The Material

Among the wide array of possible floor coverings, hardwood provides some incomparable qualities. It’s natural, environmentally friendly, attractive, warm and easy to maintain – giving any home’s decor a rich and distinctive feel while increasing resale value. Hardwood flooring also helps create a healthy home environment by eliminating the allergens associated with dust-trapping carpet.

The Choice

Hardwood flooring is the easy choice for your needs – it’s suitable for most every application and environment. Hardwood flooring is divided into broad categories by manufacturing methods.There are three types of hardwood; choose the one that’s right for you.

Solid Hardwood

These are boards made entirely of hardwood, generally 3/4″ (19 mm) thick. Unfinished hardwood comes as plain unfinished boards. After installation, a specialist sands the wood and then applies stain and three or four coats of varnish. Finish applied on-site like this does not resist wear nearly as well as a factory-applied finish (as is found on prefinished wood). Guarantees on this type of hardwood cover only installation and exclude wear and tear. Prefinished solid hardwood is pre-sanded, stained and finished with factory-applied protection. It is prepared in a controlled and ideal environment. This type of flooring is installation-ready. Installation is fast and easy, without the offensive varnish odors that occur when finishing is done on-site in the home. You won’t have to leave the house during installation and you’ll be able to return your furniture to its normal position very shortly after installation.

Glueless Engineered Hardwood

This kind of flooring combines the beauty of hardwood with a number of environmental and economic advantages. The boards are made of a high-density fiber (HDF) base whose engineered edges fit together perfectly with a simple motion. This flooring does not require glue, nails or staples – hence the common term “floating floor.” This environmentally friendly product contains recycled content and can be removed from one room and re-installed in another room or building – making it a reusable resource and sound ecological choice.

Engineered Hardwood

A technological masterpiece, this hardwood combines a real wood surface with a solid plywood base. Created for environments with varying humidity, engineered flooring is more stable than solid hardwood flooring. Boards can be glued directly to concrete (even with a radiant heating system) or on an acoustic membrane. They can also be stapled to a plywood subfloor. This type of flooring is ideal for condominiums, basements, or commercial use. There are four criteria to evaluate the quality of engineered flooring: the thickness of the hardwood layer; the number of plywood plies (layers); the cutting process used for the hardwood surface; and the precision of the cut for the base layers. The hardwood layer, or “wear layer”, must have a minimal thickness of 5/32″ (4 mm) to allow sanding as needed, similar to solid hardwood. The plywood must have at least five plies to ensure good floor stability. Dry saw cutting provides a higher-quality hardwood layer with a genuinely natural look and is preferable to rotary peeling or slice cutting.

The Style

Even after you have analyzed all your options and decided on the type of hardwood that you want, the process isn’t finished. There are still many choices to make: the color of the floor, the width of the boards, and the shine of the finish. These all depend on your taste and the look you desire… things that deserve careful consideration. An installed floor will last for decades upon decades – choose wisely.

The Color

Once considered a mere construction material, hardwood flooring is now recognized as a distinct decorative element. Expanding color choices have certainly helped with that shift in perception. Prefinished floors provide an opportunity to create some very interesting contrast effects. The insertion of boards that differ from the dominant color can accent the shape of a room, or draw attention to an area or element in particular. Adding a touch of refinement and originality can be simplicity itself.

The Species

Each species of wood has a different grain, color and texture. Personal taste and preference lead us to choose one species over another. Your room decor and your desired effect will influence your decision. Oak and maple are the best-known and most popular species, followed by birch, cherry and walnut. More and more consumers are attracted to the warmth and richness of higher-end exotic species – consider the prestige that comes with a floor made from Brazilian cherry, mahogany, Sapele or tigerwood. The high durability of exotic hardwoods can be ideal for commercial use.

The Gloss

Products currently on the market fall into one of three categories:
  • High-gloss: Very shiny, smooth surface that reflects a lot of light but tends to amplify marks and scratches.
  • Semi-gloss: A medium shine, the most common for prefinished floors.
  • Matte: A satin or completely matte finish that reduces the appearance of marks and scratches.

The Grade

Boards are classified according to variations in their natural color. A board with a more uniform color will be graded “select and better”. The “exclusive” grade is given to boards with some pronounced and nuanced color variation. Depending on what you’re looking for, the “rustic” grade could be of interest, with its evident knots, small cracks and other natural characteristics. By examining several boards from the same box, you can confirm if the product is classified accurately and also see the quality of the manufacturing. Some manufacturers use third-category grades to accommodate significant manufacturing and finishing defects and to sell these products with no guarantee.

