Flooring 101: Subfloors and How they Impact your Flooring Selection

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Flooring 101: Subfloors and How they Impact your Flooring Selection

There are a variety of subfloors to consider for your construction project.  Deciding on the type of subfloor to use can have many benefits including:

  • Lower flooring costs

The standard flooring allowance (the amount of extra flooring you should order) is 10%, depending on manufacturer.   If you installing wood flooring to floor joists with concrete, direct to concrete, or other install scenarios you will want to increase your waste factor to 15-20%.  So installing a floor to plywood can save you money over other subfloors.

  • Lower cost and Quicker flooring installation

Installing a wood floor to a plywood subfloor, using a blind nail and glue method, is much easier than installing a wood floor to a concrete slab, this reduces your installation time.  The products used for installation on radiant heat or plywood are also less expensive (on a per square foot average) than installing to concrete. When you reduce your installation time and the costs of installation supplies, you reduce your over expense.

  • More, and better, flooring options

When you plan ahead for your subfloor and flooring selection you can ensure they complement each other.  Just because you are installing direct to concrete doesn't mean you have to use an engineered wood flooring or a laminate floor.   Some companies, like Carlisle wide plank floors, has hardwood flooring options for almost any subfloor type.


Lets look at the most common subfloors, the benefits of each, some tips to consider, and some links where you can learn more.


Plywood, like Advantech, is a common subfloor. 

Benefits: Provides a solid surface with which to nail and/or glue your flooring planks.  There is no limitation to the direction you can run the boards, except in cases where you want to Face Nail the flooring planks – typically this is recommended and desired for traditional wide plank pine flooring, like Eastern White Pine in the wider 13-20″ widths.



  • Plywood is different from particle board.  Particle board is more likely to chip and warp over time, especially when exposed to alot of changes in environmental conditions. 
  • Good quality plywood will remain flat and stable
  • Be sure to countersink nails in the plywood to avoid any conflict with flooring installation
  • Keep your plywood dry – or ensure it is adequately dried out before any flooring is installed
  • Glue your plywood to the floor joists to prevent squeeking

Learn more: Watch this video on installation on a plywood subfloor


Radiant Heat

Radiant Heat in-floor heating systems, like those available from Warmboard, come in a variety of “shapes and sizes”.  There is both hydronic (water fed systems) and electric radiant heat.  

Hydronic systems are better suited for wood floors, but if you are considering an electric radiant heat system it is normally best to use an engineered wood floors.

Not all hardwood flooring is suitable for radiant heat, so carefully consider your options to be sure the flooring you are considering is appropriate for the heating system you are using.

Benefits: Radiant Heat provides warmth, comfort and efficiency in any season.


  • Work with your wood flooring company to understand the characteristics of quality that will ensure performance on radiant heat.
  • Understand the pre-installation preparation required.  For example, turning the system on prior to instalation and proper acclimation of the wood prior to installation is very important.  
  • Install the flooring perpendicular to the radiant heat tubes. 
  • If your radiant heat tubes are NOT Exposed find a way to mark them on the subfloor to avoid puncturing a radiant heat tube – which is costly and time consuming to repair.

Learn More: Read this article on steps to a succesful installation of wide plank wood flooring on radiant heat,  from Alfred Melka of Loba-Wakol, a leading adhesive manufacturer, used specifically for radiant heat installations. You can also watching this short video about installing Carlisle wide plank floors to radiant heat.


Concrete Slab

Benefits:  Because a concrete slab is the base of the home's foundation when used, if you can install directly to concrete, you won't have to worry about a height allowance or reducing your ceiling height by laying down another layer of subfloor.


  • Not all flooring is suitable for installation direct to a concrete slab, be sure to understand the characteristics of qualtiy that will ensure performance
  • Moisture control prior to, during and after installation is the key to a succesful installation of wood flooring on concrete.  Moisture barriers are recommended anytime a wood floor is being installed above a concrete slab.
  • When doing a direct glue down to concrete, it is important to use the right adhesive and follow instructions carefully in terms of coverage rate, application method, trowel size, dry time, etc.  Even minor transgressions in following these instructions can impact the flooring's long term performance.
  • Installing the flooring directly to concrete is more time consuming and costly
  • If you have the option, you can embed 2×4's every 12″ on center (4″ side up) within the concrete, this will allow you to nail and glue – like you would with a plywood subfloor, rather than doing a full glue down.  It could save you alot of time and money!
  • Plan on a higher waste factor due to installation limitations with a concrete slab

Learn more: Watch this video for more information on installing to a concrete slab.


In addition to using one of the three subfloors noted above, it is very common to combine them.  You will see many examples of radiant heat and concrete, plywood and radiant heat, and more.  No matter what type of subfloor you have the quality of the wood flooring you choose is important to its performance and longevity.  Be sure to choose a wood floor manufacturer that can provide both high quality flooring solutions but expert advise to assist you with installation planning.

Have you installed a floor recently?  What type of subfloor did you have?  Do you have any pro's or con's to share about each?

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