Eco-Friendly Flooring Hardwood Flooring

Is a Natural Oil Finish Right for Your Hardwood Floors?

Oil Finish Walnut Prefinished Engineered Hardwood Flooring
Oil-finished hardwoods like this beautiful walnut featured on are popular for their natural appearance.

Back in July, we took a look at the many options available for non-urethane hardwood finishes.  Among these, we briefly discussed penetrating oil sealers, which have been quickly gaining in popularity as natural and vintage looks have become increasingly desirable.  In fact, natural oil finishes have been common throughout Europe for quite some time and are used on about a third of hardwood floors there.  Consequently, many of the most trusted brands we use here in the U.S. were developed by manufacturers across the pond.  In this post, we will take a closer look at what makes natural oil finishes so appealing, their advantages and disadvantages, as well as some popular brands.

Penetrating oil sealers come in two basic varieties, natural oil, and hard wax oil finish, all of which will add value to your home.  The specific kinds of oils used and their proportions are what differentiate one brand from another.  Most use linseed or tung oil, or a combination of the two, as a base, but soy, sunflower, china wood, safflower, hemp, and other oils are also used.  Moreover, some formulas include resins or waxes (from carnauba, candelilla, or bees) to enhance durability.  “Danish oil” is a mixture of tung oil and varnish, which, though considered a penetrating oil sealer, has many different properties from natural and hard wax oil finishes.

A natural glow

One of the outstanding qualities of natural oil and, though to a slightly lesser degree, hard wax oil finishes is their ability to enhance the natural beauty of your wood floors.  Rather than resting on top of the wood and forming a protective barrier, as urethanes do, oil finishes soak into the wood and bond with it at a molecular level, making the wood itself stronger, but leaving its texture and color unobstructed.  Over time, they produce a patina that ages with the wood, so it never acquires the dull, outworn look that can occur with surface finishes.

Surprisingly durable

Hardwood enthusiasts accustomed to urethane finishes often express concern that a natural oil finish may leave wood vulnerable to greater wear and tear.  While it is true that with a penetrating finish wear does occur directly to the wood, modern oil finishes are much more resistant to wear than those originally used to condition hardwood.  What wear does occur tends not to upset the beauty of the floor as it would with surface finishes.  Scratches, even those made by your dog’s nails, tend to blend in with the texture of the wood because there is no surface layer to contrast with.  Moreover, any serious damage to the finish can almost invariably be spot repaired relatively easily, providing a huge advantage over surface finishes.

Oil finishes can also be refreshed from time to time as needed without any great hassle, unlike urethane finishes which must be removed completely and reapplied as though the wood had been laid down new.  With a properly maintained oil finish, you should never need to sand down your floors.  If reparability is the new sustainability, as many in the industry are saying, then natural oil finishes are the way to go.

green leaf icon smallSafe for your family and the environment

Visit any “green building” site, and you will almost certainly come across an article or two about the merits of natural oil finishes.  Most oil finishes release fewer volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) than other finishes.  Plus, as J. Neufeld of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide points out, “You could get away with never having to refinish your floor again. How’s that for sustainability?”

“If you’re airborne sensitive to VOCs, a natural finish is the only solution”, comments Organic 4 Green Living, “That’s why we’d always recommend the use of natural and organic products to refinish your floor”.

The downside

Most of the disadvantages of natural oil finishes have already been mentioned:

  • Any damage to the floor occurs directly to the wood, rather than to a replaceable (albeit troublesome to refinish) surface.
  • Penetrating finishes do require reapplication every few years and tend to produce some strong odors which may encourage you to vacate your home for a day or two (longer if you are sensitive to smells) while they dry.
  • Natural oil finishes do not offer much resistance to solvent damage from substances like cleansers, alcohol, and urine.  If cleaned up in a reasonable amount of time, this damage should be reparable without too much difficulty, but if you foster dogs or host a lot of keggers, you may want to consider something more durable, like a moisture-cured urethane.  Or concrete.
  • Some varieties require several coats for the initial application, which could require you to be out of the house for several days since each coat can take 24-48 to dry depending on the climate.  There are, however, a few one-coat oil finishes on the market and it is possible to get factory-finished natural oil flooring, though this is often only available through specialty distributors.
  • Even for those varieties that require only one coat, some have to be applied by hand with a rag or something similarly labor-intensive.  If you’re doing it yourself, consider the time and work required.  You may want to take a little vacation and have it done professionally instead.


Though few people would choose a natural oil finished based on this factor, many do appreciate that most oil-sealed floors can be damp mopped, a nice feature in food service environments or homes where sticky messes are frequent.  In general, you will need to use a special cleaner to mop your oil-finished floor (check with the finish manufacturer), but you can do so with confidence knowing that, not only will mopping not harm the finish, the special solution is actually designed to reinforce it.


For the most part, finishing your floor with an oil finish will not cost any more or less than a urethane finish.  You will need to “refinish” more frequently, but refinishing an oil finished floor is significantly less expensive than refinishing a floor with a polyurethane surface.

As we mentioned, it may also be more difficult and more expensive to purchase prefinished flooring with a natural oil finish, and most of this will be engineered.  Prefinished solid wood with a natural oil finish is available but can be very difficult to find.  It should be noted, however, that the added durability provided by factory-applied urethane finishes does not apply to pre-applied natural oil finishes.  The only advantages of pre-applied oil finish are that your installation will be completed more quickly and the odor common to natural oils will have already dissipated.


Unlike urethane finishes, natural oil and hard wax oil finishes often come in a variety of tints, eliminating the need for a stain.  The finish will tend to be a matte to satin.  A gloss finish can be achieved by applying a coating of wax to an oil-finished floor, but we do not recommend this course.  Wax requires a great deal of upkeep once applied and negates many of the benefits of a natural finish.  If a glassy look is what you want, better to go with a urethane.

Rubio Monocoat
This “Cherry Coral” finish from Rubio Monocoat is one of more than 40 color choices available from the company.

Some popular brands

These are the manufacturers most often mentioned in conversations about oil finishes:


Not sure what finish to choose?  Come on into MacDonald Hardwoods and talk to one of our experts about what finish might be right for you.


