Tiling Over a Subfloor

© 2001 G.G. Alonzy

Dear NH,
I am a regular reader of the Dollar Stretcher Newsletter and really enjoy your articles. I was hoping you could help me. I want to replace the carpeting in my dining area with the vinyl self sticking tiles. We have particleboard as the floor surface beneath the carpet now. I was told this should not be a problem by one person(the fellow at the home improvement store), then someone else (the guy who was trying to talk me into having his group do the professional installation) told me that I needed to put down more plywood then install the tiles. Neither person has actually looked at the subflooring materials. How do you know when the surface is too rough for the tiles to stay in place? We are on a tight budget for this project and I can't afford to spend unnecessary funds for unneeded materials.
NC from Oxford, NC

There are two potential problems in installing self-stick tiles over a subfloor. One is the smoothness of the subfloor. Any irregularities in the subfloor surface will be transferred through to the tiles over time. This is true of vinyl tile installation over any surface. Even the pattern of a textured sheet vinyl or linoleum floor will appear through the self-stick tile! Now if you are only talking about a imperfections or nail-heads, these can be easily repaired by patching with a quality wood filler or floor leveling compound. Don't use wallboard patching materials because they may not be hard enough. Sand surface smooth, vacuum and damp-clean to remove all dust before tile installation.

The second problem is at the seams of the floor. If there is any "flexing" or movement at the seams, the tiles will eventually crack across these seams. In most situations, the easiest way to firm up the floor is to install a layer of 1/4" plywood over the subfloor (nailed or screwed and glued) in such a way that the new plywood seams do not lay over the old seams. This gives you a hard, smooth floor solving this and the aforementioned "smoothness" problem. The nail or screw heads should be "set" below the surface of the floor and the holes filled.

I think the pro was wise to suggest the additional plywood, since he is well aware of the problems associated with poor subfloor preparation. He also knows that, time wise (since his time is money), it could very well take longer to repair a bad floor than to just cover it with plywood. This may not be true in the case of a do-it-yourselfer such as yourself, since you are looking to save money, not time!

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