Wood flooring has increased in popularity in recent years because of a wider selection of materials that fit consumer tastes and the desire for easy-to-clean surfaces. Additionally, the warmth of wood floors enhances entryways, living spaces, and even kitchens and bathrooms where tile or carpet may not be practical.
The downside to a wide selection of materials, styles, colors, and designs in wood flooring is that homeowners have to do a bit of homework before deciding which product best suits their situation. Other considerations include whether to use hardwoods or softwoods, the cost of materials, the cost and complexity of installation, health issues (especially as related to allergies), environmental concerns, and the ease maintenance.
Depending on the type of flooring selected, it may be advisable to contract with a qualified installer who has the experience and proper tools to do a professional job. Generally, independent contractors or those hired through home-improvement centers provide design and selection services as well as installation and maintenance work.
Wood flooring comes in softwood, hardwood, bamboo, cork, and engineered planks or tiles. Solid wood flooring is made of timber cut into planks of varying widths. Engineered wood is the only flooring that uses more than one type and layer of wood to provide a more stable and usually less costly alternative to solid wood.
Softwoods, as the name suggests, include more pliable lumbers such as pine, cedar, and fir. Lumber from evergreen trees can be easily scuffed or dented by furniture or high-heel shoes and is too soft for flooring. However, it is often used underneath flooring as a support material.
Hardwoods come from trees producing less pliable lumber and are ideal for the normal wear and tear inflicted on floors. Examples of hardwoods include: ash, birch, cherry, maple, oak, and exotic woods from Africa, Asia and South America. These types of wood are also used to make furniture, cabinets, doors, and room trims, so during a renovation, homeowners can choose to match their new flooring with existing wood in their furniture.
Bamboo has gained much popularity in the last few years as an environmentally friendly flooring product because it grows rapidly. Most bamboo flooring is exported from Asia where it grows particularly well. The variety of available bamboo materials provides for a range of colors -- from beiges to yellows to greens -- as well as different widths of planks. While bamboo is classified as "wood" flooring, the plant is actually a grass.
Cork flooring, which provides a soft underfoot surface, has been used for decades. It comes in tiles rather than planks and brown, blonde, and blackish colors. Cork surfaces are protected protected by varnish to make them more durable and easier to clean.
Engineered floors includes all products that combine an underlying wood plank for stability with a thin second layer visible wood. Engineered flooring is not to be confused with laminate floors, which use an image of wood printed on the surface, or with veneer floors, which use a base of high-density fiberboard covered by a thin layer of real wood.
Manufacturers of wood floors provide warranties on the materials ranging from five to 35 years. The warranties usually cover defects in the manufacturing process but not the labor involved in installation, finishing, or maintenance of the product. Material warranties are often non-transferable and may apply only to the original purchaser of the floor and not to future owners of the home.
Qualified flooring contractors usually provide additional warranties to cover any problems arising from the installation of the materials. Homeowners should check on this important detail prior to signing a contract. These warranties are usually limited to one year and will likely exclude a number of damaging conditions such as flood and fire.
The relative hardness of the wood used in flooring is the characteristic, more than any other, that will determine the longevity of installed floors. Hardness, therefore, is the basis for the Janka Rating System of wood species used in flooring. It quantifies the force needed to drive a steel nail into the wood - higher numbers indicate harder woods. For example, black cherry gets a 950 on the Janka scale, Brazilian cherry comes in at 2350, and Bolivian cherry is 3650. A second rating system grades wood materials based on aesthetics including the presence of knots, holes, grain, veins, discoloration, and specks.
The greatest advantage of wood flooring is the beauty and warmth it lends to any room. The rich colors and smooth look is incomparable and has made wood flooring a popular choice for centuries in homes, offices, and commercial buildings. Other advantages of wood floors include longevity, ease of maintenance, environmentally friendly aspects, and hypoallergenic qualities (it doesn't trap dust and dirt as carpeting does).
The most important disadvantage of wood flooring is the cost of materials and of installation; however, this drawback can be mitigated by using lower grades of lumber or engineered woods. Other disadvantages include the need for refinishing when the wood becomes dull from use, and the slipperiness that can make walking in stocking feet a little dangerous.
Use this map to find where you can buy hardwood flooring in your local area.
Softer woods can dent and scratch easily from normal everyday wear and tear such as walking in high-heel shoes or moving furniture. Scuff marks may also show more on light-colored woods than on darker materials. After years of use, all wood floors lose their shine and must be refinished, which involves sanding off the old urethane coating, removing scuffs and stains, filling in dents, and then applying several coats of new urethane. Poorly installed flooring materials can lead to squeaking floors, uneven planks, and cracks between boards in which dirt can accumulate.
Homeowners thinking "green" will find that wood flooring easily fits into their concepts of the environmentally-friendly residence. Wood is a renewable product and a number of organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Green America provide information for buyers about which lumber comes from sustainably-managed forests. Rare, exotic woods are generally not as renewable and tend to be significantly more expensive than other species.
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