSB underlayment. Thank you. Jeff, who is local to Colorado

An answer: Hello there, Jeff. Which direction should I put the boards together? What exactly do you mean when you refer to the “butt joint” and the “toenail”? Butt joints are the locations of the joints on a wooden floor that are created by nailing two boards end-to-end to one another. Toenailing, on the other hand, involves cutting a tongue down one side of each board and then fitting those tongues into grooves along the edges of boards that are adjacent to one another. There is no inherent flaw in either way; however, you ought to give some thought to the benefits that come with using the butt-connecting method.

Keep in mind that hardwood floors expand and contract more quickly across the grain than they do with it. This is the single most crucial fact to keep in mind. This indicates that a floor running east to west in Colorado will have less foot traffic than a floor going north to south, because people tend to walk in the opposite direction. But how much further can we go? And how does that even affect anything?

Bruce White, who owns World Flooring Inc. and is based in Fort Collins, Colorado, is responsible for the installation of a number of floors that run in an east-west direction. During the course of our interaction with him, he shared with us that the difference cannot be determined by any scientific method, with the exception of extremely precise technology that measures movement to within a thousandth of an inch over thousands of square feet. He makes a wild guess and says, “It is less than 1/64, maybe as high as three-eighths.” When we asked him if people ever complain about the unevenness that is caused by this discrepancy, he smiled and claimed that nobody ever even makes a passing note of it. (However, I have encountered a greater number of complaints when running from north to south.) The intensity and direction of seasonal movement across the grain will differ depending on where you are located. Hotter and drier regions will witness the most movement across the grain. That indicates that the butted joints may have some play, which is not an issue at all because the flow may be absorbed by the flooring, and there is plenty of room for expansion at the board level.

It is generally a good idea to butt your top plates to each other with a half-inch shim behind them (measured from front face to front face), or even two pieces of 1/2″ x 2″ lumber scabbed together, so that you do not cut into your subflooring when you screw down your underlayment. This will prevent you from having to replace your subflooring in the future. This additional thickness helps to eliminate squeaks and tiny gaps that may develop over time between the top plate and the subflooring by providing a buffer against the expansion and contraction of the two layers.

But what about the way things look? Does it make a difference whether the direction your boards run is north to south or east to west? Which is better, butting the edges together or toenailing them? To begin, I believe it is essential to emphasize that it does not make a difference in which direction you travel when the joints are visible in any way, as a result of a thin seam that forms where two boards join (which is something that occurs more frequently than not). However, if there is already a floor in place and a new board will have a continuous junction with its neighbor both above and below, then it could seem better to shift those joints in the same direction. In this scenario, you would toenail the boards in a direction that runs from north to south.

If there is a discernible color variation between your baseboard and skirt board or different flooring on either side of the seam, the toenails will appear better. This is also true if there is a difference in the flooring on either side of the seam. Butt joints have less color variation between them, particularly at the butt ends where both pieces come to a sharp edge; without any rounding, there is essentially no visual transition, and it seems to be a straight cut. This is because the butt ends are where both pieces come to a point. When we take into consideration the aesthetics, this is not necessarily a negative thing. If you want something that blends well with your walls and windows, then butting it is the best option; if you would rather emphasize that those panels are individual boards (or even highlight them as such), then toenailing in the same direction is the better option. It all depends on the look you are trying to achieve.

When you are putting in your flooring, it is ideal to nail or screw through the tongue and into the groove on all four sides of every board that you install. This will ensure that your floors are secure. Take, for example, the case where you do not nail them down securely from underneath. In that instance, they could become dislodged as a result of seasonal movements brought on by expansion and contraction across the grain as well as movement parallel to the grain (and sometimes even perpendicular). It is important to have those boards fastened firmly in place so that they do not shift or become dislodged over time. If these connections are not properly sealed, then there is a chance that moisture will be able to soak through them. It is a common misconception that hardwood floors require ventilation; however, this is not the case. Humidifiers, not the floor itself, should be kept dry for optimal performance.

Therefore, the direction in which you run your boards is more of an issue of aesthetics than it is of anything else, and the degree to which your walls are straight should have little bearing on the decision. However, regardless of the directionality, you need to make sure that you secure them firmly from the bottom up! After all, we are living in the age of Swedish death metal; floors should shake when you walk on them. Not so much that they shake apart or anything like that (please do not do this), but just softly enough to remind us how wonderful music actually is. Let your hardwood floors scream if you want—there is no reason to keep them quiet!

I wish you the best of luck with your floor and with building your dream house!

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