Hardwood Flooring

Choosing Hardwood for Your Kitchen

Often, when people think of flooring for the kitchen, their minds immediately go to tile or linoleum. These materials have been common in kitchens for some time, and, especially in the case of tile, are popular for their durability, ease of cleaning, and resistance to spills. However, what many people don’t consider is that the right hardwood with the right finish can be nearly as durable and longer lasting, just as easy to clean, and, perhaps surprisingly, just as resistant to damage from spills. Plus, hardwood has the advantage of being a timeless choice and can really help to tie your kitchen in to the rest of your house.


Studio 212 Maple floor kitchen
Check out some of the beautiful hardwood floors in these kitchens at

Ask almost any interior designer and they will tell you that, if you can have hardwood throughout your home, get hardwood throughout your home—including in the kitchen. In fact, in our 2015 survey of 81 designers spread across the U.S., 78% said that they prefer to install wood flooring throughout the home, rather than in select areas.  Especially with an open floor plan, a beautiful hardwood can create a desirable continuity from room to room. Moreover, unlike tile, hardwood is less subject to changes in fads and trends, so the hardwood you choose today will still look tasteful and stylish 10, 20, and 30 years down the road. During that time, you can also refinish the floors to create a new look, should you desire. Removing and replacing tile, on the other hand, is a much bigger, messier, and more expensive ordeal.


Many homeowners express concern about potential damage to hardwood floors, especially in the kitchen where liquid spills may be common and traffic tends to be especially high. The truth is, any flooring is susceptible to damage from serious spills, even tile, which can stain and crack just like hardwood can warp and scratch. A few simple precautions, however, can prevent most damage.


Your primary line of defense against water damage as well as dents and dings is your finish. For hardwoods in the kitchen, you will probably want to use a water-based polyurethane finish, as these are, somewhat ironically, going to be best at repelling water.

You will want to consult with your contractor or one of our flooring experts to decide whether you prefer to use factory prefinished boards or have your floors finished onsite. The finishes applied by the manufacturer are going to be the toughest and most durable you can get, but will leave seams somewhat more susceptible to spills. Having your floors finished onsite means that the finish will be applied over the whole floor at once, sealing those seams, but the technology used to create those super-durable finishes in the factory are, of course, not available for onsite finishing.


In the areas where water is most likely to drip onto the floor, like in front of the sink, dishwasher, and refrigerator, lay down a couple of waterproof mats that will prevent water from being left standing on your hardwood. As long as you make sure major spills are cleaned up right away, you can rest easy. A splash of water or spaghetti sauce on your floor isn’t going to soak through your finish unless it is left to sit for a while.

Janka Hardness Test for Hardwood Flooring
Chart Source

Wood choice

Because the kitchen tends to be such a high traffic area, it is generally a good idea to choose one of the harder domestic hardwoods like Oak or Ash for flooring in this area of the house. Though there are some exotic species that are significantly harder, their tropical origins often make them somewhat less stable when it comes to their reaction to moisture in the environment.

You should also give careful consideration to whether you want to use solid or engineered flooring. There are advantages to either. Solid flooring will allow you to refinish more than once or twice, which can significantly extend the life (and versatility) of your floors. However, because the grain in solid wood runs all in one direction, it is more susceptible to expansion from moisture. For this reason, many people choose to go with engineered wood for the kitchen because of its stability.  Learn more about engineered hardwood here.


One thing that almost all experts will tell you is that, for a kitchen, or any room, really, with high traffic, you will want to go with a species and finish that are lighter in color. These will tend to show scratches and dings much less than darker floors. Designers also recommend that you choose a floor that will contrast with cabinets and furniture. So, if you have solid white cabinets, you may want to choose something like * that has a strongly patterned grain. On the other hand, if your cabinets are naturally finished pine, you might want to choose something like * that is a little darker (though still light enough to hide scratches) and has a bit more red to its tone.


One of the things that homeowners with hardwood floors in the kitchen consistently mention is that it is much easier on their feet and back. The lower density of wood, even hardwood, means that it has a degree of give that tile and stone, and even linoleum, do not have. Though the variance may seem slight when you, say, wrap on the floor with your knuckles, those who spend a lot of time on their feet in the kitchen can almost always tell the difference.


It is often a surprise to homeowners when they discover that installing hardwood in their kitchen would cost no more than installing the tile they have chosen. This is for a couple of reasons. First, tile cannot be installed over just any subfloor, so extra work—expensive work—is often required to prepare floors to support tile. Homeowners sometimes also find that to purchase tiles of the quality they are looking for—durable, stylish, easy to maintain—will cost more than to purchase a comparable amount of hardwood, which almost universally carries these qualities.


While it is always important to clean your hardwood floors regularly, this is not the major chore it is sometimes made out to be. A simple run with a dust mop or vacuum a couple of times a week and occasional cleaning with a quality hardwood floor cleaner is all the regular maintenance you should need. On top of this, you need only be sure to clean up spills and dirt right away and protect high-traffic areas in front of doors and under pet bowls with rugs and mats, just as you would with any other floor surface. And with hardwood, you don’t have the trouble of cleaning grout or getting stains out of a textured surface, which can be a real challenge, especially over time.

Consider Cork

Another option that has become popular for the kitchen is cork flooring. People enjoy cork in the kitchen because it creates the warm feeling of natural wood, but is even easier on the feet and joints than hardwood. It also tends to cushion falling dishes and jars and recovers well from dents and dings, which can be helpful in a busy kitchen. Professionally installed, cork can easily be sealed to resist spills and splashes and, though not as durable as hardwood, it is nearly as long-lasting as tile and much less difficult to replace when the time comes.  If you’re interested, check out our post about the origins, features, and varieties of cork flooring.

Hardwood Flooring Hardwood Maintenance Pets

Hardwood, Pets, and Vacuuming: 6 Most Recommended Machines

In the first part of this two-part series, we offered general floor maintenance advice to consider when choosing a vacuum for your hardwood, especially if you have pets around.  These days, more and more manufacturers are coming out with vacuum cleaners that claim to work miracles on the dirt, hair, and general messes that animals can leave around the house.

Unfortunately, many of these are designed more for carpet and upholstery and can be ineffective on bare floors and even cause damage to your hardwood. While some homeowners and landlords opt not to allow pets in their homes, this isn’t always an option — our furry friends are more than often part of the family. So, you need to know your best vacuum and cleaning options.

