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Wood Flooring

A Guide To Making An Informed Decision

Wood flooring has been underfoot for centuries but its beauty and usefulness have never waned. What probably started out as rough boards covering a dirt surface, they have evolved into the modern age and merged with today's technology.

Not only is there an abundance of wood types to choose from but there are plenty of other considerations to think about as well.

For example, should you buy a pre-finished product or unfinished hardwood floors? Will you go for solid wood or an engineered wood floor? Each variety has it's own unique advantages and you'll need to determine which options work best for your situation.

There are also environmental factors too. If you're concerned about the environmental impact your wood floor has there are products that are certified as being from a responsibly-managed supply chain. You might also want to investigate reclaimed wood as a means of preserving existing forests.

As you can see, there's a lot to consider when choosing a wood floor but it doesn't have to be overwhelming. Take some time to discover the facets of what's involved and you'll be well prepared to make good, informed decisions and ultimately get a floor you'll be happy with.

Getting Started - Chunking Down A Broad Subject

Let's get right into it by getting familiar with some basic terms. Wood flooring comes in a variety of forms, shapes, sizes and grades.

Forms Of Wood Flooring

  • Solid
    Solid wood is just what the name implies - a solid board or plank that's been cut from the log and milled to shape. It's usually 3/4" thick although some thinner products like 5/16" are available.
  • wood flooring

  • Engineered
    Engineered wood is made up of several layers of wood that are laminated (glued) together. The top layer is made from your species of choice and the middle and bottom layers are made from other types of wood. These layers are assembled so that their grain orientation is 90-degrees to each other. This provides a more stable product that doesn't 'move' (expand and contract) as much as solid wood does.
  • Strip & Plank
    Wood floor stock is produced in varying widths. Strip flooring is the narrower of the two types and is typically 2-1/4" to 3-1/4" wide. Planks are wider and run anywhere from about 3" to 9" wide. This is a term you'll see fairly frequently as you browse wood floor products.
  • Plain, Rift and Quarter Sawn
    The way the boards are cut from a log determines how the grain will look and how stable it will be. Slicing the log along its length into boards describes plainsawn wood. Cutting boards out of the wood with their width angled toward the center of the log (like spokes in a wheel) produces riftsawn wood. Quartersawn wood results when the log is cut into quarters and the boards then cut perpendicular to the tree's growth rings.

    The key point is that different cuts produce different grain patterns and correspondingly, a different look on the floor.

plainsawn wood quartersawn wood
Plainsawn wood grain (left) & Quartersawn wood grain (right)

Appearance And Effects

  • Heartwood & Sapwood
    These are two terms that you'll sometimes see in descriptions of various wood floor choices. Sapwood describes the outer portion of the tree closer to the bark. It's typically characterized by a lighter color than the heartwood.

    Heartwood is the material that's in the center portion of the tree. It's usually a darker color and is inactive tissue in a living tree.

    Floors that use a combination of heartwood and sapwood will have more distinct shade differences within a particular species.

  • Grades
    Wood used for flooring is classified into grades based on its appearance.

    Hardwood grading is defined by NOFMA, The Wood Flooring Manufacturer's Association. (The acronym is a throwback to the original name which was 'National Oak Floor Manufacturer's Association).

    NOFMA is the wood flooring trade organization that brings standardization to the wood flooring industry and oversees the wood floor certification process. Their website provides some good information on the background and benefits associated with using certified wood floor products.

    NOFMA hardwood grades:

    • Clear Grade has very uniform appearance with respect to grain and color with a minimal amount of character marks.
    • Select Grade is defined by more variation in natural color differences due to the combination of both sapwood and heartwood.
    • #1 Common is characterized by more pronounced color variation and grain distinction as well as the occurrence of other distinctive marks.
    • #2 Common is similar to #1 Common except that it contains even more distinct variation in color and grain pattern as well as other characteristics like knots, mineral streaks and manufacturing marks.

    hardwood flooring material

    The Southern Pine Council defines standards for flooring made from southern pine, a softwood. Their system includes B&B, C, C&BTR, D, No.1, No.2 and No.3 grades, ranging from the clearest to the grade with the most visual characteristics like splits, knots and streaks.

    Finally, when it comes to reclaimed and recycled wood, there are no hard and fast standards that govern wood grades. Companies that deal in this type of product establish their own grade system which best fits the description of their products. You'll see terms like "select grade", "rustic grade" and "country grade" that they use to define their products, again based on appearance.

  • Hand Scraped/Sculpted & Beveled Edges
    Hand scraped wood is a decorative effect that harkens back to the days when planks were made flat by craftsmen using hand tools. The effect has a hewn look and is not perfectly flat. True hand scraped wood has the natural variability that comes with a non machine-produced process. There are some hand scraped products that are made by machine. These will typically have a more uniform appearance and some repeatability in their pattern.

