Hardwood Flooring Home Decor

Pre-Finished v. Site-Finished Hardwood Flooring

One of the many decisions that must be in selecting hardwood flooring is whether you want to purchase raw boards and have them finished on site or if you want to get pre-finished wood to which stain and finish both have been applied in the factory before they ship to you. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. To help you sort through them, we’ve created the chart below illustrating the benefits, drawbacks, and neutral factors of each option.

Pre-Finished v. Site-Finished Hardwood Flooring

Pre-Finished (Factory-Finished)



Prefinished flooring is limited to the cuts, species, and stains that are going to sell en masse. For this reason, it can be difficult to create a truly unique look with factory-finished flooring. Site-finished flooring provides more options –nearly endless combinations of species, stain, cut, and finish.
Products & colors can be discontinued, making it difficult to match boards to other areas of the home after a period of time. It is fairly easy for a skilled installer to match hardwood flooring and stain to existing flooring and other interior décor. Most species of wood will always be available as raw boards.


The initial cost of pre-finished flooring is higher, but requires much less labor on installation, which tends to balance out the cost. Prefinished is also much more practical to install as a DIY project. The raw material for site-finished flooring is less expensive, but installation and finishing material costs can add up, especially since finishing requires greater skill and a professional installer is usually needed.


Installation can be completed in the course of a day. This means there is no need to move your family out of your home to have your floors redone. You will need to relocate any furnishings temporarily, but can move them back in immediately as soon as a room has been completed. If the whole house is not being done, you can remain in your home throughout installation. The installation process can take several days to complete while stain, several coats of sealant, and topcoat are applied and allowed to dry. You will have to store furniture somewhere else during this time and move your family to another location, even if the whole house is not being re-floored, as the finishing process involves quite a bit of sawdust and fume that should not be inhaled.
Almost all VOCs from pre-finished flooring are released in the factory, so the toxicity of your finish will be practically none. For several days after an oil-based polyurethane is applied, you will smell and breathe in vapors from polyurethane resins and solvents.
In some cases you may be able to request that prefinished floors be the last part of a construction or remodeling project, but it is not always practical to work without flooring installed. In a new home, most contractors will install the floor, but wait until the rest of the work has been completed to finish the floor. That way, dropped tools and heavy boots don’t mar the finish, so your floor is pristine when you move in.

Finish Quality

Factory finishes are applied in a strictly controlled environment and undergo a great deal of quality testing, so a pre-applied finish is likely to be relatively free of imperfections. However, occasional marks from machining may sometimes be visible. Dust, hairs, and small bits of debris can settle into an on-site finish before it has fully cured, leaving imperfections in your finish from the get-to. Dust will usually be worn off after a short time, but others small imperfections may remain.
“Full face fill” provided by some manufacturers seals the pores of the wood enabling the manufacturer to produce an ultra-smooth, even, beautiful sheen on individual boards that cannot be duplicated on-site. A site-finished floor is more subject to imperfections resulting from human error, such a small bubbles, brush marks, etc. However, these can largely be avoided by hiring an experienced, skilled professional.
Some complain that the aluminum oxide used to make prefinished floors so tough can make the finish look slightly ‘murky’.


Edges are microbeveled on all edges, which emphasizes seams between boards and cases individual boards to stand out more. Sanding and finishing onsite creates a smooth, uniform surface that many find desirable in their hardwood floors.
Borders, inlays, and other fancy flooring techniques are difficult or impossible because of the sanding that’s normally required. Onsite finishing allows for greater creativity with borders, inlays, parquet, etc.
You can see samples of prefinished flooring before you order it, so you know exactly what you’re getting. Species and stain can have slight variances from batch to batch, so, while you will have a pretty good idea of what your floors will look like, the precise result of your particular combination will be unknown until the floor is installed and cured.


Easier to replace one or two damaged planks, provided they are still available; for this reason, it is always good to order some extra planks to have on hand for repairs. A skilled hardwood flooring professional can also make seamless repairs to site finished flooring by sanding the area and matching the stain and finish; for this reason, you will want to keep any remaining stain, at least until it expires. You can also peel the labels off of the cans so that you know the exact stain and batch number in case you need to purchase more in the future.
Most manufacturers offer finish warranties that guarantee a floor for 10-25 years, sometimes longer, that cover a specific range of clearly-stated problems, so you know what is covered from the beginning. A good installer will guarantee his or her work for a few years against problems resulting from installer-error, but damage to finishes will usually cost to repair, even if you feel the floor should have been able to withstand the damage.

Resistance to damage

Aluminum oxide finish only available through a factory process provides a great deal more abrasion resistance. Site finished urethane floors can’t meet the level of protection that factory-finished offer.
The solid barrier created by a site-finished floor can in some cases help to prevent water from seeping between planks.


Hardwood Flooring Home Decor Species

Species Profile: Pine

Pine has been one of the most commonly used woods for lumber and flooring for more than two centuries.  Though not technically a hardwood, a few varieties of Pine are as hard as the softer hardwoods and have proven their durability both in construction and as flooring over the decades.  Abundant throughout the southern part of the United States, Southern Yellow Pine, which actually comprises several species, can be found at a comparatively low cost in almost every market in North America.  Pine’s relatively rapid growth makes it ideal for plantation farming and its natural grain and texture allow for an almost limitless variety of stains, making it one of the more versatile options for flooring.

Pine Trees

Southern Yellow Pine Trees
Southern Yellow Pine Trees

Pine trees grow naturally in some variety across the entirety of the Northern Hemisphere.  Yellow Pines, or hard Pines, hail from the Pinus genre of the Pinaceae family of conifers.  So, they’re really Pine-y.  Southern Yellow Pines, from which most domestic commercial Pine is harvested, is similar to the tree that most people picture when they think of a Pine – tall and slender with fragrant, evergreen needles and cones that bear seeds – only generally taller and with fewer low branches.

