Vinyl Tile Cutter

Cutting sheet vinyl–accurately–is a monumental pain, and it’s nice when a good crew of pros does it for you. So, you might start to think:  Hmm, tile vinyl flooring…easy.

By contrast, vinyl tile (i.e., usually twelve inches square) seems like a walk in the park.  What could be easier?  Slice the stuff apart with a utility knife, and you’re done.  Right?

Difficult to Cut with Utility Knife

Not so fast.  Sure, you can cut with a utility knife–and even using a tile cutter, you’ll still be using a utility knife for many cuts–but problems do happen:

  • Wiggly cuts due to your straightedge moving.
  • Unsightly seams and gaps because you did not position your utility knife perpendicular to the tile when cutting.
  • And that other minor detail–injury.

A vinyl tile cutter works just like a paper cutter.  Stick the tile in and slice away!  An accurate, straight, and perpendicular cut every time.  But is it worth buying the thing?

Buy a Vinyl Tile Cutter?

Vinyl Tile Cutter

I would say yes.  You can rent a vinyl tile cutter, and even though rental charges are cheap, it really limits your tile installation time.  With any kind of rental, you know that another day is another dollar (or ten).

So, the real entry-level El Cheapo is this one, the Roberts Quick-Cut Vinyl Tile Cutter, which takes tiles up to twelve inches square.  It’s available at your local orange-and-white big box home improvement store and lots of other places, as well.

When I checked it was fifty bucks.  Now, it’s not a fine piece of machinery, by any means.  I suspect that it will get you through 3 rooms before falling apart into a million pieces, but what did you expect?  It’s not like you’re going to start your new vinyl tile installation career with this thing.

Do You Need a Flooring Jack?

Tough question, so before we talk flooring jacks, let’s ask about your circumstances:

Are you a professional installer?  If yes, then you need a flooring jack.  But you probably know this already.

Tougher question:  Are you a DIY floor installer?  If yes, then we’ll ask if you have more than one room to install.  A multiple room installation makes it worth renting or buying a flooring jack.  But first, let’s get down to basics:

What is a Flooring Jack?

Jacks tend to be used vertically, right?  After all, whether raising a house or raising a car, that’s the direction of gravity.

But when you’re installing floors, you care less about up-and-down stresses than you do about lateral stresses.  Wood floor installation is all about getting those floorboards tight into place, and sometimes all the pounding and smacking will do nothing.  In fact, pounding and smacking is not always the best option, or even a viable one.

How Will You Use a Flooring Jack?

Flooring Jack

You will use a flooring jack for many things:

  • If you are installing wood flooring by yourself, a flooring jack is your helpful “second hand.”
  • To hold in a course of floorboards that you are nailing.  After all, sometimes the boards don’t always cooperate.
  • For those critical situations where you might otherwise try to “improvise.”  Say you’ve got a slightly bowed floorboard.  The flooring jack will down in the bowed-out side so that you can nail it into place.

Red Rosin Paper for Installing Floors

After you’ve got a good, smooth, stable subfloor and underlayment, the last step before installing the finish flooring–red rosin paper.

This stuff mystified me the first time I saw it installed.  I thought:  Isn’t there anything better to lay down as a moisture barrier?  Well, for one thing, you don’t want an absolutely impermeable moisture block–otherwise, you could just lay down sheet plastic, right?

If you don’t want to read the rest of this article, the upshot is this:  red rosin paper is a perfectly acceptable type of protective layer to use for installing wood floors.  But for some details, read on:

Is Red Rosin Paper Waterproof?

Red Rosin Paper
No, and it doesn’t pretend to be waterproof.

Red rosin paper has certain “breathability” attributes that you need for wood flooring, because wood flooring needs to breathe, too.  If you’re worried that red rosin paper is just plain old paper, it’s not.  Rosin, after all, is derived from resin, the pitch that comes from pine trees and has long been used as a waterproofing material.

What About Builder’s Felt?

