If squeaky floor is bothersome, take steps to fix it

HOME WORK

December 19, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

You come home from the office, late and exhausted. The house is quiet. The kids must be asleep, probably have the dog up there, and there's no sound from the TV room.

Carefully you take off your shoes and start across the room, turning off lights as you go. You place your stockinged foot ever so gently on the first step and -- "Squeeeeaaaak!" It's amazing how often you can step on a squeaky board -- even if it's only dTC one, even when you know right where it is.

And it may be annoying, especially if it's not the only one. We get a lot of letters about squeaky floors, and they're not confined to old houses. The problem with floor squeaks is they're like the common cold; easy to get and hard to cure.

Floors squeak because the parts aren't fastened together tightly enough and something is moving, rubbing against another part.

The first thing to do is identify exactly where the squeak is coming from. If the flooring is accessible from underneath, fixing it will be easier. If there's a ceiling below it, however, it will be harder to pinpoint the problem and harder to fix it. There are some steps you can take, but they may not be the right ones, and a fix may be temporary.

Here are some of the squeaky problems floors can have and what to do about them:

*If the floor squeaks at "bouncy" places (no matter how lightly you tread, objects around the room jangle and jump) it's because the joists underneath are moving. (You can also have bounces with no squeaks; the problem and the solution are the same.) The joists may not have been substantial enough to begin with, or the original bridging (crisscross bracing) between the joists may have been removed during plumbing or electrical work. If you can get to them, you can install or replace the bridging with solid wood pieces or steel bars installed in an X-shape.

If bridging is replaced or repaired and the floor is still bouncy, the joist span may be too long. The solution is a post-and-beam support structure under the center of the joists; obviously this works only in a basement. You may need a knowledgeable contractor or structural engineer to design and install the support.

Bouncing is not a problem that lends itself to repair from above. However, if it's bad enough, you may consider taking out some ceilings to fix it. If the ceilings are high enough, beams can be installed below the joists and the ceiling brought down to the level of the beams. This is even trickier than the support system, so be sure you have good professional help.

*Sometimes the joist is simply loose, or slightly warped in one place. Again, if you can get to the joists, a simple shim tucked between the top of the joist and the bottom of the floorboards or subflooring may cure the squeak. Put a little wood glue on the leading edge of the shim and jam it in -- but not so far it raises a bump in the floor above.

If the loose area is wider than the width of one floorboard, or if the joist is warped so it sags out from under the floor, install a "sister" joist against it so the top of the sister joist touches the bottom of the floor. (The sister should be as long as you need to get every loose board in contact.) Coat the top of the sister joist with glue so it sticks to the floor; you may still need to use some shims.

If you can't get to the joists, it's possible to take up the floor, but this seems to us to be an extreme solution for a squeak. Old tongue-and-groove flooring is fragile; you could easily break half of the boards you take up. And whether you do it yourself or hire a carpenter, the job is certain to be expensive.

*Warping -- where boards cup or twist off the underlying joists or subfloor -- is one problem that can be worked on from above or below.

If the floor has a subfloor, either plywood or boards laid on a diagonal, and you can get to it from underneath, you can use wood screws to pull the layers back together. Figure out exactly which boards are squeaking and put some weight on

them from above -- maybe the person who's been making the loudest squeak -- and use screws that are shorter than the combined thickness of the floor and subfloor. Drill a pilot hole for the screw, so you don't split any flooring, and use a washer to keep the screw from pulling up into the subfloor.

If there's no subfloor, or if you can't get to the underside of the floor, you can nail the boards down from above -- but only where there is a joist to nail into. Use finishing nails driven in a V-shape, with the heads countersunk. Fill the holes with wood putty. On a single-thickness floor, you should be able to find the joists by tracing where the floorboards end.

If you have squeaks under wall-to-wall carpeting and you can't get to the underside, you can take the carpeting up, fix the squeaks, and replace the carpet -- or have a professional restretch it (it's not a job for the weak). That's also a pretty serious commitment for a few little noises.

In fact, if all these solutions seem pretty drastic, they are, and you may want to learn to live with the squeaks. It's just one way a house has of communicating with you. Squeaks make great burglar alarms, and if you've got teen-agers, you may appreciate squeaky stairs. With a little practice, you should be able to identify both the squeak and the squeaker, as well as being able to tell whether they're coming, going, or heading for the refrigerator.

Next: Gurgles, drips and clangs.

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