Hardwood lasts longer than other flooring options and can be refinished several times (solid hardwoods can be refinished an unlimited number of times) -- or even restained to change their appearance. Today's polyurethane finishes allow installation in kitchens and half baths, as long as you take precautions to minimize water spills. Engineered woods are considered more stable for kitchen and bath applications. Wood flooring is available in strips, planks, and parquet squares.
Unfinished flooring gives you almost unlimited color stain options. The drawback: Unfinished flooring must be sanded and finished after installation, which typically requires the expertise of a professional and puts the room out of service for several days.
Prefinished flooring features a factory-applied finish that remodelers sometimes favor because it eliminates sawdust and finish vapors, and the room can be used within 24 hours after installation. The color options for prefinished flooring are not as varied as for unfinished flooring. Most solid flooring is unfinished, while most engineered flooring is prefinished.
Solid or engineered flooring consists of two or more layers of wood, similar to plywood. The top layer consists of a hardwood veneer, while the lower layers are typically softwood. Unlike engineered wood flooring, the most familiar wood flooring is comprised of solid one-piece boards. Most solid flooring is unfinished, while most engineered flooring is prefinished.
Shopping for a Wood Floor
Although wood flooring is generally more expensive to buy and install than carpet or vinyl, it should last for decades. Here's your guide to wise shopping.
Solid wood flooring is made from one continuous piece of wood. Most is 3/4 inch thick. When you look crosswise at a piece of solid flooring, you may see growth rings or striations, but there are no layers or ply. Wood strips are anywhere from 1-1/2 inches to about 2-1/4 inches wide. Planks are wider than 2-1/4 inches. Most strip and plank flooring is milled with tongue-and-groove edges so boards will fit together, but some planks are flat-edged for a more rustic look.
The hardest species are hickory, pecan, hard maple, and white oak. Next on the list: white ash, beech, red oak, yellow birch, green ash, and black walnut. Cherry and mahogany are softer, but still make gorgeous and durable floors. Pine is a softwood, so it may dent and ding, but for many homeowners, that adds to the floor's charm. And, like hardwoods, pine should last the lifetime of your home. Southern yellow pine is the hardest pine and is recommended for higher-traffic areas. Heart pine, from the center section of old-growth Southern longleaf yellow pine, is difficult to come by and expensive, but some experts say heart pine rivals red oak in hardness. Pine flooring is often sold in widths from 4 to 16 inches to simulate what was used in Colonial-era homes.
Engineered wood flooring is made from layers of wood stacked and glued together under heat and pressure. There are usually three or five layers stacked with grains running perpendicular to each other. All wood expands and contracts with heat and humidity, but engineered wood is more dimensionally stable because the layers keep the movement in balance.
Because it is less inclined to swell and shrink, engineered wood can be laid in areas where solid wood cannot, such as over concrete or in high-moisture areas.
Salvaged lumber offers an aged and distressed look. Antique or recycled lumber involves more labor (removing from old buildings, pulling out nails, drying, etc.). But it can be worth the price if you're hoping to lay a floor that matches an old pine one.
When buying recycled lumber, make sure it has been kiln-dried. Even 150-year-old lumber can still have a high moisture content. Often, flooring planks are cut from old barn beams, and moisture levels can differ in various parts of the beam.
There is no formal grading for antique lumber, but most dealers offer grades depending upon the number of nail holes and other damage. In addition to grade, ask how long the boards are. It can be difficult to get long boards in antique woods, and the look of a floor made up of 3-, 4-, and 5-foot lengths is much different than one with boards that are 8 or 16 feet long.
Parquet floors are made from custom-crafted wood tiles that are used to create a patterned floor.
Here's how to distinguish the top four stock species.
A naturally light color and smooth, open grain lends maple a fresh, contemporary air. This wood accepts a variety of finishes.
The pronounced, dense grain of this wood looks best on traditional cabinet styles. Midrange and golden finishes are most common.
Fluid grain and luminous color are hallmarks of cherry. Finishes range from light natural to deep red tones.
Although somewhat irregular in color, fine-grain birch can be finished to affordably mimic other species.
For fresh looks in wood, more manufacturers have begun to offer products milled from exotic hardwoods from other lands. These spotted gum planks ($6.30 to $6.75 per square foot) from Australia, for example, offer a change in pace from common maple or oak. The planks are 5 1/2 inches wide.
Wood and laminate floors are sold by the square foot. Figure the size of your room plus a 10 percent waste factor. (Installers will need to measure the space before you order.) Installation costs for wood and laminates are comparable, about $3 to $4 a square foot. A factory-finished floor will cost more for the wood itself, but generally the higher labor and installation charges involved in finishing a raw floor will make the two quite comparable.
Site-finished wood: A standard solid strip floor, such as red oak, is about $8 per square foot for materials, installation, and site finishing. Solid, wide pine planks range from $6 to $12 installed.
Factory-finished wood: Factory-finished, engineered flooring also starts at about $8 per square foot installed, but most are in the $10- to $14-per-square-foot range. Adding a border or inlay design will increase the cost.
According to the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA), a solid wood floor will last for the life of your home and can be sanded and refinished repeatedly. "But that won't be necessary unless you want to change the color of the floor," says Randal Weeks, brand manager for Bruce Hardwood Floors in Addison, Texas. Scratches and dulling from normal wear and tear can be buffed out through a process called a pattern recoat, which is less messy than refinishing and takes only a day. "It will give your floor back that original sheen," Weeks says.
Hardwood flooring is available in strip, plank, or parquet form. Strip (also called longstrip) flooring consists of boards that range in width from 1-1/2 to 3-1/4 inches; planks are at least 3 inches wide. Parquet flooring comes in standard patterns of 6 x 6-inch blocks; dramatic geometric effects can be achieved with custom patterns.
Oak, either red or white, is the most commonly used wood for flooring in the United States because it's the most readily available, says Stan Elberg, NOFMA's executive vice president. Other domestic species that are growing in popularity include maple, ash, beech, birch, cherry, hickory, pecan, and walnut. Imported woods such as Brazilian cherry, kempas, and merbau are also starting to find favor with American homeowners.
Despite its name, NOFMA represents manufacturers of other domestic species besides oak; collectively, they produce about 80 percent of the solid hardwood flooring in the United States. NOFMA has written standards and grading rules for wood flooring and inspects each member's products quarterly to make sure they're up to par. If you buy NOFMA-certified flooring, you're not only assured of a quality product, you have some recourse if there are problems with it later, Elberg says.
Hardwood flooring can be used anywhere in the home, though it is not recommended for laundry rooms and bathrooms. Thanks to the urethane finishes available, wood floors can be used safely in kitchens as long as spills are wiped up immediately. You can vacuum, sweep, or dry-mop a wood floor, but never use water-based cleaners, Weeks says.