How to Lay Floating Tongue and Groove Flooring

hands installing tongue and groove flooring
  • 8 hours
  • Beginner
  • 300
What You'll Need
Floating tongue and groove flooring
Underlayment (if required)
Seam tape
Undercutting saw
Floating floor installation kit
Seam tape
Miter saw
Jig saw or handsaw
What You'll Need
Floating tongue and groove flooring
Underlayment (if required)
Seam tape
Undercutting saw
Floating floor installation kit
Seam tape
Miter saw
Jig saw or handsaw

The term “floating floor” is commonly used to refer to a flooring material instead of what it really describes, which is a method used to install flooring in which the material “floats” over the subfloor and underlayment, instead of being glued or otherwise secured to the subfloor. Introduced to residential installations over 15 years ago, floating floors still remain a very popular choice today.

Compared to traditional types of flooring, floating floors are both cheaper and easier to install for most homeowners. Usually made to imitate wood planks, marble, ceramic, or stone tiles, they’re available in three different types of materials.

Regardless of their type, floating floors are all similar in the way they’re installed from many individual planks or tiles that are inter-connected edge-to-edge through a “click-lock” fitting system that keeps all the tiles or planks tightly together to form a mat-like surface. The snug and secure fit of the click-lock systems eliminate the need for gluing or nailing to the subfloor.

Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring is a popular, durable flooring option that comes in print of wood grain and tile patterns.

Vinyl Flooring

Luxury vinyl flooring, which is also very durable, provides you with the added advantage of being waterproof and much better suited for damp areas such as bathrooms, laundry rooms, and even basements. It can also be available with an attached rubber backing that eliminates the need for an underlayment.

Engineered Wood

Engineered wood flooring is another type of floating floor of lightweight construction from multiple layers of wood by-products with a finished layer of solid wood.

Flooring Underlayment

hands laying flooring underlayment on subfloor

Underlay or flooring underlayment is usually made of foam, rubber, felt, or fiber that comes in rolls and is laid onto a subfloor to add cushion and sound absorption along with increasing the longevity of your floating floor. It also provides a vapor barrier that will prevent moisture from coming through and getting absorbed by the floating floor.

Not all floating floors, however, require an underlayment, and different types of underlayment are not all suitable for any type of floating floor. So when buying your flooring, you should always review the flooring installation instructions and follow their recommendations when choosing the right type of underlayment for your flooring and the floor surface it is to be laid on.

Even with flooring that has a rubber backing already attached to it, don’t take it for granted that you will not need an underlay. The flooring may work just fine without it on an upstairs floor, but if installed on a basement cement floor, the higher level of moisture coming from the cement floor surface would make it an absolute must.

Step 1 - Getting the Floor Ready

1.1 - First of all, remove all furniture and other items that sit on the floor in the room.

1.2 - If the room has carpet, you’ll need to remove it from the floor along with all of its tack strips along the walls.

1.3 - Since the carpet is likely held down with staples, you’ll now have to make a thorough inspection and remove every staple with a pair of pliers.

1.4 - Make sure that all the fasteners that hold down the subfloor are down flush or below the surface, as any protruding nail or screw head will transfer the prominence directly through to the flooring. The flat edge from a scraper or prybar can help to locate those fasteners, which you can then hammer in, screw in, or remove if they don’t stay in or screw in.

1.5 - Removing the baseboards is a matter of opinion since leaving them in place makes the job easier and is pretty common. It will, however, require you to add quarter-round moldings to cover up the gaps along the walls once the installation is complete. A “Trim Puller” tool could prove to be a valuable asset for removing baseboards while minimizing the damage to the moldings.

1.6 - The door jambs should then be undercut to let you place the flooring underneath. Use a thickness of flooring on top of a thickness of underlayment to cut to the proper height with an undercutting saw or a multi-tool.

1.7 - You now need to fix the doorway to accommodate the transition trim. The flooring from the adjacent room first needs to be cut straight. Cut the channel to the right length between both jambs, put it in place, and screw it in along the adjacent room’s flooring.

1.8 - Use a 6-foot spirit level to check the flatness of the floor and to locate the low spots. Those depressions will need to be filled with a floor leveling compound to bring the recess level with the rest of the floor by feathering it out with a wide trowel or a straight board. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the suggested maximum thickness of the compound.

