How to Choose wood Flooring

The choice of flooring is one of the most important decisions a homeowner has to make. While there are plenty of different options, wood is the standard.

But not all wood flooring is created equal.  Selecting a product isn’t simply a matter of choosing a color. A range of other factors affect aesthetics and performance.

1. Select Solid wood or Engineered wood

Traditionally, wood flooring was made with thick planks of lumber.  Today, solid hardwood is still widely available, but engineered hardwood floors are also widely used.  Engineered hardwood uses a thinner top layer of hardwood, bonded to other layers that prevent the floor from warping or shifting from expansion and contraction cycles.  All wood moves in three directions: tangential, radial, and longitudinal.  With engineered products, you’re creating opposing forces within the board that restrict the natural movement of the wood.

But choose carefully because some engineered floors have top wood layers so thin that they can’t be sanded and refinished in the future. Higher-quality engineered hardwoods feature a thick layer where you’re getting as much usable wood as you would out of a solid board.

Solid wood flooring is not ideal for basements, due to the moisture.  For basements and concrete subfloors, engineered flooring offers another advantage. Whereas solid wood is generally installed over one or two layers of plywood, which can raise the height of a floor and interfere with existing doors or lower ceiling heights, engineered flooring can be glued directly to concrete, or over a soundproofing mat.  It’s also suitable for installation over radiant heat.

We still prefer solid wood floors, despite the advantages of engineered flooring.  There is a tangible difference.  You can feel it underfoot–it’s quieter.

2. choose your wood

The wood you choose will depend on whether you go with solid wood or engineered wood.  The most popular woods for flooring in the United States are oak and walnut.  Oak is hard and very durable, and takes stain well.  It also has desirable grain patterns and is easily available, making it more affordable.  Walnut is a darker option than oak, and offers a richer, warmer tone.  Hickory, maple, cherry and ash are also popular wood choices for flooring.  It comes down to personal preference.  If you’re looking for a particular color, it is best to start with a natural wood that closest resembles that color, so your changing the wood as little as possible.  

3. choose your grain pattern

Wood grain is a personal preference.  Some people prefer a subtle straight-grain, while others want a cathedral wood grain, or something with more movement.  Different woods will offer different grain patterns, but it will largely depend on the way the logs are cut.  Logs can be cut plain-sawn, rift-sawn, or quarter-sawn.  Each of the three cuts will yield different grain patterns.  Plain-sawn produces traditional wood grain with the undulating “cathedrals.”  Rift-sawn boards feature long, linear, consistent grain, without cathedrals.  Quarter-sawn boards look similar to rift, but have additional irregular figuring and iridescent “rays” that strike out across the plank.  

In most cases, hardwood flooring is sold as plain-sawn, or as rift- and quarter-sawn mixed together.  However, it is possible to source exclusively rift-sawn wood or quarter-sawn wood.

It just depends on the application and what you desire.  If you want a more rustic look, we recommend plain-sawn; for a refined look, we recommend quarter sawn to add character.

4. determine the plank width

Although there was a time when most hardwood flooring was installed in two- to three-inch strips, many people now prefer wider planks.  There is a sense of luxury and expense associated with a wider plank.  Once you exceed the norm, it starts to feel special.  Seven-inch planks have become our standard specification, and the sizes go up from there.  It depends on the size of the room and the application.  We recommend a wider plank the more expansive the room.  Just be prepared to spend more for wider planks.

While a floor composed of wide planks will have fewer seams than a floor of thin strips, it’s important to be aware that those seams may eventually become more prominent as the wood expands and contracts.  Because changes in the wood aren’t distributed across as many boards, the movement may appear exaggerated.

5. choose The finish

There’s a whole universe of wood finishing products, from penetrating oil to oil-like hybrids to site-finish polyurethanes to prefinished UV-cured urethane finishes.  But most finishes are either oil or polyurethane.

Oil penetrates wood and has a look and feel that’s very natural.  But it isn’t as impervious to stains and damage as polyurethane, which creates a hard topcoat on the surface of the wood that’s more resilient to wear and tear.

Oil finishes scratch more easily, but also make scratches less noticeable.  It also makes it easy to touch up when there’s a problem. With polyurethane, you generally need to replace a board or buff and recoat an entire section of floor.

Maintenance is a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later proposition.  With a soft oil finish, you have easier maintenance, but you have to do it more often. The harder you go with polyurethanes, the less often you have to perform maintenance, but the more involved the maintenance is.

6. choose site finished or prefinished

Hardwood planks can be purchased with a raw face that gets finished by a professional after installation, or prefinished from the factory, which arrives with the stain and topcoat already applied. The advantage of prefinished wood is that you can see in advance what you’re getting.  You will also have a sample in advance to use in coordinating your design palette and choosing other design elements, such as textiles, wall coverings, and cabinetry.  Prefinished flooring also takes less time to install, because there’s no need to apply color or sealant. 

Still, on-site finishing allows for a level of customization that appeals to many homeowners and designers.  There is a lot more control over the stain and sheen. The final product will be smoother because the unfinished flooring is sanded after it’s nailed down, and then finished as a single continuous plane.  It makes a big difference, and provides an integrated final look.