Cottage Q&A: Is it okay to paint the subflooring?

Published: January 20, 2021

A close-up of gloved hands laying plywood on top of subflooring By DUO Studio/Shutterstock

I’m ripping the carpet out of my lake house living room. I was wondering if, instead of replacing the flooring, I can just paint the subflooring.—Wendy Hamel, via email

Sure you can. But whether or not that’s actually the best move for your living room depends on the existing subfloor’s material and its condition. 

“Who the hell knows what’s underneath that carpet?” says Mike Tilley of Tilley’s Applewood Construction in Guelph, Ont. “Subfloor comes in all shapes and sizes.”

If what you unearth is pristine flat plywood, then, congratulations—you’ve hit the subfloor jackpot. Prep it, prime it, paint it, “and call it a day,” says Tilley. But, as he points out, “that’s a super-lucky situation.”

Carpet can hide all manner of subflooring sins: damp, flaking aspenite; gappy planks; old vinyl. These surfaces are often ugly, lumpy, and unpaintable. In that case, Tilley suggests—instead of trying to rehab the existing material—that you put down a layer of ½-inch plywood and paint that; use a flat primer and an oil-based (alkyd) paint. Another option would be to put laminate flooring overtop of a new plywood layer. It’s simple enough to install and won’t break the bank. Laminate may also stand up a little better to foot traffic.

Can I use laminate flooring in an unheated cottage?

Keep in mind that subflooring was meant to have something on top of it. (Obviously. Or else it would just be called “flooring.”) Using plywood alone, without the insulating layer of carpet, “your feet might freeze to death in the winter,” says Tilley. If you don’t visit this lake house in the cold season, hey, no worries. If you do…maybe stock up on slippers.

Got a question for Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

This article was originally published in the Aug./Sept. 2020 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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