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Find out how to fix squeaky floors and repair floor scratches as well as how much it would cost to hire a contractor for the job.
Let’s face it, if we have wooden floors we will at some time have a squeaky floor. Maybe it happens when you get home late at night and don’t want to wake anyone else in the house. Maybe creaks and squeaks happen when you turn on the central heating and the house starts to warm up. It doesn’t mean there is anything particularly major to fix, it just means that whoever laid the floor in the first place didn’t take enough care when fixing the boards in place, or it can mean that the floor is old and starting to need a bit of maintenance. A lot of people think it is an easy thing to fix, but surprisingly it is more difficult to stop a floor board from making a noise than it is to lay the board properly in the first place.
Today we are going to talk about:
To do this job properly can take a lot of time and may involve the removal, replacement or renewal of a part of the floor or the supporting joists.
The most obvious type of floor and probably the first one that everyone thinks of is the standard softwood floorboard fixed to wooden joists. There are however other types of floor which can become squeaky over time. The following list summarises the different types of flooring and the problems found:
Softwood floorboards. These are the most common types in older houses. The dimensions of the boards are approximately 4” to 6” wide and 0.75” to 1” thick. They are fixed directly to wooden joists.
Hardwood floors. These floors can be either hardwood blocks or narrow hardwood boards. They are usually laid onto a subfloor of thick manufactured board such as plywood.
Chipboard. Flooring grade chipboard comes in approximately 4ft x 2ft sheets of 0.75” to 1” thick. Usually the chipboard is made using a water resistant glue to prevent wet rot damage from rooms like bathrooms and kitchens. Chipboard is normally fixed to joists in a similar manner to floorboards.
Laminate flooring. Laminate flooring consists of sheets about 0.25” thick with an embossed wood design. They are usually made from either a rigid plastic or plastic veneer onto man-made board. The laminate panels require extremely flat surfaces on which to be laid so are usually laid on top of a flooring grade sheet material such as:
Although these types of flooring are made differently and from different materials, they have the common problem of ‘movement under load’. If the flooring moves vertically then each piece will rub against its neighbour causing the characteristic squeak or creak that we all know so well.
The noise that the floor makes when walked upon is caused by the wooden floorboards moving slightly and rubbing against either:
The simple answer to how to stop floorboards from squeaking is therefore to stop the boards from moving in the first place. This is very difficult to do in practice, as part of the beauty and usefulness of wooden floors is their flexibility and their ability to move slightly under load. If they were not allowed the freedom to bend and flex then they would not be so much of a pleasure to walk upon and you may as well just have solid concrete floors.
Before we go any further with this discussion we should just look at one more observation and that is that squeaks and creaks are not just confined to floors, they also occur on stairs too and for the same reasons. The methods we will talk about today will be good for both occasions and should be able to stop any creaks that may occur.
In order to know how to silence a noisy floor you need to understand a bit about how a floor is constructed. The type of floor we are talking about is called a suspended floor and is the usual type using either wooden boards or chipboard sheets fixed to wooden floor joists using either nails or screws.
Floor joists will be supported against the walls using either galvanised metal joist hangers fixed to the walls or by building the ends of the joists into the wall. Whichever way it is done, three things are required to prevent any problems later.
The joists must be fixed so they are absolutely solid at either end of its span (‘span’ means the unsupported length of the joist). If the span is larger than normal (the allowed span will depend on the dimensions of the joist) then intermediate supports in the form of loadbearing walls or alternatively wood or steel cross beams or lintels, must be added to effectively shorten the span.
Not only are the dimensions of the joist important when deciding on the supported span, but also the distance apart of each joist. The following table is based on the UK Building Regulations and shows the safe dimensions for floor joists, the span and the distance apart of each joist. A safe suspended floor is vitally important to prevent damage to property and injury to people. You must therefore always comply with your local regulations and building codes.
No doubt each country will have their own building regulations and required joist dimensions so always check with your local building enforcement officer or city hall before carrying out alterations and starting new work.
