25 Years of Innovation: Wood Flooring
A quarter-century of innovation has brought a wealth of woods, finishes, and engineered products
In 1979 crafting the inlaid medallion would have required hours of laborious and costly hand-cutting. Today, computer-controlled lasers can do it in a fraction of the time with breathtaking accuracy.
Variety is the hallmark of today's wood flooring industry, with more woods, types of products, and finish choices than ever before. Bored with red oak? How about Siberian larch, Brazilian cherry, or Australian spotted gum? Finish options are no less wide-ranging, with new, safer formulations and more flooring available prefinished at the factory. Then there's the biggest change of all: the rise of engineered flooring, manufactured from layers of wood veneer laminated together for maximum strength, stability, and convenience. For more wood flooring trends, read on.
Twenty-five years ago, most wood flooring was solid oak strips, 2 1/4 inches wide by 3/4 inch thick, nailed in place by a carpenter and finished on site. Now just over half of all flooring is prefinished in the factory, and 60 percent of that is engineered flooring that goes down in a flash. There's a faster, easier, and more affordable way to do just about everything.
Southern Yellow Pine
The Present: Solid Wood
Wood-flooring catalogs are beginning to look a little like books of paint chips. One company offers solid wood flooring in six domestic hardwood species, four widths, three grades, 14 colors, and two types of finish—actually a fairly modest selection, considering that nearly 50 species of wood are now used for flooring, almost half of them "offshore" woods from places like Brazil and Australia. Then there's wood from sustainable forests, grown under controlled conditions, and lumber reclaimed from old buildings, railroad ties, and river bottoms. Expect to pay between $8 and $10 per square foot (installed) for readily available species like red oak, more for exotic and reclaimed woods.
White Oak Parquet
It's All in the Saw
The look, performance, and cost of solid wood flooring depends in large part on how the boards are cut from the log. Plainsawn (also called flatsawn) boards (A) have growth rings that run at angles from 0 to 45 degrees to the wide surfaces of the board, resulting in a lively face with the loops and swirls of a topographic map. In contrast, the face of a quartersawn board (B) is orderly and restrained, the result of growth rings that run from 45 to 90 degrees to the wide surfaces.
Sawing methods also affect how a floor reacts to changes in moisture. Plainsawn boards shrink and swell primarily across their width, which can open or close cracks between boards as the seasons change. Quartersawn boards change primarily in thickness, where the movement is less dramatic and far less noticeable. Quartersawn boards also wear more evenly and take finishes better. Add to that higher manufacturing costs, and it's no surprise that quartersawn flooring typically commands 25 to 50 percent more than flatsawn products, whether solid or engineered.
The Present: Engineered Wood
Perhaps the most noticeable change in wood flooring over the last 25 years is the development of engineered flooring. A kind of high-end plywood, products typically consist of three, five, or seven layers of wood veneer, each oriented at 90 degrees to the adjacent ones. The layered construction makes engineered flooring more dimensionally stable than solid wood, so it will shrink and swell less with changes in moisture. That's why you'll see wood flooring in many rooms previously thought unsuitable, from basements to bathrooms. Material pricing is comparable to that of solid wood, but installed cost is typically less.
Engineered to Deceive
The top, or "wear," layer of engineered products is what gives the floor its look as well as its durability. It ranges from 1/10 inch to almost 1/4 inch in premium flooring. That may not seem like a huge difference until you consider that one measure of a wood floor's life is how many times it can be sanded and refinished (typically one to four times). Traditional solid wood flooring is 3/4 inch thick, while engineered flooring—base plus wear layer—ranges from 3/8 to 9/16 inch thick.
Country Oak (forest salvage)
If the current demand for wood flooring continues, future consumers will surely have even more choices, from an ever-changing lineup of sources. Increasingly, solid wood will be considered simply as one form of a natural resource that can be chipped, peeled, ground, sliced, or otherwise disassembled and then reassembled with adhesives and various other ingredients.
Wood from sustainable forests, grown and harvested under carefully managed conditions, will be one source of new flooring material. One example is Lyptus, a natural hybrid of two eucalyptus species being grown on plantations in Brazil. According to Craig Anderson of Weyerhaeuser, which imports Lyptus flooring, 120-foot trees can be harvested about 15 years after planting; by comparison, red oak takes about 40 years to reach merchantable size, cherry 80 years. In the future, look for calculated hybridization to yield other options for fast-growing, renewable resources.
Where to Find It
Country oak and white tigerwood:
San Rafael, CA
Bamboo and cork:
Sustainable Flooring, LLC
Longstrip hickory, Brazilian cherry, and walnut:
Tarkett Wood Floors
Johnson City, TN
Our thanks to—
Hosking Hardwood Floors
National Wood Flooring Association
National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association
Federal Way, WA
Cherryhill Manufacturing Corporation
Kern Electronics and Lasers, Inc.