Wood flooring options have evolved, expanded; how to pick the right one for your home
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
In a farmhouse in Dutchess County, New York, Larson Architecture Works installed reclaimed heart-pine flooring from the Hudson Co.