Still, why use it?  Even some professional floor installers question whether red rosin paper is the best protective surface to us, many preferring instead to use good old 15 lb. builder’s felt.  Since floor installers bear the costs of the protective layer, it’s in their best interest to use something that is cost-effective, and red rosin paper certainly is.  The 15 lb. builder’s felt isn’t much more expensive, though installers say that it’s not much more of a moisture barrier than the red rosin.

The consensus is that whether red rosin paper or builder’s felt, the purpose is to slow the passage of moisture.  After all, you’re peppering the subfloor with about 9 million nails, how can you truly make it waterproof anyway?

Sealed Concrete Floor: Problem for New Floor Installation?

Laying some types of finish flooring straight atop concrete slab has its ups and its downs.  Most concrete is in fairly level condition–after all, it’s a quasi-liquidfied substance that is largely self-leveling.  But one problem you’ll often run into is sealed concrete.

It may seem that sealed concrete is a perfect surface to lay down finish flooring.  What could be cleaner and less porous than concrete with sealant on it?

Well, as it turns out, sealed concrete is not the best surface…

Find Out – Is the Concrete Sealed?

Dip your fingers in a cup of water and sprinkle some drops onto the concrete slab.  Does the water bead up?  If so, it could be that the concrete is impregnated with oil or some other substance that repels water–in which case you still need to thoroughly clean the thing.

But if water beads up all around the flooring, you’ll know it’s been sealed.

How to Remove Concrete Sealant

Concrete Floor Grinder

Your finish flooring adhesives actually need a porous surface in order to bond well; slick does not do the job.  There is no substance that I know of that will allow you to blister and peel/scrape away concrete sealant, in the manner that you might strip paint from woodwork.

Your only option is to rent a concrete floor grinder at the rate of around $80-100 per day and roughen up the surface.

While some concrete experts may disagree with me–and hey, they’re the experts–my take on the matter is that not every single square inch needs to be thoroughly blasted away.  As long as the majority of the concrete surface is exposed, that’s enough for your flooring adhesive or mortar to “take.”

Nailing Underlayment

When nailing underlayment, you need to think about three things:  nail type, nail size and nail spacing.

Sure, it may be tempting to grab just any old nail in your shop and start pounding away, but in the case the wages of sin are high:  nails popping up through carpeting and even laminate floor; floor squeaking; and general homeowner misery.  So, spend two minutes and get this one right.  Getting the right kind of nail and spacing these nails correctly very much fits in with my idea of how to remodel.

Type of Nails

First, you’ll be using ring shank nails.  Do not even think about using any other type of nail, because ring shank nails are designed to stay in place.  Loose nails and wood-against-wood friction are the two main sources of floor squeaks.

But this goes beyond mere wood squeaks.  You do want your floor securely fastened, don’t you?  I thought so.  Then use ring shank nails.  Ring shank nails are perfectly designed for floor installation.

Size of Nails

Ring Shank Nail - Note the Ridges?
Ring Shank Nail - Note the Ridges?

Pick up packs of 3d ring shank nails.  These are 1.25 inches long and can be used for underlayment that ranges up to 1/2 thick.

If you so happen to have thicker underlayment (3/4 inch or more), then use 4d ring shank nails.  These are 1.5 inches long, plenty long to drive through that over-sized, over-thick underlayment.

Nail Spacing

Now, here’s the part that sucks.  Nail spacing?  You basically need to pepper that underlayment board everywhere, and by everywhere I mean:

  • On the edge:  3 inches apart
  • In the main area of the board:  6 inches apart

One saving grace of using those thicker underlayment panels (1/2 inch thick or more) is that you can cut the spacing in half.  So, for example, edge spacing would be 6 inches apart, and so on.

Is the Concrete Slab is Ready for Flooring?

If you’ve got a concrete slab, you’re in luck.  In a best case scenario, concrete slabs provide a (relatively) glass-smooth surface for flooring and are so stable that you should never have squeaks. But one thing to keep in mind with installing flooring directly on concrete is that concrete has a lot of moisture…and it retains moisture for a long time.

