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Hardwood Buying Guide

So, you are going to update the floors in your home, and you start assessing your options. Timeless, beautiful, and highly sought after, you decide you want hardwood floors. There are several things to consider when choosing your next floor.

Are you looking for solid or engineered hardwood? Are you looking for something with a lot of variation or something smooth and free of knots? What about the finish? All these variables can make the process seem overwhelming. That’s why we have put together this hardwood 101 guide, much like our carpet buying guide, to help answer commonly asked questions you may be asking yourself.

Terminology

Cut: The way a log is cut can determine the visual of the plank. These cuts include plain sawn, live sawn, quarter sawn, and rift sawn for solid hardwood. When cutting a veneer for engineered hardwood, you also have rotary, and slice cuts to add to the mix. Each creates its own unique visual. Below is a chart to show you the difference between each cut.

wood cut types

Acclimation: The time your hardwood must sit and adjust to the climate in your home before being installed. You can learn more about the importance of acclimation here.

Grain: When you look at a plank, you will notice lines whether they are wavy, straight, or rippled. These lines are the grains of the wood. Some wood species have very distinct grain patterns that the cut of the plank can accentuate.

Grade: Hardwood grade is determined by how clear or character-filled a plank may be. The highest quality of hardwood is clear, meaning the plank is very uniform in color and look with no knotting or dark streaking throughout. More common grades of flooring are select, common #1, and common #2. A select grade has uniform coloring and infrequent streaking with small knots. Common #1 and #2 start to show frequent streaking and more knots.

Hardness: Hardness in relation to hardwood floors is the amount of resistance against denting and wear a plank has and is measured against the Janka Scale. The Janka Scale takes a small steel ball and applies force against it until halfway embedded into the wood sample. The amount of pound-force it took to embed the ball is the wood’s Janka rating. The higher the rating, the harder the wood. Typically, manufacturers use wood species with hardness ratings between 1200 and 1800 pounds-force.

Texture: The texture of a hardwood floor refers to the physical texture of the surface of the plank. There are several types of hardwood textures, with the most popular being smooth, wire-brushed, and heavy-scraped. When you run your hand across a smooth finish, you won’t feel bumps and indents like you would a wire-brushed or heavy-scraped finish. Wire-brushed textures typically accentuate the grain pattern, and heavy-scraped surfaces can further add character to a plank with more dramatic depth variations and rippling.

hardwood surface textures

Commonly Asked Questions

Engineered Wood vs. Solid Hardwood

One question we hear frequently is, “is engineered wood REALLY wood?” The answer is yes. The difference between engineered hardwood and solid hardwood is the core construction. Engineered hardwood has a core made from layers of plywood and on top is a real wood veneer. Solid hardwood is the same piece of wood from top to bottom.

Since engineered hardwood is made of layers of plywood, this creates a more dimensionally stable product that resists cupping and warping like solid hardwood. This aspect also causes less expansion and shrinkage as temperature and moisture levels change throughout seasons. A downside to purchasing engineered floors is that you may not be able to refinish them to extend their life like you would with a solid plank. In some cases, you may not be able to sand and refinish them at all.

Solid hardwood floors are a great investment because they can last for many years if properly taken care of. One of the greatest advantages of solid hardwood is its ability to be sanded and refinished several times to restore its original beauty. Solid hardwoods also come in prefinished and unfinished options. Unfinished planks allow you to mix stains and choose the finish you want so you get the look you want without having to settle for a factory-finished option that may not be what you were looking for. The drawback of solid hardwood is its reaction to moisture. Spills that are cleaned up right away won’t damage your floor; however, water that finds its way between the joints can soak into the core and cause warping and swelling. Therefore, hardwood should not be installed in bathrooms or moisture-prone areas like basements.

What species of hardwood should I look for?

This all comes down to personal preference. Are you looking for a floor with rich, dark coloring? Maybe you want something light with a simple grain pattern? While staining and cuts can also change the appearance of wood, the top 5 wood species include Oaks (red and white), Hickory, Maple, Walnut, Cherry.

