Hardwood floors are the most traditional type of flooring you can get. Nothing compares to the warmth and character of real wood. You may be interested in installing beautiful, classic, unique hardwood flooring. There is much more to this popular choice than simply picking a wood species and color; those are the fun parts.
In this hardwood flooring buying guide, I will discuss how to choose the right type for your home or commercial space.
Types of Hardwood Flooring
Go into any hardware store, and you will find dozens of different hardwood flooring styles; some of them may even look identical. Take a trip to a hardwood dealer’s showroom, and there are even more options, which can make the experience a little overwhelming.
- How much thickness do you need?
- Which wood type is best suited for your climate?
- What does “engineered hardwood” even mean?
- Are Dark Hardwood floors out of style?
Solid Hardwood floors
Well-chosen solid hardwood floors can last for centuries. You can sand and refinish them multiple times, and time will wear distinctive and beautiful character into the solid wood that simply cannot be replicated. Some of the most desirable and expensive wood floorings you can buy are actually already a hundred years old!
It is never recommended to install solid hardwood over concrete but rather on sub floor. Also, Do not install it below sea or ground level, bathrooms, kitchens, or laundry rooms, where standing water is a likely occurrence.
Moisture damage on solid hardwood can result in warping, buckling, rotting, and mold. Solid hardwood will expand with changes in the seasons, and some splits may occur naturally over time.
Engineered Hardwood floors
If you desire the solid hardwood character, but moisture or cost is a major concern, engineered flooring type may be the answer. It is a thicker veneer of real hardwood, called a wear layer, glued to layers of a strong wooden core, similar to plywood.
Engineered wood is more stable against moisture content and can even be installed over concrete or below grade. In addition, the wear layer can be finished to resemble more expensive and exotic wood species.
It is important to note that solid and engineered hardwood is susceptible to change color with sunlight exposure. Some woods will lighten, others will darken. Usually, it is recommended to wait six months after installation before laying an area rug, and keep blinds or curtains shading the floors during the most exposed time of day.
There are hundreds of different types of trees, and over a hundred that are suitable for flooring. To save you a little time, I will only cover the top ten most common wood species for flooring that you are likely to find in the United States in this hardwood flooring guide.
Two types of oak are typically available for flooring, white and red. Red oak is the most commonly used species for hardwood floors in the United States. It grows abundantly here, making it one of the most affordable wood species.
Red oak ranks 1290 on the Janka Hardness Scale, meaning it is durable enough to withstand your typical residential traffic for many years. Its natural color is reddish with an obvious grain pattern, but it takes stain well and you can change the color to fit your décor.
White oak ranks 1360 on the Janka Hardness Scale, and naturally comes in a more golden, brown, or grayish hue.
There are many types of maple with a variety of aspects to suit whatever taste you like. It is generally affordable, but may cost a little more than oak. You can find it in a range of grain patterns from swirling to nearly invisible, and it ranks from 700-1450 on the Janka Hardness Scale.
NOTE: Maple lends neutral color options naturally, but it does not take stain well, so most companies will offer it pre-finished instead of attempting to finish it on-site.
If you can define your taste as rustic, you probably want hickory floors. With a natural knotty grain pattern and colors that can vary in a single plank from beige to brown to red, hickory is suitable in any sort of farmhouse or log cabin design.
It is one of the hardest American woods and ranks 1820 on the Janka Hardness Scale, which makes it durable for pets, kids, and just about anything a few decades of life can throw at it.
This hardness makes it difficult to work with, however, so you can expect to pay a little more to get it done right.
Famous for its rich red tones, cherry wood makes undeniably gorgeous floors with no staining required. It is a softwood, ranking only 950 on the Janka Hardness Scale, which makes it vulnerable to dents and scratches. This makes it more suitable for low traffic areas, like bedrooms.
It has dimensional stability, meaning it is more resistant to shrinkage and expansion due to temperature and humidity. Cherry is typically milled in wide planks to show off its grain pattern and natural coloration. You can expect cherry to be expensive.
Black Walnut (American Walnut)
A softer wood, American walnut is a popular choice for the grain pattern and consistent color variation. There is a different wood called Brazilian Walnut, which is much harder.
Black walnut ranks 1010 on the Janka Hardness Scale, making it somewhat durable, but probably not ideal for heavy traffic rooms. The color ranges from light to dark brown, giving it an overall consistent appearance when the floors are finished.
There are many types of pine available for flooring. Most of them are soft, ranging from 420-870 on the Janka Hardness Scale, though you can get Heart Pine, which ranks 1225which comes from the center of the tree.
Pine offers a traditional appearance, with subtle knots and grain patterns, and consistent color variation from yellowish-white to orange or brown and gets better with age.
