How To Install And Finish Plywood Flooring

How To Install And Finish Plywood Flooring

plywood flooring install

This project definitely took some time to complete,it’s not an afternoon project. But if you’re willing to put in the time and sweat it is absolutely worth it!

Read on to see what it took for us to make and install our plywood floors.


What We Were Looking For In Flooring

Some of the flooring in our Poconos vacation rental needed replacing.  Namely,the floating hardwood floor in the dining room and kitchen and the carpet in the living room.

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Back to the floors, we wanted the new floors to look old, warm and worn – like they had always been there.

We looked into tile, stone and hardwood floors. The problem with all 3 of those floorings was installing them on our uneven floors – like really uneven.

Since the entire house is made of rough-cut oak, the flooring is not even close to being level. That makes tile, stone and hardwood flooring very difficult to install. The extra difficulty also translates to very expensive installation costs.

To get more flooring ideas we turned to Pinterest. After a lot of scrolling, we came across plywood flooring!

The pictures of the plywood flooring projects others had posted were incredible – this was it! We were sold.

When In Doubt – Wabi-Sabi

There’s a concept I came across on Pinterest which was instrumental in my choice of plywood. It’s called wabi-sabi.

It’s a Japanese tradition that is the art of making broken things better than brand new.

The idea is to hi-light the imperfections – make them perfectly imperfect.

With this new perspective, I was looking for imperfections to show off – instead of avoiding them.

If (or when) the floors get a new scuff mark or scratch, it will add to the floor’s character. It’s a very freeing concept that I am really glad I came across.

Click on the picture to see the Pinterest pin that inspired me, I hope it does the same for you.

Wabi-Sabi - broken is beautiful pinterest pin

Why Use Plywood Flooring

Most people decide to install plywood flooring for the cost savings. It’s much cheaper to install a plywood floor than a traditional hardwood or even a laminate.

The cost wasn’t that much of a factor in our decision making process. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always nice to save some dough… it was just lower on our list.

Higher on our list was flooring that was sturdy, looked like it has always been there, fit with the style of the house and would be easy to install on an uneven floor. 

Between the option of making wider boards and the spacing between each board – plywood flooring was a perfect fit for this house. The spacing between each board makes it more forgiving in scenarios like mine where the floor isn’t level.

On top of that, the Japanese concept I came across helped me realize that any blemishes the floor will gain as it ages will only add to the floor’s beauty. So it didn’t need to be as sturdy as hardwood, just embrace the imperfection! 🙂

The Down-side to Plywood Flooring

The only negative I saw with plywood was the durability. It’s not a hardwood so it would scratch easier than an oak flooring would.

Now with my new wabi sabi perspective, I’m actually looking forward to the scratches and dents.

The blemishes will only add to the floor’s beauty. If there’s a scratch that is really ugly, I can add something creative to give it beauty.

Perfectly imperfect.

The Shopping List

Tools List

Here’s a list of the tools we used on this project. 

Affiliate links below may be to similar items when exact items couldn’t be found online.

Cordless Finish Nailer

Extra Battery For Finish Nailer

Belt Sander

Palm Sander

Miter Saw

Circular Saw

Cross Cut Saw Blade

Oscillating Multi-Tool

Hearing Protection Ear Muffs


Supplies List

These are the supplies used on this project.

Affiliate links below may be to similar items when exact items couldn’t be found online.

Varathane Cherrywood Gel Stain – we used about 7 quarts

Water Based Oil-Modified Poluyrathane – we used 2 gallons

3″ Natural Bristle brush – 6 brushes to apply the stain

4″ Polyester Synthetic Brush – 4 brushes to apply the poly

Masking Paper – We used the masking paper to protect the deck when applying the stain and poly

6 Gauge 1 1/2″ Finish Nails

What Plywood Dimensions We Chose

The plywood we used is 1/2″ thick, mostly because the thinner plywood is more flexible. The flexibility allows the boards to bend to our uneven sub-floor’s contours.

We wanted the farmhouse or country kind of look, so a wide board is what we went with.

We also didn’t want to reduce the amount of wasted plywood, so the width we came up with was 5 7/8″ each board. That gives us 8 boards per sheet and a tiny strip left over at the end.