Several machines are great for cleaning both hardwood and carpets/ upholstery.  To help you pick the best, we did some research and came up with the list below.  Of course, no poll of this kind can be truly complete, and we know that a lot of variables besides the ones mentioned factor in when it comes to choosing the right vacuum cleaner.  But in case you’re not up for hours of internet research and on-site testing, here are what we found to be the most recommended vacuum cleaners specifically designed or easily adjusted for use on hardwood floors that also offer the power and flexibility needed for cleaning up after pets.


Cord length
Accessories / Features
What makes it great
BissellPowerEdge Pet Hard Floor Corded Vacuum, 81L2A (or 81L2T)Stick- Bagless$507.5 lbs20 ft
  • squeegee strip in place of standard bristles
  • Swivel head
Recommended across the board; designed for bare and wood floor surfaces but can also vacuum area rugs and low pile carpeting; V-shaped design offers wide and precise cleaning angle; superior suction takes care of even larger debris like pet food and litter
Eureka3670G Mighty Mite Canister VacuumCanister$60-708.6 lbs20 ft
  • Blower Port
  • Bare Floor Brush
  • Crevice Tool
  • Dusting Brush
  • Bag lasts 3 – 6 mos.
Recommended across the board; can also be used as a blower; very versatile, can be used all around the house (drapes, floors, garage, furniture)
MieleS2121 Olympus Canister Vacuum CleanerCanister$32911 lbs21 ft (29.5 ft operating radius)
  • Retractable cord
  • crevice nozzle
  • dusting brush
  • upholstery tool
  • self-closing dustbag collar
Recommended across the board; powerful motor; very versatile; built to last; 7-Year Warranty
HooverLinx Cordless Stick Vacuum Cleaner, BH50010Stick- Bagless$130-1807.3 lbsCordless;
15 – 20 min average battery runtime, takes about 3 hrs to fully charge
  • interchangeable battery with charger
  • convenient brushroll on/off switch
  • Fuel Gauge registers remaining battery life
  • edge cleaning bristles
  • wide cleaner mouth
  • extreme recline handle and low-profile base to reach far under furniture easily
  • bottom release dirt cup


Frequently recommended; removable battery and separate charger mean you don’t have to find a place for a dock; picks up everything from pet hair to Cheerios, no problem; surprisingly powerful; can also be used on short and mid-pile carpeting
HooverAir Cordless Series 3.0 Bagless Upright Vacuum, BH50140Upright- Bagless$300Less than
10 lbs
50 minutes average battery runtime 
  • swivel head
  • special hard floor brush roll
  • removable cleaning wand
  • pivoting dusting tool
  • 2-in-1 cleaning tool
  • high capacity bottom-release dirt cup
Frequently recommended; also does a great job on carpet and rugs; 5-Year Limited Warranty on Vacuum and Batteries
SharkNavigator Lift-Away Professional Upright (NV356E)Upright-Bagless$150-18014.0 lbs
(full unit); canister is 8.0 lbs
on its own
30 ft
  • Never-Lose-Suction technology
  • Swivel Steering
  • Lift-away portable canister
  • Brushroll on/off capability
  • Anti-Allergen Complete Seal Technology™
  • Dust-Away™ hard floor attachment
  • premium pet power brush
  • extra-long crevice tool
  • lifetime HEPA filter
Frequently recommended; great for all types of floors; one of the best vacuums for allergy sufferers; the portable lift-away canister turns the upright into a lightweight canister, great for stairs, drapes, etc.; 5-Year Warranty

BONUS Coming Soon (we hope):  Though it is not on the market in the U.S. yet, we understand from Dyson Japan that the new Dyson Fluffy (DC74) may be the hardwood vacuum cleaner of our dreams.  It has a soft roller made of tiny microfiber bristles in place of traditional upright brush rollers, enabling it to wipe the dust off the floor without scratching.  Combine that with Dyson’s signature mastery of cordless, lightweight machines with powerful suction, and, well, it’s hard to imagine anything better.  You can check out the preview of the Fluffy at Gizmodo.

Hardwood Flooring Hardwood Maintenance Pets

Hardwood, Pets, and Vacuuming: General Advice

Here at MacDonald Hardwoods, we get a lot of questions about how to choose the right hardwood for a home with pets.  But what about maintaining your hardwood once you and your pets move in?

The key to keeping hardwood beautiful, pets or no pets, is keeping it clean.  When dust is allowed to accumulate on your hardwood, it becomes like very fine sandpaper underfoot, slowly rubbing away the finish and causing your floor to appear dull and uneven.  One of the best ways to do that, especially when dogs or cats are tracking dirt and dust around throughout the day, is to vacuum or dry mop several times a week.

What to use?  Well, we have a favorite dry mop that we recommend and even sell in our store, but there are a variety of options. Try to make sure that, whatever you use, the head is made of soft cotton, terry, or microfiber cloth that will attract even the smallest dust particles and will not scratch your finish.   Also, whether mopping, sweeping or vacuuming, always try to go with the grain of the wood; this will enable you to capture those little bits that may have filtered down between boards or into the ridges.

More and more often, people have started using vacuum cleaners to remove dust, dirt, and pet hair from their hardwood floors.  They can be more effective for getting the smaller particles out from between hardwood planks and for getting into the tight areas where the wood meets the wall.  Many vacuum cleaners also have filters designed to remove allergens, including pet dander, from the environment.  There are some things to be careful of when using a vacuum cleaner on your hardwood, though.


First and foremost, never use the beater brush typical of most vacuum cleaners on a bare floor.  Not only will it scatter dust and debris away from the suction of the vacuum, the hard, but powerfully spinning bristles will also cause damage to hardwood finishes.  Most modern vacuum cleaners have a switch that allows you to raise or still the rotating brushes.  Many also have unique heads or pads designed especially for hardwood that can be attached to the vacuum hose or cleaning head.


You will want to make sure that any wheels that will be rolling over the surface of your floor use higher-quality rubber, rather than cheap plastic.  The hard plastic can easily scratch hardwood.  Even rubber wheels should be checked to make sure they are free of debris before they come in contact with your floors.  It is for this reason that canister vacuum cleaners are often more popular with hardwood floors owners, as their bulk remains relatively stationary while you clean.


