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opinion and topical commentary
from an industry expert
INSTALLING WOOD FLOORING WITH STAPLES VERSUS CLEATS
In the various chat rooms around in the wood flooring business, a whole lot of folks seem to be weighing in on this issue. To my knowledge, only one (high profile) study has ever been conducted on the holding power of barbed cleats versus staples for attaching wood flooring to wood substrates. Unfortunately, that research project failed to even consider any potential ill effects from a fastener system with too much holding power. Therefore it is impossible to tell how or if the results of that study might have been influenced one way or another had the project incorporated such observations.
I know a great many wood flooring contractors who regularly utilized staples as their primary means of fastening of wood flooring to wood substrates. I believe most of them feel they are doing the right thing, not just because staples cost less than cleats, but because they feel staples hold as well or better than cleats.
Some in our industry call me old fashioned because I’m slow to change my ways. One of those ways is the use of staples to attach solid wood flooring (especially solid plank flooring) to wood substrates. I view staples as a fastening method (at least for solid wood flooring) in the same manner as some of the other
Nuevo methods in construction these days. Basically this means that, "until a bunch of people get hurt (i.e. successfully sued) or until somebody really important gets hurt badly, almost any avant-garde procedure, product or methodology is “okay” to use if it saves money and looks like it does the job.
Contractors, it seems, are the true testing ground (initially or eventually) for any new or different method or product. If it looks good on the drawing board, a test run is made (sometimes) and the product/technique is off and running. Now in principle, I don’t disagree with this. In my opinion, mankind must continually strive to improve his lot or suffer the ill effects of backsliding. But, at what cost? If the primary rationale is saving money and the end result is an inferior product, what was gained?
As anyone who regularly reads construction forums can tell, we contractors try new stuff all the time. We’re always looking for ways to get the job done faster or easier -- which we endearingly term "better".
We're always pushing the envelope. Sure, we attempt to follow basic industry guidelines, but when we do something different or new and get away with it, we put it into our bag of tricks. When we do something new a number of times and nothing goes wrong (at least as far as we know), we add it permanently to our standard operating procedures. If it goes against existing standards or basic industry guidelines, we really don't care -- unless or until we get hung out to dry. Then, we do a little fancy dancing. And I personally see nothing wrong with that. After all, we're always the first ones to be blamed when ANYTHING goes wrong. The good ones among us, those with real staying power, will willingly “fix” or “re-do” our screw-ups.
How is this different from what lawyers or doctors do in their “practices”? We take care of our mistakes on our own dollar. The practicing attorney or surgeon whose world is the court room or operating room will study, observe and learn from what they and others have learned and done before them. Those that truly excel at thinking on their feet and making “skilled” judgment calls will win more cases and save more lives as a result. It’s the same with top practicing contractors.
I've done it. Every good contractor I know has done it. We've pushed every known procedure to the limit. Some may not admit it, but it's true.
It's also true -- in my opinion -- that staples hold better than cleats. But then, so does glue. So what's wrong with staples -- or glue for that matter? Nothing, not as long as you get away with it. As long as nothing goes wrong, as long as nobody gets hurt, whatever you do can be called the right way.
I've done tons of consulting work over the years, not just for wood floors, but wooden structures. I've seen a great many structures damaged by high winds and/or flooding. What is interesting to note is observing structures side by side that have experienced the exact same forces of nature. Time after time I've seen storm or flood ravaged floors or structures fastened by cleats or nails left standing and in much better shape than the remains of other structures fastened with staples that once stood right beside them now flattened, buckled and ruined.
Of greater concern are sports floors or projects of considerable size. I've seen more panelizing and obvious gap issues with stapled commercial or sports floors than cleated ones. When water damaged, I've seen more large floors saved that were installed with cleats than those installed with staples. Barbed cleats seem to re-grab even after they've been pushed hard by the flooring expanding and/or contracting. Staples seem to hold on longer and better than cleats; but then, they just seem to fail -- completely. They either hold on so hard that they pull through the tongues or they completely let go at their feet.
In addition, staples don't seem to hold a wood floor with the same uniformly as cleats. When pressures build from expansion or contraction, the forces in a stapled floor seem to accumulate at a smaller number of weak points resulting in more problematic issues than with cleated floors. Cleated floors appear to relieve pressures as they build and in more evenly distributed patterns (throughout the areas under pressure) than those stapled in place.
My observations and conclusions from years of scrutiny monitoring and comparing the holding characteristics of staples to cleats lead me to the following conclusions: Due to the superior holding power of the staples over cleats, stapled floors (under significant stress) appear to exhibit a stronger tendency to fail completely at certain points either by pulling through the tongues or by pulling out of the subflooring than do cleated floors. Cleated floors (under significant stress) appear more likely to give a little at more points, allowing them to remain basically sound and utilitarian albeit slightly less restrained.
Too often (at least for my tastes) I’ve observed stapled floors after years of service that appear to exhibit many of the same kinds of characteristics found in large floors that were installed without adequate expansion space.
Another concern is the use of staples when repairing damaged flooring originally installed with cleats or nails or stapling new flooring in additions or new rooms that have been added on to existing foundations. It’s rarely a good idea to mix fastener methods within the same plane of a single floor. All too often, contractors simply ignore the effects of future problems in favor of using what they normally use or doing what they normally do.
Any time new flooring is tied into existing, aberrant movement must be expected. Even when two or more sections of flooring are installed over independent foundations, there will be variations and varying degrees of movement. If you tie the two or more sections together, you’re almost guaranteed sectional divisions over time.
Any structural changes, especially an addition or change to the existing foundation will cause each section to move independent of (or at least in a different manner) to the other. This is most pronounced at the unions of the different foundations and at weight bearing points throughout the structure. As the structure settles and changing moisture conditions promote movement, the floor may separate or even buckle. The greatest effects to the finished flooring are most often exhibited near to the junction of the two foundations, but are always predicated by the inherent stresses and constraints of the new relative to the existing foundation.
Unsightly separation lines and sometimes buckling are the result of the two forces working with and against one another. These forces seem to be most evident but significantly exacerbated when those floors are fastened by staples or glue rather than cleats or nails.
I’m well aware that a substantial portion of the preceding stems from personal empirical evidence rather than from scientifically controlled experimentation, but I’ve worked in the trade nearly 4 decades and I'm an old school Vietnam veteran. You don't always have to shoot me to get my attention.
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