"Methusela" Bristelcone Pine
“Methusela”, pictured here, is a Bristelcone Pine thought to be over 4,600 years old

Pines, in addition to growing quickly (for a tree), also tend to be long-lived in the wild, living on average anywhere from 100-1,000 years.  Some of the oldest Pine trees, though, have been known to live longer than 4,000 years.  In fact, one of the oldest living organisms in the world is a Bristlcone Pine known as Methuselah, thought to have been growing for more than 4,600 years.

Pine lumber has long been used in everything from home frames to wooden roller coasters.  During the Colonial Period, it was the most economically important tree harvested in the Americas and was commonly sought on behalf of the British Monarchy for use in shipbuilding.  The needles of several varieties of Pine have long been used to weave baskets and decorative items, and the edible seeds of some Pines are what are commonly known as pine nuts, one of the key ingredients of a good pesto.

Pine Flooring

Pine flooring is usually made from Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) or Heart Pine, though occasionally White Pine can be used if it is treated to increase its durability.

Southern Yellow Pine

This popular wood ranges in color from light yellow or yellowish-brown at its heart to a light beige or pale yellow sapwood.  Depending on the cut, it can be quite uniform or very knotty, making it at once appropriate for formal, sophisticated rooms as well as rustic, natural looks.  Even though Pine is harder than most softwoods, it is still only 60-70% as hard as standard Red Oak.  It is however, somewhat more stable than Red Oak (28%), and is perfectly suitable as flooring in areas that experience moderate wear.

Heart Pine

Heart Pine, which is taken exclusively from the heartwood of the Pine tree, is darker in appearance that Yellow Pine and can sometimes display very dark streaks called sap stains.  While freshly laid Heart Pine will often be yellow in hue, it tends to develop warmer, more reddish hues over time.  The grain of Heart Pine generally offers plentiful swirls or banding, giving boards a great deal of character and charm.  It is common to find reclaimed Heart Pine in homes both old and new, as Antique Heart Pine perfectly represents the warm, natural, and classic feel often sought by lovers of hardwood floors.

Bacon's Castle Hardwood Floors
Bacon’s Castle, built in 1665, still boasts its original Heart Pine flooring.

Given the particular qualities of Pine, it is wise to consult a professional before making you finial choice.  An experienced dealer will be able to tell you weather Pine will be an appropriate choice for your intended application, give you recommendations on finishes, and recommend alternatives if a harder wood would be a smarter choice.  Our hardwood flooring experts are always happy to help.

Photo of Methuselah Pine is a section from a photo by Oke, GFDL , CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardwood Flooring Species

Superlative Hardwoods: Stats & Facts

It is well known that Oak is far and away the most commonly used species for hardwood floors, especially in the United States. It was recommended nearly three times as often as other species by the designers who participated in our annual design survey this year, Red and White Oak combined consistently make up more than 60% of total hardwood flooring sales, and Oak trees account for more than half of our national hardwood forests. But what about the other “mosts” in the hardwood world? Read on and find out.

The Most Expensive Hardwoods

As it stands to reason, the most expensive hardwoods are also the rarest.  Most of these are rare enough that they are seldom, if ever, used for flooring, and when they are, it is usually only as an inlay or accent.  The winners of this special distinction?


Gabon Ebony (Diospyros dendo) from Central West Africa, Madagascar Ebony (Diospyros perrieri) from Madagascar, and Macassar Ebony (Diospyros celebica) from Indonesia, can all be found in the U.S. market, though one must be very careful to ensure that these highly endangered species have been legally and sustainability sourced.  For years, the wood from these trees has been hihgly valued for its almost stone-like qualities: uncommon hardness and dimensional stability, minimal to indiscernible grain, and a consistency of color (practically black at the heartwood) that is all but unmatched.  Current prices for Ebony run as high as $150/ square foot, so an ebony floor falls well outside the budget of most home improvement products.  A more realistic option?  Choose a close-grained domestic wood like Maple and finish it with an ebony stain.


African Blackwood, also called Mpingo, is widely regarded as the most expensive commercially available hardwood.  Its scientific name is Dalbergia melanoxylon and it is native to the dryer regions of southern Africa.  Once regarded as a kind of Ebony, Mpingo now holds its own place as one of the most valuable woods in the world.  Its dark, almost black heartwood is uncommonly dense and hard and offers remarkable dimensional stability, making it popular for woodwind instruments like clarinets and oboes.  However, this denseness makes it a very difficult wood to work with, a quality which, combined with its relative rarity and consequent high price (upwards of $130/ square foot) make it an unrealistic option for flooring.

The Hardest Hardwoods

hardest woods janka scaleTypically, the hardness of wood is measured by subjecting it to the Janka hardness test.  This yields a Janka rating expressed in pounds of force that allows for relatively uniform comparison of the hardness of various species of wood.  As a standard of comparison, consider that Northern Red Oak, an excellent flooring choice, has a Janka rating of 1220-1290, depending on the variety. Hickory, the hardest domestic hardwood, has a rating of 1820.  As it happens, Ebony and African Blackwood rate at 3080 and am incredibly hard 3670, respectively.

The hardest known wood, meanwhile, rates at a tool-destroying 4570.  In fact, its name, Quebracho, comes from the Spanish “quebrar hacha”, which literally translates to “axe breaker”.  Though it is used as lumber in its native South America, it is rarely available in the United States.  The generally accepted winner of the hardest commercially available wood contest, then, tends to be a species called  Lignum Vitae, which has a Janka rating of 4390.  Unfortunately, this remarkable quality has led to its being harvested almost to extinction.  Of course, a wood this hard would be almost impossible to mill for flooring, even if it were abundant enough to be used as such.  A better option is to choose a harder wood like Hickory or Brazilian Cherry (Janka rating 2350) with a factory applied finish for increased durability.

The Most Abundant Hardwoods

North America

Well, we already know that Oak accounts for some 52% of the hardwood forests in North America, with Red Oak (Quercus rubra) the most abundant.  The next most common in Poplar, but this species makes up only about 1/10th of North America’s hardwood forests, followed distantly by Maple at about 5%.