With pets, you also want to consider whether your vacuum cleaner is powerful enough and designed to pick up larger debris like pet food, kitty litter, or the unrecognizable remains of whatever it was your new puppy just devoured.  If you try to clean these things up with a low-quality vacuum, you will end up pushing and dragging them around under the machine, leaving a mess at best and damaging your hardwood.  It is better to gently sweep debris up before vacuuming or to use a machine specifically designed with this in mind (we mention a few below).


An increasing number of vacuum cleaners these days utilize a bagless collection method, which allows you remove a canister, empty it out, and replace it for reuse.  Some of these, though, can cause a real mess when you open them.  You want to make sure that your vacuum’s disposal process is not going to make an even bigger mess than what you started out with, so consider machines that use bags or that have self-sealing collars or dust cups and smooth-release mechanisms.


When vacuuming carpeting, having the extra weight of a sturdy upright can be helpful for getting down to the grit that tends to get embedded in the pad and deep fibers.  The opposite is true for bare floors.  With hardwood, you want a machine that is light and agile.   Everything you need to clean is right there on the surface, so you don’t need the extra weight, and the heavier your vacuum cleaner, the more likely it is to cause scratches as it rolls over the floor, especially on turns.

There is a lot of information out there about which vacuum cleaners are best for hardwoods floors, and there is a lot of information about which ones are best for collecting pet hair and other pet-related debris.   Check out our Guide to the Most Recommended Machines to learn more about which vacuum cleaners seem to excel at both.


Hardwood Flooring Home Decor Species

Exotic Hardwood: African, Asian, & Australasian Species

As you may have noticed, this month we’ve been focusing on exotic hardwoods.  While South American varieties are by far the most popular, there are a few species from other parts of the world that have also made an impression on the hardwood flooring scene.  Here we offer one final installment in our exotic hardwoods series—a look at some popular species from Africa. Asia and Australasia.


Wenge (African Rosewood, Faux Ebony)

Wenge is one of the darkest natural woods available for hardwood flooring.  At its heart, from which most clear grade wood for flooring it can be almost black, hence the name “faux ebony”.  Its grain is very similar to that of Red Oak, but it is about 26% harder than the North American species.  Like most exotic hardwood, Wenge is typically milled prior to export and can be very difficult to acquire in lengths longer than 7 feet.  Since Wenge is rare to begin with, special orders of the raw lumber are uncommonly costly.

Grown in the Congo region of Central Africa and the southern regions of Tanzania and Mozambique, Wenge is not as abundant as other exotic hardwoods and is highly prized for its uniquely dark color.  It is also a durable wood that resists denting and daily wear, but it can swell significantly if not carefully acclimated prior to installation.

African Padauk (Vermillion)

Usually pronounced “pah-DUKE”, this strong, stable wood is one of the more abundant African hardwoods, though it is not nearly as common as its South American counterparts.  When first milled, it tends to be reddish-orange at its heart, but changes dramatically in color over time, darkening to deep purplish brown or even close to black.  UV-inhibiting finishes can delay this effect, but eventually, all Padauk will shift from the brighter orange-ish to a darker reddish brown.

Grown in the tropical regions of Central and Western Africa, Padauk is one of the few exotic hardwoods sometimes milled in the U.S. and Canada.  Its grain is usually straight and, in a quartersawn variety, it displays ribbons of color similar to those of Brazilian Cherry.


This is one of the most distinctive hardwoods out there and really lives up to the exotic classification.  Though its rarity and resulting high price make it a rare choice for large spaces, zebrawood flooring is not unheard of.  As one might imagine from its name, zebrawood has a pronounced and unusual grain that creates stripes of blonde and very dark brown, reminiscent of the stripes of a zebra.  Depending on how the wood is cut, these “stripes” may be chaotic and wavy (plain sawn) or quite straight and uniform (quartersawn).

Zebrawood has been considered a luxury wood for decades, showing up in places like Cadillac Mercedes automobiles, high-end decorative furniture, and all over Prada’s flagship Manhattan store.  Unfortunately, its popularity has led to its becoming endangered in its native West Africa and responsible hardwood flooring distributors, including MacDonald Hardwoods, rarely carry it.  However, a similarly striped wood called Tigerwood, which is grown in South America and is somewhat more abundant, can sometimes be easier to find.

Australia and Southeast Asia

Jarrah (Eucalyptus)

Jarrah is one of many varieties of Eucalyptus found in Australia.  It is a popular choice for flooring because of its hardness and durability as well as the variety of color it offers, ranging from shades of red to grey tones.  Though its grain is mostly consistent, it often features beautiful darker streaks and sometimes creates small knots and pitch pockets, giving it a unique character.

The color of Jarrah tends to change very little over time, but it is a less stable wood when it comes to moisture and, like Wenge, must be carefully acclimated prior to installation.  Jarrah flooring is usually available in Select and #1 Common grades.  Only the #1 Common grade generally displays the characteristic knots and pitch pockets.


Exceptional among exotics for its stability, Merbau is a hard and durable wood with a coarse grain displaying interlocking patterns of both wavy and straight lines.  Its coloring ranges between yellow- and orange-brown, often with golden streaks, and tends to vary from board to board and even within planks.  Exposure will eventually darken the wood to a more chocolaty brown with a reddish tint.

Merbau grows throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand as well as in several Pacific islands and the northern part of Queensland in Australia.

Australian Cypress

Australian Cypress is one of the paler exotic hardwoods, honey-colored at its heart and a light cream in the sapwood.  Though treated as a hardwood because of its, well, hardness, the Australian Cypress is technically a softwood like pine.  But don’t let that deter you.  While it is not as hard as some of the exotic woods we have discussed, it is one of the hardest conifers in the world, harder than Northern Red Oak, and has proven durability.

The grain of Australian Cypress wood tends to be straight and fairly consistent, interrupted periodically with tight knots throughout.  Like other woods from this region it is exceptionally stable and is a great choice if you are looking for the bright warmth of pine, but need something a little tougher.


Also lighter than many popular exotic hardwoods, Teak, which grows throughout Southeast Asia, is a very stable, though somewhat softer wood.   It ranges from a pale cream color at its sapwood to golden brown at its heart.  Like many kinds of wood, Teak does tend to darken with exposure to the sun, but it rarely becomes darker than a rich brown.

