Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hardwood Flooring Cheat Sheet

Since the hardwood flooring on our first floor was our house’s only casualty in the great Nashville flood, I’ve been doing a little research on the topic of replacing it.  In fact, I just came back from helping my cousin look at some of her options at a few local contracting stores.  Come to find out, there are a lot of variables involved when selecting hardwood flooring to suit your home. Even if you have someone helping you make choices, wood flooring is a big investment and you need to make sure you do your research.  A builder may be advising you from a ‘what’s easiest to install’ standpoint, your interior decorator may only be interested in design and your spouse may want to solely talk dollars and cents.  Someone has to be the big-picture person, and I’m thinking it may just have to be you.  Here are a few of the many things you should consider and some questions you should ask yourself and those involved in the project:

Laminate vs. Engineered Flooring 
vs. Solid Hardwood

Let’s talk this through from cheapest to most expensive, which of course means we’ll start with Laminate floors.  These are the least costly because they’re not in any way real wood.  Here’s a chart I found that best describes the pros and cons when compared to solid hardwood.  

There are a few positives to engineered flooring, it’s nearly always less expensive than solid hardwood because it’s essentially a thin layer of wood with scrap material underneath the surface.  It’s also more moisture resistant so it’s safe to put in your basement or over radiant floor heating.  The bad news, however, is that it just doesn’t have the lifespan of solid hardwood.  For example, we had somewhat minimum damage to our floors from the flood.  If we had solid hardwood flooring we simply could have sanded and refinished them, instead they’ll have to be replaced completely.  Most solid hardwood can be refinished anywhere from 7-10 times and can last up to 100 years or more if take care of properly…so when it comes to long term commitment, solid hardwood is typically the best choice.  

Pre-finished vs. Unfinished

Pre-finished wood is generally easier to install in an existing home and works better in areas that receive high traffic.  It’s the better option if you’re looking to avoid fumes or mess, or if you’re installing in a room with higher humidity as it is suitable for changes in climate.  For a fast and easy installation, pre-finished is most certainly the best choice.  If you’re attempting to match an existing floor or trim, however, unfinished wood is easier to stain.  If you’re having floors installed through your whole home unfinished floors will allow you to achieve a more uniform color and finish.  For unusual wood species or specific plank widths, unfinished flooring is a better choice and will allow for more options. 

Wood Grading, Angles and Patterns

Wood is “Graded” based on it’s appearance- the more uniform a piece of wood is in appearance, the higher the grade.  Different types of wood are categorized different ways, but here’s an example using one of the most common types of flooring, Oak.

A “Clear” grade means you’re getting a finish free of defects.  Although it may have minor imperfections (we are talking about wood here) this is the cleanest looking type.

A wood that is “Select” or “Select & Better” will be nearly clear but have more natural characteristics like color variations, knots, etc.

“#1 Common” is more natural still, with a variegated appearance, knots, flags and even small holes

“#2 Common” is the most rustic of all and will allow, if not highlight, all wood characteristics.  This is a wood with character to be sure.  

The angle at which a piece of wood is cut also has a large impact on the way it looks.  Plainsawn wood is the most common and contains more variation because figure patterns from growth rings are more conspicuous.  Quartersawing is more expensive but wears more evenly while riftsawn wood is similar but cut at a slightly different angle.  

The pattern wood is actually laid in will also effect the finished product, make sure you lay out in your contract the direction you want the flooring to go and any design pattern you have in mind for the planks.  

Questions to Ask:

Is this a high traffic or low traffic area?

The amount of wear and tear your floors will be exposed to is a major determining factor!  Darker colors show traffic faster and require preventative maintenance such as light sanding.  Satin or low shine finishes show less wear than high gloss ones.  If you simply can’t imagine life without dark chocolate colored Mahogany floors in every room of your house, than by all means go for it- but don’t do it with your eyes closed.  Plan on purchasing a lot of area rugs to protect them, or simply be prepared to be constantly cleaning and re-finishing.

Who is maintaining these floors?

Is it you?  Your spouse?  Your kids?  Your maid?  Whoever it is should know exactly what the procedure for cleaning and maintaining is and be willing to do it.  If they’re not prepared to spend time taking care of them the way they should be, you may need to consider a different type of flooring or a different caretaker.  

Does the person installing these floors
really know what they’re doing?

Installing hardwood floor may seem like a good do-it-yourself project, and if you know what you’re doing you can surely save a little money.  Before you figure out just how much you’ll save, don’t forget to factor all the tools and supplies you’ll need to purchase.  Also, be sure you research details that a professional would cover, like how to leave the proper expansion area and where to rent a meter to test the surface for moisture.  If that last sentence made you nervous, you should not be doing this project yourself.  Hire a professional with good references that gives you a properly written contract with warranties, guarantees and an estimation of how long the job will take. 


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