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What Causes Squeaky Floors?

Squeaky floors are frustrating!

Unless you are the parent of a teenager, a squeaking hardwood floor is a nuisance. Once a floor starts to voice its opinion about being stepped on, it’s unlikely to stop unless persuaded to do so.

In older homes, the presence of creaking floors is simply part of the charm and history.

For new construction homes, squeaking hardwood floors can be more frustrating as each construction trade points the finger of blame at someone else as having caused it.

There is however one key cause of a squeaking floor: movement.

It’s rare for a wood floor to squeak on its own. For floors to start squeaking there requires some impetus for it to move.

This is typically the case from being walked on.

Movement is the reason a floor squeaks but that still leaves the million-dollar question: “Why is the floor moving?”

Graphic header about what causes movement in wood floors

Movement can be caused by several factors

  • Seasonal Movement
  • Subfloor Issues
  • Fasteners

Diagnosing what’s causing your squeaky floor is crucial for how you can remedy it.

Graphic header about seasonal movement in hardwood floors

In northern climates, when the outside temperature becomes very cold, the air inside the home is heated by furnace, fireplace or stove. This heating cycle creates dry conditions inside. Additional humidification is required to maintain a comfortable humidity inside the home.

If the home becomes too dry for too long, the woodwork and floors of the home will retract. Along with this shrinking, the tension increases on the fasteners which cause them to pull and flex.

After the home returns to a normal humidity level, the floors will expand back – but will as a result be more loosely held to the subfloor. The loose hold, combined with friction between boards and the fasteners will produce noise in the flooring.

In homes where the humidity becomes very high, the process is reversed. The floors expand, causing stress on the fasteners and the same ensuing squeaks.

Graphic about how hardwoods squeak because of seasonal movement, subfloor issues, and fastener issues
Graphic header about the subfloor issues that can cause squeaking in wood flooring

Subfloor Issues

An improperly installed subfloor is one of the most common reasons for squeaky floors. If the subfloor itself is squeaky, no flooring product will cover up the noises. If we can’t fix our squeaky subfloor, at the very least we can learn what causes subfloor issues:

    1. Out of level subfloor
    2. Spacing between the subfloor and joists
    3. Subfloor seams off center with joists
    4. Improper subfloor material

Out of level subfloor

An out of level subfloor has many causes. The essence here is that an out of level subfloor creates the presence of voids between the subfloor and the flooring.

Any size of void allows the possibility of movement, creating squeaks and creaks. Remember: to completely avoid squeaky floors, you must eliminate all movement that affects the wood floor.

Eliminate voids in the subfloor and you’ll eliminate movement and squeaks.

 

Where can you find voids in your subfloor?

Voids are typically found when there’s residue on the subfloor, a high or low area in the subfloor seams, the joists are out of level, or the home is experiencing settling.

Hover over the boxes below to learn more about each one!

Residue on the subfloor

This can be construction residue, like drywall mud, adhesive, unseated or protruding fasteners, etc. Installing over this residue will suspend the floor in the air.

High/low areas in the subfloor seams

Good wood flooring installers will sand the seams of plywood flat. If the subfloor isn’t perfectly flat, sections of the flooring are suspended in the air.

Joists out of level

Unlevel, uneven joists can be shimmed and leveled prior to installing subfloor decking.

Settling in the home

Foundation walls and slabs can give way to erosion and other environmental factors causing sections of outer walls to sag out of plumb. If excessive, a foundation repair company may be consulted for their leveling services.

Spacing between the subfloor and joists

Any void between the wood flooring and the subfloor can allow for movement.

Realistically, many factors result in voids between subfloor and joists.

However, there’s only one sure way to prevent voids: glue AND nail the subfloor to the joists. And, do it carefully.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a common practice.

Most contractors only nail the subfloor down. Often, the nails miss joists, leaving the floor not attached securley. In addition, the nails also miss the voids between the joists and subfloor.

By gluing AND nailing the subfloor, all possible voids between subfloor and joists can be eliminated.

Subfloor seams off center of joists

Hopefully, this is an incredibly rare occurrence, but in a rush, a contractor might install a subfloor off center of the joists. This means that seams of flooring are over a void between joists. At these intersections there is no solid structure supporting the flooring and subfloor.  This causes instability and flex thus producing noise anytime someone walks on this area.

Improper type of or degraded subfloor

Subfloor material comes in varying grades and quality and is exposed to various environmental conditions along the stages of construction.

A low-quality subfloor or one affected by rain or flooding will be degraded (no matter what the salesman said about it being waterproof). Waterlogged wood chips glued into sheets will not hold fasteners like higher quality exterior grade plywood that was kept dry.

Some plywood on the market has resin content so high that the subfloor can be too hard. This added rigidity makes the product too brittle. Fasteners barely penetrate and once through, the material is too rigid to maintain a hold.

Imagine nailing through sheet metal. The nail might hold for a little while, but once broken loose, the nail’s not just moving – it’s also screaming at you like nails on a chalkboard.