Please note that metric to imperial conversions are approximate.
|Maximum span for distances apart of each joist (centre to centre)|
|Dimensions of joist||400mm|
|38 x 97mm|
1.5” x 4”
|38 x 122mm|
1.5” x 5”
|38 x 147mm|
1.5” x 5.75”
|38 x 220mm|
1.5” x 8.75”
|47 x 97mm|
1.85” x 4”
|47 x 122mm|
1.85” x 5”
|47 x 147mm|
1.85” x 5.75”
|47 x 220mm|
1.85” x 8.75”
|50 x 97mm|
2” x 4”
|50 x 122mm|
2” x 5”
|50 x 147mm|
2” x 5.75”
|50 x 220mm|
2” x 8.75”
|63 x 97mm|
2.5” x 4”
|63 x 122mm|
2.5” x 5”
|63 x 147mm|
2.5” x 5.75”
|63 x 220mm|
2.5” x 8.75”
|75 x 122mm|
3” x 5”
|75 x 147mm|
3” x 5.75”
|75 x 220mm|
3” x 8.75”
As you can see each size joist has an approved maximum span for the appropriate distance apart of each joist. If your floor joists do not comply with these measurements then you will probably find that they move too much when load is applied (i.e. being walked on) eventually leading to damage and possible breakage. The remedy for this is to either:
Decreasing the distance apart of the joists will not directly stop the joists from moving but will decrease the span of the floorboards and spread your weight over more joists effectively reducing the load on each joist.
The joists must be protected from rot and any movement. Treated timber must be used for structural work as it increases the lifespan of the wood and reduces the chance of wet rot, fungal attack and insect attack. If the joist ends start to rot, they will collapse and vertical movement within the wall will occur.
No piece of wooden joist is perfectly straight. They all have a slight bend or twist to their shape. For this reason timber spacers are inserted between the joists to brace the joists, ensure the distance between them remains constant and to stop any twisting. The spacers are called ‘noggins’ and can either be batten sized pieces arranged in a herringbone pattern or more commonly these days solid timber of the same cross sectional area as the joists. Noggins also tie all the joists to their neighbours making them more structurally solid.
It is always a good idea for the first three joists on each side of a room to be restrained and tied together using an ‘L’ shaped galvanised metal bar called a ‘joist strap’. The long limb will lie across the three joists while the short limb is fixed to the wall. Support the strap all the way using noggins and fix the strap to the timber using galvanised nails. In this way the joists are bound to the walls and forced to remain immobile.
Where cables and pipes run under floors at right angles to the run of the joists access needs to be cut for them either as bored holes through the joist or as notches cut across the joist . If too many notches or holes have been made then the joists can be seriously weakened causing excessive movement.
It is no use making sure the joists don’t move if the flooring isn’t fixed properly. Normal wire nails have shanks that are too smooth to provide any grip, so either use screws of sufficient length to penetrate the joists by about at least the same depth as the floor thickness or use special flooring nails called ring shank nails (these have protruding rings along the nail shanks which grip the wood preventing any movement). The flooring should be fixed to the joists using a sufficient quantity of fixings to prevent any movement; usually this is about 400mm (16 inches) in both directions when fixing chipboard and two fixings on every joist when fitting floorboards.
Floorboards have a tongue and groove profile along the ‘long edge’ so the adjoining boards can lock with their neighbour, whereas flooring grade chipboard has a tongue and groove moulding on every side. The cut edge does not have a tongue and groove so will need to be supported by noggins along the join. The cut edges should be staggered with the adjoining boards to provide additional strength at the joints.
If you have a timber frame wall built on top of a suspended floor, you can sometimes develop a squeak caused by even the tiniest movement between the wall’s ‘sole plate’ and the floor. The way to remedy this is to drive small wooden wedges between the sole plate and the floor to prevent any movement. If you coat the opposing sides of the wedges with PVA wood glue before driving into place then you can be sure the wedges will not become loose over time.
When building a timber frame stud wall on top of the floor it is important to fix the sole plate to the underlying joists through the flooring rather than to the flooring alone. This will help to prevent movement and any creaking which may occur.
Floorboards have a tongue moulding along one long side and a groove moulding along the other long side. This allows adjacent boards to interlock with their neighbour to provide support for each other. Not only that but as floorboards are real wood rather than manufactured wood (such as chipboard or MDF), they are subject to expansion and shrinkage as they adjust to a room’s humidity. If the tongue and groove mouldings were not present any shrinkage would result in gaps forming between the boards whist if expansion were to occur then the boards would buckle and lift from the joists. Flooring grade chipboard also has tongue and groove mouldings but these are on all four sides and are there to mainly provide additional support rather than to prevent gaps.
Earlier, we touched on the fact that incorrect fastenings can cause floorboards to creak. When we walk across a suspended wooden floor the surface moves slightly up and down as our weight is transferred from foot to foot across the floor. If the joists and span dimensions are incorrect then this slight bounce can be amplified, but let’s just assume that all dimensions are as they should be; The floor moves slightly up and down and the floor boards gently start to work the nail loose by pushing the head up by just a few millimetres at a time. As the nail becomes looser so the amount of bounce available for the boards increases this in turn loosens the nail even more.
