Hard choices

Wood floor­ing op­tions have evolved, ex­panded; how to pick the right one for your home

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Tim McKeough

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, Mon­tana, whose firm chooses a dif­fer­ent wood floor for al­most ev­ery project.

The wood floor­ing in­dus­try has evolved con­sid­er­ably in re­cent years, as wider planks have in­creased in pop­u­lar­ity and fin­ish and in­stal­la­tion op­tions have ex­panded. Given all the choices avail­able, we asked ar­chi­tects and floor­ing pros for ad­vice on how to pick the right one.

Choose the wood species and color

Brows­ing through floor­ing sam­ples to choose a type of wood and a color for your new floor is prob­a­bly the most en­joy­able part of the process. At this stage, much de­pends on per­sonal pref­er­ence and your over­all vi­sion for your home.

One of the most pop­u­lar species is white oak, a clas­sic, durable and widely avail­able wood. “It can also take stain very well,” said Chris Sy, the pres­i­dent of Carlisle Wide Plank Floors. That means it can be cus­tom­ized for a wide va­ri­ety of aes­thet­ics, from bleached off-white to ebony.

Other types of wood of­fer dif­fer­ent looks. “Hick­ory has a lot of color vari­a­tion, from light tones to dark tones,” Sy said.

Those who want a rich, darker brown usu­ally se­lect wal­nut, while those who pre­fer blon­der wood may opt for maple or birch.

As for choos­ing a stain, the cur­rent trend is to­ward sub­tle colors that leave the wood with a nat­u­ral look. Some de­sign­ers even es­chew stain al­to­gether.

“We don’t ever rec­om­mend stain­ing floors,” said El­iz­a­beth Roberts, an ar­chi­tect in Brook­lyn, al­though she does oc­ca­sion­ally use oak dark­ened by a process called fum­ing.

Con­sider wood grain and char­ac­ter

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

With flat-sawn (or plain­sawn) boards, the grain has a wavy ap­pear­ance. “The defin­ing fea­ture is this arch­ing ‘cathe­dral,’ ” said Jamie Hammel.

Hammel, owner of the Hud­son Co., a sup­plier of wood floor­ing and pan­el­ing, noted that quar­ter-sawn boards of­fer a more lin­ear ap­pear­ance, with faint strip­ing: “The prized fea­ture are these medullary rays, which some peo­ple call tiger stripes.”

Rift-sawn boards of­fer the straight­est, clean­est grain, whereas live-sawn boards may in­clude all types of grain pat­terns.

A floor can use one cut ex­clu­sively or can in­cor­po­rate var­i­ous types of cuts. A mix of quar­ter- and rift-sawn boards, for in­stance, is a pop­u­lar op­tion for floor­ing with un­der­stated grain pat­terns. For a warm, woodsy ap­pear­ance, us­ing only flat-sawn boards might be the best op­tion.

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

Pre­fin­ished or site-fin­ished?

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 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,” Roberts said.

Be­cause pre­fin­ished floor­ing is made in a fac­tory, com­pa­nies can also pro­duce it with a wide range of ex­otic fin­ishes that might be dif­fi­cult for an installer to re-cre­ate on-site and with great con­sis­tency.

“You know what you’re go­ing to get,” said Jane Kim, an ar­chi­tect in New York.

A key dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that pre­fin­ished boards usu­ally have beveled edges to al­low for slight ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, which cre­ates more pro­nounced lines be­tween the boards after in­stal­la­tion.

Be­cause un­fin­ished floor­ing is sanded flat after it is in­stalled, the fin­ished floor looks

WIL­LIAM COLE

In a farm­house in Dutchess County, New York, Lar­son Ar­chi­tec­ture Works in­stalled re­claimed heart-pine floor­ing from the Hud­son Co.

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