Huge concrete projects retain moisture seemingly forever.  Hoover Dam supposedly is still drying out and cooling down from its pour over 75 years ago.

If the tape doesn’t hold down the plastic, then the concrete might be too dirty…or too moist even to hold down tape.

Back to the residential world, how do you know if the concrete slab is ready for flooring?  Moisture is your biggest culprit, so do these things:

  • Well, first of all you’ve got to wait a good three or four days.  Concrete will not be dry before then.
  • But after that 3-4 day waiting period, you can tape a square of clear plastic to the surface of the concrete.  The plastic doesn’t have to be very big–maybe two feet square.
  • Now, tape down the entire perimeter of the plastic with duct tape.  Make sure it’s down good and tight.
  • Wait 24 hours.
  • If you come back and find fogging, beads of water,or any evidence of moisture on the inside part of the plastic, it’s not time to install flooring yet.  Wait a day, then tape down the plastic again.

How to Remove Threshold Before Installing Floor

This is a neat little trick that can save heartache.  How do you remove a threshold when you want to install flooring?  More importantly, you may wonder why you need to remove the threshold prior to floor installation…

The fact is, you do need to remove that threshold; there is no way to get around it. Even if you are not installing flooring, there may be times when you just want to remove the threshold so that you can put in a new one.  Thresholds get a lot of traffic and thus they get damaged.  Thresholds that no longer do their job are not effective.

The reason thresholds are terrible to remove is because the ends are trapped under the door casing.  One way to remove the threshold is (obviously) to knock out the door casing.  Good luck there.  That opens up a host of other problems.

Remove Threshold

Cut Threshold to Remove It

So, what you need to do is cut the threshold into two or more pieces with a miter saw.  This allows you to use a prybar to pry up an edge of the now-cut threshold.  Keep in mind that you’ll still have the end trapped under the casing, so you need to wiggle it to remove it.

What if there is a nail directly under the door casing?  I would recommend cutting the threshold once again, as near to the bottom of the door casing as you can get.

Why Stagger End Joints on Subflooring?

Subflooring goes directly on top of your floor joists.  It is pretty much a no-brainer.  Or is it?  Well, one thing to keep in mind is that your end joints–or corners–need to have a certain staggered pattern.

I’ve never one for doing unnecessary work.  For one, I hate the idea of applying subfloor adhesive (nice thing, but not absolutely necessary), but staggering your subfloor end joints definitely should be done.  And it’s not all that hard to do.

What’s Your Subfloor Material?

You’ll most likely be using either plywood or OSB for your subfloor material.  If plywood, remember that the grain goes perpendicular to the joists.  For OSB, it doesn’t matter:  OSB has no grain.

If you want to go fancy-schmantzy, you can use tongue-and-groove plywood subfloor.  Just like it says, it’s plywood, but with a tongue that fits into a groove of the neighboring panel.  This isn’t really necessary, but if you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, why not?

Avoid End Joints that Form a Cross

The worst thing you can do is end up with joints forming a cross like so:

Plywood Subfloor Layout Incorrect
Plywood Subfloor Layout Incorrect

The reason is because those corner areas will deflect and become unstable.  In fact, you don’t want this kind of arrangement with any kind of building material.  Drywall is another application where you never want to have these corners meeting up like a cross.

Stagger Subfloor End Joints

Instead, you need to stagger the end joints like this:

Plywood Subfloor Layout Correct
Plywood Subfloor Layout Correct

It’s just like brickwork.  You never see bricks laid out in a grid-like pattern.  Bricks are laid stagger-formation for a good reason:  it’s structurally stable.

Same with subflooring.  Staggering the corners makes for a highly strong subfloor, and a better and smoother surface for your finish flooring to rest on.

Learn About Types of Subfloor and Underlayment

Below the finish floor, and above the floor joists (or concrete slab), is the subfloor.  Sometimes, you’ll have an underlayment that comes between the subfloor and the finish floor, too.  These terms are confusing because sometimes you’ll want both, sometimes not.  And other times, the same material can  be used as both subfloor and as underlayment.