While Brazilian Cherry is probably the most commonly used exotic species when it comes to flooring (it generally makes up between 3 and 5% of hardwood flooring sales each year), it is not necessarily the most abundant species.   So what is?  This is a difficult question to answer.  Efforts to log tree species across the planet are few as the challenges to doing so are many and complex.  It involves travel to remote areas as well as the cooperation of governments and landowners, many of which have more pressing concerns and some of whom would rather not have logging activity and forest health looked at too closely.  Add to this the lack of a universal authoritative database of the world’s trees, and it becomes difficult to get an accurate read on global species distribution.  What is known with relative certainty is that about a third of all the world’s trees can be classified into five species groups: pines, oaks, spruces, firs, and beeches.  Of these, only two – oak and beech – yield hardwood, though pine, technically a softwood, is often used in flooring as it is as hard as many hardwood species.

Special Trees

Though many of the most remarkable trees are not hardwoods and would not generally be recommended for flooring, we though we would mention some here, to honor the magnificence of trees in general.

Tallest living tree

Sequoias, and in particular Sequoia sempervirens, or Coastal Redwoods, are thought to be the tallest trees in the world.  The tallest of these?  Hyperion, a resident of Redwood National Park, measuring almost 380 ft tall and thought to be something like 700-800 years old.

General Sherman Sequoia
The General Sherman Sequoia may be the largest living tree in the world.

Biggest living tree

The biggest known tree by volume is another Sequoia, a Giant Sequoia in Sequoia National Park called General Sherman, whose trunk volume has been estimated at more than 52,500 cubic feet. For reference, the volume of an average Red Oak would probably be about 1300-1500 cubic feet.  Now this title only applies to single-stem growth.  Aspen trees, for example, grow in colonies, with hundreds of trunks stemming from what is technically a single tree, making trunk volume rather difficult to calculate.

Widest living tree

The Montezuma Cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico, is thought to be the tree with the greatest girth, boasting a diameter of more than 38 feet.  Some argue, however, that Sunland Baobab‘s namesake tree is better deserving of the title, since the 38 foot measurement of the Cypress includes empty space between the tree’s natural buttresses.  The Baobob in question has a diameter of 35 feet, enough to house a bar an wine cellar in its hollow trunk.

Oldest living tree

This is, again, a category up for debate.  Typically, the age of a tree is determined by measuring its growth rings or taking a sample from its core that can be dated.  However, growth rings only appear in trees that experience seasonal changes and the cores of very old trees often become hollow as their lifeless heartwood decays.  Consequently, aging very old trees can be an imprecise business.  Nevertheless, there seems to be some consensus that the oldest living single-stem tree is the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, thought to be more than 5,000 years old.  Again, though, the Aspen raises another difficulty as some argue that its age should be recorded according to the age of the colony.  In that case, the oldest living “tree” becomes the Pando colony on Utah, thought to be some 80,000 years old.

Pando Quaking Aspens
The Pando colony of Quaking Aspens in Utah maybe one of the largest and oldest living organisms on Earth.

General Sherman and Pando Colony By Famartin (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardwood Flooring

A Practical Guide to Hardwood Flooring Grades

NWFA/ NOFMA certification seal
The NWFA certifies Hardwood Flooring according to NOFMA guidelines.

Among the many qualities that influence the appearance of any particular hardwood flooring is the grade of the wood. Almost all boards sold for hardwood flooring in the U.S. are graded according to standards originally laid out by the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) to help create consistency in the quality of Oak flooring in the U.S. These standards are now used to grade virtually all hardwood flooring throughout the country and are promoted and upheld by the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA).

While the NOFMA grading system relates closely to the guidelines set out for all hardwood lumber by the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), the NOFMA system gives more attention to the appearance or absence of certain characteristic marks than to other considerations weighed by the NHLA, which must grade wood for uses ranging from cabinetry to building frames. NOFMA grades, then, are largely an indicator of what the face of a board can be expected to look like, rather than an assessment of inherent quality, stability, hardness, or other factors.

Clear Grade

NOFMA_Clear_White_OakThis is the wood referred to by the NHLA as FAS (Firsts and Seconds). It is premium grade wood and, as its category name suggests, its face is pretty much free of character marks like knots and burls. The grain of Clear Grade boards will tend to be quite consistent, as will the color from board to board. Clear Grade boards are taken from the heartwood of a tree and create a very smooth, uniform look often desired when a clean, classic tone is the goal. Since boards that can be graded as Clear are somewhat rare, it is often easier to find engineered Clear Grade, as a single piece of clear lumber goes much further when sliced thin for engineered boards than it would as a solid floor board. For the same reason, Clear Grade wood will almost always cost more than other grades.

Select Grade

NOFMA_Select_White_OakLike Clear Grade, Select Grade wood will show a fairly consistent face, largely free of “imperfections”. However, with Select Grade, which is cut from both heartwood and sapwood, you will find more color variation between and within the boards as well as subtle diversions in the grain pattern that start to display some of wood’s natural character. Though easier to mill than Clear Grade, Select Grade wood is still fairly sparse, generally accounting for no more than 15% of a given tree, so it tends to fall into the same cost category as Clear Grade, and, in fact, they are often bundled together.


#1 Common Grade

NOFMA_1_Common_White_OakIt is in the Common Grades that natural wood character is really allowed to shine. In #1 Common, you will see characteristics like swirls, knots, and streaks in a good number of the boards, though these will be limited in size and prominence. When you look at a #1 Common Grade floor, you know are reminded that you are looking at a natural, organic material. #1 Common is an excellent choice for those who wish their floors to be a centerpiece of the room. The Common Grades are also the most forgiving choice for high traffic areas or homes with pets or lively children, as dings and scratches are easily masked among the natural imperfections of the wood.


#2 Common Grade

NOFMA_2_Common_White_Oak#2 Common is similar to #1, but with more boards displaying the characteristic marks of natural wood and greater color variation among the boards. #2Common, sometimes referred to as Rustic Grade, retains much of the organic, natural quality of the trees from which it comes. Depending on the species of wood, stark color variations and bold streaks, prominent knots and burls, and highly inconsistent grain patterns make #2 Common Grade floors a great choice when the natural, living look is what you seek. Hickory, a species known for its beautiful color variation is a star in #1 and #2 Common Grades.