How Much Plywood Do You Need

The measurements doesn’t need to be super duper precise. Rounding up the measurements and adding an extra board to the total gives enough wiggle room.

For our space, I treated it like a big rectangle. The length was 287″ (rounded up to 24′) and the width was 140″ (rounded up to 12′).

24 x 12 is 288 sq feet.

Each sheet of plywood is 4′ x 8′ so that gives you 32 square feet per sheet.

When I divided the total sq feet (288) by the sq feet per sheet (32) it told me I needed 9 sheets of plywood.

Then I added an extra sheet as a buffer.


The Final Numbers

We bought 10 sheets of 1/2″ plywood for our project and once completed, we had about 1 sheet left over.

Prepping the Subfloor

Total Time: 2 people about 2 hours

The original floor was a hardwood floor that was installed with – a – lot – of – staples…. like a lot.

At first it felt like the staple removal was taking forever. Once we got into a rhythm though it really only took a couple of hours for us to get just about all of them out.

Subfloor Painting

Total Time: 1 person about an hour

The subfloor we had was unpainted plywood, if we installed our finished plywood on top of the subfloor without first painting it the spaces between the boards would stick out like a sore thumb.

I painted the subfloor a very dark brown color, using a paint that we already had. I’d say pretty much any dark paint color would do the job.

Just stick to a paint that is more eggshell or satin – you don’t want the paint on the subfloor shining through the spaces between our boards.

Cutting The Plywood Into Boards

Total Time: With the right blade this would take less than 2 hours for 10 sheets

A lot of the Pinterest posts I came across said they had a person from Lowes or Home Depot cut the boards for them.

It’s definitely an option. I’ve used their cutting services in the past when the cuts didn’t need to be very precise.

In this case I wanted more precise cuts, so I opted to do it myself.

It takes A LOT longer but I thought having the consistently sized boards was worth the extra time. This way I was sure each piece was going to be pretty close to being the same width.

To make cutting the pieces MUCH easier and to keep them the same width I made a jig.

plywood flooring install - a sheet cut into planks

The Jig

A jig is fancy talk for a template. It really made a tedious and time consuming task super easy.

It was basically a 1/2″ piece of scrap plywood I had with a scrap piece of 1 x 4 screwed to it.

The space between the saw blade and the piece of 1 x 4 was 5 7/8″, the thickness we wanted our plywood flooring boards to be.

To make the jig I put the blade of the saw all the way up, secured the saw to the plywood with screws all around the saw, wedging it in place.

Then I plunge cut the saw into the plywood and  measured 5 7/8″ from the inside of the plunge cut and that’s where I screwed in the 1 x 4.



Installing Plywood flooring - cutting the sheet into floor boards - the jig - top view
plywood flooring install - the jig for cutting planks - bottom view

Tip: If you decide to make your own jig, having the 1 x 4 stick out way in front and way behind the saw worked out really well.

It lets you line up the saw way before the blade comes in contact with the plywood. It also gives more stability ending up with a straighter cut.

The Best Saw Blade To Use

We had 10 sheets of plywood to cut into boards. I figured that a plywood blade would be the best. I thought anything else would leave a really rough edge on the wood.

Well I was very wrong. The plywood blade didn’t last very long and took a lot of effort to go though the plywood. It started smoking and having a lot more difficulty cutting barely half way into the second sheet of plywood.

I ended up having to go out and buy another blade. This time I tried a cross cut blade, OMG what a difference.

The cross cut blade went through the plywood like butter and left an even better cut than the plywood blade did. I was able to do the rest of the plywood using just that one cross cut blade.



Installing Plywood flooring - Choosing the right blade to cut your floor boards is key - this is the best blade for the job

Sanding Each Board

Total Time: 2 people about a day and a half

This part took a while but it’s important to put the time into it. We sanded the face of the plywood to remove any splinters and the text that is sometimes stamped on the plywood.

We also used the sander to round the edges all around the face of each board.

The rounded edge gives it a really nice finished look and helps in cases like ours, where the floors aren’t very level. the edge gives a soft transition between two boards that don’t quite line up.

This is where you choose which side of the plywood will be the face, the pretty side or the ugly side. When we were choosing sides, I’d say we chose the ugly side 80% of the time.

