24 Essential Tools for Professional Flooring Installers
As with any trade, hardwood flooring professionals need an assortment of tools to install a floor properly, safely, and in a timely manner. The choice of which tools to have on hand, however, can be daunting.
While there are a lot of tools required to professionally lay a floor, here’s a list of 24 essential tools every flooring contractor should have on hand when installing a hardwood floor. Although some of these tools are also used during sanding and finishing, we are focusing today on installation.
Safety First: Protect Yourself
The last thing you want to do is risk your health or your livelihood at an unsafe job site. Fortunately, there are a number of tools to help you stay protected.
1. Safety Goggles
Eye injuries can occur when you least expect it. You never know when a piece of wood or metal or a bead of finishing material will hit you in the eye causing temporary or permanent damage. It’s why OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) regulations require eye protection when using most power tools.
Safety glasses should meet British Standards which are the performance standards set by the BSI Group. There are many safety glasses to choose from. They come in a wide variety of styles and colour choices. Normal glasses or contact lenses do not qualify.
Goggles are a better choice for certain conditions. They protect the eye socket more effectively and completely than either glasses or face shields because they fit tightly against the face. If you have a vision prescription and you don’t wear contacts, then buy prescription goggles. Not being able to see at all isn’t very safe either.
2. Dust Mask and Vapour Respirators
Sanding or applying finish requires the use of a respirator. Failure to use one can cause inflammation of the nasal tract, tightness of the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, asthma, and mucous irritations.
A dust respirator will protect your lungs and upper respiratory tract from wood dust. Some people are highly sensitive, and even allergic to wood dust, especially the dust from certain wood species.
A vapour respirator is necessary when applying a finish. Check the finish manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the appropriate respirator. Another good tool for protecting your lungs is a shop vacuum. The less wood dust laying around, the less dust to fly around.
3. Ear Plugs or Ear Muffs
Prolonged exposure to loud noise, especially when using certain types of power equipment, can result in hearing loss. According to the Centres for Disease Control, the noise levels from a wide variety of power saws are over 100 decibels, which makes them dangerous to your ears after just two minutes! Many flooring professionals today have 30 to 70 percent hearing loss because they weren’t aware of audio hazards.
Earplugs are easy to use and inexpensive. They come either as foam inserts or pre-moulded plugs. If you’re concerned about earplugs getting lost in your ears, there are earplugs called “semi-inserts” that have a band or string connecting them together. Foam inserts are rolled and compressed into tiny cylinders that slowly expand inside the ear once inserted. Pre-moulded plugs are reusable, flanged plugs that you insert into the ear. Foam inserts come in different ratings, so make sure to get the proper inserts.
Ear muffs are dome-shaped protectors that fit over the external ear and employ a cushion or pad that seals against the head. Although bulkier than ear plugs, they are effective in keeping out sounds. Headphones used for music are not considered ear protection.
4. Knee Pads
Since you will be spending some of your time on your knees, knee pads will prevent strain and pain. Use contractor-grade pads, made of cloth, that are adjustable and fit well. Since they come with a soft non-marring outer surface, they will not damage floors like hard plastic or metal versions. There are also ergonomic type knee pads containing fluid that offer considerable comfort.
5. Work Safety Boots
The dangers to your feet are obvious. When you select a boot here are some features to consider:
Slip-resistant: Keep the treads cleaned out, or they’ll become less slip-resistant.
Safety toe: You have some choices here, they don’t necessarily have to be steel toed, which can get heavy and cold. Some good safety toe alternatives are carbon composite toe, aluminum toe, or composite toe.
Regardless of which material you select, make sure it meets or exceeds the ASTM Standards for compression and impact testing of I-75/C75. Consider how high up the ankle the boot should go, or whether a safety shoe offers enough protection.
Don’t forget that they should be well-cushioned and comfortable as well.
6. Heavy Gloves
Now that your feet and knees are protected, protect your hands and fingers as well.
Heavy work gloves with reinforced fingertips should a last long time. When you’re laying down adhesive, a simple latex glove may be sufficient.
7. Feather Boards
Whenever you use a table saw, use the feather board to push the stock past cutting edge. The feather board not only creates a smoother cut but also protects your hands from kickback and from getting too close to the blade. You can buy them or make them. Whichever option you chose, just make sure the feather board fits your specific project.
8. Electrical Testers
Electrical testers check for the presence and amount of current in an outlet. They let you know if a certain machine can be safely operated from that outlet. Make sure your extension cords are the proper rating to prevent fires. Too little power will burn out an electric motor.