Cabin Grade

Cabin Grade White OakCabin Grade wood is just what it sounds like. These boards are sort of like a second string. While they have all the durability, stability, quality of any other board used for flooring, their imperfections tend to dominate their face, displaying large streaks, deep knots and burls, wormholes, and even marks made during the milling process. Cabin grade offers no consistency when it comes to color or grain pattern, but it does offer a rustic look that supersedes even that of “Rustic Grade” #2 Common. Cabin Grade flooring is popular for spaces such as, well, cabins, but also playrooms, workshops, and other areas where the floors might be subject to much abuse. Cabin Grade is, as might be expected, substantially cheaper than other grades, but bundles also are likely to include a higher number of boards that you will simply not want to use. It always a good idea when installing Cabin Grade to lay out the boards as you intend to use them, as this allows you to control the aesthetic of these highly varied boards at least a little.

Character Marks

Wondering what we mean when we say “character marks”? These are the naturally occurring features that give wood some of its character. Here are a few of the most common:


Wood knotKnots are the dense, round spots that form in wood at the base of a branch or twig. In hardwood flooring, with exception of Cabin Grade, generally only “Sound” knots are permitted, meaning that, while the grain is interrupted by the knot, the board remains smooth and no wood is actually missing from the area.


Mineral-Streaks-on-wormy_mapleStreaks are generally cause by mineral deposits within a tree’s rings, though Cherry wood also sometimes displays gum streaks, an area of wood darkened by the tree’s own sap. Streaks are just what they sound like – long thin areas of the wood that are a different color from the rest due to the presence of certain minerals.


WormholesAs the name suggest, these are small imperfections in the face of a board caused by worms making their way through the tree while it was alive. Generally these are no more than ¼ inch wide, though sometimes larger grubs can create virtual trenches, known as grub holes. That latter, however, are no permitted in flooring grade wood, with the occasional exception of Cabin Grade.


Oak Grade sample photos from NWFA website
Wood not photo By F pkalac [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hardwood Flooring Home Decor

Hardwood Species: Designer Recommendations

Not too long ago, we asked designers across the country to share with us some of their insights regarding the use of hardwood flooring in homes.  They were overwhelmingly in favor.  84% said they more often than not prefer to replace floors with hardwood when given the chance.


So what kinds of floors do these designers recommend?  Well, for homes with pets, there are some special suggestions, which we talked about in our post last month.  But, in general, almost 3/4 of our designers recommended one of three species above all others: Oak, Walnut, and Hickory.   These three domestic species offer toughness and durability at a reasonable cost.

Natural White Oak

Oak can be stained to enhance any decor and as North America’s most abundant hardwood, its ready availability in just about any cut and finish make it the perennial favorite of designers and homeowners alike.

Classic Walnut

Walnut offers a little added toughness to the classic beauty of Oak.  Its solid richness creates a warm, yet sophisticated look that shines with natural finishes and subtler stains.

Natural Hickory

Hickory, one of the hardest domestic woods, is also one of the most striking.  With a strongly variegated grain, Hickory is the go-to choice for those seeking a more natural, rustic look.


Why is hardwood so popular?  Well, besides being an enduring classic, hardwood “goes with everything”.  Whether you’re going for a modern look or a rustic design, hardwood flooring offers a beautiful, durable, and timeless option.


Hardwood Flooring Hardwood Maintenance

Choosing and Caring for Dark Hardwood Floors

There’s no denying the beauty of dark woods and dark stains.  Especially with younger generations and those seeking an upscale, sophisticated look, darker flooring like Brazilian Cherry, Mahogany, and dark-stained Oak or Walnut hold a strong appeal.  But there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding on a darker wood.  They can require a bit more maintenance than more forgiving mid-tone woods, a reality that dark wood fans need to prepared to live with.

Dark wood or dark stain?

Ariege-Navarre hardwood floor collection
A medium tone wood with a darker stain, like this Ariege Oak from the Navarre collection, will likely be less costly than a naturally dark species.

If you’re looking for a darker hardwood flooring, deciding whether to go with a darker species or a dark stain can be difficult.  In most cases, darker woods tend to be less abundant and therefore more costly.  Darker planks generally come from heartwood, which represents a smaller portion of the tree than lighter sapwood.  Moreover, species that produce truly dark heartwood are not as common and those that produce more medium shades.   Consequently, these woods can cost as much as twice what you might pay for a more common wood with a darker stain.

On the other hand, a lighter wood with a darker stain is far more likely to show scratches and dents, since these remove the dark stain from the damaged area revealing the much lighter wood beneath and causing a starker contrast than you would get with a darker species.

A compromise might be to choose a medium wood like Black Walnut with a darker stain or a wood that is a little lighter than, say, Mahogany or Wenge, like Brazilian Cherry or even Jarrah, which can produce a similar effect but tend to be less costly and still mask scratches.  Similarly, while a very uniform super dark floor certainly creates a striking and beautiful effect, variation will always be more forgiving when comes to dents, scratches, or other damage.


Regardless of whether you decide to go with a stain or a naturally dark wood, the finish you choose will make a big difference both in how well your floor hides damage and how much it shows dust and other undesirables.  Dark wood owners commonly complain of two things: dust and footprints.  While a regular cleaning schedule will certainly help to keep this under control, the finish you choose can be your greatest ally in keeping your dark floors looking beautiful all the time.

High gloss finishes are typically a no-no with dark wood floors unless you intend to clean them several times a day and they get virtually no foot traffic (from people or pets).  Dark, glossy hardwood will unforgivingly display every speck of dust that lands on it, along with oils from bare feet, pet hair of any kind, shoe prints, and even streaks from floor cleaners.  The best way to avoid this is to go with a finish no shinier than semi-gloss.  The most satisfied dark wood floor owners tend to be those who go with a satin or even cashmere finish.

