Making And Installing Plywood Flooring Home Improvement

When it came time to replace the worn out carpet on the second floor of my house, I explored my options. My first choice was hardwood, but the prospect of spending $5 or more per square foot for the nearly 600 square feet of floor area had my head reeling. Given that the area to be done is all bedrooms and not subject to heavy traffic, I thought that a softwood, such as pine, would be a viable option. Of course, solid wood of any type has its problems – seasonal expansion / contraction being at the top of the list. Having used pine in the past for flooring, I knew it was especially susceptible to this movement.
Another option that I quickly ruled out was laminate.

Laminate has two things going for it: it’s cheap and it’s surface is tough and durable. Going against it, and this is a deal breaker for me, is that it needs to ‘float’. Floating means it’s not attached to the floor underneath and it needs to be well away from walls and other obstructions, otherwise it will buckle with expansion. The big drawback with this is that you cannot have a level transition between one flooring type and the next.
For example: if you have tiles in a washroom, you would need a transition strip that allows the laminate to expand and contract. This transition strip would be higher than the floor level! A bump in the floor. For some that would be ok, but not for me. I want a smooth, level transition:

plywood to ceramic junction

Not a trip hazard.

So, I thought about another type of flooring: engineered flooring and how it is just plywood by another name. I decided I would use plywood and cut the sheets into ‘planks’ about 4″ wide. I would then cut these to random lengths to simulate a real wood floor.

First, since I’ve had many questions about the durability of the floor and how well it stands up to scratches and dings, I did a test. I made a gadget that I could drop to make a dent in some samples. This is a very large screw (6″ long) with a piece of wood around it. This is dropped, tip down, onto the sample from a fixed height. To guide it straight down, I used a piece of ABS plumbing pipe, about four feet long. I also tried to push the tip into the wood by hand (the larger dent of the two) using a moderate amount of force and used it to scratch the wood in a couple of places:

the drop test
the big screw

The first piece on the left is white oak flooring, the next is the plywood I would use, the next is the hardest maple I have and the last is a piece of ordinary spruce.
As shown, they each suffered damage, but there isn’t really a huge difference in the amount – each is showing the dents and the scratches. The hard maple fared best and the spruce worst, but the plywood and oak are
very nearly identical.
Of course, if your floor is solid wood and gets scratched and dented, it can always be sanded and refinished a number of times. Some engineered flooring can be sanded one or two times as well, while no type of laminate can. The plywood I’m using has a fairly thick top veneer layer, so it could be sanded, possibly twice
if the sanding is not too aggressive.

Let The Fun Begin

I started by stripping up all of the carpet and removing the staples that hold the under pad down. Using a belt sander with 60 grit paper, I sand the seems between the sheets of sub floor, to make it as level and smooth as possible. I then sand the floor with my random orbit and 100 grit pads. Sweep and vacuum until it is spotless.
With the strips of plywood cut to width, I slightly bevel the edges with my block plane. Since this plywood has a very consistent thickness and surface, I won’t have to do any excessive sanding before finishing (another bonus!) and the bevel stops the edge from splintering.
The plywood is 1/2″ thick good one side pine, which is virtually void free. The ‘good side’ has very few defects and a very attractive grain pattern.
The strips are cut square edge and glued down using yellow carpenters glue. A few finish nails are driven to hold it while the glue sets. These nail holes are filled and sanded flush after and are barely visible:

laying the strips
one floor finished

A room completely laid, ready for finishing.
Since first publishing this article, I’ve gotten a lot of people asking if I left gaps between the plywood strips. No, no gaps. Plywood is dimensionally stable, meaning it doesn’t expand or contract like solid wood with changes in humidity. Having it solidly attached to the plywood subfloor with glue is also recommended – this does not need to “float” like some other engineered flooring.

I wanted a medium colour and found a stain that I liked. Here I’m applying it on with a rag and wiping off the excess. The stain I used was actually an exterior oil based deck stain and the colour was “Redwood”:

staining the floor
clear coating the floor

After giving the stain a day to dry, I followed that up with 4 coats of clear gloss polyurethane. Shown above is the floor right after the final coat – still wet.

The next day, when it’s dry:

the finished plywood floor

Very good looking and cost effective, it comes in less than $2 per square foot finished for the materials involved. Given that the bulk of the job was in the prep work (removing carpet, cleaning, sanding, cutting trim and jambs, etc.) and I would have to do this regardless of the flooring used, I would estimate it took about 40 hours longer to do than prefinished hardwood. I think the $1800 (or more) cost differential between this and the hardwood made up for my extra hours of labour, and I end up with a one-of-a-kind floor.