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Let the creak speak

Whether it’s engineered wood, laminate or anything else, flooring shouldn’t creak and if it does, there’ll be a reason for it, cautions Richard Renouf.

IF I had been the homeowner, the creaking of this flooring would drive me crazy, and this was the third creaky floor I’d seen in a week. In each case the fitter had assured everyone that the installation was impeccable and that the problem must be owing to a fault with the flooring. One was engineered wood, the second was a stuck-down LVT and this one was a laminate.

In my experience, creaking is always the result of movement between two surfaces. It could be that a timber subfloor is moving against the supporting joists and that the problem is the subfloor rather than the flooring that has been laid, so it’s always worth checking before you begin the installation.
But usually it’s something that’s discovered after fitting, so all possibilities must be taken into account. And, just in case, I always remove my shoes when checking a creaking floor so that there’s no possibility they’re making the noise!

It had been easy to find the cause of the creaking of the first wood flooring. The installer had lifted it once to change the underlay, but as this made no difference, he’d lifted one of the rooms, half the hall and a bay window area so I could see the subfloor. A separate contractor had been called in to apply smoothing compound, but there were patches of feathering where the result had clearly not been good enough, and there were nibs in the compound and lumps of contamination on the surface that had not been rubbed down, so the flooring was resting on these tiny spikes and bumps and dipping whenever it was walked on. The flooring was a click-together product so the joints flexed – and creaked – as a result. It was no surprise that a different glued-together product which had been installed in a small are of the empty room did not creak. Although the subfloor was no better, the planks could not move at the glued joints, so there was no noise.

The LVT was different. Here the creaking was only in an area close to the kitchen island. The house had a timber subfloor which had been overlaid with ply, and it was clear that the creaking was due to movement between the plywood and the floorboards because the plywood had not been fixed securely in the way set out in BS 8203: 2017. You could see the movement, and it reminded me of a similar issue I came across some years ago when a contractor had laid plywood over raised access flooring using both nails and adhesive.

The installer had skimped on the nails as the glue would, he thought, prevent any movement, but this had allowed the ply to warp between the fixings so there was glue on the floor and on the back of the ply, but there was a slight air gap between them. Once the glue had cured it crackled like bubble wrap underfoot as the dried adhesive surfaces came into contact, then sprung back ready for the next footstep. In both cases, the solution was to lift the vinyl and put more fixings through the ply so it was securely held down.

But today’s laminate was not so easy. Normally a creaking laminate is due to restrictions preventing the flooring from expanding and contracting as it will naturally do with changes in ambient conditions. Laminate is made from highly compressed wood fibres with a little bit of resin, so there is actually more wood in it than if it was solid wood. If the ambient relative humidity increases, so does the size of the planks and if they can’t move outwards they simply lift from the subfloor. The joints flex, and creak, when this happens and before long they deform (especially the header joints) and break. The cause is usually easy to identify by checking the expansion gaps – or lack of them – around the perimeter, at floor level frames such as those for bi-fold or patio doors, and underneath kitchen units.

Creaking can also be caused by an uneven subfloor. The weight of a user will cause the planks to dip where they are not sitting flat against the floor below and this movement results in creaking.
The flooring was laid in an ‘L’-shaped lounge, it was no longer than five metres in any direction. The perimeter had expansion gaps all round, and the beading had been fixed to the skirting and not the flooring, so this did not impede expansion. The flooring gave an excellent result when scanned with a laser, showing it was as flat as it needed to be.

The only clue to the cause was that when I laid a straight edge on the flooring and pressed down with my hand the flooring dipped by about 3mm. This doesn’t usually happen as laminate flooring spreads the weight of a user across a wide area and this is why laminate flooring can be less dense than is needed for a floating LVT flooring.

But here the density was not adequate and after noting that the planks were much smaller than more common products, it was obvious that the underlay was not firm enough for this specific product. The creaking was due to movement in the joints caused by the softness of the underlay.
This, of course, will need further testing and my report made this clear, but there isn’t a universal underlay and I’ve come across many faults where a wrong underlay has been used, or flooring has been laid over old carpets with the assumption that this would ‘do the job’.

Flooring shouldn’t creak. If it does, there will be a cause.
Richard Renouf is an independent
flooring consultant

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