Protect Your Investment
If you’re not measuring accurately, you’re laying the foundation for flooring failure. Flooring failure can occur quickly now or even years into the future. Here are some of the needed tools to keep your flooring installation precise:
9. Wood Moisture Meter
Determining the moisture content in wood flooring is crucial to doing a quality job. If the wood has too much moisture, the floor that fit so well when first installed may eventually show cracks, cupping or buckling, and that could mean costly callbacks for the installer.
According to marketing data, more than £300 million is spent each year on repairing flooring failures. That’s why flooring materials should be checked with an accurate wood moisture meter before, during, and after installation.
There are two types of wood moisture meters: pinless and pin-style meters.
10. Concrete RH Testing System
When installing flooring covering on a concrete slab, it is important to know the moisture content of the slab. Slabs with excessive moisture can cause adhesive failure, wood warping or cupping. Relative humidity (RH) testing that uses in situ probes is the most reliable method for testing concrete moisture conditions within the slab.
Other test methods, including calcium chloride testing or the poly-film test, often are unreliable and are being discontinued.
Surface concrete meters might help determine the most likely areas for necessary RH testing, but they do not provide an in-depth picture of moisture conditions within the slab as does RH testing.
11. Tape Measure
A tape measure is an inexpensive tool every installer should have. It’s best to invest in one that you can read easily, is retractable and has a hook at the end to stay in place. Without an anchor to keep the tape measure secure, you can get measurements up to 1/8 of an inch off. The cumulative effect of this kind of inaccuracy can have a great impact on your installation.
A level will tell you if the subfloors surface is even and ready for the wood flooring to be installed. Installing the wood on an uneven subfloor is another way to create the circumstances for future flooring failure. You’ll want a large level to accurately measure the subfloors level.
You can find them in lengths of four and six feet. A complete level will have two bubble readings at both ends, one each to measure horizontal and vertical levels. The level edges should also be made of either metal or brass-edged wood.
13. Solutions for Straight Lines and Angles
A Carpenter’s square helps you measure out perpendicular edges and 90-degree angles with precision to mark cuts on your stock. They come in metal or plastic.A Protractor will help you set the proper angles on your saw so you’re cutting corners and mouldings correctly. You can select either a manual or digital protractor.
As with your moisture meter, you’re going to have to get the protractor into some challenging spaces, so make sure it’s easy to use.
Chalk Lines create straight edges for laying boards. Align your planks against it for even, precise flooring. Aligning the first row of boards with the chalk line assures that all subsequent rows will be straight. A chalk line (also called a chalk reel or chalk box) is a metal or plastic case with powdered chalk and an 18- to 50-foot string line inside.
It will make quick work of making a long, level line across a floor. If you lay a translucent moisture barrier over the subfloor before installation, snap the chalk line first. If the barrier is opaque, lay it in place before you snap chalk lines. Always store your chalk line in a dry place. If the string gets wet, you’ll need to leave the line unwound until it dries completely. If the inside of the tool gets wet, you’ll have to replace the caked chalk with fresh powder. Have fun with different colour chalks.
Spacers are used to measure what’s called an “expansion gap”. Because wood either absorbs or releases moisture when relative humidity increases or decreases, it can cause hardwood flooring to expand and contract. The use of spacers will enable you to leave a small space around the perimeter of the room for the flooring to “breathe”.
Any wood floor installation job will likely need a variety of saws. Obviously, you’ll want to review the job’s specific requirements to determine exactly which kinds of saws, and what sizes, you’ll need. However, as a general rule, having one of each kind of the following saws with you is a good idea:
Hand saws are great when you have a small cutting job; a hand saw will do just fine. They’re also better for cutting down on noise and dust. Some hand saws you may want to purchase are:
Standard hand, crosscut and rip saws for basic straight cuts
- Backsaw, a shorter, fine-toothed saw, used with mitre boxes
- Coping saws used for fine, intricate cuts as well as curved or circular cuts
- Hacksaws and mini-hacksaws, similar to coping saws, have longer, deeper fine-toothed blades and are used for cutting metals and plastic
- Jamb saws come with an offset handle that allows for undercutting door jambs
- Power saws come in a variety of options: circular saw, reciprocating-type saws, and band saws.
- Circular saws come with a circular blade run by an electric motor. It makes fast, straight cuts, with blades ranging from less than five to more than ten inches in diameter. It also comes with tooth designs that cut hardwood, softwood, plywood, oriented strand board (OSB), masonry and tile. Different blade angles are available and they come in various horsepower ratings.