It went against what I would normally do, but now I kinda wish I went with the ugly side more.

We used a belt sander to do most of the sanding. You could use a palm sander if you’re not doing too much flooring but in our case the belt sander was much faster.

The sandpaper we used was 120 grit, it was perfect for the belt sander.

During this part of the project, you’ll have your doubts about using the gnarly part of the plywood. BUT TRUST ME – once you put the stain on the wood you will be blown away at how good it looks.

In the end the boards that were the most beautiful were the ones with the imperfections.

Installing plywood flooring - round off all the edges


If a board has a knot or crack in it, don’t put it to the side or use it in an area you can’t see.

Instead, make it more noticeable. Dig into the knot or crack with the sander to emphasis the crack or knot more. It’ll help remove splinters that are around the knot or crack, and also add character.

Installing plywood flooring - do not be afraid of imperfections

Giving The Plywood Some “Character”

Total Time: We did this at the same time as sanding so it’s included in the day and a half spent sanding

There were three weapons of choice for applying the plywood’s character (a.k.a. distressing), a hammer, a big pair of pliers and a propane torch. Out of the three I used the pliers the most and the hammer the least.

Using pliers, I’d repeatedly hit the face of the plywood with the back corner of the pliers.

With the hammer I used the side of the hammer to make indentations in the plywood.

If you look at the floor right above the hammer in the picture you’ll see the indentations the back of the pliers left.

Burning The Plywood

The propane torch was by far my favorite character builder – and it wasn’t because it spoke to my inner pyro…. well maybe a little because of my inner pyro lol. Burning the plywood gives an instant amazing aged look.

This is another part of the process where I hesitated. After applying the stain though the boards look incredible!

I would burn the plywood whenever the board looked a little boring. Take a look at the arrows in the picture, each one of those dark marks are the work of the propane torch.


plywood flooring install - meet the character builders

Tip: When burning the plywood the lighter parts of the wood burn much easier than the darker parts.  Because I was avoiding that plywood zebra pattern, I didn’t burn the wood where there was a heavy zebra pattern.

If the part of the wood either only dark or only light then it was eligible for burning.

plywood flooring install - burn marks added to the plywood

The Stain We Chose

We tried a bunch of different stains on scrap pieces of plywood first, and this was by far our favorite!

We went with a gel stain instead of a regular stain because it does a really good job of covering up the zebra pattern.

It’s totally a personal preference but I do not like the pattern you get from regular stain on plywood floors. Take a look at this picture I copied from Pinterest, for an example of what I’m talking about.

Regular stain is more liquid and gets absorbed by the plywood at different rates. Softer parts of the wood absorb the stain faster than the denser parts of the wood.

A work around would also be to use a wood conditioner before applying regular stain. Instead we used the gel stain.

With the gel there was no need to add an extra step of adding wood conditioner. Plus, the gel stain added a nice wood grain pattern on the surface of the board, making it look less like plywood.

plywood flooring install - the zebra patter I don't like
cherrywood varathane interior wood stain 339586-64_1000

The gel stain we used had a dark color and created a lighter stain on the wood. The result was a cherry colored wood with a dark grain pattern on top, exactly what we were looking for.

The thicker you applied the stain the darker the board would be.

Also, the longer you waited before brushing the excess stain off the darker the wood.

The brush we used for the stain was a cheap wide (about 4″) real bristle brush.

The stain has that polyurethane smell to it so we did our staining out on the deck and also let the boards dry out there.

If you’re going to do the same, make sure to first check the weather forecast!

We used about 7 quarts of stain to do our project.

Applying The Stain

Total Time: 2 people about a day

We did one coat of stain using the dry brush technique. Applying the stain with the wet brush and using a dry brush to brush off the excess stain.

With every pass of the dry brush, we would wipe off the dry brush on a paper towel to remove the majority of the stain from it.

We chose the dry brush method because it leaves a nice dark wood pattern.

When applying the stain and dry brushing, you’ll be able to play with the texture it leaves. Put some wavy grain in there or brush around a knot in the wood to add uniqueness to each board.

Like I said the longer you left the stain and the longer you waited before using the dry brush the darker the board will be.