To avoid visible scratches, especially on stained woods, consider purchasing a prefinished wood.  Because it is tougher than any site-applied finish, a factory-applied urethane will protect against scratches better and will camouflage those that occur, since the scratch will damage only the clear finish rather than tearing through the stain.

Darker floors look great against the contrast of pale furniture and walls.


Another thing to consider when deciding how dark you floors will be is the lighting in the room or rooms you are considering.  Bright natural light is by far the most unforgiving when it comes to darker floors.  If your home has a lot of large windows, you might want to go in another direction.  Low-light rooms will hide dust best, but of course a dark room will be made even darker by a dark floor.  Fortunately, dark floors do best with contrasting room features, so the lack of light can be easily countered with pale furniture and cabinetry and contrasting walls and rugs.  This will also serve to enhance the striking, sophisticated look that dark floors serve best.


The key to keeping your dark floor looking spiffy is regular cleaning.  If possible, try to run a dust mop (or Swiffer pad) over the floor at least once a day.  This does not need to be a proper cleaning—a dry dust mop will serve just fine.  If you find that your dry mop isn’t getting everything, you might try vacuuming instead on the same schedule.  Make sure, though, that you use a vacuum cleaner specially designed for hardwood floors or with a hardwood floor setting—the brushes and wheels on many vacuums will damage the finish of a hardwood floor.  Among dark wood owners, Roomba machines seem to be popular to automate the daily vacuuming process.  Miele also makes some popular models.  You can check out our earlier post on hardwood vacuums for pet owners to find some other recommended machines.

In addition to daily dust-mopping or vacuuming, you will also want to clean your floors with a cleaner recommended by the manufacturer about once a week.  With dark floors, it is especially important to use the right cleaner, as solutions not recommended for the purpose can leave streaks and dull spots, which show up starkly on darker floors.  It can also help to turn on a fan or open the windows while the floor dries, to eliminate streaks and discourage potential damage from excess moisture.

A word of caution: Though much advice on cleaning hardwood floors can be found on the Internet, recommendations found in forums and similar places often fail to take into account long-term effects.  Two examples that recur frequently in this context are steam mopping and vinegar solutions. Though the immediate results of these may seem satisfying, repeatedly exposing wood to steam will eventually cause it to warp while long-term use of vinegar solutions often results in the gradual dulling of the finish of your floors, an effect that is difficult to reverse.  It is for reasons such as these that it is generally best to consult the manufacturer’s instructions or a hardwood flooring professional before trying a new product or method on your floors.

nine kinds of slippers
Having a basket of fun slippers by the door can make guests more comfortable removing their shoes.


More and more, people are opting for removing shoes upon entry to their homes, largely to avoid tracking in the many nasty things they might tread through on the streets and sidewalks outside. Many dark hardwood floor owners are taking advantage of this trend to ask family and visitors alike to remove their shoes at the door.  To make this more comfortable (and to avoid sweaty sock or barefoot prints on the floor), it can be fun to provide a basket of slippers at each entrance.  If you choose to go this route, as you are out doing your regular shopping, keep your eyes peeled  for fun slippers that might be added to the collection.

There is no doubt that darker hardwoods are a thing of remarkable beauty.  But if you choose to have them in your home, choose wisely and know that they may take a little more TLC and require a bit more tolerance for imperfection than their more forgiving mid- and variegated-tone alternatives.

Hardwood Flooring Species

Species Profile: Black Walnut

This old Black Walnut tree growing on Sauvie Island in Oregon is one of the largest in the country. Note the man standing at its base.

Black Walnuts are some of the most prized trees grown in North America. Not only is their timber beautiful, strong, and easy to work with, the walnut fruit is popular for healthy snacks and gourmet meals.  The seeds can be pressed to make walnut oil, and the trees’ sprawling limbs make for great climbing and swinging.  A moderately sized Walnut can be 100 feet tall, with a trunk more than 5 feet in diameter. One of the largest known Black Walnuts in North America lives on an island in Oregon. Its trunk is 8 ½ feet across and its limbs spread further than 70 feet in either direction.

Though Walnut trees grow throughout much of the eastern half of the U.S., they are harvested commercially primarily in the Central states. Walnut is also one few species in North America that is planted as well as naturally regenerated, though most commercially planted trees are harvested for fruit rather than lumber. In fact, Walnut makes up only about 2% of available domestic hardwood. Its relatively limited availability combined with its general desirability make it one of the more valuable (and more expensive) domestic woods. This has sometimes led individuals to poach wild Black Walnut trees, and the forestry service has developed a number of methods, including DNA testing, to prosecute those guilty of this crime. For this reason, it is important to purchase Walnut only from reputable dealers who can confirm that it has been harvested legally and responsibly.


Black Walnut heartwood is generally dark to chocolate brown, sometimes with streaks of purple, reddish, or greenish hue. The sapwood, on the other hand, tends to be a fairly light yellow and the contrast, made stark by the trees’ very distinct growth rings, and is often taken advantage of by woodworkers to beautiful effect.

Black Walnut Heartwood and Sapwood
Black Walnut displays a beautiful contrast between heartwood and sapwood

Walnut wood also features a wider variety of figured grain patterns than most any other wood. These patterns, which include curl, crotch, burl, and more, give Walnut a striking character that its mostly straight, even grain would otherwise not display. This unique hardwood also tends to develop a rich patina over time and grows more lustrous, rather than duller, with age.

Because of its natural beauty, Walnut is rarely stained, and it is an excellent candidate for natural oil finishes, which bring out its unique qualities and enrich its hues. Especially in homes with lighter furniture or cabinetry, Walnut will create a beautiful contrast with the other wood in your home.


Though Black Walnut is not among the hardest species, rating 1010 on the Janka Hardness scale, it is considered a very durable wood. It shows an excellent resistance to decay and an appreciable stability, experiencing less seasonal movement than many of its counterparts.

