Eliminate the Ghost in the Floor
It may be difficult to tell whether the squeak is in the hardwood or the subfloor.
If there is one household problem that, quite literally, haunts your every step, it is a squeaky floor. Sure a squeaky floor is an almost nostalgic denizen of colonial houses and ghost stories, but for most people, it is in reality a daily annoyance. More than that, it is a problem that many of us have no idea how to solve. The squeaky floor is an invisible enemy, hiding under carpet or hardwood floors. Therefore, many homeowners just bide their time as if someday their ghost-in-the-floor will go away or, at least, they’ll just stop hearing it.
Well, that is just not necessary, as any flooring expert or contractor the world over would happily tell you. Squeaks can be very tricky, almost cunning to a frustrated seeker of their source, but there are some simple steps you can take, once the squeak is located, to eliminate your built-in specter.
What is it?
Floor squeaks are always caused by friction, but under three different scenarios. One: one or more seams in the subflooring are lifting and rubbing together. Two: seams in the hardwood floor (finished floor) are grating on each other. Three: the nails used to fasten the flooring are loose, allowing the floor boards to move, causing that ghastly sound of wood rubbing against steel.
Where is it?
Locating the source of the squeak is actually quite easy; you’ve been stepping on it every day. It is locating the nearest floor joist that can be difficult. Having a partner is always a good idea in seeking out and fixing squeaks; usually one above and one below. If you’re lucky, the underside of the subflooring and the joists are exposed (i.e., crawl space, unfinished basement). In this case, one person above continually activating the squeak or knocking on the spot and one person below following the sound is best.
Should the joists be locked in drywall, then above is your only option. More about this below.
How do I fix it?
How you’ll fix a squeak depends on the type of flooring. There is one item that you should always have handy: construction adhesive. Most contractors nowadays will use this adhesive liberally when building a house or addition and this has cut down on squeaks significantly. However, there is no guarantee that it was used in your house and this does not help your squeaky situation. As you fix the squeaks, you’ll want to apply construction adhesive wherever possible.
Most hardwood floors are tongue-and-groove, so you’ll be unlucky trying to pull them up. It may be difficult to tell whether the squeak is in the hardwood or the subfloor. Either way your options do not change much. Should the problem be in the hardwood, you can try powdered graphite to lubricate the joints and alleviate the squeak. Otherwise you will have to nail or screw (Screws are recommended if possible).
If you have access underneath the floor then you have the advantage of screwing up from the bottom without exposing any hardware. Add construction adhesive along the gaps between the joist and subfloor, then drive a screw at an angle through the joist and up into the flooring above the joist.
If you must fix the squeak from above, be sure to use spiral flooring nail or finish head screws to maximize hold and minimize visibility. Always drill pilot holes, whether using nails or screws—hardwood will easily split. Just pre-drill through the hardwood and not the subflooring. Finding joists from above can be very difficult if there are not any exposed nails to begin with. One option is going down the story below and using a stud sensor to mark joists in the ceiling. Then measure the distance to that joist from a shared (usually exterior) wall. Transfer that number to the floor above and you should be very close. Use a nail set or countersink bit to set fasteners below the hardwood’s surface. Fill these with wax wood filler.
Carpet is a bit different. Locating the joists will be the same process as hardwood or any other floor and, with underneath access, you can fix the floor in the same manner described above. Now, you may not have to pull back the carpet. If you can find the joists below, you can nail through the carpet and into the flooring. Be cautious about using screws because many carpets will catch and get wound up in the screw’s threads. Also be aware of damaging hardwood flooring that may exist beneath the carpet. You may someday wish to expose and refinish this hardwood; a day that you will sadly regret driving random nails through your carpet.
If possible, it is best to roll back the carpet and padding before nailing anything. This can also make locating joists and loose nails a cinch if there is only subflooring beneath the carpet. If you do not want to roll back the carpet, and screwing from below did not work, you can locate a joist either by a shared measurement (see above) or by pre-drilling a hole from below and driving a nail up through the floor alongside the joist. That will give the proximity of that joist and you can get started nailing above.
Many people recommend using shims to fill gaps between flooring and joists, thus stopping the squeaks. This is a possible solution, but it is often temporary and it is important not to over drive the shims, thus creating gaps elsewhere.
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