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Installing Hardwood Floors When Your Floor Isn’t Level

Scott said we may need to stop calling The Scary Room, well, scary, because now that it has a floor, it’s looking not-so-scary. Maybe we just call it The Room? In any case, we installed hardwood floors, and it’s starting to lean nice and cozy with that added layer or warmth (despite the lack of trim, but we’ll get there, and soon!).

Our installation was a little different than most, as our floors sloped a good 3/4″ from one side to the other. You might remember that our contractor laid down shims, which are essentially long, skinny plywood strips that are spaced anywhere from 8-10″ apart. The door wall is the lowest side of the room, and so the shims are at their highest; the window wall is the highest side of the room, and so the shims shave down to nothing. There is underlayment paper beneath the shims, and under that is the original 130-year-old pine subfloor. Note: We were unable to add the traditional layer of plywood subfloor. If we had done so, the floor in this room would have been higher than the floor in the studio, causing a slight step up – something we were looking to avoid.

All the hardwood flooring in our home was chosen by the previous owner, and although it wouldn’t be our first choice, we have to admit that it holds up really, really well to our two bumbling Pitties. It’s this 2 1/4″ tongue and groove pre-finished flooring, and because it was already in the main areas of home, we continue to use it for it’s good price point ($3.39/sq. ft.) and ease of installation. Although it’s far from original to our home, we’re still asked by friends and family if it is original, so we’ll take that!

Tools + Supplies We Used:

Flooring nailer w/ mallet
Air compressor
16 gauge 2″ cleats
Wood shims
Miter saw for quick cuts
Table saw for cuts around corners
Finish nailer
Rubber mallet
Pry bar to remove any old flooring
Multi-tool for intricate cuts
Shop vac for cleaning as you go
Tape measure

Here’s a tip on the Husky nailer we used: Rather than rent a nailer at $40/day from the hardware store, Scott bought a refurbished nailer from eBay. It was half the retail price, and we figured that we could either use it for future projects, or we could sell it. Our refurbished nailer came with all the essentials – a fiberglass mallet, base plates and oil – and it hooked right up to our air compressor. (On a side note, we’ve been using this air compressor for years, and it has helped us through countless renovation projects!)

Our nailer accepts staples or cleats, but after reading a few articles online, we decided to use cleats based on the reasoning that they allow wood to expand and contract. In our case, we needed to use 16 gauge 2″ cleats, which would be long enough to go through the highest point of our shims (3/4″) plus the thickness of our tongue and groove flooring (another 3/4″).

Phew. Leveling the subfloor, gathering supplies and carrying all that hardwood flooring up the stairs was half the battle, but at this point, we were finally ready to install!

Our starting point was right outside the room, in the area between our door jamb. After updating all of the interior doors (< whoa, flashback!) in our home, there were visible gaps. They’ve been driving us batty for years, and this was our chance to make the transition from studio to bedroom seamless. We pried up the handful of boards that didn’t meet the door jamb properly, and we uncovered and removed some pretty sparkletastic decades-old vinyl in the process! To enable the flooring to tuck as neatly as possible underneath the door frame, Scott used our multi-tool to raise the level of the jamb so that the new flooring could tuck neatly underneath. Finally, we laid a fresh sheet of black paper in this small area before nailing in our first boards:

Once we were in the room, I started by setting the rows for Scott, using a rubber mallet to tap the tongues and grooves together. If there was a place where the conjoining boards didn’t land on the room shims, I stacked my own small wood shims to bridge that gap.

Both above and below, you can see where shims were stacked where two boards meet. Scott followed behind with our finish nailer on the first 3-4 rows before our flooring nailer would fit.

As soon as we were able to switch over to the flooring nailer, we were off! We nailed into every shim, or every 10″-ish (give or take). We quickly fell into a groove, in which I tapped the boards together and shimmed the meeting points, and Scott followed behind with the nailer. The most time consuming part of our process was the need to lay down All the Shims to keep things level and creak-free, but our old house has been known to hit us with a challenge or two (or three or four!) before.

The closet threw us our first curveball. We cut the proper width for those several boards, and we worked our way out of the closet until we reached the boards in the main part of the room. Below, you can see how we also had to cut the last board before the closet so that it could wrap around the opening. These tricky cuts were mostly done with our multi-tool:

Scott ripped the very last boards in the room to the proper width on our table saw, and we did the last two rows simultaneously. We found this was the easiest solution to be able to 1) slide them into place and 2) tap them tightly together with the mallet. We used our finish nailer to nail directly through the top of the boards, leaving imperceptible holes:

In the end, we used up a little less than our box of 1,000 cleats for this 7′ x 16′ room, and we used every last floor board, with only scraps to spare!