Trending right now is European White Oak for its clean visuals, small knotting, and closed graining. Hickory is the hardest wood on the list with a Janka rating of 1820 and is known for its high color variation from plank to plank and rustic charm. Maple wood is naturally lighter in color with creamy tans and reddish undertones. Walnut is popular for darker floors. It naturally has a dark brown coloring accentuated with staining and has wavy grain patterns that create gorgeous designs throughout the floor. Cherry wood floors are popular for those looking for warm brown floors. Its natural coloring is light to medium in tone with reddish-brown hues and will darken over time as exposed to sunlight.

wood species

What are the different types of finishes?

Unfinished hardwood floors need a protective finish after being installed. Finishes can enhance the durability of your floor as well as increase shine or add a colored tint. We will focus on the four main types of finishes: water-based urethane, oil-based urethane, wax, and aluminum oxide.

Water-based finishes dry clear and render color more accurately than oil-based finishes and will not yellow or amber over time. They are also fast-drying and emit fewer VOCs. If you are sensitive to strong smells or have poor ventilation in your home, we suggest a water-based finish. The drawback of this type of finish is that it will require more than one coat, sometimes double the amount of what an oil-based would require, and will need to be reapplied every couple of years to keep your floors protected.

Oil-based finishes are made with a combination of resin and finish oil and have a higher concentration of solids than water-based finishes. This means fewer coats are needed to get a protective finish. Oil-based finishes also do not need to be reapplied as often as water-based and can last up to 10 years before needing to be redone. Some downsides to oil-based finishes are that they take longer to dry and even longer to cure. After applying an oil-based finish to your floor you will want to wait 24 hours before walking the floor, and four days until you can place furniture back. If you have rugs, it is not recommended to place them back down until a month after application. Another drawback is that over time the finish will yellow. While this may not bother some homeowners, some may be upset to see their creamy beige floor turn yellow.

Wax was the most frequently used finish before the introduction of polyurethane finishes but is now is used in combination with other finishes as applicable. It creates a low-shine finish that can be applied in paste form or liquid form and buffed to create shine. However, wax is not a durable finish and can show scuff marks, scratch marks, and watermarks. Homes with high foot traffic and pets may not consider wax finishing for these reasons. It is recommended to reapply and wax your flooring every six months if you choose this method, which can be time-consuming and too frequent for some.

Aluminum Oxide finishes only come on prefinished wood planks and are almost exclusively used on engineered hardwood floors. This finish is the most durable on the list and can outlast a polyurethane finish by over 10 years. Since this is applied to a prefinished product, you can install your floor and walk on them immediately. Another advantage of this finish is its lack of odors and off-gassing of VOCs which can cause headaches and respiratory irritation. The downside of aluminum oxide is repairing it can be tricky should the plank get damaged. Unlike wax or a polyurethane finish, you cannot just buff out a scratch.

How are hardwood floors installed?

Hardwood floors are installed by nail down, glue down, staple, or floating applications. Your subfloor and the type of hardwood construction play an important role in what installation method is used. For example, if you have a concrete subfloor, you cannot use nail-down installation as this method requires the subfloor to be made from plywood. For a concrete subfloor, it is best to lay down a moisture-protecting underlayment to keep water from rising to the surface which could then react with the wood floor. This underlayment can also keep mold and mildew from growing under the plank which can cause health problems if left untreated.

Our best advice is to always refer to the manufacturer’s installation instructions. What one manufacturer has as a glue-down product, another may have as a nail down. The wrong installation method may void your product warranty. We also advise using a professional and certified installation team.

Before shopping for hardwood, take a quick assessment of your lifestyle. Do you have spill-prone children or pets with nails that could damage your floor? Is there an area that may be exposed to the sun more than another? Where are the busiest areas in your home? Every home is different, and there is no one size fits all solution. Not sure where to start? Visit our showroom and let one of our helpful, knowledgeable staff show you the best products for your home and lifestyle. Browse our stocking hardwood products here.