Weighing in on the Great Cleats vs. Staples Debate

Weighing in on the Cleats vs. Staples Debate

Perhaps one of the most contested debates in the hardwood flooring industry is whether to use cleats or staples when installing hardwood floors. Each side has staunch defenders. So what are the benefits and problem areas for each fastener?

Staples have the price advantage. Sometimes cleats can be twice as expensive as staples. Staples are also a bit more common of a product on store shelves which leads to their popularity. At City Floor Supply, we have plenty of both in stock. Browse our selection of cleats or staples.

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Not only are the staples more common, but the tools themselves are more common. Pneumatic staplers were the first pneumatic floor fastener used in the floor industry. The mallet actuated staplers were first on the scene, but now there are a great number of trigger operated staplers for thinner floors.

Nailers are traditionally operated with a mallet striking the tool to drive in the fastener. Since staplers are more common on store shelves, they tend to be a bit cheaper.

But which type of fastener is better to use?

How do staples stack up against cleats?

The downside to staples might seem a little counter-intuitive. Staples do their job a little too well. They keep the wood attached to the subfloor so well that the wood doesn’t have any room to expand or contract. Wood naturally changes its size due to the amount of moisture (or lack thereof) in the air.

Since staples allow for little to no movement in the floor, it can lead to split tongues on the floor boards. Split tongues will cause squeaky or loose floor boards. That leads to repair work which your customer and employees won’t be happy about.

Additionally, staples have a tendency to split the tongue of a higher density wood like maple or Brazilian cherry upon installation. Some contractors also claim that staples are more difficult to remove than cleats when ripping up old boards.

Staples aren’t inherently bad — it’s just that you have to be careful when you use them. If you’re installing a floor in an area that does not experience drastic fluctuations in the weather, or more importantly, the humidity, you can use staples. If you are installing a softer density wood like oak, it could be appropriate to use staples.

The science behind cleats

So what is it about the cleat that makes them work well?

Wood naturally wants to move. Cleats are constructed in a way to promote the movement of wood.

All cleats are constructed in a similar way. The shaft of the cleat is barbed which allows the cleat to dig into the wood fibers.

There is a small length of the cleat towards the top that is smooth. This smooth section allows the wood to expand and contract without any fear of cracking the tongue of a board.

Cleats can be used for almost all types of wood as well. Some contractors say that cleats shouldn’t be used for thin strips of pre-finished or engineered wood, however. As mentioned above, thinner gauge cleats are being sold for just that purpose.

What’s the answer to the age-old “staples vs. cleats” debate?

The debate between staples and cleats isn’t going away any time soon. Everybody has their preference. What’s more important that the specific fastener is whether or not you’re following proper procedure installing the floor.

Be sure that the subfloor is appropriate for the method of installation. Make sure you have the correct nailing schedule for the wood type you are installing. If you are using a pneumatic nailer or stapler, make sure the air pressure is set correctly for the particular wood.

When you follow the proper procedure for your fastener of choice, you will get the best results possible.

Browse our selection of Primatech cleats, staples, and nails or Powernail flooring tools and flooring accessories. We also a wide selection of pneumatic nailers to choose from.

3 thoughts on “Weighing in on the Great Cleats vs. Staples Debate

  1. George Chagnon

    Thank you for this blog post. It’s always an interesting debate in the industry. For a long time cleats were the standard product used on a hardwood floor installation. A large majority of the time Powernail has been in business (67 years) they have made and sold mostly cleats. Over the recent past (20 or so years) staples have gained in popularity. For some it’s cost driven and for others it’s simply what they learned on and/or what they are comfortable using.