For a softer wood (still comparable in hardness to most North American hardwoods), Teak is a remarkably durable wood and is often reclaimed and repurposed for decorative arts.  Natural resins in Teak lend it an uncommon resistance to water and insect damage, making it a popular choice for bathrooms, kitchens, and outdoor decks.  It has even been a popular wood for shipbuilding over the centuries.

Of course, there are many, many exotic hardwoods on the market today.  These are some of the most common and popular for hardwood flooring, and our specialists at MacDonald Hardwoods would be happy to talk to you about any of these, or others, to help you find the wood the is right for your home.

Hardwood Flooring Species

Exotic Hardwood: South American Species

As we explained in our introduction to exotic hardwoods, this term refers to any wood harvested from forests outside of North America, effectively outside of the U.S. and Canada.  Because that encompasses most of the world, it will take more than one post to cover even the most popular exotic hardwood species.  We thought a good way to break it down might be to talk about woods species by continent.  Since Brazil is one of the largest producers of exotic hardwoods for the U.S., we’ll begin in this post by exploring some of the species grown there and in other parts of South America.  But keep an eye out, information about woods from Africa, Asia, and other places is soon to follow.

Brazilian Cherry (Jatoba)

Brazilian Cherry is by far the most popular of the exotic hardwood species.  Its rich red or orange-brown heartwood along with its unique grain patterns, which often include bold dark streaks, make it appealing to homeowners looking for a little something extra in their flooring.  Unlike many species, Brazilian Cherry (which is not really cherry at all and more closely resembles Mahogany than Cherry Wood) tends to grow richer in color over time.  It is also one of the most durable hardwoods out there, more than 80% harder than popular Northern Red Oak, and considerably more stable.  Plus, because of its density, it tends to be resistant to decay and insect damage.

Jatoba is common throughout many parts of South America and tends to be sustainably harvested.  Its abundance means that it is readily available in the U.S. and relatively inexpensive.  However, because it is more cost effective to ship milled rather than raw lumber, lengths and widths can be limited to what fits easily into shipping containers.  If very long or very wide planks are desired, raw lumber must be specially ordered and can quickly become quite expensive.

Purpleheart (Amaranth)

Purpleheart gets its name from the distinctly violet shade that its heartwood takes on as it ages.  Its unusual color is showcased in a fine, straight and uncommonly consistent grain, and it has become a popular wood for contemporary spaces in which a touch of dramatic elegance is desired.  Because oil-based finishes will tend to darken the wood into a more run-of-the-mill brown, it is best finished with a water-based finish that will help to maintain its natural color.  Purpleheart is not as hard as Brazilian Cherry, but it is even more stable and is still harder than most domestic species.

Harvested primarily in the Amazon Basin through sustainable methods, Purpleheart is not as abundant as Jatoba, but is not endangered nor rare.  Because it is generally required in smaller quantities, it is usually shipped raw and made to order, making it more expensive than more common exotics.  Normally, it is sold as an unfinished solid, but if your heart is set on pre-finished or engineered, our staff at MacDonald Hardwoods is always on hand to help you get what you need.

Santos Mahogany (Cabrueva)

Like Brazilian Cherry, Santos Mahogany’s name can be misleading.  Though its color, typically a dark reddish brown, resembles Mahogany and evokes the same sense of sophistication and elegance, it is not, in fact, even in the same family of trees as true Mahogany.  Native to Southern Mexico and Central and South America, it is far more abundant than its name sake, and is almost three times as hard.  It also boasts the impressive stability of its continental brethren.  Unlike Brazilian Cherry and Purpleheart, the rich colors of Santos Mahogany, usually displayed in beautiful ribbon patterns as a result of its interlocked grain, change very little over time.  It is no wonder that this beautiful, durable wood is second only to Brazilian Cherry in popularity when it comes to exotic hardwood flooring.

Patagonian Rosewood (Curupay)

Patagonian Rosewood is among the hardest woods available for flooring.  It is a lighter wood, usually with a rich pink, tan, or yellow tinge, but with darker brown and nearly black streaks that lend it its exotic appeal.   Like Brazilian Cherry, it is usually milled in South America and must be ordered to suit if wider or longer planks are needed.  Patagonian Rosewood, which grows primarily in Bolivia and Paraguay, tends to be more difficult to obtain as raw lumber than Brazilian species, however.

This species is one that tends to darken dramatically to a deep brown color as it is exposed to sunlight over time, though water-based finishes can help to preserve the natural color.  Because of its extreme density, it is rarely troubled by decay or insect damage

Of course, South America produces numerous hardwood species, most of which are available in the States.  These four, however, tend to be the most popular for flooring in particular because of their hardness, their unique colors and patterns, and their ready availability from sustainable sources.

Have a question about one of these exotic hardwoods, or one you don’t see on the list?  Give our experts a call.  We’ll be happy to give you the grand tour.


Hardwood Flooring Home Decor Species

Learn the Basics of Exotic Hardwood Flooring

In one of our September posts, we took a look at a few of the more popular domestic woods used for hardwood flooring.  This month, we wanted to explore some of the exotic hardwood species that have become popular for flooring in recent years.

Though the word “exotic” may call to mind wild jungles and hard-to-reach rainforests, in fact, when we’re talking about wood, it just refers to any species grown outside of North America.   Many of the species most familiar to you fall into this category, including mahogany, teak and rosewood.  While many exotic species do originate in the tropics, there are a few that come from other places as well.  We will get into the origins of specific species later, though.

Why do people choose exotic woods?

Tiger wood
Many exotic hardwoods, like this tigerwood, have a very distinctive color and grain.


Most exotic wood species have a color and grain that is very distinct, and much different from those found in domestic woods, which tend to be a bit more consistent and subtle.  Many exotic hardwoods show a striking difference in color from heartwood to sapwood, from board to board, or, as with zebrawood and tigerwood , even from grain to grain.  Consequently, a hardwood floor made from an exotic species tends to make a bolder statement and be more striking in home, though always with the characteristic warmth of wood.


Taken as a whole, exotic hardwoods tend to be denser and harder than domestic woods, testing higher on the Janka hardness scale in the majority of cases.  This lends strength and durability to their inherent beauty, enabling simpler finishes that let that beauty shine through.  They also tend to require less maintenance as a result, and their unique grain patterns often hide scuffs and scratches better than more uniform domestic species.  Of course, modern advances in the industry tend to ensure that any hardwood, exotic or domestic, is likely to last a lifetime and longer.