The correct fixings which will stop the nails working loose are either screws or ring shank nails which have been described earlier. Before the advent of ring shank nails the correct type of nail was a ‘cut nails’. These nails had a rectangular cross section and were wedge shaped along its length. They were called ‘cut nails’ because they had been cut or stamped out of a steel sheet. The wedge shape ensured that the nail remained embedded in the joist and did not as easily move as smooth wire nails.
Not only does the wrong type of fixings have an impact on the stability of a floor, but also if there are not enough fixings then there is more chance of the boards moving up and down.
Every joint in the flooring should be supported by a joist, a noggin or the in-built tongue and groove moulding. If the flooring is allowed to move in any way then the resulting friction against other surfaces will cause a creak or squeak.
Creaking stairs are caused by the same problems as creaking floors. In order to understand how and where the stairs creak, we must understand how they are made. Stairs consist of two long lengths of wood known as ‘strings’ (the diagonal bits) to which are attached the ‘treads’ (the horizontal bits) and the ‘risers’ (the vertical bits). To build a wooden staircase is very technical and outside the scope of this article so let’s just say that there are grooves cut in the ‘strings’ to hold and support the ‘treads’ and ‘risers’ and there are grooves cut in the ‘treads to support the ‘risers’ while grooves are cut in the ‘risers’ to support the ‘treads’. So we have a case of everything holds everything else together! All the wooden components are glued into the grooves with support blocks and wedges added and glued to ensure a tight fit. Notice that there are very rarely any nails or screws used, everything relies on glue, wedges and tight joints.
Over the years, and if the stairs were not made particularly well, the wedges become loose, the glue cracks and the components start to move. As with floors, if there is movement of wood against wood, there will be noise. And that is a creaky staircase.
So let us just summarise the reasons for causing creaky floors and stairs and then move on to how we can fix them.
Floor joists. Joists must be supported properly at either end to prevent movement.
Floor joist span. The unsupported span must not be any more than shown in the table; otherwise excessive movement in the joists will occur.
Floor joist dimensions. The cross sectional area of the joist must be large enough to prevent any undue movement.
Floor joist twisting. Joists must be braced using noggins to prevent twisting and buckling.
Prevent rot. Rot and insect attack and the subsequent weakening of the joists must be prevented by repairing or replacing damaged joists as well as using a suitable damp proof membrane.
Strap the joists. Strap the first three joists to the wall by using a joist strap.
Cutting joists. Be careful when cutting holes or notches in joists for cables and pipes as you may reduce the strength of the joist.
Correct fixings. Use ring shank nails or screws to prevent the fixings working loose.
Enough fixings. Use enough fixings to prevent any vertical movement in the floorboards.
Tongue and groove. Ensure the tongue and groove mouldings along the side of the boards are sound. This moulding helps to support the adjacent boards which in turn prevent movement. The moulding also allows shrinkage and expansion to occur without adverse effect.
Stud walls. Make sure that timber frame stud walls are fixed to the floor joists not the floor boards. Use small glued wedges to support any small gaps between the sole plate and floor.
Support joints. Ensure all joints are supported to prevent vertical movement.
Stairs. Replace glued wedges and blocks to support loose joints. If necessary screw components into place.
Up until now we have been talking about how to stop creaks from occurring in the first place and how to repair flooring if major home renovation is taking place. For most of us however we only have a small amount of time and limited resources and don’t really want to be stripping floors back to the joists if we can possibly help it. What we want is a quick fix. This is what we are going to talk about now. “How to do a quick fix”. Please remember that most of these tips involve temporary methods of removing the noise, by temporary we mean anything from a few months to a few years depending on the foot traffic the floor experiences and how well you have managed to fix the problem. Don’t forget to use treated timber for any structural repairs or replacements to protect against fungal or insect attack.
Unfortunately if we have to do any work on the joists then we will have to remove carpets and at least some of the floorboards to gain access. If we can see that the joist itself is moving when we walk across the floor then either the span is too long or the cross sectional dimensions are too small. The only way to reduce the span is to place a beam at right angles to, and under the joists. If we are talking about a floor with access from a room below then we can install the support beam from there.
If you cannot reduce the span or the joist’s area is too small then you can bolt another length of joist onto the existing joist. This will have the same effect as increasing the width and therefore increasing the cross sectional area. Use two galvanised bolts at intervals of every foot to 18 inches with a length long enough to penetrate both thicknesses. Make sure you use a large steel washer between the wood and the nut to spread the load. Use PVA wood adhesive on joining surfaces to increase the strength of the joint. Clamp the two pieces of joist together using the bolts
If the joists are rotting in the walls, then you can use the previous method to provide a sound extension to the rotten joist. No need to cut the rotten end from it (although it would be good to do it if you can get access), just bolt on a new piece and enlarge the socket in the wall. Don’t forget to treat the rotten end with a preservative to help prevent the rot from spreading.