Image credit:
Sauvie Island Oak photo by Ascending the Giants (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Hardwood Flooring Pets

What Species of Hardwood Flooring is Best for Homes with Dogs?

When it comes to choosing the right hardwood flooring for your home, many decisions need to be made:

  • What species?
  • What kind of finish?
  • How wide and long will the boards be?

And, several factors need to be considered in making those decisions:

  • Climate
  • Foot traffic
  • Cost
  • And, of course, pets

You need a floor that is going to be able to hold up under your household’s wear. If your family introduces a dog, particular species will tend to hold up better than others.

Two primary factors tend to be especially important when it comes to the compatibility of dogs and hardwood floors.  You want to choose wood that is hard enough to resist the scratches and dents that pet nails might leave on less durable woods and you want to consider a species with a grain pattern that will hide what scratches your wood and finish don’t manage to prevent.

In a recent survey of interior designers, we asked what species they most often recommend for homes with pets. Two of their most popular answers came as no surprise, but one caught us a little off-guard at first.

 Hardwood floor survey - pets

As you can see, three species stood out.


Oak is a tried a true favorite for hardwood floors.  Whit Oak is among the harder of the domestic woods and is well known for its resiliency and durability.  Oak is versatile and abundant, a great and affordable choice for homes with pets.

Hand-scraped Hickory is a great option to stand up to scratches and wear and mask damage from pet nails.


Hickory, another domestic hardwood, is a favorite for its extraordinary durability and dramatic grain patterns.  Significantly harder even than Oak, it also tends to have stark color variations that hide scratches exceptionally well.


This was the surprise entry for us, but given the uncommon hardness that results from strand weaving bamboo, we see why designers would recommend it. While not all bamboo is going to be good for homes with pets, strand woven varieties have rated as high as 3014 on the Janka hardness scale, more than 600 points higher than even Brazilian Cherry, one of the hardest woods commonly used for flooring.

Other tips for choosing a hardwood to handle pet traffic

  • Try to choose a stain that is similar to the natural color of the wood – this will keep scratches from showing up too starkly.
  • Though gloss finishes are going out of style, we thought it worth mentioning that these high-maintenance finishes are especially difficult to keep up in houses with pets.  A matte or semi-gloss finish will be a much better option if you have a dog.
  • Hand-scraped floors, on the other hand, continue to be a popular style choice and their texture works wonders for hiding scratches and dings that a dog’s nails can make in the wood.
  • Check out our earlier post for more tips about choosing the right hardwood for your dog.
  • Consider other aspects of your life to make the right hardwood flooring decision.
Hardwood Flooring Species

Species Profile: Hickory

President Andrew Jackson was known as “Old Hickory” because of the characteristic toughness he shared with the tree

Hickory’s density and toughness have made it an icon of domestic wood, used by the westward-bound pioneers in their wagon wheels, for the frames of early airplanes, in baseball bats, golf clubs, skis, tools – anything that needed a strong, reliable material that could take some serious abuse.

Hickory trees produce some of the hardest and toughest wood in North America.  Though more than a dozen species grow throughout the Northeastern and Southern United States, as well as areas of Canada and Mexico, only 8 are typically used in flooring.  The most popular of these is called Shagbark Hickory, or Carya ovata.  It is considered one of several “True Hickory” species (along with Pignut Shellbark, and Mockernut), which are somewhat denser and harder than their “Pecan Hickory” cousins (these include common Pecan as well as Water, Bitternut, and Nutmeg Hickory).  However, most of the Carya species are almost indistinguishable from one another in appearance once milled.

Hickory is one of very few species in North America to have survived the disastrous Glacial Epoch.  This puts it on the continent at least 50 million years ago, making it likely the very first North American hardwood species.  This is a good thing, since a Hickory tree can take as long as two centuries to fully mature.

“Traditional Bedroom” by Magnolia Building Supplies Olde Wood Ltd. in OH


One of Hickory’s most distinguishing features is its widely variant coloring.  The sapwood of Hickory tends to be very pale, almost white, while the heartwood is relatively dark, usually reddish brown.  Though it is possible to get Hickory in one or the other tone, it is most often cut to display both tones in a single board.  For this reason, wider planks are often preferred for Hickory, to display the beautiful colors and to avoid creating too busy an effect.


The grade and cut of your Hickory boards will make a big difference – bigger than with most woods – in its appearance.  Hickory must be carefully milled, not only because its density makes it difficult to cut, but because each cut must be made to best display the wood’s character.

If you are interested in Hickory primarily for its hardness and want a more consistent color, you will want to look for Select Grade.  #1 and 2 Common Grade Hickory will display more of the natural color variation, sometimes referred to as “calico”, as well as some knots and unique mineral streaking that give the wood its unique, rustic character.

Of all the woods out there, Hickory is one that shines the most in Character, or Country, Grade. This is because its coloring lends itself well to a rural, rustic look and the “flaws” in what is normally a lower grade wood, only serve to enhance this effect.   For this reason Country Grade Hickory is often used in place of antique wood flooring, which can be quite expensive and less durable.

Janka Hardness Test for Hardwood Flooring
Chart Source


As we mentioned, Hickory, particularly True Hickory, is one of the densest and hardest domestic woods.  With a Janka hardness rating of 1820 (Hard Maple comes in at 1450 and White Oak at 1360), it can withstand a great deal of wear and tear and is uncommonly resistant to typical dings and scratches.  This makes it an outstanding option for commercial spaces and for homes with families or pets, even large dogs.

However, this toughness comes at a price.  Hickory is not an ideal wood for the do-it-yourselfer.  It can be very difficult to cut and has been known to damage and break tools during installation.  Further, boards will tend to show sanding marks if this is not done just right.  Consequently, if you wish to have your Hickory floors finished onsite, you should definitely plan for the added expense of professional installation.


Experience seems to vary when it comes to staining Hickory.  Because its natural color variations are so appealing, people often choose to finish it without a stain.  Some, however, will use a light stain to help highlight this feature while others will try a darker stain to tone it down.

