How Hard Can It Be to Choose a Hardwood Floor?


If you have flooring you don’t like — whether it’s carpet, vinyl or unappealing wood — it can feel like there’s no way to escape it, no matter how many rugs you pile on top. But if you have floors you love, walking across them can be a daily pleasure.

That’s because the floor is the base upon which all other decorating decisions are built. Change your floors, and you change the character of your home. It’s as simple as that.

So it’s no surprise that new floors — specifically, hardwood floors — are at the top of many renovation wish lists. Not all wood floors, however, are equally appealing or appropriate for every space.

“We look at a building holistically, so the walls and windows, and the environment that we’re in, all feed into the decision-making about the floors,” said Paul Bertelli, the design principal of JLF Architects in Bozeman, Mont., whose firm chooses a different wood floor for almost every project.

The way that logs are sawed into boards has a big effect on the grain pattern that’s visible in the floor.

In addition to the way the wood is cut, you can choose how many knots and other distinguishing marks you want to see.

“We call it character,” Mr. Hammel said, noting that options include “clear” (no knots), “light character” (a few smaller knots) and “character-grade” (the most, and largest, knots).

Reclaimed wood is another option. Many flooring companies offer wood salvaged from barns, factories and other structures, which can have even more character — with nail holes, cracks and saw-blade marks.

“You can find oak siding off a 150-year-old building that’s been weathered beautifully and use that for flooring,” Mr. Bertelli said, adding that his firm frequently does just that. “We want character in the floor, and our philosophy is that there are perfect imperfections.”

Another major decision is whether to buy prefinished flooring, sold with its final color and topcoat in place, or unfinished flooring that can be stained and finished by an installer after it’s put down.

One of the advantages of prefinished flooring is that it can be installed very quickly, usually in a single day.

When floors are finished on site, the home has to be vacated to allow for sanding, staining and finishing, including drying time.

“It’s very messy work, and it’s very important that nobody step on it for days, or weeks, at a time,” Ms. Roberts said. “It really alters the construction schedule.”

Most hardwood floors today have a finishing coat of clear polyurethane. “Polyurethane essentially sits on top of the wood,” protecting it from moisture, wear and staining, Mr. Hammel said.

Water-based polyurethanes have grown in popularity in recent years, and the finishing sheen can range from matte to glossy.

A polyurethane finish is very durable, but once damaged or worn, it can be difficult to repair, Mr. Hammel said, because it typically requires refinishing an entire board, if not the whole floor.

An alternative is an oil-based finish. “Oil penetrates into the wood and therefore tends to make it look a bit richer,” he said. And because it doesn’t leave a film on top of the wood, it allows for relatively easy spot repairs.

The downside to an oil finish is that it requires more regular maintenance. “An oil floor will dry out over time,” Mr. Hammel said. “But it can be easily refreshed, with more oil.”

Solid wood is just what it sounds like: a plank of your chosen wood, cut from a log. An engineered wood floor is composed of a thinner layer of your chosen wood on top of a manufactured base of layered wood, like plywood.

Engineered wood has a number of benefits. “It’s built to be more dimensionally stable,” Mr. Hammel said. “It will expand and contract less,” reducing the chance that the boards will warp or shrink over time.

Engineered flooring is especially good in basements, in high humidity areas and over radiant heating systems, he said.

And in homes with concrete subfloors, like many high-rise apartments, engineered flooring can be glued directly to the slab, whereas solid wood usually requires a plywood subfloor so it can be nailed in place.

If your ceiling height is low, saving that extra bit of space by using engineered flooring can be important, Ms. Kim said: “Some clients are really obsessed with getting the highest ceiling possible, so if they can save an inch on the floor, they’re going to go with engineered flooring.”

But it isn’t always the best option. Some people simply like the idea of solid hardwood better, and in extremely dry areas, solid wood may perform better.

“Engineered floors are made to work best in environments that stay above 30 percent relative humidity,” Mr. Sy said. “If the environment is going to be consistently below that, engineered floors may experience slight cracking in the wear layer.”

Also, depending on the thickness of that top layer, engineered floors may allow for sanding and refinishing only once or twice — or perhaps not at all — while solid wood can be refinished many times. (To avoid this limitation when buying engineered flooring, look for a product with a thick top layer.)

Narrow boards with widths of about two to three inches were once standard for hardwood flooring. Not anymore. Five- to eight-inch widths are now commonplace, and some homeowners opt to go even wider, with broad planks measuring up to a foot wide and beyond.

“We make floors up to 20 inches wide,” Mr. Sy said.

In general, the wider the boards, the higher the cost. And “the wider it gets, the less stable it gets, because the wood wants to move,” Ms. Roberts said. “When we get into really wide flooring, we almost always recommend an engineered floor, because that prevents it from cupping and warping.”

Most floors are installed with the boards in straight lines, but there are many alternative installation patterns, including herringbone and chevron, which are enjoying renewed popularity.

More complicated installation patterns also tend to increase the overall cost of the floor, as they require additional labor for installation and result in more wasted wood from the multitude of cuts.

How do you decide which board width and installation pattern is best? Consider the proportions of your space, and the style you want: Bigger rooms tend to look better with wider boards, and a herringbone or chevron pattern adds a touch of tradition.

You can also mix it up. Ms. Roberts sometimes uses wider boards and complicated installation patterns in the primary living spaces, and narrower boards in a straightforward arrangement in secondary spaces, like hallways and bedrooms.


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