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Step by Step: How to Install Wood Floor Borders

By Tom Peotter
August/September 2003
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Borders can make an ordinary room extraordinary, and the steps for installing many patterns are straightforward.

When I look at a subfloor covered with black felt paper, I see the paper as my canvas, and I am the artist. Using different borders, feature strips and species can make wood flooring installation both challenging and impressive. It's a great way to set yourself apart from your competition and make your work more interesting.

To be successful at these custom jobs, the right layout is crucial. Measuring and remeasuring your lines helps avoid mistakes, which can be obvious and costly when working with border materials. When you're first considering tackling custom border work, I always suggest starting by installing a simple feature strip. This will familiarize you with some of the layout concepts and give you the confidence to handle more difficult designs.

No matter what your layout is, always begin by finding the center of the room. When doing border work, it's easiest to start in the center and work your way out. Don't lay out the floor by trying to square it off the walls, which are rarely straight or square. You can use the 3-4-5 triangle, trammel points or a laser to snap perpendicular lines. From there, the floor is your canvas.

Necessary tools/equipment:

  • Measuring tape
  • Chalk lines (various colors)
  • Nailer
  • Circular saw
  • Vacuum
  • Router
  • Miter chop saw
  • Drill
  • Straightedge
  • Hammer

Necessary supplies

  • Flooring, border, corner blocks
  • 2 1/2 - or 3-inch finish nails
  • Adhesive 

Step 1:

Find your center line and square up the room from there. Use these lines from the center as the basis for your other layout lines, such as where the feature strips and borders should fall. For this floor, we are installing a field of 3 1/4-inch red birch framed by a feature strip of the same material, then a 6-inch border and three rows of the birch as an "apron" or "skirt" around the whole floor. Using these measurements, we calculated we would need19 rows of the birch field on each side of the center line.

Step 2:

Nail down a straight backer board next to the center line and begin racking the floor. As you rack, set aside the longest boards for use as the feature strip and apron. Let the edges on each side of the field run wild, making sure they overlap the line snapped for the feature strip. As always, avoid H-joints and joints that are too close together.

Step 3:

Take a final glance at the racked flooring, checking for problems before nailing the floor. Look for bad joints and boards that drastically contrast with the rest of the floor. Then start nailing, using the correct nailing schedule for the width of the flooring you're installing.

Step 4:

Once the first half of the field is nailed (here, the first 19 rows), rip out your backer board and glue and nail a slip tongue into the first board to change the direction of the flooring. Since flooring tends to expand in the direction of the tongue, changing direction in the middle of the room helps minimize the effects of expansion. It also gives us a tongue on two sides of the field (the other two sides will have slip tongue). 

Step 5:

After the spline is nailed in, rack out and nail the other half of the room. Be sure not to nail over the line where you'll be trimming the ends.

Step 6:

Once the field is nailed, re-snap the chalk lines on top of the floor to show where you need to trim the ends. Here, I'm using a circular saw with a track that keeps the saw straight, but you can do the same thing with any circular saw and straightedge. Remember to always wear safety glasses, and never kneel directly behind the saw.

Step 7:

To help keep the floor flat, every board should be locked to the next by a tongue and groove. To create a groove, use a router (you can find the right bit at your local wood flooring distributor). Before you use the router on the floor, double-check that the depth of the bit precisely matches the profile of the flooring you're installing. 

Step 8:

Vacuum and recheck the fit with a piece of the flooring. Then, install your slip tongue by gluing and nailing it in. Once one side is done, repeat the same steps on the opposite side. 

Step 9:

On this floor, we need to repeat those same steps where the field follows the shape of the fireplace hearth. Make sure the corners are clean by using a chisel, or you can use a "corner chisel," available at some wood flooring distributors or from cabinetry catalogs. 

Step 10:

Here, the design calls for mitered corners in the feature strip that frames the field and forms the apron. Make sure your chop saw is cutting an accurate 45 degree angle, and dry-fit each board, especially corners, for a tight fit before nailing them. As you tighten the boards, be careful not to hit the points, which crush easily. 

Step 11a:

Once you've got the right cut for the corner, use the router to create grooves for slip tongue in the end joints. Or, cabinetry and woodworking buffs can use ...

Step 11b:

... a biscuit jointer, which accomplishes the same thing. What's important is that the end joints are locked together. 

Step 12:

Once the feature strip is complete,remove the felt paper so the border can be glued directly to the subfloor (it also will be nailed). Use a short section of the border and a razor to scribe out the paper under the border area. Double-check the exposed subfloor for protruding nails or staples (you also should have done this at the beginning as a standard part of your subfloor preparation). Then, start spreading the adhesive recommended by the border manufacturer. Don't forget to use the correct trowel and spread rate.

Step 13:

Start installing the border with a corner block, making sure it's firmly in place. (If the corner block is attached to the border, install the whole section with the corner block attached. Then, go to the next corner and do the same thing. When those are installed, go back and fill in the area between the first and second corner with the border. Remember to only cut the border for adjustment at the corner block.) 

Step 14:

Then, continue around the floor in one direction, making sure the pattern matches at the end joints. Lock all joints together with spline. This type of border pattern, which can be cut anywhere in the pattern, is easier to install than other types that look awkward if cut in certain spots. The corner blocks also make installation easier. Trying to do "continuous corners" that meet up perfectly without corner blocks is a job for installers with lots of experience with these types of floors.

Step 15:

As you install sections of the border,also glue and nail in slip tongue, so the border will lock in with the first row of the apron.

Step 16:

Continue making your way around the room, carefully marking your cuts. As always, it's better to make your first cut a little too long than a little too short! 

Step 17:

Lock in the final piece of the border by sliding it into place, then nailing it.

Step 18:

Once the border is complete, continue around the room installing the rows of the apron and scribing around heat vents and registers.

Step 19:

The final rows are too close to the wall to use the nailer, so drill holes and hand nail 2 1/2- or 3-inch finish nails into the tongue. Don't forget to leave room for expansion all the way around the room. With the final row complete, you're ready to sand and finish.

Racking reminder

As you’re racking, keep in mind the lines where you’ll be trimming each side of the field. Don’t leave a board short of the (yellow) line ...

... or use a short board too close to the edge. Once it’s trimmed, it will be even shorter, like the one below.

Tom Peotter is technical director at Winneconne, Wis.-based Oshkosh Designs Inc.

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