Hickory’s density can make staining tricky, though, and those desirable color variations can make the results unpredictable and uneven for all but the most experienced.  It takes a seasoned professional to apply stain in a way that will cause it to penetrate more than the very surface of the wood and to get an even stain across much older heartwood and less dense sapwood.

There is, of course, a simple solution to both staining a finishing difficulties – prefinished Hickory.  Though it may cost a little more initially, it will save time, trouble, and ultimately money to buy Hickory planks that have been cut and finished in the factory.


One of the few areas where Hickory can fall short is stability.  It has a higher tendency toward movement than many of its domestic counterparts and must be kiln-dried after milling.  For this reason, it is crucial to purchase Hickory only from reputable dealers and manufacturers who can guarantee that the boards have been dried properly.  Once delivered, the acclimation period recommended for any hardwood flooring is especially important in order to avoid warping.  If these precautions are taken, however, Hickory will prove plenty stable once installed.

Hickory at a Glance

  • Very hard (Janka 1820)
  • Great for pets and families
  • Distinctive color variation
  • Great for rustic or antique looks
  • Best purchased pre-finished, not DIY-friendly
Hardwood Flooring Home Decor Under-Floor Heating

How Hardwood Became America’s Favorite Flooring: A Popular History

Hardwood and the Rise of the American Middle Class

Roman Radiant heat infoBefore the 1600s: Europe
Hardwood is not for floors

Before the 1600s, wood flooring was not a thing.  This is not to say that no floors were made of wood, but most were made of dirt or stone.  In the more densely populated urban centers, where two-story buildings had begun to be constructed, the second floors were, of course, made of wood (usually oak or elm planks about 2 feet wide), but this was a matter of practicality, and little thought was given to them beyond this.

Baroque Era (the mid-1600s to early 1700s)
Hardwood is for Royal floors

It was not until the Baroque era that wood flooring came to be a matter of fashion; this was in no small part due to Louis XIV’s choice to install elegant parquet floors in the Palace at Versailles.  From that point forward, the royalty and very wealthy of Europe followed suit and fancy wood floors, some sporting 3D illusions, others modeled after those at Versailles, and others a bit simpler.

King’s Apartment, Versailles

Hardwood Flooring in Kings Apartment, Versailles via @macwoods

Floors like this one in one of the King’s apartments at Versailles started a craze that hasn’t stopped.  Throughout the areas of the Palace constructed by Louis XIV, parquet designs, many even more intricate than this, can still be found adorning the floors.  One of these, the parquet design in the Hall of Mirrors, is famous for the way it changes from light to dark, depending on the angle from which one views it. Parquet tiles in style shown here are still called “Versailles Parquet.”

These floors were laid over periods of several years by expert artisans, with each inlay or pattern piece carefully hand-crafted and placed. Once placed, any outlying bits would be scraped off; then the whole floor would be scrubbed with sand and polished to a shine.

During this time it became common among the burgeoning merchant class to install wood flooring that could be painted to imitate the ornate parquet floors that only the very wealthy could afford to construct.  While many of the parquet floors of the palaces and estates survive today, few of the painted imitations can still be found.

Colonial Era in North America (the 1700s)
Hardwood floors are for colonists

When European colonists began to arrive in North America, they were quick to take advantage of any number of the continent’s abundant natural resources.  One of these was its vast native hardwood forests.  Very soon, hardwood flooring was no longer for the rich.

The earliest colonial homes featured very basic plank floors made from local hardwoods or slow-growth pine.  Because of the age and consequent size of these trees, they contained more of the tight-grained heartwood.  This tight grain made the wood harder and more durable than the younger trees usually harvested today.  These massive trees also tended to yield wider planks, which, rather than being finished, would merely be worn smooth over time.

An article from Old House Online describes how these planks were made:


Converting the timber into usable lumber was an arduous process; the introduction of the circular saw was decades away, and the predominant method available to create dimensional boards was to pit-saw the logs into planks. This required two men: One stood in a pit beneath a huge log that had been squared with hand tools, while the other perched atop it. Working together, they pushed and pulled at opposite ends of a long-bladed saw, carefully following chalk lines that indicated the direction of the cut. These rough-sawn planks were finished with plain, squared edges; laid side by side; and face-nailed into the floor joists. The lumber was often left bare and was eventually burnished by years of use.

One of the most remarkable enduring examples of this early colonial flooring can still be seen in heart pine floors in the historic Bacon’s Castle in Virginia.

Bacon's Castle Hardwood Floors

As wood flooring came to be used more and more, several improvements were made to how it was cut and laid. For example, it was soon found that by using ship-lapping­ — ­a ­­method by which the edges of the board are cut into an “L,” allowing them to overlap one another— one could avoid gapping that otherwise occurred as seasons changed and as floors got worn-in.

During the latter part of the century, it also became popular to paint wood floors, not to imitate parquet as had been done in Europe a century earlier, but to continue the decorative motifs that began to adorn walls and furniture.  The checkerboard patterns you often see in restored colonial homes were a product of this trend.

Industrial Revolution (the mid-1700s to early 1800s)
Could hardwood floors be for everyone?

With the advent of steam-driven machines, finished lumber could, for the first time, be produced on a large scale.  No more did it take two men with a giant saw several hours to create a few planks. Now, lumber could be milled in set lengths and widths, without the rough and often uneven cuts of the pit saw.  It was during this time that we began to see the narrower floorboards that were common through the 19th and 20th centuries and are still so prevalent today.

Industrialization also saw an improvement in the ship-lapped boards with the advent of tongue-and-groove molding.  Where ship-lapping only provided a bit of cover when boards began to move, tongue and groove boards, made possible by the invention of the automated side-matcher, could not only be joined together but nailed down without leaving any nails exposed to attack bare feet or snag sweeping skirts.