    Beveled-edge wood has a slight chamfer on its edges so that when two boards are laid side by side a very shallow V-groove is formed where they meet. This has both decorative as well as functional purposes.

    The "eased" edge makes up for any slight irregularities in the subfloor that might cause some boards to stick out slightly with respect to the adjoining planks, making them a tripping hazard. Floors that are sanded and finished on-site don't have this feature nor do they need it because any irregularities are sanded flush.

Durability & Protection

  • Finish Treatment
    Wood flooring comes in both unfinished and pre-finished varieties.

    Pre-finished floors are coated at the factory and receive the benefit that controlled processes and advanced coating technology can impart. Most pre-finished floors today have some form of aluminum oxide treatment for better wear protection. Some actually are impregnated with acrylic which makes the wood very durable and resistant to dings and dents.

    Unfinished floors are finished on-site in your home once they're installed. Most finishes involve several coats of urethane although other coatings such as oil, oil/wax combinations and something called a 'Swedish' finish (another type of urethane coating) exist too. On-site finishing requires time for application and curing and time that you may have to be out of the house. Pre-finished floors are ready to go after installation.

  • Hardness
    A wood's hardness is an important determinant in how well it will stand up to dents, dings and scratches. No wood is immune from these but harder woods do better than soft woods.

    Wood hardness is measured by the Janka Ball Test. It measures the amount of force that's required to push a certain size steel ball a prescribed distance into the wood's surface. The more force that's required, the harder the wood.

    You can find Janka hardness tables on the web, like this Wikipedia article as well as at the websites of various wood product manufacturers.

Getting familiar with these basic 'wood-101' terms should help you gain a better understanding of what the dealers and floor sellers are talking about when you shop for wood floors.

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What's In A Name?

Wood species as it pertains to flooring material falls generally into 3 categories:

  • Hardwoods
  • Softwoods
  • Exotics (sometimes referred to as Tropicals)

oak wood flooring

Hardwoods primarily refer to North American hardwoods and include the more well known varieties like oak, maple, ash, hickory, cherry, walnut, elm and birch, among others.

Softwoods include pine, fir, cedar and other evergreen varieties. Pine is a predominant material used for wood floors. It's softer than the hardwoods that are used for flooring and will dent more easily.

While there's no specific definition of "Exotic" wood species, they typically include those from outside of North America -- places like South America, Asia, Africa and the tropics.

A big part of choosing a wood floor is choosing which wood species you want. Obviously the way a floor looks is a big part of the decision process. However before you get locked into a particular type just based on its looks consider the other characteristics of wood too. The species of wood offers several variables that factor into a style or functional choice:

  • Color
    The color of wood varies among species as well as within a particular type of wood. Heartwood is usually darker than sapwood for a given species.

    Natural wood can be stained however not all woods accept stain well and some are better off without it. Oak and maple accept stain well and offer numerous choices for colors. For example, if you like the color of cherry floors but maple better fits your budget you can purchase maple with a cherry stain.

  • Grain pattern
  • Wood grain and the look it imparts is affected not only by the type of wood but how it's cut from the log. Plainsawn oak has a prominent grain that stands out whereas maple's grain is more muted and understated. Knowing what style you want in a particular room (country, formal, etc.) will help in choosing the type and grade of wood based on its grain pattern.

  • Hardness
    A wood floor's durability is a function of its hardness. Look for information on a particular species' hardness if you're looking for hard-wearing floors. Jatoba is a very hard wood whereas southern pine is relatively soft and will dent more easily. The Janka hardness data will state the relative hardness of the various wood species.
  • Stability
    Stability in layman's terms means how much (or little) a wood will expand and shrink in the presence of humidity and temperature changes. This characteristic will vary depending on the type of wood.

    While this shouldn't be the primary factor in choosing a wood floor species (there's a lot of other more fun reasons like color and uniqueness), it's something to be aware of. Why? Well, if you live in an area that experiences seasonal humidity swings the wood on your floor will naturally react in the form of gaps (when it shrinks) and possible cupping or warping (in extreme cases of expansion). More stable woods "move" less and therefore minimize these reactions better than less stable wood.

Species Vs. 'Common' Names - Don't Be Fooled

One important thing to be aware of about wood & tree species is the name that's used. You might be surprised to find out that what many in the wood products trade call by one name is something totally different. Brazilian Cherry is one example. It's not cherry at all but rather Jatoba, a hardwood indigenous to Central and South America.

Why is this important? Mainly because in some cases the physical characteristics of two woods that share a name are totally different. It's a matter of expectations -- if you're expecting the attributes of a North American cherry and get 'Brazilian Cherry', you may be surprised.