It is considered more traditional since it grows so commonly in North America and was used frequently in the decades when mills could not work harder woods.
Similar to oak in some ways, Ash is slightly less expensive and many people consider it to be an alternative to Oak. It falls right along with the Janka Hardness Scale with oak, ranking at 1320.
Ash comes in light hues of white to brown and everything in between. It stains and finishes well, and most companies do not find it difficult to work with.
With a few different varieties, birch can be found in many colors and grain patterns and is often compared to maple. Birch can range in hardness, depending on which type you buy, from 910-1470 on the Janka Hardness Scale. It ranges in color from yellow to gold, red, or brown. It will usually be sold to you pre-finished because it blotches with stain, just like maple. The good news is that it is usually less expensive than maple.
One of the softest woods you can get, douglas fir is common in older homes. It ranks only 660 on the Janka Hardness Scale, which makes it easy to dent to scratch, and is not ideal for high traffic homes or pets. Douglas fir has a consistent and subtle grain pattern, for a more uniform look and texture. It is colored in hues of orange, red, brown, and gold. Many consumers enjoy the low price, but it is usually finished on-site, which might balance the cost.
Although technically grass, not a tree, bamboo deserves a spot on the list because of how resilient and popular it is. It also gets points for being ultra-sustainable; some species grow as much as 3 feet in one day. It is imported from China, however, which some believe counteracts the environmental benefits of choosing bamboo.
If you choose bamboo for your floors, be aware that there are over 1,000 different species, and you can expect to get what you pay for. It comes in a wide variety of colors, styles, and finishes, and can fall just about anywhere on the Janka Hardness Scale, depending on which species you find. Research bamboo thoroughly if you are interested, and get some expert advice.
While searching for the perfect hardwood floor, you will likely find options for different textures that can be applied to the planks. This is a step of customization that can significantly help to finish off your room. Floors with some texture to them, such as wire-brushed or distressed, can significantly help hide dents and scratches. Read more in my article on smooth vs hand-scraped hardwood floors.
Different Hardwood floor Grades Available
Your source for hardwood floor may have a slightly different definition for each “grade” of wood flooring, but the general idea is to define how much natural character you would like your floors to have. It mostly depends on your style considerations and what do you prefer.
Hardwood Floor Grade It is not an indication of how durable your floors will be or the quality of them.
The most expensive grade, these floors are going to be uniform in color, size, and characteristics. You will get some grain pattern, but very few (if any) knots and no holes or blemishes.
Slightly more variation in color and characteristics than a select grade. Knots will be more noticeable, the boards may vary in length, and there may be an occasional pinhole. It is the most recommended for those who enjoy the natural character of the wood.
Different brands have their own label for this grade. There will be knots, mineral streaks, wormholes, and dramatic variation in color from board to board.
Planks are often short. Some of these blemishes can trap dirt and debris, which is why it is considered the lowest quality. This is most often intended for a log cabin or tavern atmosphere.
How do you determine quality of hardwood floors?
There are countless reasons hardwood floors may appeal to you, but there are a
few key qualities that you must consider before deciding on which hardwood you need.
The thickest solid hardwood you can find is ¾ inch. This is the kind of flooring durable enough to withstand a hundred years of use and refinishes, but it is also vulnerable to moisture damage, warping,
and buckling in wet climates or if it is installed improperly. Thinner profiles, 5/16, 3/8, or ½ inch, are a little more versatile, being able to handle moisture a little better. But you will not be
able to sand and refinish thinner floors for centuries.
You can find hardwood floors pre-finished, where the boards are finished before you even buy them, or unfinished, where you would have them finished after they are installed.
Pre-finished floors are sanded, coated, and polished one plank at a time. They are often more uniform in appearance, but there will be microscopic cracks between the wood planks, that can be susceptible to more moisture damage and separation over time.
Floors finished on-site are installed and then sanded, coated, and polished all at once, which can lead to flaws in the finish but also permits a higher level of customization.
Hardwoods are rated for their hardness on the Janka Scale. There is a test performed to measure the force needed to embed a steel ball to half its diameter into the wood species. This determines how resistant the wood is to dents, scratches, and everyday traffic.
If you are planning to install hardwood floors in a heavily trafficked area, or if you have pets and kids, consider harder wood types. Generally speaking, the harder woods are less friendly to your feet and legs, and they produce more impact noise. Softer woods will absorb sound better but will dent and scratch more easily.
When it comes to wood products, we are all starting to cringe at the idea of cutting down more trees. There are laws and regulations in place for the responsible use of our existing forests, and you can request proof that these laws are being followed by lumber liquidators or manufacturers.