If the joists are the correct size, correct length and not rotten then the next things to look at are the floorboards. There are a number of things that can be done to stop a board from squeaking depending on your circumstances, and we will talk about each of these now.
Nails or screws. If the incorrect type of fixing has been used then there is no need to remove the old ones, just drill a pilot hole next to the original nail and insert a screw long enough to penetrate the joist by the same amount as the thickness of the floorboards. There may be no need to add screws everywhere but just where the board movement is most pronounced. Note: Be aware that there may be electricity cables or water pipes running through the joist or under the floorboard. Use a pipe/cable detector to confirm or better still, remove and replace the board after checking for the presence of pipes and cables.
Foam. If you cannot remove the board to check what is underneath and you cannot add screws because you think there may be cables or pipes present, all is not lost. Carefully drill a pilot hole in the floorboard slightly to one side of the joist (making sure you don’t drill into the joist or any obstructions) then insert the application nozzle of a can of expanding polyurethane building foam into the hole. Squirt as much foam as you can to fill the void between the board and the joist. Allow to set and remove any foam overflowing above the floorboard. If you prefer you can use a tube of construction adhesive instead of the foam.
Lubrication. If you don’t have access to the joists or subfloor, (maybe because the squeak is coming from a finished laminate floor or hardwood board) add a lubricant such as powdered graphite, soapstone or talcum powder to the offending joint. Place a cloth on top of the joint and walk across it a few times to work the powder into the joint. Vacuum away the remaining powder but don’t accidentally remove the powder from the joint.
Stairs. If you have a squeak on stairs then the best way to repair is to get at the stairs from the underside and replace the glued wedges and blocks. If you can’t get access then you will have to try some way of fixing it from the topside. You will have a problem with the carpet, it’s not so easy on the stairs to peel back the carpet and replace afterwards so you will have to fix something through the carpet. Be careful because if you catch a thread with a drill bit or screw you will end up having a damaged weave in the carpet which will always be visible. Go easy and try it like this:
Floor repair kit. There is a kit available online called “Squeeeek No More” used for repairing squeaky floors based on the idea of adding screws through the existing carpet into the flooring below. I have not tried the kit so cannot comment on its effectiveness, but the reviews look favourable.
The problems with floors and their squeaks are that the causes are usually hidden underneath the floor and the floor has hopefully been laid with the intention of never being lifted again. So, if you have a floor covering such as carpet or lino, you will almost certainly have to remove them to see what is happening beneath. You may then have to remove the floorboards or flooring grade chipboard, which has previously been nailed or screwed down and which has conveniently been supplied with tongue and grooved edges designed to stop them from coming apart. You may have to cut through the tongue of a board with a circular saw to be able to remove the first board. Rather than pulling the nails out, it is often easier to push them through the board using a nail-punch and hammer. Once the first board has been removed, it is relatively easy to remove the remainder.
There are problems with working blind when you don’t know what is below the boards. There will always be services to the house such as:
These services will be hidden behind walls, above ceilings and under floors. You just have to hope that the contractor who installed the services did the job with bearing in mind that someone might be coming along behind him a few years later. Sometimes when you lift a carpet you may see drawn on the floor a plan of what services are underneath and their location. More often than not, however, you are in completely unknown territory and do not know what is below the floor. Let’s hope that your saw does not cut through an electrical cable or you don’t drive a nail through a gas or water pipe!
Always take care and do everything gently and slowly until you know what is underneath. You can buy for a few dollars a handheld metal detector which will scan for metal pipes, electrical cables and embedded nails. If you intend doing a lot of floor work then one of these is indispensable.
If the problem is with the joist then this is a structural problem which must be worked on with care. If the problem is to do with damage where the joist is embedded in the wall, then often this only comes to light when the floor drops. Before the joist is repaired or replaced, the floor will need to be lifted up to its proper level so the new joist can be fixed into its correct position. If you have access to the space under the floor then an adjustable steel prop is the answer to this problem. Luckily they can be hired from your local tool hire centre.
Generally if you need to find a professional to fix your squeak, then a carpenter is the best person to call. He will have the specialised knowledge of how floors are constructed in addition to the required construction knowledge of how floors interact with the other structural parts of the building. His understanding of how wooden structures behave will allow him to fix the problem in the easiest way possible.