Portable power saws cut from the bottom, so keeping the face of the board down yields the best quality cuts. There are saws, however, that cut from the top down and which require the face of the board be up when cutting. They include power mitre saws, jamb saws, radial arm saws, and table saws.
- Reciprocating-type saws include sabre saws, reciprocating saws, and scroll saws. They all operate on the same principle: a small, straight blade that moves in an up-and-down or back-and-forth motion. They all cut in the same direction; up, so cut with the face of the board down.
- Band saws cut with an endless band blade travelling around an upper and a lower wheel. They provide high-production guided cuts, re-sawing (cutting thinner boards from one thick one), and freehand scrolling cuts, when equipped with a fine blade. Since they cut down, saw with the face of the board up. They work well on parquet floors.
- Mitre saws (also called chop or drop saws) are really a type of circular saw and also uses a rotating blade. However, a mitre saw lets you cut more precise angles. You’ll use the mitre saw to cut a variety of features, such as moulding, borders, and trim. Most mitre saws let you fix the blade in one-degree increments relative to the fence. In fact, when choosing your mitre saw, make sure it has the ability to cut past 45 degrees. This gives you the most versatility. Test out how easy it easy it to adjust the mitre index (that’s the measuring tool on the saw that fixes the degrees), and fix it in place.
Many mitre saws will come with pre-fixed stops on the index at commonly used angles, like 15, 22.5, 30, and 45 degrees. You can also find mitre saws with laser beam guides that provide a visual marker of where a cut will go based on the saw’s current configuration.
The standard mitre saw cuts just on a horizontal angle. If needed, you can get a compound mitre saw, which has both a horizontal and vertical pivot. This sort of dual angle is quite common in crown mouldings. When selecting the right mitre saw for the job, be careful not to mix up a compound mitre saw, which has the dual angles, with a dual action mitre saw. Most mitre saws are single action, which means they only tilt into one side of the vertical. A dual action mitre saw tilts in both directions, which you’re not likely to need on a flooring job. Always check to make sure angles are correct when starting a job.
Jamb or undercut saws are designed specifically to cut door jambs, moulding, and trim. They’re available as either a power or hand tool. The power tool version is a rotating blade that can usually be set at different heights based on the requirements of the job. The hand saw version is usually rectangular or in a trapezoid shape. It’s not adjustable, but if you have the right size, it’s certainly lighter and easier to carry around.
Routers are a popular speciality tool, but can be extremely dangerous to handle. They’re basically motors with a cutting bit on an arbour and handles. They come with a wide range of bits and jigs, and on many models, the cut depth is adjustable while in use.
Flooring installers can use a router for removing wood for decorative inlay and borders. Special bits also allow them to cut grooves on end joints for tongue-and-groove strip fits and moulding. They’re also handy for repair work, especially floating floors that have been glued by tongue and groove. A few simple passes and the proper router and slot cutter bit can clean the glue to accept any new boards.
Locking It Down
The exact tools you’ll need to fasten the wood flooring to the subfloor will vary with the job, but here are some high-level options that you’ll need on every job:
16. Nail Set & Nailing Machines
Nail sets look like awls. You use them to drive nail below the surface of the wood. When hand nailing tongue-and-groove flooring, use the nail set on its side to avoid damaging the corner of the flooring strip.
Nailing machines help keep nailing time to a minimum and eliminate time spent reaching for nails. They work as fast as you can position the machine.There are different styles of nailing machines.
The ratchet and spring-loaded nailers release nails when you strike them with a mallet.
Pneumatic nailers, also known as air nailers, use compressed air to operate and require a higher degree of safety consciousness.
The ratchet-style nailers are easier for novices to use because they can operate with several strikes.
Spring-loaded nailers operate on the one strike, one nail principle. The pneumatic nailers shoot fasteners into wood (some are designed to nail into concrete) in one of two ways. Some require hitting it with a mallet while others require you only pull a trigger.
These machines come in two configurations: side (45-degree) and face (90-degree, for work against walls). They can be adjusted for installing varied thicknesses of flooring by using changeable adaptor plates.
Another issue to consider is the nail magazine. You have a choice between a stick-style or circular (also called “coil-style”) magazine. A coil-style magazine can hold up to 300 nails, far more than a stick-style magazine. That means you don’t have to refill it as often, but it also means that it’s heavier in the hand, and more expensive.
Also, consider whether the nail gun lets you adjust the fastener depth into the wood’s surface, and how it lets you do this. In some nail guns, you can adjust depth by hand while other nail guns require additional tools in order to make a depth adjustment.