You have several types of subfloor and underlayment options available.  Let’s take a look, and I’ll do my best to separate the terminology.

Solid-Wood Subfloor

In modern home construction and renovation, the solid-wood subfloor isn’t seen very much.  If anything, this “subfloor” is the actual, finish floor of solid wood that the renovator has decided to lay over with another type of flooring.

Plywood Subfloor

Plywood has been used as a subfloor for quite some time now.  Plywood comes in 4’x8′ panels and is laid down in that size straight onto the joists.  The plywood is laid with its grain perpendicular to the joists.

You can’t just run down to Home Depot and grab any old kind of plywood.  The Half-Assed side of me says, “Yes, it probably will last,” but armed with just a tiny bit of information, you can certainly buy the right kind of subfloor plywood, and it’s like this:

Plywood is rated for certain uses.  In this image shown, the first figure refers to the ply’s rating on roofs; the second figure applies to floors.  So, ignoring the first number, we can see that this plywood is rating for flooring joist which are 24 inches on-center.

The Engineered Wood Association is a good resource for plywood ratings (apparently, we don’t call it plywood anymore?  Well, whatever…).

OSB Subfloor and Underlayment

Oriented Strand Board - OSB
Oriented Strand Board - OSB

OSB stands for oriented-strand board, and it works as both subfloor and underlayment (amazing, huh?).

Not to be confused with particleboard, OSB is serious stuff, and it’s bonded with resins that can even withstand exterior weathering.  In fact, OSB is often used for exterior applications.  OSB gets graded by the Engineered Wood Association, too.

Plywood Underlayment

If you’ve got a subfloor, but this subfloor is not smooth and flat enough for your finish flooring, you may decide to lay down plywood underlayment.  This plywood underlayment does not have to be as strong as plywood subfloor because it’s not such a structural material.

Particleboard Underlayment

Yes, underlayment only here.  Particleboard is not a structural material.  Wood chips are bonded together, and it’s nowhere near as strong as OSB or plywood.

Can You Lay Flooring Directly on Concrete Slab?

Concrete slab floors have become, in the last several decades, the predominant way of flooring a house.

While the “traditional” method of building with a raised foundation–joists over a crawlspace or basement–definitely has its merits, there are many parts of the world where concrete slab is the most logical way to go.  But how does this fit in with laying down your finish flooring?  Can you lay the flooring directly onto the concrete slab?  What you’ll find is that some flooring can go right on concrete, while others cannot.  Let’s take a closer look…

Concrete Slab Gets Moisture from Below

The main thing to remember is that concrete slab floors is that they receive moisture from the bottom-up.  Even though the concrete slab floor is laid onto a sand or gravel bed, moisture does come upward.  You cannot escape this moisture.  Whether you live in Buffalo or Tucson, Austin or Hawaii, you’ll be getting ground moisture.  You many not think so, but it happens.

How Does the Vapor Barrier Come Into Play?

Many kinds of flooring–wood, laminate, engineered–are greatly affected by moisture.  Resilient flooring, such as vinyl, linoleum, and other man-made materials, can withstand moisture better.  Your concrete slab already has a moisture barrier in place (let’s hope).  When the builder laid the concrete, he laid down the sand/gravel bed…and then a plastic vapor barrier…and then he poured the concrete.

Vapor Barrier in Concrete Slab

Types of Flooring Bonded Directly to Concrete

Think:  rot.  What kind of flooring material is most subject to rot and deterioration?  Which kind is least affected?

Well, you’ve already answered your question:

  • Ceramic tile
  • Natural stone
  • Brick
  • Resilient flooring

…can all be installed directly on concrete slab.

Ceramic tile, stone, and brick are such close cousins to the materials used in concrete work that they are largely unaffected by any moisture.  Resilient flooring (i.e., vinyl) doesn’t mind if there is moisture, either.