This is the first room in our home where we installed the flooring ourselves (unless you count our second floor landing?), and although the aches and pains in our backs and knees were very real, we were happy that we decided to take on the task ourselves. We did it, and it wasn’t too bad, really! All said and done, we worked a total of 7 hours on day one, and 2-3 hours on day two. To celebrate, we rolled out our big, punchy rug (a perfect fit!), and we left that door open all week.

Of course, we’ve since loaded it up again with a pair of bi-fold doors and stacks of trim, and so, The Scary Room door is closed once again. But the good news? We’re making progress on the trim front, and we can’t wait to share that with you.

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  • Stacy G.2.23.17 - 6:48 AM

    Looks great! Extra points for teamwork. :)ReplyCancel

  • Carol2.23.17 - 7:24 AM

    Looks fantastic!ReplyCancel

  • Carol @ CAD INTERIORS2.23.17 - 9:30 AM

    Very informative, thanks. We have similar “floor slope issues” in our fixer…ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.23.17 - 11:08 AM

      Ugh, these sloping floors! At least we can cheat them!ReplyCancel

  • Steph M.2.23.17 - 9:36 AM

    This looks so good! Our house was built in 1940, and I’d say these floors look so similar to our orginial. I’m keeping them bookmarked for when we redo our second story!ReplyCancel

  • Julie Marquez2.23.17 - 6:42 PM

    Thanks for sharing this! I knew you’d come through with an informative post!!ReplyCancel

  • Hey! Your scary room is turning out great, although I would’ve maybe considered keeping that sparkly vinyl ;) Way to go on that threshold and closet transitions, that would’ve kept me up at night.

    We have a similar issue in our porch, the slab underneath the one north side has settled and the floor slants to the side. Our porch table has been shimmed to maintain a level table top for years (don’t tell). I think following your lead, and doing shims and a new subfloor might be the best solution. Can’t wait to see how you tackle the trim!ReplyCancel

    • Kim2.24.17 - 9:07 AM

      Scott’s biggest pet peeve is a table that wobbles, haha! Shimming your table until you can shim the FLOOR is a secret you can keep with us. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Amanda2.24.17 - 3:24 PM

    Floors look great, especially that transition! P.S. I’ve been reading your stair posts daily for the past week… going to tackle my own this weekend! Fingers crossed.ReplyCancel

  • Esther2.24.17 - 4:20 PM


    I just ” binch read” ( is that a word?) your blog from the start of you getting the key until now for the last 3 weeks or so and I’m a little sad. Sad because from now on I’ll have to wait for a new blog! ? Loved every word and I’m so glad I’ve found your blog.

    Until the next one!ReplyCancel

  • Josh @ The Kentucky Gent2.27.17 - 2:34 PM

    Shims have saved my ass in some many projects around the house! The new floor looks great.ReplyCancel

  • Jenica3.1.17 - 12:40 PM

    New floors look great, but you should probably trim back your outer boards. As the wood expands seasonally, it needs space to push into along the walls. Standard gap is a 1/2 all the way around, although expansion will really happen mostly perpendicular to the direction of the flooring. This gap is then hidden by baseboards. -a carpenterReplyCancel

  • Mark11.29.18 - 12:06 PM

    Thanks for the great article with wonderful photos. I find your approach and writing style very encouraging as I am a first time DIY floor installer about to embark on the journey. As I am working with bamboo I purchased an 18 gauge nailer on Craigslist from a very helpful couple who offered to coach me through any difficulties. There’s something beautiful about buying used tools from kind people. How are your shims holding up and is your floor squeaky at all? also, if you had to do it again would you choose wider boards? Seems to me the narrower the board the more bending and nailing you have to do. Thanks againReplyCancel

    • Kim11.29.18 - 2:21 PM

      Hi, Mark! No squeaking whatsoever, and although the flooring style isn’t our FIRST choice, it matches the floors throughout the rest of our entire home. :) But you’re right – the slimmer boards require a lot more nailing! Best of luck on your floor install!ReplyCancel

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We’re Kim + Scott, Chicago based content creators behind the Home + Lifestyle brand Yellow Brick Home.

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