What Causes Squeaky, Creaking Floors and How it can be Avoided

Although creaky floor boards have a certain rustic, country charm, most people consider it a nuisance and would choose solid, quiet floors if given a choice. Besides the obvious importance of building floors strong and capable of supporting substantial loads, it’s also equally important to reduce movement of floor boards as a person walks across them, both to cut creaking and because movement can lead to material fatigue over time.

Put simply, creaking floors are caused by two or more components rubbing against each other causing friction, whose energy is often then partly converted into sound. Being that a floor only creaks when you walk across it, it’s easy to see that the noise is Creaking Floor Clipartsomehow caused by the movement of the floor boards. Although the cause may be simple enough to understand, fixing it can be a little more difficult.

But before we get into how to fix the creaking floor, I want to cover how to prevent the creaking floor in the first place. After you hear how to install creak-free floors, you’ll understand why it’s so much better of an idea to prevent it than to fix it. The solution is to simply hold back your natural urge to make your floor boards snug, and ensure there is a small gap between them to allow frictionless movement.

This goes for all flooring components that have any vertical movement whatsoever, whether immediately or over time. These include all plywood subflooring, some joists depending on the condition of the underlying beams, and of course, the final flooring finish. The exception to this would be if the flooring has tongue and groove joints (only applicable for stable composites, wood or otherwise), in which case, they should be made snug.

Another point that is important to be aware of is that wood is an inherently unstable material, and as such is subject to shape and size change over time, with factors like humidity, temperature, and wood-type playing crucial roles in the extent of this change. This is why flooring made out of natural wood must have spacers placed between them during installation to accommodate this expansion and contraction.

“Ok, great advice for folks who haven’t installed their floors yet, but I’ve got a 50 year old house — and floor — with full-blown creaking at every turn!”

Well, depending on the extent of your floor-creak, you might want to consider redoing the entire floor. Fixing floor creaks involves 2 main steps: locating the creak source, and customizing or replacing the offending component so it doesn’t creak anymore. The problem arises when there are so many doggone creaks that it’s practically impossible to pinpoint any one creak.

Another is that flooring with tongue and groove joints often must be damaged beyond reuse in order to remove them, and if the house is 50 years old, good luck trying to find matching flooring. Situations like the above warrant and often require the complete and total reforming of the old floor — at least up to the floor joists. This is not only the easier solution but probably the cheaper one — well, besides the cheapest option of just leaving it as is.

“Well, in my case, I only have this one spot that’s creaking, but it’s driving me nothing short of mad! How can I fix it?”

One spot is certainly doable my friend! Shift your body weight around the offending floor area to locate and pinpoint the source. What you want to be looking for is some kind of movement, such as a floor board rubbing against an adjacent one as you shift your weight back and forth. In other cases it may just be a “floating” section of the floor where fasteners came loose allowing vertical movement or rubbing of the fastener shank against the surrounding wood.

Yet in other cases, flooring is installed directly against an existing wall or trim, and creaks against that. So as you can see, most floor-creaking problems can be prevented by simply leaving a small gap between flooring and any adjacent materials. Having quiet surroundings helps in this stage of the job as creaks can range from unmistakeable to mouse-like. It also helps to have a second person available for situations where one goes under the floor and one stays above.

Once you locate the creak, there are several options you can choose from to fix it:

  • Drive a screw or screws through the top of the flooring into the joists, securing it firmly. Although there are specialized screws available whose heads break off below the flooring surface, the holes must be puttied and stained to conceal the damage. Also, Adding Shim to Stop Creaking Floorbecause the heads are gone, the screws don’t have as much holding power. I see this as a quick, often temporary fix, and prefer to only use this method when laying new flooring over the existing one — in which case I’ll just use normal screws that keep their heads.
  • If there is an accessible crawl-space you can get underneath the floor and drive wooden shims lathered with glue into gaps between flooring and joists. Only tap gently as you don’t want to raise the level of the floor! The shim will eliminate the previous vertical movement, and the glue will ensure that the shim isn’t dislodged. This is the best option if you don’t want to damage or replace your existing floor. You can also simply reinforce the section of floor in question with larger lumber, depending on the severity of the creaking. Ideally, since most situations call for the preservation of the existing floor, this is the preferred method.
  • There will be times however, when there is no available crawl-space and you’ll have to remove the section of floor in question and make the necessary tweaks. This will most likely include adding additional screws tying the joists to the beams and additional glue in key points. In such cases, you should be prepared to remove a larger area than is actually necessary to aid in reinstalling the new flooring. Although tongue and groove boards can be customized to be placed into an area completely surrounded by other t&g boards without removing adjacent boards, the lower edge of both grooves must be sliced off as well as one of the 2 tongues. Glue must then be added generously to all 4 edges and the board must be pinned down firmly from above by stretching a stick of wood from the ceiling or other appropriate location. Success with this method is contingent on you being able to remove the old flooring without damaging the surrounding ones and having an identical board to take its place. Ensure that the glue doesn’t ooze out the top onto the floor finish — it only needs to be added on the subfloor itself, not on the tongue or in the groove.
  • Last but not least, you can slip a utility knife in the offending joint and slowly, carefully, slice away small bits of material. This is a quick fix for small creaks whose joint in question is visible and accessible from the floor surface. Just be careful that the knife doesn’t slip up onto the flooring by accident, making a nice big scratch across its surface — ergo, the “slowly, carefully” above!

2 Responses to What Causes Squeaky, Creaking Floors and How it can be Avoided

  1. Wish the people who built my house had known this! It’s about 150 or something years old and there is a bit at the centre of every room that creaks – I kind of get the feeling my floors are sagging down in the middle!

    • freehandyman says:

      Shoddy workmanship may very well have been the case, however, wood tends to change in shape and size considerably over the years, as well as deteriorate in material integrity. 150 years is plenty of time for a wooden floor to go from being in close to perfect shape (at the time of installation) to the condition it’s in now.
      Ideally, high quality wood and workmanship should result in floors and such lasting for even hundreds of years. The truth however, is that there are many things that can contribute to a floor developing a creak after many years, besides shoddy workmanship of the floor itself.
      The foundation could have sunk, causing the center of the floor to sink, thus bringing the floor boards together toward the center, causing the creak. Or rotting structural columns that have lost their initial height to decay could have caused the same sinkage.
      And last — and this is a worst case scenario — the entire building may very well be structurally compromised and leaning, which can cause floor boards to become snug with each other. A tell-tale sign of a leaning structure is windows and doors not closing properly, or undue friction when opening and closing.