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Floating Solid Floors

Sid Bourne on suppliers who say you can float solid wood

I CONSTANTLY come into contact with suppliers who say that you can float solid wood flooring planks.
For example, I was recently asked to inspect a solid wood floor, which had buckled extensively. On-site I met the carpenter who had installed the flooring. He was rightly concerned about the problem as the floor had been down for less than two months when the buckling began and became progressively worse.
At first glance I expected the failure was due to subfloor moisture and incorrect fixing. However, on taking up part of the flooring, I immediately noticed it had been floated. Without expressing an opinion, I asked the installer why he had floated the floor? He said the supplier had issued instructions stating that the floor can be floated.
He had laid polythene sheeting and a fibre board underlay. I checked the subfloor. It all seemed OK, so I asked him if could show me the instructions he used. And there, bold as brass, were the supplier’s instructions which clearly stated that solid oak flooring can be floated.
I checked the oak floor to see if it had any form of field expansion allowance milled into the product, but no sign of this. The instructions stated that a 10–12mm expansion was needed.
On further discussion with the carpenter, he said that the manufacturer had sent out their own independent company (I think we all know who that would be). And, as expected, they just backed up the manufacturer’s instructions and simply wrote a report saying that the failure was not down to any manufacturing defect. As you would expect, I have come across this particular company many times in the past. Their reports are only good if you want a laugh.
Meanwhile, on-site with the carpenter, I carried out relative humidity readings of the room. The reading was 72%, which as you all know is high. The carpenter had the key of the property and told me that the consumer was away for a couple of weeks, so there was no heating on. Clearly it was the high humidity which had caused the floor to expand.
I carried out my own calculations to determine movement and found that the total floor had moved by over 60mm, so even if the installer had left the recommended 10–12mm expansion, which he said he did, then it still would not have made any difference.
Now even with fixing down the solid oak, the floor may still have failed, but the problem would not have been nearly as bad as with a floating floor. Then you would have the wood expanding to its full potential.
The carpenter, who had commissioned me to investigate the problem, wanted to know exactly what went wrong. It can be embarrassing for people who ask me to speak my mind. But the carpenter was a nice guy and wanted to discuss the problem and learn from the errors. As there was no one else in the property, I clearly set out the cold facts. The carpenter had decided to replace the flooring for the consumer, but wanted to know exactly what had caused the failure.
I said to him: ‘You are a qualified carpenter, so you should understand the reaction of water and wood and how the oak flooring was affected. He said he did, but was just following the instructions.
I said well ‘in all honesty you should know better. Just use your own skill in making the calculations and find out whether the room is heated regularly’. He admitted that he had not asked the consumer this question.
I responded, ‘then why on earth, if you understand wood, why did you float it? He said it was for ease of installation and that he was following instructions.
So why did he just follow instructions when he realised that they could be wrong. At this point he admitted that it was down to him taking the easy option: ‘I was a bit lazy!’ So to be fair he admitted his mistake.
My next mission was to tackle this particular supplier, who is normally very good. They openly admitted that they are not wood flooring experts. So they always advised customers to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
The supplier then agreed to give me contact details for the manufacturer, who I contacted. But the language differences became an issue; they could not understand me and I could not understand them! So we ended up doing it in writing.
The conclusion was that this manufacturer believes that you can float solid planks if the relative humidity stays stable!!
I gave up at this comment, and told the carpenter that he should take legal action. He followed my advice and eventually the manufacturer backed down and replaced the flooring, plus installation cost. However the installer must still take some of the blame as mentioned above.
The flooring was duly replaced and the consumer confirmed that the room was not regularly heated. It was only used for entertaining and only heated when in use.
The carpenter installed the flooring, leaving field expansion and larger perimeter expansion and things turned out good in the end. The floor is still in perfect condition over 18 months later.
After this the supplier approached me and asked if I could re-write the instructions which I did. That particular product is still being sold, but not as a floating floor.
I am still concerned how often solid wood flooring is being floated. Some years ago several companies were selling floating solid wood flooring locking systems. But they had major issues with movement and eventually all stopped supplying that system. Now I am seeing the same thing reoccurring.
So my warning to all you installers out there is if the supplier or manufacturer says you can float a solid wood flooring do the following two things:
1. Get this advice in writing with confirmation that you are covered under warranty if the floor fails. I will bet any of you that the supplier will not warrant any failure; they will just put the blame back to you.
2. Get full instructions in writing from the supplier or manufacturer on how to install the flooring; and what expansion is required and under what conditions. Again, I guarantee that you will not get this.
To finish there are systems which use clips, which allow field expansion dependent on the expected relative humidity. These do work, but they are designed specifically for this use. Hence there are different clips for differing field expansion gaps. The floating solid flooring I am talking about has no clips.
My personal view is that fixing is better (than floating) by a mile.
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This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at