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Why Particle Board Subfloors Are Bad

February 24, 2014  —  Written by Chris 

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Let me first preface this post by saying, DIYers sometimes get a bad rap. But honestly, sometimes we earn it. We cut corners, we find shortcuts, we think to ourselves “Oh this is good enough. You aren’t going to see this or that.” Even Jules and I have been guilty of this in the past. Nothing that would be dangerous, but shortcuts nonetheless. Well, when we moved into this new house, we made a pact that we weren’t going to do that anymore. If we tackled a project, we’d approach it like a contractor and do whatever was needed to make it  structurally sound and “up to code.” And even though this has created a lot of extra work on this flooring project, we’ve also uncovered several major problems that would have just gotten worse and worse otherwise. So we’re glad we’re doing it. Now, for our story.

When we first started thinking about replacing our floors, I’ll admit we were a little naive. Okay, maybe a lot naive. Jules and I saw flooring as stuff you put on your floors. “Oh hey, I want wood floors. I’m gonna put in wood floors.” “Oh hey, I want tile floors. I’m gonna put in tile floors.” Shouldn’t it be that simple? Whether it should or shouldn’t is irrelevant. Fact of the matter is, for us, it’s not that simple. Goodness sakes, it’s not simple at all!

A couple months ago, Jules and I were trying to decide between doing wood floors or faux wood tile floors. We kept thinking, “Man, taking this current tile out is a big job, but from there it’s smooth sailing.” Pfft. Right. In speaking with a wood flooring company that wanted to work with us, they helped us determine that our subfloor is made of 5/8 particle board, on top of 5/8 plywood. “Ok…” I thought, “well wood is wood. It’s a subfloor.” Turns out, you can’t nail into particle board, and using other products that just stick wood to subfloor can void the warranty of your wood flooring. If we wanted wood, we’d have to rip out all the particle board, and THAT was just too much work.

So, tile it is! Our friends over at The Tile Shop were just as eager to work with us again as we were them (we seriously love them over there – they’re so helpful and friendly). We started talking with a few of their professionals and when it came out that we have particle board subfloors, they were concerned. Turns out, particle board is horrible for almost anything construction related. The problem is, particle board is just glue and sawdust, and it absorbs liquid like a sponge (it also doesn’t hold nails, hence not being able to use it for wood flooring). When it absorbs liquid, it swells. So with tile, the liquid in the thinset is absorbed by the particle board, which causes it to swell and the tile floor is uneven and cracks.

When they told me this, I was so confused. “But…we have tile. Installed over particle board. I don’t understand.” Well, upon closer inspection, our tile floors are pretty uneven. And after ripping the tile out, you can see places where the particle board has swelled. We never noticed it because the look of our tile did a good job of hiding it. But with faux wood tile, we are determined to make the entire surface flat and even, as though it’s actual wood. So, no swelling allowed. Ergo, I have to do that thing I was trying to avoid doing and take out the entire particle board subfloor. Ugh.

Before doing that, we had to get rid of the mess left behind from the tile demo we showed you on Thursday. 4 heaping piles of tile and concrete board, as well as a few chunks of concrete and chicken wire (I guess the previous installers ran out of concrete board and made their own?). I hurt my back about a month ago and wasn’t feeling up to hauling what ended up being 3.5 thousand lbs of tile on my own, so we hired a few high school kids to haul it for us and sweep up the floors. Those Idaho boys know how to work, I tell you what.

After dumping the last of the old tile at the transfer station, we got to work taking up the particle board. By “we,” I mean Greta and I. That little sweetie has been so eager to help, and she stuck with it for a good 3 hours before deciding she needed a “Horse Land” break.

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Taking up the PB (particle board) subfloor is a slow job. And kind of exhausting. Jules is banned from helping on this project, so it’s definitely taking some time.

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Like my chair? Greta let me borrow it.

There are screws about 6 inches apart along every floor joist, and sometimes the screws against the walls are angled in a way where I can’t get them out, so I have to muscle the board until it breaks, then snap the screws with a crowbars. The goal Saturday was to get the subfloor out of the areas that were carpeted, which we did, with the exception of the reading room. Julia’s parents came over to help during the final stretch (when Jules snapped this photo)–thank goodness because I was exhausted.

After that day, we’ve decided to–wait for it–hire someone to remove the rest of the subfloor. The problem is this:

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You can see in this picture the two different areas–the top surface had carpet, the bottom had tile. The places that had tile are covered in mortar, hiding the screws. These boards are also stapled into the plywood subfloor, which makes them break into pieces when you try to pry them up. It took me all day on a Saturday just to get up the “easy” pieces, and if we’re going to finish this project before baby F gets here, these floors need to be out this week. I’m not sure there’s a way I can do all this in just 2 hours a night after coming home from my 9-5:

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There’s also a laundry and two bathrooms on top of this space that have the same issue. So we’re really hoping we can find some affordable labor for the job asap. Yes, we’re DIYers, but this?–I’m ok paying someone else to do. Even though my work on the floors may be on hold for a few days, I have a couple issues to deal with in the meantime, which I’m sure we’ll share this week. A few more not-so-fun things to discover, but I’m glad we did. Specifically, water damage in 4 rooms. Yippee.

