Backwards Pricing in Wood Flooring Explained
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.