What Causes Wood Floors to Buckle and How to Prevent It (2024)

Hardwood floors should be even and luxurious, not buckled and bumpy

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A perfectly maintained hardwood floor is the ultimate centerpiece, adding plenty of appeal to any living space. However, wood flooring is particularly finicky and is susceptible to all kinds of issues, including buckling. Buckling happens when your floorboards expand and contract, leading to humps, uneven surfaces, and unsightly marks. Even worse? Severe buckling prevents your floor from shifting back to its original shape, and replacing this hardwood flooring costs anywhere from $2,500 to $6,800.

“In the southeastern U.S., where there are high temperature and high humidity months, we see a lot of damage to wood flooring,” says Bob Tschudi, Angi Expert Review Board member and general contractor in Raleigh, NC. “The most obvious is ‘cupping,’ where the flooring bends to its natural shape. In those cases, we look for ways to drastically reduce the moisture level and often the warping/cupping will subside.”

Unfortunately, there is more than one way to ruin a perfectly luxurious hardwood floor with buckling. But knowing what makes a floor buckle can help you prevent any issues in the future.

1. Water

What Causes Wood Floors to Buckle and How to Prevent It (1)

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While actual trees enjoy a nice rainy day, hardwood floors do not. Water, and moisture in general, are the number one cause of buckling floorboards. That’s because when these floorboards get wet, the wood naturally swells to accommodate the moisture. All of that contracting and expanding eventually leads to buckling and warping.

“Water is extremely dangerous to wood flooring,” says Tschudi, a Raleigh. “A malfunctioning water heater or refrigerator can spew gallons of water on a floor, damaging it before you even see it.”

How to prevent it: Maintenance is key here. Keep an eye out for any long-lasting leaks from any appliance, the pipes, the roof, excessive moisture in the crawlspace, or just about anywhere else. If you notice a stubborn leak, shut off the offending appliance if applicable and call a local plumber immediately. Also, avoid laying houseplants on wood flooring and place area rugs underneath sinks.

Note: This won’t apply to infrequent, small spills. If you’re clumsy, you don’t need to sweat it if you accidentally tip over your water cup, though you should still clean it up ASAP.

2. Humidity

Water’s long-lost cousin, humidity, also causes buckling in wood floors. Any part of your home that suffers from higher-than-average humidity is a one-stop-shop for buckled wood. Humidity is moisture, after all, and the more moisture that comes into contact with hardwood, the more swelling it causes, which leads to buckling. Unfortunately, wooden floors absorb moisture from the air, so the risk here is fairly high.

How to prevent it: Don’t worry, as there are several ways to reduce humidity in your home. Install some high-grade dehumidifiers near the hardwood floors or increase your ventilation with fans and an improved HVAC system. Some parts of the U.S. are simply more humid than others, such as Florida and Louisiana, so consider avoiding hardwood if you live in one of these areas. Finally, keep hardwood away from humid parts of the home, such as bathrooms. Stick to 33 to 55% relative humidity in your home if you can.

3. Temperature Changes

Humidity is not the only way Mother Nature works to buckle wood, as drastic temperature change is also a known culprit. Going from cold to hot and back again buckles hardwood in short order. Wood naturally expands with heat and contracts with cold, so a perfectly gorgeous set of hardwood planks could turn into a buckled and warped mess in just a few seasons.

How to prevent it: Limit exposure to the elements and temperature fluctuations. Maintain a healthy relative humidity in your home and leverage your HVAC system so your living space is never too hot or too cold, no matter the temperature outside. If you have to pick between upgrading your heater or your air conditioner, go with the latter, as hot, sticky weather is more likely to cause buckling than the cold.

4. Poor Installation

An improperly installed hardwood floor is a recipe for disaster, including warping, buckling, and associated water damage. Poorly installed hardwood tends to be ill-fitted, with plenty of cracks and openings. Extreme weather conditions take full advantage of these issues, allowing moisture to fill these cracks. You know how this story ends—with a ruined and buckled floor.

How to prevent it: Perform serious research before hiring a local flooring contractor to install hardwood flooring. Ask plenty of pertinent questions and, if possible, keep an eye on the technicians as they finish the work. Look for a well-vetted and licensed pro with plenty of experience with hardwood floors. Plus, if they offer a guarantee of some kind, even better.

5. Subfloor Issues

This factor goes along with installation, but certain issues with your subfloors can lead to buckling of your hardwood flooring. Moist wood subfloors are a one-way ticket to buckle city, as are improperly dried concrete subfloors. If the subfloors are prone to moisture, it is only a matter of time before this moisture impacts the hardwood.

How to prevent it: At the point of installation, ask your contractor to test your subfloors for moisture content. A seasoned pro knows to look at the subfloors, but it can’t hurt to mention. If the moisture content is too high, address the underlying issue before installing hardwood flooring. These problems range from leaks to humidity and beyond. Also, ask your pro about professionally drying any concrete subfloor slabs before laying down the hardwood.

6. Improper Acclimation or No Acclimation

Acclimation means laying your wooden planks in the room before installation so they familiarize themselves with your home’s average temperature and humidity levels. On average, acclimation is a process lasting two weeks, though there is debate on whether improper acclimation causes buckling. However, many believe installing planks that are too dry or too moist both cause buckling in the long term.

How to prevent it: Talk to your pro about acclimation before scheduling an installation. It never hurts to let your planks sit in your home for two weeks before the procedure, though your contractor may consider it overkill.

What Happens If You Fail to Prevent Buckling?

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Photo: Andriy Blokhin / Adobe Stock

Prevention is the best medicine, though not always possible. Some older homes are simply too humid or prone to leaks, leading to hardwood buckling. Here is what to do if you notice buckles and warps in your precious hardwood.

Dry the Damaged Area

If the buckling is in its infancy, try drying the damaged panels and seeing if they revert to their original shape. We aren’t talking paper towels here. Get rid of moisture at every level, from the air by using a dehumidifier, the wood planks with cleaning and a cloth, and even the subfloors if they are readily accessible. Wait a few days after this intensive drying procedure to check on the hardwood. If the buckling recedes, you are good to go; if not, more work is necessary.

DIY Repair Job

Fixing buckled panels is possible, though time-intensive and complicated. You’ll need a whole bunch of tools, including a circular saw, a drill with a spade bit, a paintbrush, a pry bar, and more. You’ll also need copious materials, including replacement planks, scrap lumber, fine-grit sandpaper, and a high-quality staining agent. In other words, this process is for those with hardwood installation or replacement experience only.

Hire a Pro

Don’t fret if the repair job is slightly out of your league, as hardwood floors require precise installation and repair. Consult a flooring contractor and gather repair estimates. The entire floor rarely needs replacement. More often than not, the pro merely removes and replaces any impacted planks and areas.

What Causes Wood Floors to Buckle and How to Prevent It (2024)
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