    While staples are less expensive than cleats the number is closer to a 20% difference. Using round numbers any installer should be able to buy a 5,000 count box of cleats for around $60 and a 7,700 count box of staples for around $50. If you take a typical 500 sf room installing ¾” 2-1/4” wide oak floor using a 10” nailing schedule the amount of fasteners you will need is 3,200. The cost difference cleat vs. staples on this 500 sf room is only around $17. In my opinion every installer should look at the $17 extra as an insurance policy against splitting tongues or in issues regarding the potential inability to allow for seasonal movement. Another important thing to consider is the “reparability” aspect of a cleated floor. You will spend perhaps double the amount of time demo’ing the stapled floor vs. the cleated one. This point alone would be enough to sway me towards cleats.

    With regard to the statement “Staplers are usually trigger operated.” I would challenge this only because my experience has been most of the staplers sold for ¾” oak are in fact mallet actuated (Bostitch M3’s). I would modify that statement to say “most of the trigger operated guns on the market shoot staples (with the exception of Powernail’s new 20 gage cleat shooting Model 2000) which are generally used for thinner profile wood products.”

    Which should you use? It’s up to each installer to decide given the information they research. As a blanket statement I think it is accurate to say over the course of an installer’s entire career, he/she will run into less problems using cleats than using staples and for this reason we believe the cleat is the more correct product to be used when installing hardwood. I can’t stress enough the importance of reading the installation instructions when installing something out of your comfort zone as this can eliminate a host of issues down the line. In the absence of that and if you’re still unsure you can always call Philly Floor Store or Powernail directly to ask for advice.

    George Chagnon
    Eastern Regional Sales Manager
    Powernail Company, Inc.

  2. curtis

    Great blog.
    Please allow me to divert this on the technical side of fasteners. I fully agree with all the comments about the fasteners and would add that cleats can be used in manual nailers and are easier to unjam from tool as where I often saw staples traveled upwards into the bumper. Also the cleats will minimize telegraphy at the surface of prefinished floors since the head is smaller than the 1/2″ crown of the staple. You can further diminish dimpling by using 18 ga, nails. Typically, staples induce dimples 30 to 50% higher than 16 ga. nails. On the other hand, 18 ga. nails typically induce dimples that are 50% smaller than 16 ga. nails. One mechanic can save a lot of aggravation by choosing the right fastener.
    In static testing of withdrawal of fasteners, the staples have the highest holding power, regardless of type of subfloor. After conditioning subfloors from 80%rh to 50% rh environment both cleats and staples lose holding power. The staples show the highest lost but are still Superior to the cleats. These results are for STATIC testing only and demonstrate the ability and the variables of sub flooring materials with different moisture contents.
    After conditioning flooring ( 3 1/4″ hard maple ) in cycling chambers ( from 80%rh to 20%) during mutiple weeks and using same subfloor materials, the 16 and 18 ga. nail showed very little lost and outperformed the 15.5 ga. staple which had lost up to 60% of it’s holding power on lesser density subfloors. This is explained by the barbs of the nail holding on to the wood fibers during mechanical sollicitation as where the cement bond of the staple has broken.
    I simply wanted to bring to your attention that: INITIAL FASTENER HOLDING POWER IS NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THEIR PERFORMANCE IN SERVICE. Mechanical sollicitations of fasteners directly affect their performance and even more so with humid subfloors. If you have experienced a perfectly stapled down floor and returned to the jobsite 4 to 6 months later and being able to pull boards up with your hands, then, dont look any further.
    Use the fastener that best suits your application but for me and for all the good reasons mentioned in this blog, I’m definitely a CLEAT fan.
    Laboratoire Primatech Inc.

  3. RADIF

    Hello there
    As a regular nail gun user, I think the main differences are
    Because of having ribs, cleats can go all the way down to the shank of the nail. This helps the cleats to have better grip than staples.

    But, as staples are more comfortable to manufacture you can get staples with a lower budget compared to cleats.

    Floors that are of hardwood and have a thickness of 0.75 inches are suitable for staples. But the floors which are thicker than this size requires staples.

    Staples can give a greater initial grip, but they can split out of the tongue of your hardwood any time. So, in this case, using a cleat is better.
    Let me know if you think I am right. Waiting for your valuable reply.


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