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Repairing a Squeaky Floor

No matter what's underfoot in the way of finish flooring-carpet, vinyl, tile or hardwood-unless your home is built on a concrete slab, underneath is wood. It's that wood that causes the squeaks -- well, sort of. Conventional wisdom explains that wood sings when it flexes. Usually the squeak is a loose nail rubbing inside the hole it was originally driven into.

Lumber that is used to build a home contains a certain degree of natural moisture. This makes the wood easy to cut and minimizes splitting when it is being nailed together. Unfortunately, as the wood dries, it shrinks -- a natural process that can take years. When the wood shrinks enough, once tightly seated nails can loosen and rub when the wood flexes below the pitter-patter of foot traffic, creating the familiar irritating sound: a floor squeak.

The first step in repairing a floor squeak is to find the nail that is rubbing up against the wood floor. This can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Here's a trick that we use to pinpoint a floor squeak so that we can make a repair. Use a short length of garden hose as a stethoscope. Hold one end of the hose to your ear and the other end on the floor while someone else walks across the floor to make it squeak.

If you can listen to the floor from a basement or subarea, the makeshift stethoscope yields more accurate results. If the problem is loose subfloor (the wood floor below the carpet, vinyl, hardwood, and so on), the repair can get sticky depending upon the type of finish flooring. However, if access below is available, installing a wood shim shingle between the subfloor and the floor joist is a quick and easy means of preventing the subfloor from flexing and quiets the squeak. Just squirt some carpenters glue on the thin end of the shingle and tap it in with a hammer.

Another means of quieting a squeaking floor by preventing it from flexing is with a nifty gadget called a SqueakEnder. It consists of a metal plate and threaded-rod assembly that's screwed to the underside of the subfloor and a steel bracket. The bracket is slipped beneath the joist and over the threaded rod, then a nut is tightened onto the rod to pull down the floor and close the gap.

If access below is not available, after you locate the culprit nail, the next step is to create a better connection. Don't use nails to make the repair-use screws.

We recommend Grabber construction screws because they are easy to drive and grip like crazy. They have a finish head (like a finish nail) which makes them a particularly good choice when working on a hardwood floor. The head can be slightly countersunk and puttied. In addition, they can be driven directly through the carpet, pad, and subfloor and into a floor joist.

Just follow these steps:

  • Locate the squeak using the method discussed earlier in this section.
  • Drill a small pilot hole through the carpet, pad, and wood subfloor and into the floor joist.

The floor joist is the horizontal floor framing member that the wood subfloor is attached to. Drilling a small pilot hole makes the job easier. The pilot hole and new screw should be installed near the existing nail that is making the noise. The old nail can remain or, if loose, should be removed using a nail puller or pry bar.

  • Drive a construction screw into the pilot hole, through the carpet, pad, and so on.

When working on a hardwood floor, countersink (recess) the screw head so that it can be concealed with hardwood putty. Use a putty knife to install hardwood putty. Touch up the floor finish with 400 to 600 wet/dry sandpaper.

If you do decide to use nails, choose a ring shank nail which has a barbed shank for superior holding power. (Ask a clerk at the hardware store to help you find these nails if you don't know what they look like.) Like construction screws, ring shank nails can be driven through the carpet and pad; however, due to the size of the nail head, they are not a good choice for hardwood flooring.

We have found that talcum powder works particularly well in quieting a squeaky hardwood floor. Sprinkle a generous amount of the stuff wherever the floor makes noise. Work the powder into the joints and around any exposed nail heads. This method also works well on wood stairs. Unfortunately, this method generally provides only temporary relief for a few weeks or months. The talcum powder works great when you have company coming or are expecting houseguests for a week and don't have time to make the repair.

If the squeak persists, it may mean that settlement has occurred in the foundation, and pier post shimming may be required. This is similar to installing a shim shingle as discussed earlier. Instead, the shingle is inserted between the top of the pier post and the bottom of the girder. Coat the end of the shingle with glue and tap it in snuggly using a hammer.

Still struggling with a squeaking floor? Major foundation settlement or an out-of-level floor could be the problem. Because this is a more expensive repair, you may want to consider the positive aspects of owning your own floor squeak.