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Not Necessarily High and Dry with Hardwood Floors

Hardwood floors are prized in many homes for their beautiful looks and easy cleaning. Yet, just as with any flooring materials, hardwood brings with it unique challenges which any homeowner must address. In particular, dry climates and high altitudes expose hardwood to adverse conditions not found elsewhere. Even so, if you live in a desert climate or tucked away in the mountains and still want a beautiful floor, you don’t need to give up on your dream of owning hardwood.

The problem

Unlike artificial flooring, wood is a living material. It derives many of its qualities from internal moisture both at build time and over its life. If you’re in a high, dry climate, your floor isn’t getting the moisture it needs.

This lack manifests in several ways. Most common is dry cupping, a process caused by the difference between the floor’s underlying plywood substrate and the hardwood top. As these layers dry, they contract unevenly. The result is a top layer that contracts faster than the layer beneath, causing cracks and other disfigurements.

The Solution

Fortunately, dry cupping and other hardwood floor issues are easy to prevent by following a few important principles.

Pick Good Materials

Wood thickness and density plays an important role in how flooring responds to drier climates. Thicker woods absorb less humidity, but once they’re warped, those changes aren’t going away. Dry climates need materials that will respond well to sudden shifts in humidity and temperature.

Cherry and walnut are very stable woods. They may warp over time, but not in ways that will adversely affect the utility of the floor. No hardwood floor is perfect, and good materials will settle into their structure over time. A wood like hickory is dense and unyielding, but walnut and cherry will accommodate a foundation and retain that shape despite shifts in temperature and humidity.

Acclimate When Installing

Floors were most likely not manufactured in the environment where they are to be installed. Even if they are, conditions in the factory and at the installation site may differ enough that the wood’s character will change slightly over time. It is important for these changes to manifest before the floor is installed.

Acclimation is the process of letting wood sit in the ambient environment before commencing installation. This is especially important in dry climates, whose conditions are particularly harsh for moist woods.

Heat in Winter

Cold materials contract. As such, hardwood in winter will shrink and split, causing cracks that may expose the underlying plywood. Since colder temperatures are particularly harsh at high altitudes, heating in winter is critical to minimizing the temperature transitions to which a floor is subjected.

Control Humidity

Humidity permeates wood more slowly than it does air. As such, variable humidity levels will travel through hardwood and plywood like waves, causing tension that damages your floor over time.

By maintaining a constant humidity level, the tension between these layers can be normalized. Rather than expanding and contracting at random, they will maintain an equilibrium appropriate for their environment. The best way to achieve this is by integrating humidity control directly into HVAC systems, thus maintaining regulated levels of moisture throughout the life of the home.


While caring for a hardwood floor in high, dry climates may seem more complicated, it is just a matter of making the right initial choices while being aware of an area’s unique weather conditions. With the right wood, acclimation and internal environment, hardwood floors will look good and perform well for many long years.