1.9 - With the floor perfectly level and all the nails and screws fixed, you can now get your shop vac and thoroughly vacuum the whole floor surface area. Your subfloor is now ready for its flooring.

1.10 - When you get your flooring home, you should, first of all, acclimate it to the ambient conditions of the room where it is to be installed by placing the boxes in several piles where the boards can be picked up and installed at intervals from different boxes (or batches of flooring) preventing the placement of identical patterns next to each other.

Acclimating simply means that the flooring, which might have been in storage inside a warehouse for some time now, needs to get used to the room’s temperature and humidity conditions, which will eventually cause it to expand or contract. Failure to do so could eventually result in the completed floor buckling or breaking at the joints.

subflooring over concrete

Step 3 - Deciding on Your Floor Layout

3.1 - Measure the width of the floor at each end, tracing a mark right in the center and partially driving a nail into the floor at each of the two marks. Use a chalk line hooked to each of the two nails to mark a line across the full length of the floor. This will be your “Center Guide Line.” You now need to do a few calculations.

Be aware that if the room is not perfectly rectangular, it might be wider at one end than at the other end. Your line still needs to be dead-centered through its full length.

Example #1

Fact # 1 - Let’s assume that you have a room measuring 138-1/2 inches in the width at its widest.

Fact # 2 - Let’s say that you’re installing vinyl tiles that measure 12-1/4 inches in the width.

1st Calculation for Number of Rows to Be Installed

The width of the room in inches divided by the width of the exposed face of a tile.

= 138.5-inches divided by 12.25-inches.

= 11.31 rows which are rounded at the next full row resulting in 12 rows total.

2nd Calculation to Find the Width of the 1st Row

With 12 rows at 12-1/4 inches each, the total flooring width adds up to 150 inches.

Since the surface to cover is only 138-1/2 inches at its widest,

subtracting 138.5 inches from 150 inches of rows total gives you the total minimum oversize width that will need to be scribed and cut from the first and the last row.

150 - 138.5 = 11-1/2 inches wide to remove overall.

If you were to start with a full row, you would end up at the end with a strip 3/4 inch wide along the wall. That last row would not provide enough stability to remain properly interlocked, along with being esthetically incorrect.

“Scribing” or removing half that width from the 1st row and again from the last row, however, would leave both rows at the same width, which esthetically would also be much more acceptable and pleasant to look at.

You’ll also have to consider that your flooring might eventually be submitted to dimensional changes (or expansion) from varying humidity and temperature levels. A 1/4-inch “expansion gap” will therefore have to be provided around the full perimeter of the floor to absorb the swelling, leading us to the next calculation.

3rd Calculation to Find the Width of the First and Last Rows

The excess flooring width divided by 2 plus 1/4-inch expansion gap =

11.5-inches / 2 = 5-3/4-inches wide for each rows.

5-3/4 inches plus 1/4-inch expansion gap = 6-inches.

This 6-inches (in this example) is the minimum that will need to be removed from the first row of flooring, providing that both opposite walls are perfectly parallel from each other.

Keep in mind that if the strip cut off is half the width of a tile/plank or more, it can and should be used to do the last row against the opposite wall.

making a mark on a piece of flooring

Step 4 - Preparing the First Row

The first thing before you start assembling the flooring is to get a laminate flooring installation kit that will provide you with all the necessary spacers, a pull bar, a tapping block, and a mallet. Those tools are a must and will help you achieve proper locking and uniformity of the flooring while preventing unnecessary damage to the click-lock groove and tongue system.

4.1 - Start assembling the 1st row of boards along the wall working from left to right. At this point, the 1st row is simply used as a guide should only be made up of full-length boards. The tiles or planks are assembled together by lifting the opposite end and bringing the tongue of the incoming piece inside the groove of the previous piece so they can snap together as you lower it down on the subfloor. The same technique will also apply to the long edge when you add pieces to the width of the flooring.

4.2 - With the 1st row up against the wall, measure the distance from the tiles to the “Center Guide Line” (from step 3.1) at both ends and relocate the row so that it is equidistant at both ends with that center line. If the walls aren’t parallel, you’ll have to pull the row from the wall at one end.

