It is impossible to order exactly the right amount of hardwood flooring for your project. Every home remodeling project produces waste material. Of those 12 gallons of interior latex paint you ordered, no doubt you will have a gallon or half left. Hardwood flooring is no exception.

Hardwood flooring installation always requires cutting. The boards on the end of a row, unless you are extremely fortunate, need to be cut. This cut piece hopefully will be short–6 inches or a foot, rarely more. Installing hardwood flooring on a diagonal produces even more waste materials.

Unlike cheap ceramic tile or sheet vinyl, what is really hard to stomach is the fact that this “waste material” is expensive hardwood flooring at $20 per square foot–hardly something you can trash with little compunction. You want every square foot and inch to be used to its maximum potential.

Manufacturer Flooring Wastage Figures

Flooring manufacturers set installer wastage figure at between 8% and 15%, in addition to the allowed 5% for defective material. Yet I have long wondered how they come up with these figures. Are these numbers based on actual data gathered from the field? Were flooring installers consulted?

Besides the actual size of the room, two major factors drive the amount of hardwood flooring you should order: the condition of the material and the skill or inclination of the installer to be as economical as possible.

We might even add a third factor: the inclination of the homeowner to make sure the project progresses as smoothly and quickly as possible. More on that later.

Factor 1: Condition of the Material

Believe it or not, not all hardwood flooring you get, no matter how neatly and slickly packaged, can be installed. Some of the flooring will be missing tongues, missing grooves, water-stained, cracked or split, sun-discolored, or affected by a myriad of other imperfections. Make sure to check out the best hardwood flooring locations to limit the number of problems.

One popular hardwood flooring brand, Bellawood, notes that up to 5% of their product may be unsuitable for installation. In other words, according to this manufacturer up to 5% of its product could simply be tossed out in the roll-off dumpster–in theory, at least (veteran hardwood flooring installers are familiar with Bellawood and would probably beg to differ, saying that the number should be higher.

Factor 2: The Hardwood Flooring Installers’ Work

Installing a solid hardwood floor is a bit like putting together a puzzle. Skilled and patient flooring installers can dramatically reduce the amount of waste materials. Unskilled and impatient workers merrily cut off the end boards with little thought as to whether they could have found a better solution.

But can’t those cut pieces be used? Yes and no. Cut pieces are not the most useful boards in the pile, because an essential part of their structure–tongue or groove–is now lost. This is not to say that these cut pieces are completely unusable; rather, they have been transformed into pieces that require planning and forethought, something that the unskilled/impatient installer does not have.

How Much Hardwood Flooring to Order?

If you’re installing your hardwood flooring yourself, and you put yourself in that skilled and patient class, I think that you can reduce that 8%-12% wastage number considerably.

On a very small installation in which I had all the time in the world, I ended up with about 1/2 sq. ft. of installer-wasted flooring for a 72 square-foot job. We’ll call that roughly 1% of installer waste. Since the project was for a workshop and the standards of beauty were not high, I had zero waste from defective materials. If I had been installing in a residence, I would have rejected an additional 3% of the material.

But if you’re hiring out, hardwood flooring installers never want you to order close to the bone. This increase the potential of running out of material during the project. When there is no material to work with, they suffer and you suffer. In this case, the 10% overage rule stands–greater if you’re dealing with wood known to have defects.

Some homeowners have developed the theory that if there is more material on hand, flooring installers have a license to be more wasteful. I don’t know how true this is; it all depends on the individual installer.

The good news is that most flooring retailers accept returns of unopened boxes or unbundled flooring materials. Check with the retailer to make sure this is possible. It still obligates you to haul the flooring back to the store for a refund. But this is far better than having 400 sq. ft. of Brazilian cherry hardwood sitting, boxed and unused, in your basement for the next decade.

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