Some other common aliases you'll run across are Brazilian Walnut (actualy ipé, and no relation to American Walnut), Tasmanian Oak (in reality eucalyptus and no relation to oak) and Brazilian Maple (rather pau marfin, a South American hardwood).

Now it's not like there's a conspiracy out there among wood floor producers to fool the buying public. Rather, it's more like a system that's evolved over time that uses more familiar wood names to help with the identification process.

red oak wood flooringRed Oak Wood Flooring

So how do you avoid this name game and keep things straight? The best way is to dig a little deeper and ask or look for the genus name of the wood. For example, cherry's genus is "Prunus" and oak's is "Quercus". Each genus is subdivided based on the specific species within that classification. "Quercus alba" is White Oak and "Quercus rubra" is Red Oak. Finding out what the botanical genus name is for a particular wood should remove any mystery about what exactly it is you're dealing with.

One good place to go on the web that gives you that information is the Center For Wood Anatomy Research. The website is produced by the USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory. You can search for different wood species based on categories like North American hardwoods, tropical woods, etc. (look for the links that say "North American Hardwoods", "Tropical Hardwoods" and the like). There's also alphabetical breakdowns and the ability to search by common names. The information has a scientific 'read' to it but it's useful for sorting out species types and their characteristics.

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Considerations To Ponder Before Buying

Once you've become more familiar with wood flooring terms and species significance there are several points to consider in order make an informed buying decision.

Certified vs. Non-Certified Wood

Using certified wood (certified by NOFMA, the Wood Flooring Manufacturer's Association) ensures that the flooring products meet certain quality standards. Adherence to these standards is required of NOFMA members (manufacturers). NOFMA, acting as a 3rd party, provides regular oversight to maintain these standards.

Using non-certified flooring products doesn't mean you won't get a quality floor. It just means that with certified products, you can be assured of a standard of quality consistency for a particular floor product.

Moisture Content And Plank Width

All wood floor products have a natural characteristic called moisture content that represents the amount of water they hold. Good quality wood should have moisture content levels in the range that will minimize shrinking and swelling in the 'normal' humidity range for a home environment.

If the wood is manufactured and dried beyond what it will see in the home, it will absorb water and swell as it acclimates to that environment (picture a dry sponge as it swells in the presence of water).

The size of wood planks (along with species choice) will affect how much the board will expand and contract. Wider boards (such as wide-plank floors) will do this more than narrower strip planking. Combining this characteristic with a less-stable wood (beech for example) will magnify this effect. The result could be excessive gaps and/or cupping and warping of the boards when indoor humidity changes occur.

The bottom line here is that you should choose wood with these points in mind or work closely with the installer to understand just what you're getting. With less stable wood you may want to go with narrower planks to minimize the effects of shrinking and swelling.

Pre-finished Vs. On-site Finished

Pre-finished or factory-finished floors offer several benefits over site-finished floors:
  • Speed - Install it and walk on it; no need for time to cure finishes.
  • Stability - Since this is an engineered product it's specifically designed to minimize movement that occurs more predominantly with solid floors.
  • Durable finishes - Factory-applied finishes are controlled processes performed with specific equipment under correct conditions. Site-finished floors require proper conditions too but are dependent on installer expertise and the right conditions in the home.
Site-finished floors offer these advantages:
  • Uniformity - Floors are sanded in place to achieve a uniform flat surface. Pre-finished floors may present slight height differences depending on the flatness of the subfloor.
  • Color flexibility - You can work with your installer to mix and match stains colors until you get the exact shade you want if you can't find anything in the pre-finished varieties.

Environmental Considerations

Wood is a sustainable resource when the forests that produce the raw material are managed properly. Sources that aren't managed correctly risk the ultimate loss of particular species, not to mention the larger environmental impact associated with the loss of these natural resources.

Some exotic woods come from developing countries and areas that lack the controls for managed forestation. Illegal logging practices for woods such as Merbau threaten the existence of such species (ref. Greenpeace.org report "Merbau's Last Stand", April 17, 2007, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/merbau-s-last-stand).

One way to ensure the wood floor you choose isn't harmful to the environment is to choose products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to worldwide environmentally and socially responsible forest management. Products that are FSC certified carry the FSC trademark label which signifies that the wood was procured from forests managed in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

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What's New and Interesting?

Wood floors aren't just basic oak strips anymore. There's something to entice just about anyone whether it be a convenience feature or a decorative effect.

Coating Technologies

Pre-finished floors come with high-tech surface coatings aimed at reducing wear and tear and maximizing the longevity of the floor.

cherry wood flooring

Many floors incorporate aluminum oxide in the coating which is one of the hardest materials. This protects the surface of the wood more so than a typical polyurethane finish that you'd get with a site-finished floor.