4.3 - Trace a mark on the face of the end tile, using your result from the 3rd calculation, measured from the edge of the exposed face of the floor tile or plank. If you had to pull in the row at one end, mark the tile at that end.

4.4 - You can now measure the distance from the wall and use that distance to scribe a line through each tile/plank along the full length of that first row of flooring

4.5 - Cut each piece on that line and reassemble the row, placing it 1/4-inch from the wall to provide the expansion gap. You should use spacers against the wall to maintain the proper alignment.

4.6 - If the first or last tile/plank on any given row needs to be cut to length, it should never be less than 8-inches. So if a gap should occur at either end that is less than 8-inches, you’ll need to slide the row over to one side or the other making sure the rule is consistent at both ends.

4.7 - Making sure that the 8-inch rule is followed, you can now trim the end of the very first board to fit the end wall.

4.8 - You can now trim the last board on that row, making sure that it’s over 8-inches, by flipping a board over, sliding the “tongue” end against the wall, and marking the cutting line at the joint on the last board. It can then be cut to length with a miter saw, a jig saw, or a handsaw. Cut next to the right width.

4.9 - Install the piece by inserting the tongue into the locking groove while the other end is held up, then placing it in position using the pull bar.

Step 5 - Installing the Floating Floor

installing laminate flooring boards

As mentioned at the beginning, there are some types of floating floors that will require an underlayment, while other types already have a rubber backing attached and might only require a vapor barrier in some cases, such as a basement floor. If you do need the underlayment, make sure that you purchased the right type of underlay specified by the manufacturer.

5.1 - If you need to install with an underlayment, remove the first strip of flooring that’s already cut and set it aside.

5.2 - Unroll the material on the floor along the starting wall and cut the 1st strip to fit along that wall and within both end walls or against the U-channel strip if you get to a doorway. Use masking tape to tape to the subfloor in several places to keep it in place—any subsequent rows should also be taped to the previous row.

5.3 - Install the first row of flooring back in place. Every tile or plank added should be tapped against the previous one using the tapping block, and once the joint is tightly in place, it can also be tapped down in place to ensure proper locking.

The pull bar is used to provide extra tapping space for the mallet when the end tile is too close to the wall for a means to tap the pieces together. Push the first row against the spacers placed along the wall. If a piece needs to be removed, just lift it at the opposite end or edge to unlock them and pull it apart.

5.4 - For the 2nd and any subsequent rows, the end joints should always be kept at a minimum offset of 8-inches from the joints of adjoining rows.

5.5 - Tap each board with the tapping block and mallet to ensure a perfectly locked and tight joint against the previous row.

Installation Tip - If the room has nooks and crannies, you will want the wall forming the recess to be entirely contoured with the same board unless the nook runs deeper than 2/3 the length of the board—the first third provides enough grasp to maintain a perfect alignment with the rest of the larger floor surface. Keep in mind the 8-inch offset rule between joints and from an end wall that still applies.

person with tools laying flooring

Step 6 - Laying the Last Row

6.1 - For the last row, you now need to cut the first board to length, removing the grooved end and allowing for the expansion gap. Place the board upside down with the side tongue against the wall and mark it at both ends along the joint line of the previous row. Cut to the right width, again allowing for the expansion gap, then insert it in place using the pull bar and mallet to secure it.

6.2 - Follow the same technique to rip the rest of the boards and secure them in place.

Step 7 - Finishing Up

With your flooring installed, you now have to apply the finishing touch, the first being the application of the transition strip into the U-channel at the doorway. You then have to go around the perimeter of the room, removing all the spacers and storing them for the next job.

Finally, if the baseboards were removed, you can now re-install them if they’re in good shape or replace them with new ones. If you decided against removing them, you’ll need to get some quarter-round moldings to cover every corner and cover up the edge of your floating floor and the expansion gap.

For more information on laminate, vinyl, and engineered wood floating floors and how to install them, check out our pieces on “Different Ways of Installing Engineered Wood Floors,” “How to Install Floating Wood Flooring,” and “Prepping for Laminate Floor Installation.”