What are the challenges of exotic hardwood?

Color changes

As you have probably learned by now, any wood species should be expected to change color over time, especially if exposed to the sun’s UV light.  Many exotic wood species seem to have a higher tendency toward such changes, and the difference is often more dramatic than in most domestics.  Before you choose a species, you should talk to one of the professionals here at MacDonald Hardwoods to be sure you know what to expect as your floors age.

Resistance to finishes

The density that lends exotic hardwoods their hardness can also make them resistant to added color or complex finishes.  Fortunately, most people who opt for exotic hardwood do so for its natural coloring, and often opt for protective oil-based finishes rather than stains or polyurethanes.  If you do choose to finish your exotic hardwood, do your research and make sure that your finish is known to take well on the specific species you’ve chosen.

Less stability

Remember, tropical woods are far from home in North America.  They come largely from climates that are fairly consistent in temperature and high in humidity.  They are not always well adapted, then, for the drastic changes in both temperature and humidity experienced throughout most of the U.S.  For this reason, it is especially important that exotic hardwood flooring be installed by someone with experience in accommodating the higher expansion and contraction rates of these reactive woods.  It may also be advisable to choose an engineered variety over a solid exotic hardwood, as an engineered plank will consist largely of more stable woods, with a layer of your beautiful exotic on top.


In general, the more popular exotic hardwoods are widely available as both engineered and solid flooring, but, especially if you are shopping for hardwoods online or in catalogs, it is best to visit a showroom before setting you heart on a specific wood.  The availability of your favorite species can depend on the trends in your area as well as situations in the woods country of origin, including their ability to enforce sustainable harvesting practices.  You may find that the species at the core of your decorative scheme is in short supply this year and only available in a few sizes or has to be shipped so far that the added cost becomes unreasonable.  So, when thinking about exotics, try to stay flexible.

Are exotic hardwoods harvested with the health of the environment in mind?

You noticed we mentioned sustainable harvesting practices.  All around the world, the lumber industry is working with governments, environmentalists, trade organizations to ensure that sustainable practices are put in place and maintained.

Recently, the Lacey Act, which has regulated lumber production practices in the United States for more than a century, was extended to include lumber harvested overseas.  The Act expressly prohibits all trade in plant and plant products (furniture, paper, lumber, etc.) illegally here or abroad, including wood from trees that have been taken against the will of the landowner or without proper authorization or have been harvested from officially protected areas.  Those bringing lumber into the country must provide proof of provenance, declaring the country of origin of harvest and species name of all plants contained in their products.

Of course, the degree to which areas are protected varies from country to country, but organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council are making it easier to ensure that exotic hardwoods are ethically harvested by following their path of production and giving lumber that passes muster their seal of approval.

You can read more about where wood flooring comes from in our earlier post on the subject, here.


Ready to take the exotic wood plunge?

Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for more on some specific species that are sure to make your heart flutter and, in the meantime, take a look at some of the exotic hardwoods in the MacDonald Hardwoods gallery.

Tigerwood image by Jim_K-Town via flickr, some rights reserved.

Hardwood Flooring Species

The Most Popular Domestic Hardwoods Used on Floors

As you can probably surmise from the term, domestic hardwoods are woods from trees that grow in North American forests, primarily in the United States and Canada.  These woods comprise some 20 species, mostly grown in the eastern part of the continent where the climate and soil is most suitable for deciduous forests (deciduous trees are the ones with large, broad leaves that change color and fall off in autumn and are the ones that produce denser “hard” wood).

Chart provided by the American Hardwoods Information Center

The domestic hardwoods most commonly used for flooring are:

  • Red Oak
  • White Oak
  • Maple
  • Hickory
  • Black Walnut
  • Cherry
  • Beech
  • Ash

In the U.S., more than half of all hardwood-producing trees are oak, which grows naturally from New England to Mississippi.  Oaks nearest competitors are Ash, which makes up only about 11%, and Maple at 8%, while Ash, Cherry, Alder and other species each make up less than 5%, some significantly less.  Altogether, these trees make up about 40% of the trees in the U.S.

Domestic hardwoods typically have a warmer look and feel and are a bit more understated than bold exotics.  Though exotic species have their place, domestic wood species are coming back into favor in the United States as preferences turn towards natural and rustic looks and toward “buying local” in general.  In a recent survey of designers from across the country, almost all of the respondents indicated a domestic species as their hardwood of choice, 43% choosing time-tested classic Oak, 15% percent Walnut, and 14% Hickory.  Domestic species are also likely to be more budget-friendly since they do not have to go through lengthy and sometimes expensive importation processes.  Plus, it is much easier to ensure that the harvesting of domestic woods has been done in accordance with best practices for sustainability and forest health.

Red Oak

As by far the most abundant domestic hardwood, it is no wonder that Oak in general is also the most popular choice for flooring in this country, and Red Oak in particular.  Besides being abundant, and consequently more affordable, Red Oak is one of the most stain-friendly woods around.  This means that you can create whatever look you want without breaking the bank, and can change the look later with a simple sand a refinish.  Red Oak typically displays moderate to heavy graining with modest color variations.  Its natural color tends to range from light creamy reddish pinks (hence “Red” Oak) to shades of brown.  And, with a Janka rating of about 1290, Red Oak tends to hold up well under wear but be flexible enough to not crack and split under pressure.

White Oak

Like its tinted sister, White Oak is plentiful and stains well.  Its graining is similar and its color variation moderate, but unlike Red Oak, White Oak tends to be more golden brown to gray in color.  White Oak is also harder (1360 on the Janka scale), and has proven an exceptionally stable hardwood, a big bonus for flooring.


Grown primarily in Canada and the northern regions of the U.S., Maple is an especially popular choice for contemporary spaces these days.  Though it does not take stain as well as Oak, its creamy natural color, subtle grain pattern, and minimal color variation make it perfect for natural-finish floors.  Because Maple timber is less porous, with a Janka rating of 1450 (one of the reasons it is less welcoming to stains), it tends to be somewhat more resistant to dents and scratches.


Hickory, maple, and walnut were all strong sellers this year.  It seems that Hickory especially is becoming increasingly popular for engineered flooring. This is likely because, when manufactured just so, hickory produces a beautiful, rustic appearance that has become very popular in recent years.