Even more durable are the acrylic-impregnated woods. This process is actually used for commercial applications but Armstrong® Premier Performance™ engineered hardwood is suitable for homes. The acrylic fills the open pores of the wood to create a hard durable surface with increased resistance to dings and dents.

Lots Of Species, Color And Pattern Choices

The global marketplace has opened up access to wood types that weren't even considered years ago. BR-111™ specializes in the area of exotic hardwoods with more than 25 different species in 7 product categories.

wood flooring

Engineered products allow some of these exotic woods to be made into floors by reducing the amount of actual wood that's needed. Rather than producing a 3/4" thick solid product, only the top surface is made from the "choice wood" and the rest of the thickness made from other wood types.

Reclaimed And Antique Woods

Wood floors don't always have to come from newly-harvested trees. A whole industry has risen up out of the use of reclaimed/recycled and antique wood. Reclamation of highly desirable old-growth from old buildings and barns is being turned into wood floors.

Logs that long ago sank to the bottom of rivers and harbors that once were the site of logging activity are being rescued and reworked into flooring material. Cold temperatures preserve the wood and prevent decay.

Intricate Designs And Decorative Effects

Decorative effects like hand-scraping offers a slightly more rustic but interesting alternative to the mirror-flat look of traditional wood floors. HomerWood® Character Grade® Flooring offers Amish Hand-Scraped™ floors that are crafted by Amish artisans. These craftsman sign the back of each individual floor plank that they work.

Want floors made from reclaimed wine barrels? Fonteny Woods offers two flooring products made from used wine barrels by deconstructing them and milling the wood into floor planks. One product showcases the surface that was the outside of the barrel complete with stamps and other markings. The other product highlights the surface that was the inside of the barrel reflecting the tones imparted by the red wine contents.

Intricate inlays of any design conceivable are available from different sources. Oshkosh Designs specializes in wood inlays that are made from both domestic and exotic woods (www.oshkoshfloors.com). Custom made floor medallions can be built to your specification by Czar Floors (www.czarfloors.com).

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What Do Wood Floors Cost?

The cost of a hardwood floor will vary depending on a number of factors including finish type (pre-finished or unfinished), species (commonly available domestic or rare exotic), unique specialties (hand-scraped, reclaimed antique) and where you get it.

For general wood floors (not including specialty products like antique lumber, custom designs, etc.) the cost ranges anywhere from slightly less than a dollar per square foot (cabin grade utility oak) upwards to $20.00 per square foot for more exotic types like Wenge. These are uninstalled costs. Professional installation will add to the total price.

Despite the higher costs for some rare exotics most wood floors lie in the range of about $3.00 to $12.00 per square foot uninstalled.

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Where Can I Get Them?

There are numerous producers of wood flooring products that run the gamut from large manufacturers like Armstrong®, Anderson™, BR-111™ and Mohawk® to smaller companies and lumber mills.

Retail flooring centers and home stores usually carry products from the larger manufacturers and checking them out will give you a good start at seeing some actual product. Some internet retailers also carry some of the more recognized brands too.

The decision on where to buy is influenced in part by the type of product you want. If you want site-finished floors you can buy unfinished wood from a number of sources including local as well as internet retailers. Pre-finished wood is usually associated with the larger flooring manufacturers and is available from flooring retailers, home centers and internet retailers.

Specialty products like reclaimed and antique wood floors are found through specific dealer representatives or directly from the source. Using the internet to search for 'reclaimed wood floors' or 'antique wood floors' will provide a list of sources for these products. Their websites will indicate where their products can be purchased.

Publisher's Comments

Sometimes it just helps to talk to someone about your specific project to help you determine what type of wood floor you want. If you'd like to locate a wood flooring professional in your area that can look at your potential project and provide an estimate, fill out the form below. Just input your zip code and you'll be contacted by several local flooring sources that can potentially help you with your wood floor questions. There's no obligation whatsoever.

HomeStyleChoices.com partners with Reliable Remodeler, a contractor matching service that helps homeowners link up with local resources for various remodeling and home improvement projects.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Wide Plank Wood Flooring - Wide Plank wood flooring evokes a time when floors were made from old-growth forests. Find out what's available in this unique wood flooring choice.

Unfinished Hardwood Floors - Unfinished hardwood floors are considered the "traditional" route when installing a new wood floor. They have their benefits but there are other considerations to think about as well.

Reclaimed & Recycled Wood Flooring - What better way to preserve out natural resources than with reclaimed wood. The best part is that reclaimed and recycled wood usually has an interesting story behind it. Find out more about floors with a history.

Exotic Hardwood Floors - Why not consider an exotic wood from the tropics as your next wood floor? Discover what's available as a way to bring a unique style to your home.

Birch Wood Flooring - Birch has the interesting characteristic of being hard like other hardwoods but yet with an interesting visual appearance. Find out more about and where to get it in this article.

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