If you love hardwood floors but don’t love the price tag that comes with it, plywood for floors is the perfect option. It’s not just your typical budget-conscious DIYer who is using plywood for floors, even home designers are using it because of the different design and layout options available.
Besides being an inexpensive alternative to hardwood floor, what really makes plywood floors special is expansion and contraction. As heat and humidity changes, hardwood flooring has a tendency to expand and contract, but plywood is solid, so it does not expand or contract.
This means that with plywood flooring, you don’t have to worry about the floor moving after installation.
Now let’s delve deeper into what plywood is and how is it used on floors?
What is Plywood for Floors
Plywood is a widely used engineered wood panel that does not shrink or expand as traditional wood does. It is made of several thin layers of veneer sheets (also called plies) which are glued together at alternating right angles, giving it a durable, hard surface that is moisture resistant.
Although previously used primarily for subfloors and exterior home building, plywood has become an inexpensive alternative to hardwood floors because of its cost affordability, design flexibility, and because it is a great DIY project.
Two years ago, it’d have been unimaginable for me to recommend plywood for floors; that is until I saw it applied at a friend’s house. It was a wow moment.
Besides looking like real hardwood, what impressed me the most, is the stunning one-of-a-kind look and the different design patterns and colors that are possible. Essentially, except for the bathroom and the kitchen, you can install plywood floors in just about any area where you’d normally install hardwood floors.
If you’re removing existing flooring such as carpet, laminate or old hardwood, you can simply refinish the plywood subfloor beneath or you can add a new layer of finish plywood flooring. Experts recommend adding an additional layer to keep avoid squeaks and sagging.
DIY Plywood Flooring in 8 steps
As explained earlier one key reason that makes plywood a popular option for floors is price. Each plywood sheet costs about $20 per sheet. Once you include glue, nails, stain, and polyurethane, the price per foot comes up to about $2 per sq ft. Vs. hardwood floor which costs north of $8 – $10 sq. ft. and you get great looking floors.
Here are the main steps needed to complete this DIY project:
Step 1: Cutting the plywood sheets
Step 2: Sand each piece of plywood
Step 3: Prepping the subfloor
Step 4: Installing the floor
Step 5: Fill in nail holes with wood filler
Step 6: Sand the wood filler and vacuum
Step 7: Stain the floor
Step 8: Lightly sand the floor and apply three coats of polyurethane
Step 1: Cutting the plywood planks
Depending on your desired design, cutting the planks can be a big part of the job. For example, if you want to create a ‘checkers’ pattern that means you’ll have a lot more cutting to do. However, with a more simple design, you might want to cut the wood so you get each piece of wood 4 or 8 inches wide.
Check with your hardware store if they can cut the wood for you; places like Home Depot would cut the wood for you to be as little as 8” each. Since the plywood sheets are 48”, you’ll get six pieces of wood for each sheet of plywood.
If you’re cutting the planks yourself, use a circular saw on a cutting board; the thinner the blade, the less tear out the wood pieces are going to have; this reduces waste, and how much sanding you’re going to do.
Step 2: Sand each piece of plywood (including the edges)
Apply a sanding sealer to the surface of each wood plank and to the edges. The key is to make sure you get a smooth surface and edges so that there are no gaps when installing the floor.
Sanding the plywood pieces before installation also will produce a better finish look at the end.
Step 3: Prepping the subfloor
The condition of the sub-flooring will determine the difference between a flooring job destined for failure or one that is guaranteed to withstand the test of time.
In other words, get your subfloor right before installing the finish plywood floor. If your subfloor is in good shape you can just install it; however, if you need to level it, remove nails or other imperfections, you want to do that first before laying over the flooring.
Step 4: Floor installation
Make sure the first piece is perfectly lined off the wall because a small deviation would cause the remaining pieces to look unmatched a few wood pieces away.
So take the first wood piece, line it up straight, making sure you get exact same distance off the wall, from end-to-end and apply nails accordingly. Then proceed to complete the first row.
Some DIYers apply glue on the bottom layer of their wood pieces before laying them on the subfloor, but this depends on personal choice.
On the next row apply glue to the edge where the pieces of wood meet so you get a tight fit. Remember, plywood does not expand or contract so there is no need to leave gaps between each piece of wood.
Applying the glue will also help apply fewer nails, which also means filling fewer nail holes later.
Step 5: Fill the nail holes with wood filler
The next step involves covering the nail holes with wood filler. Choose a wood filler that has a natural color that’s similar to the wood you’re using.
Step 6: Sand the wood filler and vacuum
Sanding after you have laid out the floor evens out the floor as well as it removes any chunk of wood filler; however, be careful not to over-sand as it is really easy to go through that first layer of plywood.