Also known as American Black Walnut and variations thereon, Walnut is one of the most beautiful and sophisticated hardwood species grown in North America.  The heartwood and sapwood of Walnut vary greatly in color, with the wood from the innermost part of the tree ranging from rich deep brown to almost purplish black.  By contrast, wood from the outer rings of the tree tends to be tan to nearly white.  Most often, Walnut flooring will have a straight, open grain, but it is also known for the swirling, burled patterns that sometimes appear.  Though it is not as hard as some of the other hardwoods (only 1010 on the Janka scale), if you are seeking a refined, classy look for your floors, Walnut may be a good choice.


Like Maple, Cherry is a dense hardwood with a very subtle grain that is usually left unstained.  Less dramatic than its popular exotic counterpart, Brazilian Cherry, American Cherry has a natural reddish brown color that tends to deepen over time and brings an appealing warmth and richness to a room.


Beech is one of the lighter feeling domestic hardwoods.  It ranges from pale white to reddish brown and has a fine, straight grain, giving it a relatively uniform texture.  With a Janka rating of around 1300, it is easily as durable as Red oak but creates a more open, airy feel because of its pale color and understated texture.


Like Walnut, Ash ranges significantly in color from heartwood, which can be anywhere from light tan to dark brown, to sapwood, which is creamy white.  Yellower in tone than other pale woods like White Oak and Beech, Ash is great for bringing warmth to a room while maintaining a light, open feel.

Hardwood Flooring

2014 in Hardwood Flooring Take Us Back to a Bygone Age

Hardwood is always a solid choice when you’re looking for flooring that will withstand the test of time.  But you also want a floor that fits the look of your home, something that suits your particular sense of style here and now.  These days, this is easily achieved.  With the huge variety of finishes, stains, plank sizes, and species of hardwood now available, you get the best of both worlds—versatility and longevity.

So what’s trending in hardwood flooring?  Well, while traditional hardwood floors never go out of style, there are some interesting alternatives popping up in design and trade magazines of late.

A hearkening back to old school, vintage styles can be seen in everything from clothing to brand logos right now, and home design has not been left behind.  All over the country, people are eager to create a more natural, “authentic” look and feel in their homes and businesses, recalling a time when the world around us had fewer moving parts.  Designers are finding that hardwood floors (and walls and ceilings) suit this purpose perfectly.  After all, what’s more natural and “real” than wood?

The Natural Look

From the Bella Cera Estate collection 

Getting back to basics, folks are choosing species like pine, maple, and hickory that have naturally rich grains and color, and are dressing them up very little, accent the woodsy origin of the floor.  The high gloss finishes popular in the earlier part of last century have given way to satin and, in some cases, even matte finishes.  In some cases, people are even opting for oil rather than polyurethane finishes to keep the grain of the wood as exposed as possible.  Today’s floors are designed to retain and display as much of their natural beauty as possible, to stunning effect.  Wood products are now available with gloss levels as low as 30%, and even lower-luster finishes are expected as the trend continues.

Wider Planks

Another way folks are showing off the grain in their wood is by opting for wider planks than the 2 1/4” to 3 1/2” boards used in most homes through the 20th century.  5”, 6”, or even 7” planks are becoming common in modern homes and flooring is even becoming available in planks as wide as 10” and 12”.  In addition to displaying the natural beauty of the wood, the wider planks tend to open up smaller spaces, a desirable quality in cramped city dwellings.  They also create a smoother, less interrupted look, which has been enhanced in some homes by using boards as long as 6 feet, producing an even smoother-looking floor with few seams.

Chippenham from the Castle Combe Collection 

The Long-Standing Look

In many spaces, from 18th-century townhomes to modern boutiques, owners want to create or enhance the feeling of a place that has been around for a while.  Consequently, distressed and hand-scraped hardwoods continue to gain in popularity.  Recalling a time when hand-scraping was the only option for an evening out a floor, planks can now be purchased from the factory “pre-scraped” and installed like any other hardwood floor.  Of course, for vintage purists, it is still possible to get a floor scraped by the hands of actual people, but this is a very labor-intensive and accordingly expensive process, and since so few people can tell the difference, few consider it worth the extra time and expense.

Wire-Brushed Woods

One of the ways boards are sometimes distressed is by a method called “wire brushing”.  Just what it sounds like, the technique uses a wire-brush to scrape off the soft top layer of the wood, leaving tell-tale marks that at once make the wood look pleasantly worn and less likely to show chips, scratches, and scrapes.  Plus, wire-brushing leaves only the hardest wood exposed, revealing more of its natural grains and texture.  It’s no wonder, then, that wire-brushed wood is on the rise—it provides a natural and vintage look all at once.

Reclaimed Wood

One surefire way to achieve the vintage look is to use wood that is actually old.  In many cases, the wood used is flooring, usually pine, oak, or maple that has been removed from an older home gently enough that it can be refinished and repurposed.  In other cases, the wood may come from an old barn or farmhouse, wood barrels, even salvaged logs.  This wood tends to have not only a more “broken-in” look, but, because of its age and changes in milling practices, it will often have more knots and heavier graining than new wood, as well signs of its previous life, such as nail markings and fading, all of which give it a unique character that many are finding irresistible.  Plus, it’s a great way to keep wood out of a landfill and conserve natural resources.

Varied Board Widths

When wood first became a common material for flooring, many centuries ago, resources were fairly limited, and boards of varying width were sometimes used because that was what was available.  These days, varied width boards are used to recreate this homey, old-world feel in new and remodeled homes.


The one area where things seem to be veering away from the old days is color.  While these three trends in staining and finishing are by no means new, they have rarely seen the popularity that they do today.

Gray Tones

This is a preference that began on the beaches of the West Coast.  It has now reached the East Coast as well, where it has been met with equal if not greater enthusiasm.  Most successful on maple or birch floors because of their close-pored cellular structure, the gray “stain” brings out the grain and texture of natural wood.  Achieved with a combination of whitewash and ebony stain, its popularity probably stems from the trend toward natural and understated design.  Until recently, it could be rather costly to finish floors in this way because it was only available as an on-site option and could be quite difficult to do properly.  But with its rising popularity, more and more manufacturers are offering gray prefinished options.