Lastly, you may be wondering if we’re disappointed we didn’t just decide to take the PB out in the first place and get hardwood floors. We actually had 2 different hardwood flooring companies wanting to supply us with flooring. But honestly, we are happy with our choice to go with the faux wood tile and have no regrets at this point. Even though it’s more work, tile just makes sense for us with Charly and our growing family (you can read more about why we chose it here), and we’re still convinced it’s the right choice. Stick with us through this long process and hopefully you’ll agree.

What do you think?

  1. MD says:

    I have to agree with PB being the most horrible building material ever invented.
    Today I noticed my tiles by my door bulging. Turns out the subfloor and the flooring below are both PB, it appears to be the material of choice for manufactured homes. I currently have a claim in progress with my home insurer, not what I needed.

  2. David Garcia says:

    I have particle board for sub-flooring in one of my second story apartments. We put a cheap stick on vynil flooring but after a while it comes lose why is that ? The particle board has never been wet.

    • Julia says:

      It’s just the nature of particle board, unfortunately. It easily crumbles and doesn’t have great structural integrity. Hard to keep anything really sticking to it.

  3. ernest says:

    new Zealand particle board has been used in houses for 40 odd years,, of course it needs to be sealed, it sits in the rain for 3 months, roof and walls go up, then the sheets are sanded and sealed with polyurethane ,4 coats, looks great, no problems, so, either your particle board is crap, or the contractors who put it in are crap,

  4. Allie says:

    I’m happy and sad I stumbled upon this post. This is the same subfloor we have in our condo and we were so eager to get new flooring down that we just installed our vinyl plank wood look floors right over it. UGH the subfloor is uneven, the screws are starting to come up and crack the planks and the plank flooring is shifting and gapping all over. It’s gotten to the point that I am pretty sure we need to get everything up and start fresh and redo the subfloors, install wood look tile for durability and just chalk it up to a learning experience. The plus? At lease the vinyl plank was cheap and served its purpose for the last 3 years… the down, even cheap flooring is money down the tubes when it needs to be ripped up!

  5. Donna says:

    Hi Chris! Glad you followed up to Alton’s comment. Whatever the reason was that you chose the flooring that you went with is ultimately your decision; as being the homeowner. I was googling about painting particle board, and stumbled upon your project. Kudos for doing something yourself! Not only saving money, I feel, it’s more gratifying and fulfilling to know, “hey, I did that myself”. My project is about to be, pulling up the living room carpet, then painting the particle board floor. I am somewhat creative, and have a visual in my mind of the finished product. Maybe I should do a blog of before and after lol :-). Anyway, good luck with all future projects!

  6. Alton says:

    You all said that particle board was a bad choice… Was it bad because it was difficult to remove or you two couldn’t find someone that charged a reasonable price. I think you really just wanted to write about your opinion.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Alton, great question, I don’t know that we explained that process. In short, this came from speaking with a few tile and wood flooring companies as we were deciding on our flooring options. Essentially, particle board isn’t a great choice for tile or real hard wood, but it’s OK for carpet. The problem with tile is the mortar. When you spread mortar on particle board, it can absorb the liquid and swell, popping some of the tiles. Doesn’t always happen, but can. And for hard wood, it needs a secure sub floor to nail into. Particle board doesn’t hold nails well and the boards can start coming loose as the house “breathes.” Hope that helps!

    • Chris says:

      I just read back through the post and saw that it was actually explained pretty well where this information came from – not our own opinions, but the experience of several flooring professionals we spoke with face-to-face. Outside of that, you can Google it and find a number of contractor forums (forums commented on only by professionals who work in the space) who say the same thing (example: http://forums.jlconline.com/forums/forum/jlc-online-expert-forums/ceramic-tile/27240-1-4-hardibacker-over-particleboard-subfloor).

      In the end the choice is up to the homeowner, but this info is far from being “just [our] opinion)” and I think it’s worth serious consideration.

  7. Alton says:

    Just your opinion.

    • Kimberly says:

      It appears Aton just want s to fight. I have the same issue, particle board throughout the house. I want hardwood floors so have to pull the particle board up and lay plywood sub-flooring. ANY professional flooring company is going to say the same thing. Trust me, I tried to find someone who would tell me differently. Alton, no need to comment.

  8. vicki says:

    we have just been told the same thing!!the big ???? is this.we have hardwoods installed over the same exact thing in a den,kitchen,living rm,dining rm,offo
    ice….been down for at least 10yrs,we have been here 4yrs. it is fine.still looks beautiful.we have 4 dogs, so it gets moped frequently.we have had one water leak in the kitchen…..we have just now found out about the particle board under all the existing.we pulled up the vents and went under the house where there was a hole previously cut through.yep,particle and ply.soooo,the question is,do we chance doing the same thing upstairs???one installer said it used to be done all the time years ago.we are so confused.