Because the carpenter is potentially dealing with a structural part of the building he will need the following:
Check on his documentation mentioned in the previous section. Ask around the neighbourhood for ideas on who to call. Family and friends often know someone who will suit your requirements. Check with your city hall as to whether the guy has had complaints. Ask at your local building supplies merchant about local carpenters. They often advertise by leaving their business cards in view at places like this.
After you have found a few likely candidates, look them up online and ask around to see if anyone knows anything about them.
Ask each one to visit your house for a site inspection. When he arrives, check him out to see whether he looks tidy and efficient. Carpenters, by nature of the work they do have to be structured, planned, accurate and careful. His appearance may reflect his attitude to his work. If you can get to see the condition of his tools, you will learn a lot about his attitude to work. If they are well cared for and well stored then the chances are that he takes a pride in his work.
There are a number of questions you can ask the carpenter, such as:
How long have you been in business?
This will give you an idea of his construction experience. Ask what kind of work did he do and for how long.
Do you hold insurance?
We have talked about this elsewhere.
Do you offer a guarantee on your work?
What if the squeak comes back in the same place? Will you come and put it right?
Can you organise local construction permits?
Depending on the scope of the work and what might be causing the squeak, you may need to apply for permits to ensure compliance with the local building regulations and codes.
When can you start the job?
Obviously you want the job done as quickly as possible but you must bear in mind that he will already have work planned into his calendar and you may have to wait for him to have some spare time.
Have you some references I can contact?
It is good to contact some people that he has done work for before. It will give you an idea of his standard of work and his professionalism.
The costs for doing the job yourself depend on prices of materials and your time. For small squeaks, localised in a small area or ones where it is no problem to gain access to the source of the squeak, it can be worthwhile attempting the job yourself. For large areas and places where access is difficult it is always worth calling in a professional.
The cost of materials needed to repair the squeaky floor will vary depending on the brand name purchased and the amount needed. The prices given below are approximate and come from items found on a well-known online retail site.
|Super Glue||6gm tube||$10|
|PVA wood adhesive||1 pint bottle||$10|
|Chipboard screws||4mm x 50mm (2” long). 200 pack||$55|
|Ring shank nails||20mm x 0.5 Kg tub||$55|
|Polyurethane foam||20oz. can. Pack of 2||$30|
|Building adhesive||10oz. tube. Pack of 2||$17|
|‘Squeeeek No More’||Kit||$20|
|Handheld metal detector||For pipes, cables or nails||$15 to $70|
The cost to hire a professional to fix your floor will depend on the initial cause of the squeak. Obviously if there is a problem with the joists then the cost will be significantly more than rectifying a problem with the floor boards, mainly because of access.
Prices will also vary depending on whether your floor is hardwood, laminate or softwood, and whether your floor has been carpeted or not. Likewise the position of the squeak is an issue; if the squeak is near the edge of the room then it will be relatively easy to roll back the carpet and remove on or two boards compared to a squeak in the middle of the floor where you have to lift a significant amount of carpet.
Also be prepared for a professional to want to do the job properly and not use a temporary fix. Remember that the contractor’s name and reputation will depend on the outcome of his work. He will not want the squeak to return in six months or so and be subsequently blamed for not doing a thorough job.
He will insist on removing carpet, floorboards and whatever is needed to find the cause of the problem. This may require substantial repair and replacement work and need the hire of a carpet fitter to replace the carpet ‘as new’.
Typical average costs for a professional to come and fix your creak are shown below. Notice that hardwood and laminate floors are priced separately. You must remember that these costs are variable depending on the:
|To repair a floor|
|Typical Range||$180 to $480|
|Repair hardwood floor||$200 to $700|
|Laminate repairs||$150 to $600|
When the professional has finished the job and asks to be paid, you will already have agreed a contract stating the scope of work and the estimated price.
For anything but the smallest job, it is imperative to have a written contract. This spells out exactly what the responsibilities of both parties will be.
The contract will state:
You are letting a complete stranger into your home. This person may be perfectly innocent or they may be there to either do you harm or steal from you. Unfortunately there are many con men in the construction industry ready to take money from you. The following are just a few cons that you may be up against. I am sure that with a little bit of thought, you can come up with many more.
You have now found out what can cause a floor squeak and it may not always be something small that is causing it. We talked about the various causes and what can be done to repair the floor depending on what is wrong. We talked a bit about the costs for DIY and for hiring a professional. We discussed what kind of a professional we should find and what to look out for to prove he knows what he is doing. Unfortunately jobs like a squeaky floor can at first seem very insignificant but soon start to escalate into something major and structural. Do not start something you cannot finish. If in any doubt, call a professional.
I hope you have found this article interesting and useful. When you next experience a squeaky floor you will understand what is causing it and how to go about fixing it. Good luck.