Do not be afraid to ask for documentation of compliance with the Lacey Act. Flooring harvested and manufactured in the United States and Europe is usually reliably sustainable.
By itself, wood flooring can cost between $3 and $15 per square foot, depending on the type of wood you are buying. Some exotic woods can cost upwards of $30 per square foot. Then you need to calculate for installation, which can easily be around $5 per square foot, and underlayment. If your humidity levels are high you need also moisture barrier.
Read my article on whether or not underlayment is necessary for hardwood floors before you factor this into your budget. Some companies will also offer to move your furniture, remove your old floor, and prepare your wood subfloor, all for additional costs.
Make sure you are thorough with your installer and be aware of what you are paying for before any work has started.
Wood floors are notorious for requiring special maintenance. You cannot mop them haphazardly with soapy water; there are specific cleaning solutions and habits you will need to adopt when your new hardwood floors are installed. I need to learn how to clean your wooden floors properly. You minimize your cleaning when placing right doormat right on your entrance so most of the dust end debris will stay there.
I have many articles on the specifics of cleaning hardwood floors, but you may want to start here, with how to disinfect hardwood floors the right way and best dust mop for hardwood floors.
Benefits of Hardwood Floors
Concerns like cost, maintenance, and water resistance can make hardwood floors feel less-than-efficient. So why are people willing to pay so much for them, and why should you consider hardwood for your home or office space?
As I said, you can rely on some wood floor types to last centuries. Dents, scratches, and color variations can enhance the beauty of hardwood, and even if they do start to look a bit drab, they can typically be refinished several times before they are entirely worn out.
You can find them pre-distressed to hide blemishes over the years, and you may never have to worry about replacing your floors again.
Nothing compares to the warmth and character of hardwood. Although modern technology can make laminate, vinyl, and other flooring types similar to hardwood, there is simply no substitute for nature
Not to mention the level of possible customization. From the width of your strips or planks to the color of your stain, hardwood can be worked and changed time and time again. You can even hire an artisan to create beautiful patterns and images in your hardwood floors that certainly cannot be replicated with any other material.
Many people will pay more for a home in which hardwood floors have already been installed. Carpet offers bacteria, allergens, air pollution, and stains that cannot be cleaned out, and laminate or vinyl flooring are both less durable and less realistic, all equaling less desirable.
In colder climates, such as New England, hardwood floors can be a significant factor in raising your home’s resale value. They offer warmth and softness, as long as you care for them properly.
Hardwood floors do sometimes come in click-lock (also known as tongue-and-groove) systems and more advanced DIYers may be able to install them themselves. Most of us, however, will be better served by a professional, even if this doubles the cost.
Whether you choose to install your own hardwood floors or hire a professional to do it for you, you are likely going to want to try and schedule for the weather. You will want to ventilate your home or vacate it for the time, depending on your choices.
If you choose a less expensive wood species to be kind on your bank account, but you desire the colors of a more luxurious choice, you can often stain the wood and get the best of both worlds.
The success of this option depends on how hard or soft the wood species is, and you will likely want to consult with your installer about whether to get your floors pre-finished or finished on-site.
Hardwood floor Finish
This is the clear coat that goes on your wood floors to protect them from scooting furniture, sunlight, spilled drinks, or the dirt in your shoes. Choosing the right finish can help protect softer wood floors from dents and scratches, too.
The National Wood Flooring Association recommends a maintenance coat of finish for your chosen flooring option every 3-5 years, but of course, use your best judgment. If you have kids and pets, you may want to refinish your floors more often, but if they are rarely used and never abused, you may not need to refinish very often at all.
There are four common types of finish coating for hardwood floors.
Eco-friendly and easy to apply, this one is for DIYers and households with kids and pets. It does not soak into the pores of the wood and it does not yellow over time. It may be on the slightly more expensive side, though, and it is not as durable as other finishes. Check my best water-base polyurethane list.
More durable and affordable than other finishes, this one should be applied in a vacant home or by a professional, due to its higher VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and longer drying time. It does yellow with age, which can enhance the beauty of some wood species but might make others look sickly or distorted over time.
The most traditional way of sealing your floors against moisture or dirt, wax is easy to apply yourself but may be quite time-consuming. It does not emit as many VOCs as polyurethane and it is all-natural. It soaks into the wood and solidifies, and it will darken the wood over time. You can prevent this by coating your floors with shellac before finishing with wax.
A solid choice for high-traffic spaces and busy homes, this one is durable and dries quickly, which allows for more coat applications in one day. However, it is recommended to have a professional apply it since its fast-drying quality can make it a little tricky to work with.
It also has a high VOC content, so it is best applied while the home is vacant, sometimes for up to two weeks.