A friend called the other day excited about peeling up a corner of her wall-to-wall carpeting in her new condo and finding a wood floor underneath! She was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to send me a picture (it was Red Oak). Wood flooring immediately raises the value of your property most always in excess of its cost. Those home improvement shows on TV that have “stagers” prepare a house for sale are a good example. If they do something beyond a paint job and removing the clutter, they’re tearing out a carpet and replacing it with wood flooring. If they’re flipping the property, there’s a wood floor going in somewhere. Wood flooring is a universally recognized signature of quality. Check out the real estate ads in your town and see how often wood flooring is mentioned as a selling point.
Her next phone call wasn’t as pleasant as she was in the middle having the carpet removed, and getting a firsthand experience of what that carpet was harboring. What she saw was bad enough, and what she couldn’t see was worse: colonies of dust mites. In fact, if your job was researching dust mites, and you wanted to create the perfect environment to raise generations of them, you’d design and build a carpet from the ground up.
We get trade magazines that report on the entire flooring industry. Most of the contents are devoted to product categories we don’t sell, like carpet or plastic laminate. Given the lifespan of these products they’re destined to spend most of their time on this earth leaching poisons into a landfill. Some companies brag about they’re recycling efforts but there is none for laminate and the only use for recycled carpeting is as a contributing ingredient to the pad (which merely postpones the trip to the landfill). The magazine article about this subject explained that they’re not interested in your carpeting, so don’t expect a carpet recycling center in your neighborhood any time soon. They prefer a trailer load of the same stuff which can only come from large renovations like hotels or offices. So it’s high-end, commercially rated carpet, that’s been professionally maintained since day one. Here’s the punchline: 46% of the weight of the used carpet, is dirt!
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN for short) is a non-profit that identifies flora and fauna threatened with extinction. They’re committed to conservation and to provide the world “with the most objective, scientifically-based information on the current status of globally threatened biodiversity.”
The Emerald Ash Borer beetle arrived in Michigan from Asia in the late 1990s via infested shipping pallets. Without predators they’ve spread rapidly. In their larval stage they bore a channel under the bark that girdles and kills the tree. Tens of millions of Ash trees in North America have died as a result. An entire Ash forest can be wiped out within six years of infection. The IUCN just classified five of the six most prominent Ash tree species in North America as “Critically Endangered.” The sixth Ash specie is assessed as “Endangered.” The only classification beyond “Critically Endangered” is “Extinct”, which means that the IUCN has just reported that Ash trees in North America are on the verge of extinction.
It’s hard to imagine the North American deciduous forests without Ash trees. They are a key component to the forest ecology providing habitat and food for squirrels, birds and insects. They are also a valuable timber used in the production of furniture and flooring. Ash has beautiful white and creamy colors with a grain pattern as distinctive as Oak. Its natural elasticity and a high resistance to impact made it a favorite wood for tool handles, baseball bats, and hockey sticks. It’s quite possible that we’ve held Ash in our hands more than any other hardwood. Planet Hardwood recognized early signs of stress when many flooring mills removed Ash from their menu. Mainstream flooring production with the color consistency necessary to qualify as a “select” grade of Ash has been unavailable for over two years. There’s a frantic effort to stem the destruction, but the Ash Borers’ range naturally increases with higher average temperatures, threatening six billion trees. Human activity via the movement of lumber and firewood unintentionally contributes to the spread. Every Vermont state park has signs that remind people of the danger.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. Only a tiny fraction of Elm trees proved resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. It’s caused by an invasive spore that attaches itself to bark beetles. Postcards from the fifties still showed Elm trees, with their fluted profile, providing a beautiful tunnel of green for city streets in Burlington Vermont. By the time I got here in the 1970’s most were gone or dying. The most famous instance of an invasive species impacting our hardwood forest is the Chestnut blight. It’s estimated that the American Chestnut tree was between 1/4 and a 1/2 of the entire volume of hardwood that grew within its range. The contribution Chestnut made to the forest ecology and to human survival is difficult to appreciate. Its wood was used in all phases of construction; its bark was a source of tannins for making leather; and its nuts provided nourishment for wildlife, livestock, and people. Chestnut was soft enough to work with hand tools, and its natural resistance to environmental degradation made it a popular wood for hand-hewn post-and-beam construction. In the beginning of the twentieth century a fungus was imported from Asia and within fifty years ten billion Chestnut trees succumbed. When it comes to the destruction of an entire well-established species by a disease, it’s hard to find an example in modern history that compares to the Chestnut blight.
American Chestnut flooring is only available now using wood rescued from old buildings, and it’s very expensive. Ash might follow a similar path. As for your old baseball bats and hockey sticks?… Hold on to those. Anything made from Ash could be the last of its kind.
At Planet Hardwood, we are often asked questions like:
“What’s more expensive, solid wood flooring or engineered wood flooring?”
“What’s more expensive, domestic or imported?”
“Are hardwoods harder than softwoods?”
A single answer to each of these questions covers most of the bases, but exceptions immediately spring to mind. Australian Cypress is a softwood that’s harder than Oak. Caribbean Pine is harder than Walnut or Cherry. There are cheap and expensive versions of both solid and engineered wood floors. Engineered flooring uses less of the desirable wood but is more expensive to produce. The most popular non-native wood for flooring is Jatoba (also known as Brazilian Cherry). For most of its history, it was cheaper than the select grade of nearly every domestic hardwood.
It’s hard to find a “universal truth” in the wood flooring business except for perhaps one: If it’s solid wood flooring of the same description from the same source, wider is always more expensive than narrower. Really? Wider is more expensive? Isn’t that backwards? A flooring mill is a linear foot operation. A thousand linear feet of 3″ flooring equals 250 square feet. A thousand linear feet of 6″ wide flooring equals 500 square feet. By rights, 3″ flooring should be twice the price of 6″. It’s simple math, but as anyone who has shopped for solid wood flooring already knows, the wider material carries a premium. The narrowest standard flooring width (2 1/4″) is often the least expensive, even though it’s the most costly width to produce.
Wood is an organic raw material, and logs, in the rough shape of a cylinder, are cut lengthwise into lumber. The resulting rough hardwood boards are of different grades, widths and lengths which maximizes the yield from the log. I’ll simplify the math to illustrate the geometry that leads to the backwards pricing structure. A 5″ wide floor needs a minimum 6″ wide board as a raw material. But randomly there will only be a tiny percentage of optimally sized 6″ wide lumber off the log. That 5″ production will also have to draw from the other qualifying lumber that’s randomly wider than 6″. If the lumber gets wide enough at 9″ to offer a remaining 3″ strip, that 3″ ripping becomes the raw material for 2 1/4″ wide flooring. Any board that falls between 6″ and 9″ yields a strip too narrow to produce conventionally-sized flooring… and so is considered “waste.* Only a small percentage of the logs’ yield qualifies to make the wider flooring in the first place, and the “waste factor” is higher for the wider production. The challenge for any mill is to balance sales and yields so that nothing accumulates to big piles of unsold inventory on a routine basis. Since the wider flooring is dearer, and the waste factors higher, the pricing is structured to support a balanced exit of the mix of finished product.
- There is no true “waste” in wood production. All rippings, shavings, sawdust and even the bark from the log has a further downstream value including fuel, bedding, soil conditioning, landscape material and as a contributing ingredient to the many products that contain wood fiber.
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.
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).
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!
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.
Job site conditions
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…)