Hardwood floors are a great way to add beauty and value to your home. Making the decision to add or replace hardwood floors in your home is a big investment that could pay dividends of both years of enjoyment and in dollars returned if you choose to sell. However, there are LOTS of factors that go into this decision. Some factors are more superficial and only impact the overall appearance, others are critical because they directly impact the performance of your investment.
So what are the key factors that go into the process of selecting a suitable hardwood floor? A lot of variables play into this decision such as species, grade, width, cut, prefinished or site finished, and solid or engineered. It is important to be educated on these key variables so you can navigate through this potentially confusing and complicated process.
Species – There are SO MANY species of trees being made into hardwood flooring today, and new ones are being introduced all the time. Red Oak, White Oak, Maple, Hickory, Walnut and Cherry are among the most popular domestic species. Popular exotic species include Brazilian Cherry, Tigerwood, Ipe and Cumaru. All of these species make great flooring, but each of them has specific characteristics that may or may not make them suitable for your home environment. For example, cherry or walnut may not be a great choice for very active families or families with large pets because they are soft woods. To learn more wood softness or hardness, Google “Janka Hardness Scale”. We encourage you to learn as much as possible about the specific specie you may choose.
Grade – Grading will impact the look of your floor as opposed to the performance. Grading is what determines the consistency of appearance in hardwood flooring. A “common” grade will have more variation and other natural wood characteristic such as knots, mineral streaks and wormholes. A “select” or “clear” grade will be more consistent and show less of these characteristics. In either event, the appearance of these characteristics are not a defect, they are simply a natural part of the product.
Manufacturers of prefinished flooring use proprietary mixes of these grades to achieve the look and price point of the product. There are no widely acknowledged standardized grading rules for prefinished hardwood flooring so we recommend that you look at the biggest sample possible for deciding which product you will buy. You may even want to order a whole box of the product and lay it out before you buy the entire job.
Width – While width may be a factor in the look of your hardwood floor, it could also play a huge role in its performance. A big consideration in choosing a width, particularly with solid wood flooring is the impact width has on dimensional stability. Simply put, the wider the floor, the more susceptible it is to moisture fluctuations that cause cupping or gapping. It should be said that you can successfully install any width flooring in any home; it will just require more preparation and more upkeep if you choose a wider width floor.
Cut – This is probably the least considered variable in the hardwood flooring selection process, but we think it warrants some explanation. The cut of your hardwood flooring could impact both the look and performance of your floor. There are generally three different cuts of lumber that are milled into flooring- plain (or flat) sawn, quarter sawn and rift sawn. Plain sawn generates the greatest yield and therefore most flooring on the market is either all or mostly made from this cut of lumber. Plain sawn lumber is cut tangential to the growth rings which will show more grain in your floor and consequently, it moves across the width of the board making it less stable.
Quarter sawn lumber is cut along the radius of the growth rings or at an angle less than a 45 degree creating less of a grain pattern. Quarter sawn wood moves perpendicularly to its width making it a more stable floor. One feature of quarter sawn lumber is the appearance of medullary rays which many find to be very desirable.
Rift sawn lumber is cut at a 30-60 degree angle giving you the vertical grain without the medullary rays.
Prefinished or Site finished – A multitude of blog posts could be written on this subject so we will boil it down to a couple of key points. Structurally, prefinished and site finished flooring are basically identical. The differences are really about the installation process. Site finished flooring provides you with a greater range of flexibility in overall choices. You control everything: species, grade, color and finish. Site finishing is more involved and messy. With prefinished, your choices are limited to what the manufacturer offers. Prefinished, as its name implies, already has the finish on it when it is installed. Therefore, you must be very careful not to damage the finish during the installation. There is a lot more to this subject, and we will be posting more about this in the future.
Solid or engineered – Both of these types of planks fall under the hardwood umbrella. Solid wood planks are milled from a single piece of hardwood and covered with a thin, clear protective layer which often consists of aluminum oxide, ceramic or an acrylic monomer. Typically ¾-inch thick, the thickness of solid wood planking enables it to be sanded and refinished many times throughout the life of the floor. Hardwood planks classified as “engineered” feature multiple layers (typically between three and five) that are bonded together under extreme heat and pressure. The layers typically include a top veneer of hardwood backed by less expensive layers of plywood, or substrates made from recycled wood fibers.
Your jobsite may dictate which of these you use, for example because solid wood planks are directly effected by humidity it is not recommended that you install solid wood flooring in kitchens, bathrooms, or below ground level (like basements) where there is a higher chance moisture will collect. An engineered hardwood is a better choice for a basement, kitchen, or bathroom because it is processed under heat and pressure and is therefore not as affected by humidity levels. However, engineered hardwood should not be restricted only to these areas. More and more people are installing engineered flooring on and above ground level. There are a number of reasons for this including, flexibility of installation options (fastening, floating or gluing) and the “green” aspects of engineered flooring since it uses less solid wood.
One common myth related to engineered flooring is that solid is better, or thicker is better. We understand the perceived value, but it is the sandable surface of the flooring (or wear layer) that really counts. Many engineered floors have similar wear layers to solid floors, so in our opinion that should not be a real factor.
We hope these pointers will help you as you decide which beautiful hardwood floor you would like in your home. Stay tuned because over the next few months we will be discussing in greater depth each of the topics above.