Step 7: Apply the floor stain
When it comes to design patterns, the sky is the limit with plywood for floors. You can choose just about any color you want.
To give it a similar look as hardwood you’ll to apply three to four coats of polyurethane. On the other hand, painting the plywood gives you the opportunity to add color, which can be a great option for accent areas or kids’ rooms.
Step 8: Lightly sand the floor and apply 3 layers of water-based polyurethane
The reason for applying polyurethane is to seal, give the wood a finished look, which also protects the wood from moisture penetration.
Three coasts: The first coat will soak in as if you didn’t put it in; the second coat will stay where the gain is, and the third coat you will get the finish look most hardwood floors give.
When you’re done, you’ll have a durable, uniquely designed floor you can take pride in.
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If you want to see the process from start to finish, the below is the best YouTube video I found on this subject.
Pros of plywood flooring
Low Cost: The prime advantage of plywood floor vs. hardwood or even laminate floor is cost. You can spend anywhere from $1 – $2 per square foot which is a fraction of the cost for hardwood or laminate.
For instance, if the cost for a typical hardwood floor would cost $4,000, with plywood it’d cost you $400 or 10% of the estimate.
Design flexibility: Plywood is used in furniture, cabinetry, and even planes to give it a sleek look. The same is possible for floors. As I have said several times in this article, plywood does not expand or contract, which means it is a lot more stable than hardwood as it resists changes traditional wood has when exposed to cold or hot temperatures.
You can achieve just about any design you want with plywood floors. You want to stain the dark, pink, white, or any other color? No problem! Or how about a triangles design, squares, or long planks, that’ do-able too.
Plywood offers great flexibility to design just about anything which is another reason that makes this a great DIY project.
Ease of installation: Once the plywood sheets are cut into smaller pieces what is left is sanding, staining, gluing, nailing, and adding three to four coats of polyurethane. A place like Home Depot would be willing to cut the pieces for you unless you want special shapes or pieces that are smaller than 4”.
That’s the hardest part of this DIY project, so try your best to get the hardware store to cut the pieces for you and you’ll be half-way there.
Cons of plywood floors
Durability: There is no denying, when it comes to floors, hardwood is more durable than plywood; so no matter how many coats of stain or polyurethane you apply, it’s still not going to make plywood floors more durable than hardwood.
So the more traffic there is in an area such as a kitchen, the less likely it is that plywood floors are a suitable option.
In comparison to hardwood floors: While you can paint the plywood to look good, it will never look as great as hardwood floors.
Also, if you drop a heavy tool on plywood floors, it will leave a mark that’s more noticeable than if you drop a tool on hardwood floors.
Plywood floor tips
- Buy high-grade plywood that is already sandy and with a smooth surface
- Ask the hardware store to cut the pieces for you. This will save you a lot of time and make it easier to transport the wood.
- Sand, prime, stain, and seal with three coats of polyurethane
- Before laying in the floor, make sure the subfloor is even; also, remove nails, debris, and imperfections from the subfloor
- Before applying the stain make sure the surface is clean and free of dust.
- If you cut the pieces of wood yourself, do the cuts with the good side up so that most of the tear will be on the opposite side.
- Use a thin blade and be careful to cut the wood with straight edges because small deviations would cause gaps when installing the wood.
DIY Plywood Flooring FAQs
Is plywood real wood?
Plywood is real wood. It is made with thin layers of wood veneered glued together. The veneered comes from logs of wood that are peeled into thin layers of sheet.
Is plywood for floors durable?
That’s a definite Yes. Because it is engineered with many layers of wood veneer glued together in opposite directions, plywood flooring is durable stable and strong.
How thick is plywood flooring?
The recommended thickness depends on the type of grade you’re buying, but typically DIYers and flooring professionals buy use 1 ½” thick and 4-foot by 8-foot plywood sheets.
Is plywood for floor waterproof?
Plywood doesn’t usually crack, peel, or crumble. However, it is the glue used when mixing the pieces of veneer that determine whether the plywood is waterproof or not.
After you have stained and apply several coats of polyurethane, you won’t have to worry about dropping water on the floor. Similar to hardwood floors, the drywall will be fine after you have dried off the area.
However, if the wood is exposed to water for a long time, the glue will start disintegrating. When that happens the layers of veneer start to peel off.
Should plywood floors be glued or nailed?
On a wooden subfloor, the plywood pieces can be glued, nailed or both. Nailing down the plywood is the most common way of installing floors. This way you can be sure there won’t be moving pieces.