“The Ravages Of Time”

The fashion-forward direction of the wood flooring industry is to offer products that look like they’ve already had a history of use. To recreate a time-worn floor in a brand new box is nearly a museum exercise, involving individual attention to each board. There are seven different ways to express this history, and they are often used in combination:

1) Hand scraping.

This is the most popular technique for simulating a foot-worn floor. When wood flooring was exclusively for the rich, and before drum sanders, a method of smoothing a floor was called hand-scraping. This made the wood as smooth as glass. The modern term “hand-scraping” has come to mean the opposite… and it’s a way of gently gouging the surface and edges of flooring planks to mimic the effect of a century or more of footfalls. Remarkably, most of this is in fact is done by hand. The result is that each board has a unique wear pattern.

2) Wire-brushing.

Wire-brushing mimics the accumulated effects that grittiness (like sand) has when walked on wood. The softer spring wood (the wider of the growth rings) wears off quicker than the harder summer wood, leaving a three dimensional texture that conforms with the grain pattern. Since all beach-front houses go through this history, wire-brushing often accompanies pigmenting the wood to various shades of white and grey. Those colors are associated with the long term bleaching effects of the sun (think driftwood).

3) Saw-marks.

All lumber is “rough-cut” from a log using a circular saw or band-saw. These leave saw-blade marks that are routinely smoothed out in downstream production by planers and sanders. Back in the day when most wood flooring was used for its utility, and not additionally for its appearance, the flooring was merely rough cut lumber and those saw marks remained. Over time, much of that evidence is walked off, leaving only a suggestion of its history. This is the look targeted by manufacturers who employ this visual technique… remnants of saw-marks mixed with smooth.

4) Pillowed edges.

When most first floors sat over crawlspaces or dug basements, wood flooring went through some serious seasonal movement. Moisture from below swells the bottom of the wood and results in cupping. Cupping makes the top edges of the floor proud of the surface of the rest of the floor. This becomes a “corner” that your footfall wears down to a broken edge. When the floor flattens out, the edge is now softened (“pillowed” is what they call it in the industry). That edge was often dirtier than the rest of the floor, making each individual plank look like it had a dark border. This distinctive look is called a French Bleed.

5) Character grades.

When fashioning wood was without the benefit of motors they weren’t interested for the sake of appearance in the extra effort, and waste, that results from excluding usable parts of the log. They exercised that discretion for fine furniture, but not for flooring. So color variation, knots, shorter pieces… if it functioned as a wood floor it was used. Many people prefer the presence of these features in their wood floors… these highlight the fact that every piece of wood is unique to all the world and all of history. Because of the excess movement, sometimes these planks cracked in place and manufacturers have even found a way to mimic that history also.

6) Low gloss finishes.

The first stuff to be applied to wood for the purpose of preservation was most likely a plant-based penetrating oil. These finishes are still used today and in Europe they protect about half the wood floors in service. Planet Hardwood holds an inventory from two of the leading flooring oil manufacturers… still plant-based (and VOC-free). One can buff a penetrating oil to a “glow”, but never to a “gloss”… in other words, the appearance of a penetrating oil is never shiny. Even a shiny finish will lose its glossiness over time with use, and that’s “history”. A low gloss level can be achieved with a variety of finishes… not just a penetrating oil.

7) Authentic History.

Woods like American Chestnut and Longleaf Pine are no longer commercially available from the forest. They either succumbed to an imported blight (Chestnut), or were overharvested and never replanted for the purpose of timber (Longleaf). The only modern source for these species are from reclaimed structural timbers remanufactured into flooring. They have a history by definition. These were virgin first-growth trees hundreds of years older than the average age of a modern harvest. The growth rings are tighter and obviously more numerous. Additionally, their service as structural timbers can include other evidence of history like nail-holes or a patina. We buy recycled wood flooring by the flatbed to serve it up at a reasonable cost.

Planet Hardwood shows a wider variety of these wood flooring choices than any showroom in America. No fooling!

Engineered Wood: At the top (and bottom) of the totem pole

At Planet Hardwood we get a full range of reactions to the consideration of engineered wood flooring. Engineered wood flooring is an all-wood floor that puts the specie one desires on the top layer only. The rest of the thickness has layers of wood arranged alternately lengthwise and crosswise thereby making it stable.

Engineered wood in other building applications is either fundamental (like plywood) or a signature of quality (like joists and rafters). In wood flooring it’s perceived most of the time as a “less-than” option to solid wood flooring.

Some of this is sound judgment, as the cheapest, crummiest, poorest performing, ugliest (in our opinion) wood flooring is engineered.

But, the best performing, most versatile, most efficient, most developed, most stylish wood flooring in our showroom is also engineered.

So engineered wood flooring occupies every rung of the ladder in terms of quality and value, but most people’s frame of reference is with the crummy stuff.

