Installing a hardwood floor is all about protecting your investment with good techniques.

No matter how nice of hardwood material you buy, even a simple mistake installing the floor can throw off the beautiful, seamless look of a new hardwood floor.

The easiest way to make your new floor look more professional is to do a great job staggering the wooden planks. If you do this right, the flooring will appear as one beautiful surface from wall to wall. If you mess it up, you will create patterns that are impossible to overlook and leave an amateurish feeling in the room.

You want your expensive hardwood floor to look as warm and natural when it’s in your room as it did when you picked it out from a website or catalog. The best way to do this is by following the steps in this guide to nail a carefully randomized installation that will let the beauty of your new floor shine.

Stagger Flooring for Strength and Stability

Laying your hardwood floor with good staggering technique makes a more beautiful floor, but did you know that it’s also essential for the strength of the floor?

Hardwood floors are like a puzzle of interlocked wooden pieces. They need to be strong enough to walk on and to hold heavy furniture. Proper staggering helps to dissipate this weight across all of the nearby boards.

Wood flooring is also known to expand and contract slightly as temperature and humidity change. It’s like a living material. If you have weak staggering patterns in your floor, it’s more likely that your floor will buckle when this expansion occurs, creating unattractive gaps in your floor, or worse.

Staggering your wood planks properly is what makes the floor strong. It’s similar to how a brick wall is built: the bricklayer doesn’t stack bricks in tall columns that can fall over. Instead, the bricks overlap to create one strong wall.

You may also want to check our guide on acclimating hardwood flooring correctly.

Overlap Wood Floor Planks by at Least 6 Inches

The basic rule to remember for creating a strong stagger is that all planks should overlap by 6 inches or more.

This means that the short joint between planks should be at least 6 inches away from the nearest joint in any adjacent row.

This type of stagger will lock the flooring tightly together. This is especially important on the first 2-3 rows of wood flooring that you lay because these will create a strong base as you lay the following rows.

This is also the first step to creating a stagger that looks good. Parallel seams within a few inches of each other will be very obvious when you look at the finished floor.

Avoid Creating a Patterned Appearance

We always recommend a randomized installation of hardwood floors because it creates a floor that looks seamless and draws attention to the natural color and grain of the wood, rather than the joints.

patterned wood floor installation

Some installers and DIYers choose a rigid, patterned look, but they can appear amateurish and distract from your wood floor’s natural beauty. Here are the common patterns that you should avoid:

Stair-Step Pattern

We recommend avoiding this pattern when you are laying the stagger for a hardwood floor.

You can create a stair-step pattern on the floor if you are using boards of the same length and you offset each row by the same length. For example, staggering the joints in each new row to be 6 inches to the left of the joint in the previous row.

This will create a diagonal pattern of joints across the room. If you crave an orderly, patterned look, you may choose the stair-step technique. Just know that you are choosing to emphasize the joints in the floor over the more subtle beauty of the flooring itself.

“H” Pattern

The “H” pattern is another one to avoid.

This pattern forms if you use planks that are all the same length and you offset each row by half of one plank. This makes the seams line up on every 2nd row of flooring, so you can easily see two columns of alternating joints that line up across the room.

This is another pattern that is obvious to the eye and will take the focus right off of your gorgeous flooring with its natural patterns and color. All you will see is the pattern of short joint lines. Again, it’s a fine option if you prefer the orderly appearance, but the best recommendation is to randomize your layout so that the joints disappear and the wood itself is the focal point.

avoid h joints

How to Randomize a Wood Floor Layout

While the ideal appearance for a hardwood floor is a completely randomized installation, that doesn’t mean that you can achieve this look by chance. It takes a lot of patience and planning to make sure that every row is unlike those around it.

If you just install the boards one by one as they come out of the box, you will likely create patterns by accident.

This section will show how to lay out hardwood planks ahead of time in a process called “racking.” You will choose planks and lay them out next to each other on the floor to see how they look, before locking the tongues or gluing them down. Racking a floor is great because it lets you experiment and make changes.

Once you’re satisfied with the layout, you can just move your racked rows slightly out of the way and install them using whatever method your flooring requires.

Not all hardwood products are the same. Some materials come with boards of all the same length. Others include 3 or more lengths of board inside the cartons. Each has its own challenges to randomizing your layout and avoiding a patterned stagger.

Randomizing Hardwood Flooring of Varied Length

To prepare yourself for racking a beautiful, random installation, first lay out the wood planks in stacks of matching size. Create stacks of 5-10 of each size a few feet in front of your first row.

Always mix wood pieces from different cartons as you make your stacks. This is because one package can have significant color differences from another carton. If you just lay wood from one carton at a time, you can end up with all dark pieces on one end of the room and all light pieces on the other end.

Once you have the stacks sorted, start racking your first row by choosing a variety of lengths and laying them out end-to-end.

When you create the following rows, pay attention to the joints in the row behind it. Make sure there is always an overlap of at least 6 inches in between joints on adjacent rows. Remember that this is especially important on the first 3-4 rows you lay out because they will create a strong foundation for the rest of the floor.

Once you rack 3-4 rows, stand up and look at them from a distance. Are there any obvious stair step or “H” patterns, or any joints too close together? Now is the time to rack a different combination of planks to remedy the problem.

When you are satisfied that the several rows you have racked to install create a random stagger pattern with at least 6 inches of overlap on all joints, you are ready to install them!

Randomizing Hardwood Flooring of the Same Length

Begin laying out your flooring for the racking process by opening several cartons of wood and creating stacks across the room just in front of where you will lay your first few rows. This will make them easy to reach as you lay them out. Stack 5-10 planks in each pile.

Always mix planks from several different cartons because the color of the material can vary from box to box. Pulling planks from multiple boxes will spread out the wood from each carton and hide any color differences.

If your hardwood is all the same length, you need to cut your starting end piece on each row to be different from the piece that started the previous row.

As long as your starting board overlaps the adjacent joint by at least 6 inches, the stagger will continue across the whole row.

The fastest way to create a good stagger when working with boards of the same length is to take 4-5 planks out to the chop saw and cut each board to a different length. You can use these cut ends to start several rows at once. You can trim the unused cutoff ends to complete the rows on the wall opposite your starting boards.

When you make your starter cuts and rack 3-4 rows by laying them out on the floor, stand up and look at the flooring from a distance. Are there any joints that are too close together? Are there any stair-step patterns or H-patterns in the rows you racked for installation? If so, choose a longer or shorter starting piece to offset the joints in the row.

Always remember to keep at least a 6-inch overlap between seams for stability and appearance.

When you have created a good, randomized stagger across several rows, you can install the boards you racked and repeat this whole process for the following rows.