This is so big, it has two sequels.
Of all the surfaces you can install, hardwood is one of the most beautiful. Nothing changes the look of a home so dramatically. With as many features as there are species available today, let me clear up some confusion and explain what makes one plank different from another.
With so many facets to hardwood, condensing this into a more typical "quick-read" is not really possible. So I'll be covering this topic in 3 segments.
Part One: Pick a Tree & Throw Some Shellac On It
Oak is the most readily available and affordable option. This is why you see it in more than 75% of homes with wood floors.
Other species will offer a different look in terms of grain variation and hardness. Maple, the next most popular, has a more uniform appearance and is much harder than oak. Other popular species are walnut, hickory, birch and cherry.
If you want something more exotic then look to amendoim, jatoba (aka Brazilian cherry), sapele, mahogany, and the list goes on. Exotic species are not always in stock since they are mostly imported. The advantage with most exotics is that scratches don't show. The color on top goes all the way through the board. When a traditional wood is scratched deep enough, it can reveal the raw wood beneath making the scratch stand out in stark contrast to a dark stain.
While each species offers a different look, they also vary in hardness. You can reference the Janka Scale for a list.
A softer wood like oak, tends to show less scratches but will dent more easily. Inversely, a harder one will show more scratches but dent less (maple for example).
I always tell my customers that wood will likely dent AND scratch regardless of hardness. It's just the nature of it but there are some features to help your floor stay beautiful longer which I will cover below.
Pre-Finished vs Site-Finished
In the old days if you wanted hardwood, you knew that a regimen of waxing was necessary to maintain protection and shine. This became obsolete with the advent of polyurethane coatings. Much like clear coat on a car, polyurethane is a translucent coating that is durable and adds shine. Pre-finished floors will usually have 7-12 layers applied at the mill with the last layer fortified with aluminum-oxide to add additional wear protection.
Site-finished floors are done with unfinished (or raw) wood planks which are sanded level after installation. This insures a uniform color (if stained), eliminates prominent edges between planks and results in a very smooth overall surface. Once sanded, stain and/or polyurethane is applied by hand. One coat of hand-applied polyurethane is equal to about two layers of factory applied finish. A good site-finished floor has 3 coats, however, fortifying the top layer with aluminum oxide is not possible on site. This feature is therefore exclusive to pre-finished floors and makes a site finished floor less ideal for high traffic applications such as kitchens.
Most people opt for pre-finished hardwood because it's a much less dusty affair and twice as fast to install.
Gloss Level and Stain
This is a matter of preference and does not affect the level of protection you get. It's purely aesthetic but there are a few things know:
- Darker colors can show more scratches and dents than light ones.
- High gloss finishes can show more dents and scratches than low gloss ones.
So a matte finish in a natural wood color (no stain), for example, would do much to hide all the scuffs and dings a busy household could inflict. Inversely, a shiny, cappuccino colored floor would highlight those things.
Of course, this is dependent on light sources and everyone's circumstances are different so follow your design plan. Just keep these things in mind.
Lastly, when shopping, stay with reputable brands. There are a few household names like Bruce and Mirage but there are a lot of lesser known brands that can hold their own against the best at lower prices in some cases. The key is to avoid bargain basement priced flooring that may not be milled as well. This eliminates the risk of gaps and fitment issues.
In Part Two I'll go over the grades of hardwood flooring.
About the Author
JP Meyer is a founding staff member and director of marketing for Carpet & Vacuum Expo.