Also from Old House:


Tongue-and-groove molding is a precise method of joining boards together along their lengths by fitting a protruding “tongue” on one board into a channel cut on the adjoining board. With tongue-and-groove installation, the nails are driven through the tongue, forcing the boards together; this also conceals the nail holes, creating an unmarred surface. The interlocking boards also were much more resistant to upward movement, which minimized irregular edges sticking up in the path of passing feet. Structural-grade tongue-and-groove floorboards, typically pine or lower-grade oak, were typically a uniform 6″ to 8″ in width, much narrower than the wider pit-sawn planks of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The side-matcher also made it possible to create hollow-backed boards, which were lighter and conformed better to subfloors, which were becoming more and more common.

Wall-to-wall carpet factDuring this time, though many homeowners continued to paint their floors to match their décor, it also became popular to lay tightly woven carpet over a hardwood floor.  Just as steam-powered mills had given a boon to the lumber industry, so too had the invention of the power loom made carpet more common and affordable.  It was around this time, then, that wall-to-wall carpet made its first inroad to the mainstream.

Victorian Era (the mid-1800s to early 1900s)
Hardwood floors ARE for everyone!

As the Victorian Era came into full swing, so did the hardwood flooring industry.  Parquet patterns began to make a comeback, though usually only in those rooms reserved for entertaining in the homes of the wealthy.  However, it was also during this period, and thanks to industrialization, that we began to see what we now think of as hardwood flooring (smooth, even, polished boards) in middle-class American homes.  Hardwood floors started to be advertised as literally for everyone and anyone.

This description of “wood carpeting” from is an excellent example of how far the hardwood industry began to reach.

gray-quotation-marks-squareA 1903 E. L. Roberts catalog shows “wood carpeting” consisting of 1 1/2″ by 5/16″ strips glued to a heavy cotton canvas. These came in rolls about 3 feet wide and were installed by tacking down each board every foot or so. They suggested many patterns of installation, most with fancy parquetry borders. Each of these small brads had to be set below the surface and filled. All these pieces were then scraped, sanded with the hand operated floor brush. This was a 25 pound block with natural bristles on it’s bottom. A broom handle attached, you pushed it across the floor, with sandpaper strapped to it. Slow but effective. Varnishes were usually slow curing tung oils introduced from China. These were not durable in themselves so the floors were hot waxed and buffed to a shine with the floor brush.

 The factory mills said in their ads “Any one familiar with the use of a saw, hammer and varnish brush can lay and finish them. A servant of average intelligence can keep parquetry floors as if they were newly laid with but little effort” Sure and at 10 cents an hour why not? These floors were touted as easy to install and yet as elegant as the time proven European parquetry. But few of these floors survive today. All that face nailing of small strips made for a squeaky and split-ridden floor. At the same time mass produced 3/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″ strip hardwood flooring was cheaply available at 10, 15 and 20 cents per square foot respectively.

Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor-Scrapers)
Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor-Scrapers) by Gustave Caillebotte, 1875

By contrast, quality hardwood floors were usually installed over concrete slabs and glued down with hot tar.  Then laborers were paid (a little) to scrape the floors smooth, sand them even smoother, then shellac, wax and buff them shiny.  It was also in the early 20th century that the herringbone pattern of wood flooring began to gain popularity.

 The 1920s and 1930s
Hardwood is for everyone, but not everyone is for hardwood

Wood remained the dominant choice for flooring in private homes, shops, and public buildings well into the 20th century.  However, during the 1920s and ‘30s, flooring materials like linoleum and cork, which tended to be less expensive, easier to maintain and, at the time, easier to install, started to give hardwood some distinguished competition.  In response, the hardwood industry made some advancements of its own, developing quicker-curing, harder varnishes and, finally, polyurethane finishes, eliminating the need for wax for the first time since hardwood floors were just a step up from dirt.

Post-WWII (the 1940s and ’50s)
Hardwood falls on hard times

Hardwood was able to hold its own against linoleum and cork, but when inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting became widely available following the Second World War, the hardwood industry took a hard hit. Carpet had long been coveted among the middle classes because it had, until now, only been affordable by the very rich.  Now, not only could average Americans afford to carpet their homes, but the cost of carpeting was often included in home loans.  Unfortunately, the response of the hardwood industry this time was a more desperate one. Many installers, forced to cut costs to offer competitive pricing, also began to cut corners and the quality of the beautiful floors they laid began to falter.  Wood flooring came once again to be seen as a lower-quality alternative to more popular materials, materials that now had become reasonably affordable to most homeowners.  Consequently, wall-to-wall carpet and linoleum continued to dominate the flooring market through the 1980s.

NWFA founding Board
In 1985, the National Hardwood Flooring Association (NHFA) was formed. One of its tasks has been to ensure that the kind of quality crisis that followed the carpet-craze after WWII never happens again.

The 1980s – 1990s
Hardwood makes a comeback

As the century drew to a close, the dark cloud that had lain over oak began to dissipate and, mainly as carpeting laid decades earlier began to need replacing, younger generations once again turned their eyes to the hardwood.  In many cases, they found, when they pulled up their carpet, which a decent hardwood floor lay beneath.  With modern finishing methods, it was not too complicated to bring these floors to a presentable state.  Consequently, the perfect plank looks slowly began to come back into style.

Hardwood is back on top

These days, more and more homebuilders are looking to hardwood to increase the value of new homes.  “Hardwood floors” has become a selling point for older homes and renovated apartments, and renovators go to great lengths to preserve original wood floors.  Our recent survey of designers nationwide showed that 84% percent of designers prefer to install hardwood when undertaking a project.

The advent and constant improvement of prefinished and engineered flooring over the past couple of decades have provided wood flooring more durable and more stable than ever before.  These advancements have also made self-installation a practical choice, finally marrying the convenience of Roberts’s “wood carpeting” with the quality of traditional hardwood floors.

Exotic hardwoods are imported from all over the world, and domestic hardwoods are harvested more and more sustainably.

New and trendy materials will no doubt continue to come and go, but when it comes to practical, lasting, beautiful floors, nothing compares to hardwood.

Final Thoughts

Are you planning on laying new floors in your home or perhaps buying a new house? If so, hardwood is a timeless option. It’s been sought after and trusted for centuries.



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