Graphic header about the fastener issues that can lead to squeaking in hardwood floors

Fasteners May Cause Squeaky Floors

The best way to prevent squeaks – install the floor correctly. Over seating of fasteners by setting psi too high, and using too few or the wrong size and gauge fasteners are the most common installation problems that lead to squeaks.

Over seating of fasteners

This is a very common cause of squeaks. When a fastener is overdriven into the tongue, the bottom of the board will be lifted off the subfloor. Even the slightest raising of a board will create a void and over time cause the fastener to loosen and squeak.

As discussed previously, a void between the flooring and the subfloor presents the possibility for movement and squeaks

Inadequate fastener size and spacing

Fasteners too short and too narrow gauge will not hold the flooring in the subfloor adequately. They’ll hold initially but can become loose over time.

The stress from daily foot traffic can cause these undersized fasteners to loosen and squeak within the subfloor.

This is also true for having too few fasteners.  Inadequate number of nails or staples allows more flexibility and movement and more likely to cause squeaks.

We’ve put together a video and article that explains the importance of proper fasteners use and how to make sure that you’re using the correct ones. Learn more about it here.

Graphic header about other factors that can lead to squeaks in hardwood flooring

What’s Missing From This List?

You may have noticed one commonly held view is absent from this list – “Manufacturer defect.”

This is because manufacturer defect is almost never the cause of simple squeaking in hardwood floors.

Squeaky floors could be the symptom of a much deeper defect, but the squeak is not the only symptom.

The following are commonly held, but mistaken, beliefs about manufacturer caused squeaks:

Loose Tongue and Groove

Manufacturers mill the tongue and groove of flooring to fit flooring together easily. Our goal is to allow for blind nailing of flooring and easy installation.

The tongue and groove are designed to fit together with a snug fit allowing enough tolerance to be fit together by hand. While the flooring is being manufactured, this is being tested constantly.

We must remember that as soon as the moisture content of the flooring changes, the fit of the tongue and groove will change.

If the flooring becomes drier, the tongue and groove will be looser. When the flooring grows in moisture content, the fit becomes tighter.

The manufacturer cannot guarantee the fit of the tongue and groove in every installation environment.

At the end of the day, it is the installer’s responsibility to ensure that the fit of the tongue and groove is appropriate at the time of installation.

Hearing squeaking out of the box? Then the manufacturer should be contacted.

Squeaking 24 hours after installation? You can be assured the cause is something other than manufacturing. If it was manufacturer related, it would squeak out of the box.

Delamination

Engineered hardwood flooring rarely delaminates.

The typical cause of flooring separation is extremely dry conditions that tear the flooring apart. However, when there is delamination, squeaky floors are a symptom of an underlying and more severe problem.

Boards raise up, curl and no longer stay flat. In this case, squeaks aren’t usually mentioned because the other issues take precedence.

Graphic header asking the question of how to stop squeaks in wood flooring

So, how can I quiet my squeaky floors?

As you can see, squeaking floors are a complex puzzle to solve.

It comes down to some basics. First, “movement” is always the primary cause and eliminating movement is the only solution.

Once this is understood, a decision can be made to remedy the creaks and noise.

 

Here are some possible solutions for squeaky floors:

Squeak No More: (spelled, “SQUEEEEEK NO MORE KIT”) is now sold through big box retail and online. This method allows for top screwing boards with screws that breakaway beneath the surface of the wood leaving a small hardly noticeable hole for easy filling.

Lubricants: This may sound like a strange idea, but baby powder and graphite can provide a temporary solution for squeaky floors. When the movement is causing friction between the flooring boards, lubricating the friction points will eliminate the sound. Be aware that overuse may cause contamination or discoloration on some natural oiled floors or when recoating.

Reseating Flooring: Using screws from underneath stairs or flooring where accessible, to reseat the problem flooring to the subfloor.

Squeak Ender: http://www.squeakender.com/ This cures the issue of voids between subfloor and flooring joists. Shimming the voids can also help but might cause squeaks in other areas.

Hollow spot repair: drilling a hole in the flooring and filling the void with adhesive or epoxy is a possible solution: https://www.dritac.com/product-category/specialty-products/repair-kits/

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    Graphic header advertising the article's quiz about why hardwood floors squeak

    What are the three most common factors that lead to squeaks in hardwoods?

    1. Seasonal movement
    2. Subfloor issues
    3. Fastener issues

    What can help lessen seasonal movement?

    Additional humidification, such as a whole home humidifer system, can help counteract movement as floors expand and contract.

    Name one of the four reasons for subfloor issues:

    1. Out of level subfloor
    2. Spacing between the subfloor and joists
    3. Subfloor seams off center with joists
    4. Improper subfloor material

    What is one of the four most common reasons for voids in the subfloor?

    1. Residue on the subfloor
    2. High/low areas in the sufloor seams
    3. Joists out of level
    4. Settling in the home

    What are three ways fasteners can cause squeaks?

    The fasteners are over seated, the fastener is the incorrect size, or the fasteners are incorrectly spaced apart.

    TRUE OR FALSE: Loose tongue & grooving and delamination are the most common reasons for squeaks.

    FALSE. While loose tongue & grooving and delamination can lead to squeaks, they are rare and typically occur due to improper environmental conditions.

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