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.

“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!

Wood plantations, forestry, and the real causes of deforestation.

Nearly 25% of all industrial wood consumption is from plantation sources, and that number is expected to double over the next 50 years. Most of the Teak flooring sold in America is sourced from plantations in Central America, and just about all of our Southern Yellow Pine is plantation grown. Radiata Pine plantations occupy nearly 8% of New Zealand’s land area and Palm Oil and Rubberwood plantations occupy over 80% of Malaysia’s arable land.

Plantations are a mixed blessing. They remove pressure from the primary forests and can additionally reclaim degraded lands, halt soil erosion and sequester carbon. However, they can also replace a bio-diverse native forest with a mono-specie. Most woods do not lend themselves to plantation forestry and can only grow in a natural habitat. (more…)

It’s not easy being green, unless you’re a plant.

Let’s start with running a “green” business. Businesses are making marketing hay out of good standard business practices which qualify as “green”. Here’s the secret: reduce waste wherever you can and be more efficient and productive. For any good business, that’s an ongoing effort especially when impacted by a sudden increase in costs, like fuel. Consume less and steer your purchasing of operational necessities towards responsible products. This is stuff your mother told you: shut the door, turn off lights when not using them etc. etc. Anyone, like myself, who grew up with parents who lived through the Great Depression, started getting their “green” education early on.

As far as being in a “green” business, there are several challenges, beginning with the basic question: what is “green”? “Green” has replaced “natural” as the most abused word in the English language. Everything is “green” these days. (more…)

Wood: the greenest building material.

To identify the most environmentally responsible building material, the choice would logically rest on two fundamental principles:

  1. It is a renewable resource.
  2. It is a biodegradable resource.

Wood is the only common building material that satisfies those criteria. Measured against plastic, steel, aluminum, concrete, or cloth, wood is the most environmentally friendly in terms of low emissions, energy consumption and toxic by-products. Every part of the tree has a use.

Trees are mostly carbon. The carbon comes from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and through the process of photosynthesis is converted to wood fiber. This carbon is “fixed” in the wood, and can only be released if the wood is burned or allowed to rot above ground. A young growing forest helps to balance the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. This is an ongoing renewable natural process.