Expert wood flooring buying guide helps you choose the best wood floor for your home, including types of wood flooring, quality, prefinished flooring, styles, trends, and more.
Are you in the market for new wood flooring? If so, this wood flooring buying guide will help you sort out your options.
The type (“species”) of tree that wood comes from makes a big difference in hue and grain and in properties such as dimensional stability and hardness. You should also be aware of how the wood will respond to sanding, nailing, and finishing; some species have better “workability” than others.
The hardness of the wood helps determine how well your floor will stand up to wear and tear. Each wood species carries a hardness rating, known as a Janka rating—the higher the number, the harder the wood. Typical flooring hardwoods range from about 1320 (white ash) to 2820 (Brazilian cherry). The finish of your wood floor can also add significantly to its hardness.
Hardwoods, while usually harder than softwoods, are often more expensive and more difficult to install. The density of certain hardwoods can make for tough going when it comes time to saw, nail, and sand the strips or planks.
Another issue to consider is the dimensional stability of a wood species—how it responds to changing humidity conditions. This can be especially important if you live in an area with extreme fluctuations in humidity levels (such as hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters). Woods such as mahogany, cherry, teak, and walnut have good dimensional stability. Engineered-wood floors also offer greater dimensional stability than solid-wood floors because of their construction.
Following are certain characteristics of some of the most popular wood species available for hardwood floors:
White oak: A light-brown hardwood with an open grain and good durability and workability, white oak is heavy, weighing in at 47 pounds per cubic foot. It is very hard, with a specific gravity ranging from 0.57 to 0.81; its Janka rating is 1360. It is subject to considerable shrinkage, so seasoning must be done properly to avoid checking and warping.
Red oak: A reddish hardwood with a coarse, open grain and good durability and workability, red oak is similar to white oak, weighing in at about 44 pounds per cubic foot. Its specific gravity ranges from 0.52 to 0.60; its Janka rating is 1290. It, too, must be seasoned properly because of its proclivity to shrink. It is more porous than white oak.
Maple: A whitish to light-reddish-brown hardwood with a closed, uniform grain, maple weighs about 44 pounds per cubic foot and has a specific gravity of 0.56. Because of its hardness, it can be difficult to saw and tool. It takes stain satisfactorily and can be given a high-polish finish. The wood’s Janka rating is 1450.
Brazilian cherry: An exotic hardwood with a reddish tone, an interlocking grain, and excellent hardness, Brazilian cherry is very popular for flooring because of its beauty, relative affordability, and, depending upon how it is grown and harvested, sustainability. It weighs about 55 pounds per cubic foot. Its Janka rating is 2820.
Douglas fir: Though Douglas fir is not a hardwood and is not generally selected as new flooring, it is mentioned because some older homes have subflooring made of it. When sanded and refinished, these older floors can be beautiful. A light-brown to yellowish-brown softwood with a predominantly straight grain, it has good workability but should not be oversanded. It also can undergo a dramatic color change with sun exposure. Its Janka rating is 660.
Wood Flooring Quality
In addition to hardness, be sure to pay attention to the quality or “grade” of the wood product. The grade refers to the amount of manufactured and naturally occurring marks, characteristics, and variations allowed to appear in the wood flooring product. The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) has established a ratings scale to assist consumers.
A product with a NWFA “clear” rating will have a uniform appearance, while lesser grades will show more imperfections. Note that a higher grade does not always mean that a product will be better suited for your particular application, as you may, for example, desire a wood floor with more variation to achieve a certain design aesthetic, such as a rustic look.
Here are the four NWFA grades and what they mean:
Clear: A wood product made primarily from a species’ heartwood, the densest and oldest portion of a tree that often boasts a richer color than a species’ sapwood, located closer to the bark. A clear-grade product has very few character marks and very little discoloration, resulting in a mostly uniform look.
Select: Includes a mix of both heartwood and sapwood and, therefore, has subtle color variations. It can have a few natural wood characters showing through.
#1 Common: Features considerable color variations and a range of characters.
#2 Common: Shows obvious natural wood variation and characters, including knotholes as well as manufacturing marks.
Today, most wood flooring sold, whether solid or engineered, comes with a polyurethane, aluminum oxide, acrylic-impregnated, or ceramic finish that protects the wood surface from wear and tear. Prefinished wood flooring saves consumers considerable time and effort, as the sanding, staining, and finishing tasks are completed before the product enters the home.
Unfinished wood flooring is still a viable option, however, particularly for those seeking to re-create a particular historical style or looking to match an existing hardwood floor. Because unfinished wood flooring is sanded down on site during installation and features strips or planks with square edges that butt seamlessly together, it can also have a more even, uniform look than prefinished flooring, which usually features edges beveled at a slight angle to help compensate for potential irregularities between flooring pieces.
Once you have considered your new wood floor’s structural aspects, you can explore myriad design options. While strip flooring, made up of strips up to 3 1/4 inches wide, can make a room look large and formal, plank flooring, made up of planks more than 3 inches wide, is becoming increasing popular.
You can pick a floor showcasing the natural color of your selected wood species or choose a stained look, which can offer a hard-to-find hue or a uniform appearance.
Finally, hand-scraped wood floors, which feature a textured, distressed surface, are a lovely, unique option with an Old World feel.
Whichever variety of wood flooring you decide upon, be sure to investigate the manufacturer’s warranties guaranteeing the product’s finish and structural qualities.
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