Dear Gals & Guys
We are facing the challenge of whether to make the floor run north/south (toe nail) or east/west (butt joint). This is a dream home so it’s important that we get this right. We would appreciate your input on factors such as wood movement, appearance, ease of tiling over later, etc. If you have installed a floating floor somewhere other than over an existing subfloor and tiled directly to the floating floor without using OSB underlayment, please let us know! Thank you. –Jeff from Colorado
ANSWER: Hi, Jeff. Which way should I join my boards? What do you mean by “butt joint” and “toe nail?” Answer: Butt joints are the location of the joints in a wood floor by nailing the two boards end-to-end. The opposite method is toe-nailing, where you cut a tongue on one edge of each board and fit those tongues into grooves on the edges of adjacent boards. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but there are some advantages to butt joining that you should consider.
The most important thing to remember is that hardwood floors expand and contract across the grain faster than they do with it. This means that your north/south running floor in Colorado will see more movement than an east/west running one would have. But how much more? And what difference does it make?
Bruce White of World Flooring Inc. in Fort Collins, Colorado, has installed numerous floors that run east and west. In our conversation with him, he said the difference is not measurable by any scientific means short of precise equipment that measures movement to within a thousandth of an inch over thousands of square feet. “It’s less than 1/64”, he guesses, “maybe as high as three-eighths.” When we asked whether people ever complain about unevenness due to this difference, he laughed and said no one ever makes even a passing mention. (When running north/south, though, I have heard more complaints.) The severity and direction of seasonal movement across the grain depends on your location–hotter, drier areas will see the most movement. That means that the butted joints may have a little bit of play, which is no problem at all–the flow can be taken up on the flooring and there’s plenty of room for expansion at the boards.
It’s usually 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 don’t cut into your subflooring when you screw down your underlayment. This extra thickness helps reduce squeaks as well as minor gaps that could develop over time between the top plate and subflooring.
But what about aesthetics? Does it matter which way your boards run, north/south or east/west? Should you butt them together or toe nail them? First off, I think it is important that when the joints are visible at all, because of a thin seam where two boards join (which they do more often than not), then it doesn’t matter which direction you go. But if there’s an existing floor and a new board will have a continuous joint with its neighbor above and below, then it might look better to move those joints in the same direction–in this case, you would toenail the boards in a north/south direction.
Toe nailing will look better if there’s a noticeable color difference between your baseboard and skirt board, or different flooring on either side of the seam. Butt joints have less color variation between them, especially at butt ends where both pieces come to a sharp edge–without any rounding, there is almost no visual transition and it looks like a straight cut. This is not necessarily bad when considering aesthetics. It all depends on the look you’re trying to achieve–if you want something that blends well with your walls and windows, then butt joining it is best; if you’d rather emphasize that those panels are individual boards (or even highlight them as such), then toe nailing in the same direction is a better option.
When installing your floors, it’s best to nail or screw through the tongue into the groove on all four sides of every board you install. If you don’t nail them down tight from underneath, they might come loose due to seasonal movements caused not only by expansion and contraction across grain but also by movement parallel with the grain (and sometimes even perpendicular). You want to have those boards held fast so that they don’t move around or pop up over time. Moisture will also be able to wick up through these joints if they are not sealed completely. Even though some people think hardwood floors need to breathe, this isn’t true–it’s humidifiers we want to keep dry, but not the floor itself.
So which way you run your boards is more a matter of aesthetics than anything else, and whether or not your walls are straight should have nothing to do with it. But regardless of directionality, be sure that you nail them down well from underneath! After all, we live in the age of Swedish death metal; floors should quake when you walk on them–not so much that they shake apart or anything like that (please don’t do this), just subtly enough to remind us how great music really is. Hardwood floors needn’t whisper–let ’em scream!
Good luck with your floor and your dream house!