We typically applied the stain and waited a couple of minutes before using the dry brush.

If the board had a lot of pattern on it then we applied a thicker coat and let it sit a little longer. The thicker coat and longer wait time did a better job of masking the zebra pattern.

Once the stain was applied we waited 24 hours before applying the polyurathane.

plywood flooring install - the stains brush strokes

Protecting The Plywood

Total Time: 2 people about a day and a half

For the finish we used a clear satin, water based, oil-modified polyurethane.

This product is great because it doesn’t change the color of the stain, dries quickly and best of all – it’s oderless.

We went with a satin finish because we wanted an aged look – glossy floor would be the opposite of that.

We did three thin coats of poly on all the boards, including the sides of the boards. We waited 2 hours between each coat and 24 hours after the last coat before installing them.

We didn’t sand between the first and second coats. We did do a light hand sanding with 120 grit sand paper before applying the final coat.

The brush we used for the poly was a cheap wide (about 6″) synthetic brush.

We used 2 gallons for our project

It’s All About That Space

The spaces between each board were perfect for the style we were looking for.

The spacing would give it more of that farmhouse feel. A few of the posts on Pinterest mentioned using quarters as spacers, so that’s what we used.

There were small variations in the spacing, mostly because of the uneven floors – but that’s ok – wabi sabi ;).

Where To Start Laying The Boards

I used a tip I came across on one of the Pinterest posts, starting on the side of the room where the floor is the most visible.

For our space the most visible part of the floor was by the front door so that’s where we started.

When we reached the opposite end of the space we ended up with the last row of boards needing to be ripped in half.

Make Sure To Space Out The Seams

Each board was 8 feet long and the room was a little over 12 feet wide, so there weren’t too many seams to work with.

The rule of thumb is to not have two consecutive rows with seems less than a foot apart from each other.

plywood flooring install - make sure to space out the seams

Cutting The Boards To Length

I used a miter saw to cut the boards to length. Pretty straight forward. One tip is to make sure the blade reaches full speed before you start cutting into the plywood. That’ll give you a clean, smooth cut.

Securing The Plywood Flooring In Place

Total Time: 1 person a solid day
On Pinterest I found different method of securing the boards. Some suggested glue or liquid nails, others said nails and a few did both.
The glue or liquid nails sounded too permanent to me. If I ever want to change the flooring in the future, nailing it down would be the best approach.
I opted for face-nailing the boards using a nail gun. I bought a battery powered Bostitch nail gun, it is really nice.
This nail gun has a rapid fire feature. If you press and hold the trigger it shoots nails in rapid succession – like it’s air-powered cousin. That feature makes quick work of installing these floors.
The nails I used were 16 gauge 1 1/2″ straight nails.
I put a nail in about every 6 – 12″ all the way around the board.
We used about 4 packs of nails for the project

Tip: If you end up buying the same nail gun I’d recommend also buying an extra battery. It already comes with one battery, buying the extra battery will help keep your project moving along.


A Couple More Notes

The plywood flooring we installed is 1/2″ thick and the previous flooring was 3/8″ thick.

The 1/8″ difference meant any spaces where the previous flooring used to fit – the new flooring no longer does.

That difference meant a lot of undercutting. Not only the door moldings but all the furring strips that cover the seams of the oak boards on the walls.

I could have done it with a dovetail saw, but since I had quite a few cuts to do, I bought an oscillating tool. It worked perfectly!

The tool comes with a bunch of different attachments. I haven’t used it for anything else yet but I can think of a few different uses for it in the future.

All Done – That’s It!

So, all told, it took roughly a week from complete start to complete finish. Including the old floor removal, subfloor painted, 10 sheets of plywood cut into strips, sanded, distressed, stained, polyied and installed.

This was a good sized project with a lot of effort put into it, but it was well worth it. We now have a completely unique floor that fits perfectly with the house, and looks fantastic!!

In the fall we’re going to install the same plywood flooring in the living room, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Here’s some more pics of the work in progress and the finished product.

Let me know what you think, is there something you would have done different?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

plywood flooring install
plywood flooring install
plywood flooring install
plywood flooring install
plywood flooring install
plywood flooring install
plywood flooring install

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