The Width

There are many different board widths on the market, matching almost all possible decor and style choices. Narrower boards make a room look longer, while wider boards make it appear shorter. Remember, however, that a tight-grained wood like maple expands more with humidity, which may make narrower boards preferable for some uses.

The Board Direction

Along the length of the room, the width of the room, diagonal or patterned? Aesthetics and personal taste will direct you toward your choice of board direction. When the boards are being installed on a wood subfloor, it’s recommended to position them perpendicular to the joists. Similarly, you should pay attention to optical illusions – it’s better, for instance, to avoid placing boards widthwise in a long, narrow room. Those looking for a different style can plan a diagonal placement or the traditional, but still distinctive, open-ended herringbone design.

The Quality

All hardwood floor manufacturers say they offer high quality and reliable products. It’s hard to

really know if what they’re saying is true. Before you buy, review all the criteria of a quality floor and examine the product carefully to see that it meets these criteria. Make an informed choice and avoid common pitfalls. In the end, quality is what separates the leaders from the rest of the pack!

The Uniformity

Put some boards on the floor and assemble them – the tongues and grooves should mesh together perfectly. Run your hand over the surface – you shouldn’t be able to perceive a difference in thickness. Lastly, there shouldn’t be any space between the boards (where dirt could accumulate).

The Imperfections

The beauty of wood flooring stems from the unique characteristics of each board. The presence of small knots and mineral streaks is normal and even desirable, depending on the look you are after. These visual details add to the authentic and natural character of the hardwood floor without compromising its quality. Visual details are different from defects. Defects are a sign of inferior manufacturing or finishing. Manufacturers that tolerate too many defects are offering an inferior-quality product.

The Finish

The number of coats of finish is not a reliable indicator of the quality or durability of the finish. The quality of the finish and the method of application are far better indicators. Factory-finishing methods, including an ultraviolet drying stage, represent proven techniques that result in remarkably resistant products. Some manufacturers include UV protection in their finishing products to slow or modulate color shifts and yellowing in unstained wood floors. Others also add an antimicrobial agent to make maintenance even easier and to maintain a healthy home environment.

The “V” Joints

Prefinished hardwood floors are designed to create a “V” joint between the boards when assembled. This joint mitigates any imperfections in the subfloor, prevents premature wear on the edges of the boards and makes it easy to move furniture. The “V” joint requires particular attention on purchase, because a “V” that is too deep or irregular will encourage dirt accumulation. Make sure that stain is applied right to the base of the “V” joints. This will ensure that floor color is uniform.

The Rustic Look

Some manufacturers have developed techniques to recreate the rustic appearance of the floors of the olden days. Their methods fine-tune the coloring and finishing of panels to simulate the passage of time, resulting in large knotted boards with an aged appearance.

The Guarantee

The application of finish on prefinished flooring is done in successive coats in ideal and controlled conditions. The result of this process is a product that resists wear so well that manufacturers confidently give it a long-term guarantee. By following the maintenance instructions given for prefinished hardwood, you can ensure durability far beyond the guarantee period.

The Decision

There are still things to consider following the choice of a hardwood floor – elements that can have good or bad long-term consequences. What treatments should be used to avoid unpleasant surprises? What steps should be taken to ensure that this investment remains a good one? Taking time to think things over is never a cause for regret.

The Retailer

Your choice of retailer is almost as important as your choice of flooring. Why? Because the retailer should also serve as your advisor. They have to respect your tastes and help you choose a product that meets your needs perfectly.

The Accessories

Your purchase won’t be limited to just floorboards – you will also need complementary accessories to make the room work as a whole, including molding to join with the walls and stair nosings. Are these things available in the same stain, gloss and species as your floor?

The Installation

A quality hardwood floor can easily last over a century. Since buying this type of floor represents a significant investment, it’s smart to trust a professional with the installation work. This will make the most of the money you’re investing.

The Humidity

Although very durable, wood does react to its environment – especially humidity. It’s recommended that you keep humidity levels at around 45% to prevent unfavorable conditions for the floor and make your house more comfortable in general.

The Maintenance

Hardwood floors are more durable and stable than ever. But water, soap and sand are still a constant threat. You must absolutely avoid washing your hardwood floor with an excess of water, excessively wet mops, and commercial soaps. Regular vacuuming, a damp cloth and manufacturer-recommended products are all you need to keep your floor looking great.

The Test

Sample size plays a pivotal role in the final decision-making. Be sure to get large enough samples. A sample that is too small won’t give you a good idea of how the floor is going to look once it’s installed across a whole room. Ensure that the floor’s grade, color variations, species and wood grain are visible in the sample. It is important to see large samples, examine the contents of boxes to compare several pieces, and assemble some boards. Boards should be smooth and uniform to the touch, and the quality of their manufacture and finishing must be visible to the eye.