    • Julia says:

      It’s so frustrating. One company wouldn’t even sell us hardwood floors. One contractor wouldn’t lay them over particle board. So we just eventually bit the bullet and replaced them. So. much. work. But at least we have some peace of mind.

  9. laura says:

    Your honesty is refreshing.

    I read DIY blogs so that I know what to expect when I go to do these projects myself. And frankly, it’s too easy for bloggers to sugar coat every project and not to share the failed parts. Yes, I’m sure it stinks to have everyone chiming in on their opinion of an unexpected hurdle in your plan, but thanks for sharing the REAL story!

  10. I’m tired just reading this post!! It’s going to feel SOOOO good when you have those gleaming beautiful floors looking back at you. Hang in there!!

  11. Alison says:

    Ohhhh my. I am so sorry to hear of the troubles but SO glad to see you are going through the extra hassle to do it RIGHT. :)

  12. LISSY says:

    You are going to wish you had heated floors under that wood tile living where you live.

  13. Wendy says:

    Deepest sympathies! Reading this post brought back nightmares of demoing my kitchen floor – it had 5 layers of flooring that had just been added each upon the last, and all had to come out because I needed it down to the same level as my dining room to use the same flooring. Then the dining room carpet was over carpet pad that had been both glued and stapled to the subfloor. I cried 4 nights in a row of working on it, and vowed that I would never start another major project without slush money to hire help if I ran into something like that again!

    Good luck as you go forward. I’m really excited to see how your floor turns out, as well as all the future projects. You guys inspire me to keep working on my house, project by project.

    • Chris says:

      Oh wow, Wendy. What a nightmare! I bet you just love those floors now. That’s at least how I’m hoping I feel about our floors when all is said and done.

  14. Dawn says:

    I say good decision with a baby on the way. Saving time is worth the money even for DIYers.

  15. Sherri says:

    Gosh Chris, that is a real bummer. It seems like this project has taken upon a life of its own! You can only do so much. I say, do all you can to make it right and then pray! Whenever I pray, it reminds me that God will work it out much better than I can on my own- even home projects! I enjoyed you detailed post and your sense of humor. Best of luck!!

  16. Kelsey says:

    Wow! This is such a great example of how a “simple” project multiples. Seems like all subfloors pose a challenge of their own. We are working with some pretty retro terrazzo floors and are hoping to cover them or sand them down to a polished concrete for phase 1 (they’re damaged so we can’t keep them as-is).

    Can’t wait to see your finished results!

  17. You poor poor things. You would think that since they went all cheap and illegitimate the first go around that they would adhere it in the same manner and it would be easy to get out! There are just some jobs you can do yourself but if it saves you some sanity and marriage counseling [or ya know, your back] go for it!

  18. jaclyn says:

    A. It should be common sense NEVER to automatically trust the methods that were used to build your house. Building codes and materials change dramatically over the years. Just because something was sufficient 20 years ago, does not mean it’s acceptable now.
    B. Google is a DIY homeowner’s best friend. I highly suggest you use it from now on.

    Good luck!

  19. Hilary says:

    We had a similar feeling last summer when we started demoing our deck. The screws had been painted over several times and were either impossible to get started or snapped off. About three deck boards in my hubby was ready to call someone for the demo. Luckily it was an outdoor project, because our pressure washer was able to clear the paint out of most of the screws and it became doable, though not enjoyable.
    Good luck and I hope you can hire someone quickly so everything stays mostly on track!

    • Chris says:

      It’s crazy how all those little things make such a big difference in how long a project takes. Thanks for the encouragement and following us along this process!

  20. We got an education in subflooring when we tiled our bathroom recently, too. We were expecting particle board when we pulled up the carpet, but found OSB instead–a term I’d never heard before (I always thought of that stuff as “that gross kind of particle board with, like, all those things in it?”) This post is making me extra relieved that that’s what we have; it’s ugly, but you can tile over it! Good luck, and good choice hiring someone for part of the job :)

    • Chris says:

      It’s really fascinating, isn’t it? We also had to do some calculations to determine the deflection in our floors, in order to see if we should be installing tile in the first place. That’s another topic for another post, but it’s been “fun” figuring all this stuff out.

  21. Sounds like a good plan to hire some help. I know from experience that it’s hard to make that kind of decision during a DIY project. Kudos for finding a good balance between do-it-yourself and timing considerations!

    • Chris says:

      The further down the rabbit hole we go, the more we discover. I think that’s one of the main lessons we’ve learned from all of our larger projects. Flexibility with the budget is sometimes necessary when you’re in a time crunch.

  22. Amy F. says:

    I give you guys so much credit for trying to do this on your own! What a huge job. Glad you are getting it done before the baby arrives! Thank you for sharing it all with us.

    • Chris says:

      Yes, this job is huge and seems to just get bigger and bigger. But we’re glad to have an army of resources at our disposal (and Google).

  23. Sounds intense but you’ll love the results. Plus we all just learned something from you!

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