Lime-Washed Woods

Lime washing is actually a very old technique that originated in high-end European flooring in the 16th century to protect against woodworm.  Originally, this involved washing the wood with a mixture of lime (the mineral, not the citrus fruit) and water, the by-product of which was a soft, white-washed appearance.  These days, a much less stringent liming wax is used, but the visual effect is the same—a sort of breezy, coastal feel perfect for brightening a room subtly and naturally.

Darker Stains

Those seeking a more modern, dramatic look that maintains the class and respectability of traditional hardwood have started opting for darker stain colors like rich, contemporary ebony, warm and dark Jacobean, or deep, red Royal Mahogany.  Usually applied to darker woods like oak, cherry, and walnut, these stains create a sleek, upscale look.

For more insights on how designers are using hardwood, check out our recent survey of designers from across the U.S.

Hardwood Flooring

How does a log become a floor?

If our post in May about where wood for flooring comes from left you wondering, “But what happens next?” fear not—your long-awaited answer has arrived.  In that post, we explained how a tree becomes a log and how this is done while still preserving our forests.  Now, we’ll tell you how a log becomes your hardwood floor.

Once the right logs have been selected and safely harvested, they make their way, usually by truck and sometimes train, to the saw mill.  These days, most saw mills, especially the ones that mill wood for floors, are highly automated and use sophisticated machines to transform round logs into flat boards.

STEP 1:  Debarking

debarked logs
Logs waiting to become lumber at the Hull Oakes Lumber Company in Oregon

The first machine the log meets is the debarking machine.  It does exactly what it sounds like it would do—it removes the bark from the outside of the log, from one end to the other, all the way around in one continuous motion.  In most mills, the bark is collected and used as fuel in the kilns used to dry the wood.  But we’ll get to those later.

STEP 2:  The first cut

After the log is shaved smooth, it rolls onto another machine, where an expert or, in many cases, a laser, determines how the log should be cut to produce the best and most usable boards.  Once this is determined, the first cut is made, creating one flat side.  The strip that has been sliced off is either sent to the chipper or, in some mills, sent to another machine to be made into something more delicate like crown molding or trim.

STEP 3:  Slicing

As we mentioned in our post about floor movement, wood for lumber is generally categorized in one of three ways—plainsawn (flatsawn), riftsawn, or quartersawn—depending on the cut of the wood.  This does not mean, however, that there are only three ways to saw a log.  In fact, there are some cuts that yield more than one kind of board.  The classification is based on the angle of the grain once the board is cut, and each yields a board with a distinctive surface pattern.

In some cases, for instance, the log is sawn flat across from the first flat side to the bottom.  This will yield several boards of each type.  If the goal is to produce mostly plainsawn boards, the log will be turned 90 degrees after the first few cuts to keep the grain at the correct angle.  When more quartersawn or riftsawn boards are needed, the log may be cut from four “corners” of the log, yielding some riftsawn and some quartersawn boards or may be cut at an angle from the outside edge to produce only boards with a specific grain.  Each of these sawing methods produces progressively fewer usable boards per log, which is why rift- and quartersawn boards tend to be more costly.

Plainsawn boards are identifiable by the familiar “cathedral” pattern on their surface and by the fairly horizontal grain when viewed from one end.

 hemlock-endgrain-plainsawn plainsawn White-oak-wood-specie1-300x300

The grain of riftsawn boards is more diagonal, about 30-60 degrees from the face of the board.  The surface of these boards tends to display a narrow, straight, and relatively consistent grain pattern with few irregularities.

hemlock, rift 1 end grain closeup s25 plh RIFT WHITE OAK

Boards with grain 60-90 degrees from the surface are called quartersawn (because they are often produced by first quartering and then sawing a log).  These yield boards with very distinctive markings on the surface called “figure” or “flecks”.  These are much more prominent in certain species than in others.

quartersawn_endgrain_marked  cherry, misc japanese flowering 1 quartersawn surface s50 plh

All three of these “cuts” can be used for hardwood flooring and, in some instances, you will see all three in one floor.  More often, though, a hardwood floor will be made from either plainsawn or a mix of rift-and quartersawn boards.

STEP 4: Trimming

Now the logs are the right thickness and roughly the right size, but they may still have some rough edges.  Until, of course, they get to the machine number four, the edger.  Named as descriptively as its debarking brother, the edger does exactly what one might think—it slices the edges of the boards to create square corners and standard sizes.

STEP 5: Customizing

Once the boards are of a desired width, they go to a rough rough knot saw where major defects are removed.  It also cuts excessively long pieces down to more usable lengths.  The sawyers that operate these machines are careful to choose cuts that will produce the best yield.

The second machine in this part of the process is the sidematcher (sometimes an endmatcher), which planes the boards to an exact thickness and creates the tongues and grooves that will enable them to fit together so precisely.

STEP 6: Grading

Here in the U.S., logs are graded into four categories: Veneer, the highest quality, and Grades 1, 2 and 3.  Veneer grade wood is essentially free of defects and considered of high enough quality to be used for surfacing high-quality furniture, etc.  Grade 1 lumber is typically used for furniture, cabinets, and, sometimes, flooring.  More commonly, hardwood flooring is made from Grade 2 or 3 lumber, while Grade 3 lumber is set aside for use in pallets and similar products.

STEP 7: Drying

Lumber out to dry at a sawmill in Minnesota in 1940.
Though most lumber is stacked by machines these days, the finished piles look very much the same.

As the lumber is graded, it is separated onto pallets which are then either set outside to pre-dry for several months or put directly into a kiln.  Depending on what the wood is to be used for, the wood will remain in the kiln, typically at temperatures of 100 to 180 degrees, until it reaches a specific moisture content between 6 and 9 per cent.  For hardwood floors, the moisture content will be on the lower end of this range.

STEP 8: Finishing

Once the wood is dried, it leaves the mill, either to be sent to a distributor or to a hardwood floor manufacturer.  If the floor to be finished onsite, this is the last step before it reaches its final home.  If it is to be pre-finished (factory finished), it will go first to a flooring manufacturer, which will apply a unique polyurethane finish and whatever stain may be desired.  From there it will be sent to a distributor like MacDonald hardwoods, which will make sure it finds a good home.

Image credits:  Debarked logs, wikimediaRiftsawn surface“MountainAshFloor” by Mark Anthony Boyle; quartersawn surface,