Sustainability and Engineered Flooring

I’ve come to appreciate engineered flooring from a resource-use, or sustainability, standpoint.

The North American profile for solid wood flooring is pretty familiar: 3/4″ thick and tongue-and-grooved. I distinguish it by North American because it’s fairly exclusive to us. They take a different approach in the rest of the world to wood flooring, and here’s one of the reasons why:

The only theoretically usable portion of that 3/4″ tongue-and-groove profile is from the top of the tongue to the surface. However, when refinishing the floor, one of the first investigations of a sand-and-refinish crew is how much of that distance above the tongue is left from the previous and/or initial sanding(s). If anything approaching half that distance is gone, they run the risk of making it too thin on the groove side to survive a footfall without cracking.

The equipment is simply too big and heavy and the sandpaper too gritty to offer a consistently fine enough tolerance to avoid that risk.

So in practice, the only usable portion of that piece of solid wood flooring is about half the distance from the tongue to the surface. With our 3/4″ profile that translates to 1/8″. This end result is that with a solid wood floor around 80% of the resource is wasted.

A quality engineered wood floor offers the same usable top wear layer as a solid wood floor with a support package of ‘lesser’ woods arranged in an alternating 90 degree stack. This makes the flooring six times more stable than its solid counterpart, allowing its use below-grade and/or directly on concrete.

The lesser woods could mean lower grades of the same species, faster or plantation-grown species, pre or post production wood waste or plywood. All of these options take the pressure off the primary forest and ultimately maximize the yield from the log.

Making the right choices when sourcing wood

Some of the flooring mills that supply us have the versatility to take the raw material downstream in production and make either a solid or an engineered floor. In two recent cases we directed the mills to produce the engineered format.

In one case, it involved a species available to us only sporadically. It comes from an environmentally certified mill that manages their forest to the highest environmental standard in the world. The restrictions result in a harvest-driven menu of choices, not a market-driven menu. Years could separate access to this species. By maximizing the usable material through the use of the engineered format, more total square feet of flooring becomes available.

The other case involved a figured domestic hardwood rarely found in wide dimensions, but the raw material could result in flooring up to 7″ wide. It would have been irresponsible to waste 80% of the Canarywood or Birdseye Maple resource. Instead, we multiplied the square footage.

All of this is to point out that whether we’re looking at sustainability, product availability or performance aspects like stability, a quality engineered wood floor is not a compromise in any way and often, it’s the best recommendation.

General wood flooring installation instructions

Job site conditions

Outside

Check the jobsite for conditions that will result in excess moisture or high humidity.
Surface drainage should be away from the house. The slope should be minimum 6″ in 10′. Gutters, drains and downspouts should be unclogged and functional, draining water away from the house. Eave overhangs should be sufficient to prevent rain from flooding the foundation.

If there is a crawlspace, it must be cross-ventilated with a total ventilating area exceeding 1 1/2% of the first floor area, with no dead air spaces. For example, a 2,000 sq. ft. crawl space must have 30 sq. ft. of year-round open venting area.

If the ground under the house feels damp, or is giving off excess moisture, lay a 6mil. polyfilm vapor barrier on the ground in the crawlspace below the installation area.
Remember to take into account seasonal changes in relative humidity which might affect jobsite suitability. (more…)

Wood flooring care & maintenance

Wood floors are beautiful, unique, and with the proper care and common sense will last for as long as the building is standing. Most wood flooring problems occur due to abrasive material scratching the finish, excessive water or moisture exposure, or subjecting the wood to an extremely dry environment. The following suggestions will help take the guesswork out of proper maintenance. (more…)

To acclimate or not to acclimate?

The reason for wood to be in the environment of the occupied building prior to installation is to “acclimate” to the prevailing relative humidity (RH). Wood is hygroscopic, that is, it acts like a sponge, either soaking up moisture or giving up that moisture to a drier environment as it arrives to a balance with its surroundings. This balance, where the wood is theoretically inert, is called the “equilibrium moisture content” (EMC).

During construction, especially new construction, there are wild swings in RH (more…)

Things to consider when choosing wood

Wood flooring adds value to your home and is an investment, not an expense. Look at the real estate ads and count the number of times hardwood flooring is mentioned as a selling point. Now compare that to carpet or laminate. Carpet and plastic laminate are disposable floors, whereas wood flooring lasts for centuries if properly maintained, and can be returned to brand new condition. Wood flooring does not harbor allergens like animal dander, fleas, ticks, mites, or hold dirt like carpet. After a few years, nearly half the weight of carpet is accumulated trapped dirt.

Wood is a naturally renewable and biodegradable material, and is probably the only material in your home that satisfies those criteria. We also think it is more beautiful and individual than any other flooring material (more…)