Installers use fasteners to attach the subfloor to the concrete. They allow for wood movement in a highly efficient way.
Cleats are barbed nails with a T- or L-hooked head. Most are proprietary designs for use only with a specified type of nailer. Their thin rectangular shape guards against nail splitting.
Some nailing machines use staples rather than cleats. They, too, can be effective. Installers can also use case nails, cut nails, finish nails and screws to fasten wood flooring. Hand nailing is best for the first and last few rows of flooring in a room when there isn’t room to operate a nailing machine. Screws can be used to fasten plank flooring.
18. Hammer/Rubber Mallet
Since most wood flooring materials join together using a tongue and groove system, it helps to have a rubber mallet to give them a good whack when nailing. If not, the gap between the boards will remain and creaks will occur.
Use a good quality rubber mallet, one approved for wood flooring. If not, you may find that a non-approved mallet will leave marks and stains on the flooring. A flooring type of mallet may still have a rubber head, but it’s encased in a soft, white material that won’t leave scuff marks on the floor. The white casing can also be replaced after it gets too grungy.
You can also find them with graphite handles, which make them lighter and easier to handle.
Mallets are great for the edge boards where you’ll manually knock in the nails instead of using a mechanical flooring nailer.
Another option is a dead-blow hammer. The hammer’s hollow head is filled with steel shot to deliver a solid blow without rebounding. This minimises surface marring when used to tap planks together.
To get any adhesive down on the subfloor, you’ll need a trowel. As with the mallet, buy one specifically designed for use with a wood flooring adhesive.
For wood flooring jobs, you’ll have two notch design options: V-shaped or square. Some people believe the v-shaped notch design is best for wood flooring adhesives. Regardless of their shape, the notches on the trowel also come in different sizes. The quarter inch v-notch is considered best for wood flooring installations.
You also want the trowel plate itself to be on the larger size, around 11 inches. The plate should be made of steel, but test out grips to select the one that feels most comfortable for you. They’re available with rubber handles, which may offer a very natural feeling and stronger grip. To keep your trowel in good condition and remember to clean it off before any adhesive on it dries. If the adhesive dries, you’ll have to chip it off, which may create chips in the trowel plate. A chipped up trowel will only mean poorly spread adhesive on the next job.
20. Tapping Block and Pull Bar
These tools will help you move the wood planks tightly into place. It might be tempting to use a stray piece of cut board as your tapping block, but that’s not a good idea.First, using the cut board is the easiest way to chip the installed wood plank, especially the tongue or groove you need to make the next plank fit in nicely. It also risks splits because the cut board won’t distribute the pressure of the tap well.
This is all unnecessary, especially since a specifically designed tapping block is so inexpensive. Most will be made of high-density plastic, which won’t chip or damage the wood plank.
There are also new tapping block designs that include a small groove running along the block’s long edge. This groove aligns with the tongue of the plank you’re tapping giving it a cushion.
Providing this protection makes it less likely the tapping will cause damage to the tongue. You can even find some tapping blocks with multiple groove lengths and depths cut into them so they can fit with different tongue specifications.
There are also ergonomically-designed tapping blocks with ball-shaped handles. This type lets you grip the tapping block more gently and naturally so your hand doesn’t tighten up. A standard consumer tapping block is usually in the seven-inch range, but you can find them up to 20 inches long. The longer block will distribute the pressure better, which better protects the plank.
Pull bars are useful for doing floating installations as well as nailed and glued floors. They are used for engaging boards as they run vertically across the installation or for pulling in that last row or finished baseboard. Some pull bars come with interchangeable blades, handles, and fulcrums that make installations go faster and easier. You can also configure components to pry up hardwood and sub flooring.
Look for pull bars that include an extension for greater leverage and an ergonomic grip for greater control. Avoid the cheaper pull bars. They tend to bend easily. Better-quality pull bars can take the major blows of a hammer.
Also, get an adjustable pull bar with unique magnetic adaptors to fit different flooring thicknesses, from 8mm to 20mm. Ones with thick felt padding on the bottom of the bar prevent damage to flooring, yet comes with a hard rubberised hammer-tip for maximum strength and durability.
21. Wood Filler and Putty
These terms are often used synonymously since they can both be used to fill in gaps and holes in the wood once it’s been installed. However, there are differences between them. Wood fillers are usually water-based and dry much more quickly than wood putty, which is oil-based.
Because wood putty is oil-based, it will only work with oil-based finishes. Therefore, the decision whether to use filler or putty to fill in seams may be made for you based on what finish you’ll be using.Wood fillers can be made with a variety of binders. A latex or epoxy filler works well with unfinished flooring. Polyurethane or lacquer fillers are only going to work well with pre-finished or pre-lacquered surfaces, respectively.
Choose a filler that most closely resembles the colour of the wood being used. Keep in mind that this means you might want a few different coloured fillers on hand, as there can be considerable colour differences in the wood. However, this isn’t a putty filler like you would use to fill in a nick on a finished floor, so the colour doesn’t need to match exactly. More important is that the filler can absorb the colour of the stain that will finish up the floor.
Obviously, floors are wide spaces, so you want a walk-behind sanding machine. The two main options are a drum or orbital floor sander. Whichever you choose, these standing sanders both come in a variety of sizes, usually to support either eight, ten, or twelve-inch pads.
A drum sander is the most efficient sander, but it has some drawbacks. It’s an aggressive sander, which is why it works well to sand off a finish. However, if this in a floor installation of unfinished wood, it can cause scratches and grooves. This is especially true when used at a right angle to the wood’s grain.
Instead, the round pad on a random orbital sander moves in an elliptical pattern, but also oscillates back and forth. This prevents the sanding pad from sanding in a fixed pattern, which is when scratches and grooves are most likely to occur. Sanding the floor will take longer with a random orbital sander, but it may well be worth it to prevent scratching and grooving the floor. It’s important to note here that not all orbital sanders are random orbital sanders. Only the random style uses both the elliptical and oscillating motions designed to work well against the grain.
Regardless of whether you use a drum or random orbital sander, you’ll also want a flooring edger. This is a special type of sander where the sanding pad is at an angle, allowing it to get into the tight spaces at the edges the floor. If the room does have some small or intricate spaces, you may want to bring a hand sander as well. There are handheld random orbital sanders.
Depending on the job’s specific needs, a finishing or detailing sander may be appropriate. Different sander models will use different power sources. Many will be electric, so with these, you want to make sure you have enough extension cords to cover the floor. There are also models that use air compression. If you’re bringing an air compressor for your flooring nailer, make sure the volume and pressure specs of the air compressor meet the needs of both tools.
You might want to look for a sander machine that has a power-on lock. A power-on lock means you don’t have to keep your thumb pressed down on the power button to keep the sander moving. Therefore, you can focus your strength and concentration on controlling the movement of the sander.
Another issue to keep in mind is whether the sander has its own dust collection mechanism. If it doesn’t, you may need a separate dust collector. Regardless, you’ll want a vacuum at the job site to keep things clean and safe anyway. You can rent these large machines if you determine that a specific job calls for a sanding machine you don’t own. As an alternative, there are also sanding machine models that can be used to sand, edge, and buff.
Additional Essential Tools for Wood Flooring
23. Air Compressor
There are a number of air compressors available for job site operation of pneumatic staplers and nailers. Choosing one is simple – get one that’s the right size to produce adequate air volume (cubic feet per minute) and air pressure (pounds per square inch) for your pneumatic floor stapler or nailer.
A one-horsepower electric compressor with a four-gallon tank produces about three cubic feet per minute of air volume at 90 pounds of pressure. It weighs less than 50 pounds and is adequate for running one tool at medium speed.
A 1.5 to 2-horsepower electric compressor with a five-gallon tank produces roughly six cubic feet per minute at 90 pounds per square inch. It weighs less than 70 pounds and is adequate for one fast operation tool or two at medium speed.
A 1.5 to 2-horsepower unit with an eight-gallon tank weighs about 125 pounds and is adequate for two fast operation tools. When in doubt as to which one to get, select the larger unit. You won’t be forced to wait for the compressor to catch up.
24. Shop Vacuum/Broom
A powerful portable shop vacuum is useful to pick up any powdery sawdust generated from sawing. Be sure to get one with sufficient amps in the motor. Low amps in small motors typically mean less power and less suction. Consider getting one with wide wheels to prevent damage to the floor.
Also, consider systems that link their vacuums directly to dust-producing tools to collect dust and debris at its source.
A good quality push broom is also quite handy for moving and gathering sawdust and other debris. Use it with a matching hand sweeper and a dustpan. A natural bristle (horsehair) broom pushes more dust with each sweep and doesn’t kick up as much dust as one with thin synthetic bristles.
While there certainly are many tools not covered in this article, these tools are the most essential ones needed by flooring professionals. Some of these tools can be rented, but rental equipment often may have improper settings from the previous rental or not be in the best condition. Owning one’s equipment is a better option, and you can source all of your flooring tools from one place.