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Eco-Friendly Flooring Species

3 Unusual Facts About Bamboo Flooring

bamboo hardwood floorBamboo has recently become a popular design choice for those wanting to create green homes and offices. This choice is for good reason: the use of chic, readily available bamboo is better for the environment than the use of traditional hardwoods. However, while most people today are familiar with the choice of bamboo for eco-friendly wood floors, there are many myths and misconceptions surrounding it. We know the facts, and our knowledgeable flooring experts at MacDonald Hardwoods can help you make an informed decision if you are considering installing beautiful new bamboo flooring in your space.

Three Helpful Facts About Bamboo as a Flooring Choice

1. Bamboo flooring is environmentally friendly.

As a type of grass that is recognized as the fastest growing plant on earth, new bamboo shoots rapidly grow to 50 feet and are ready for harvest in five to seven years. This is a mere fraction of the 30 to 60 years it takes a hardwood forest to grow to maturity.

Bamboo is regenerative. Unlike the harvest of hardwoods, harvesting bamboo does not destroy the plant, which will put out new shoots so that the cycle can be repeated. Trees are killed when harvested.

Finally, almost no pesticides are used in the growing of bamboo, and the harvest is done by hand, so there is minimal disruption to the environment in the process.

2. No harm to our planet’s panda population comes from the harvest of bamboo for flooring.

Pandas may ingest 30 different varieties of bamboo, but Moso, the plant species used for flooring, is not one of them.

3. Bamboo is durable and strong.

Although considered by some to be too soft to be practical in homes with kids and pets, strand-woven bamboo is the hardest wood flooring available today and stands up well to these most energetic members of the family. Bamboo floor finishes are available that are known to be scratch resistant as well. If you have children, pets, or heavy traffic areas, our professionals can guide you to the best flooring choices for your family and advise you on the best way to maintain new floors.

For personal assistance with all of your eco-friendly and hardwood flooring needs, call MacDonald Hardwoods, your Denver flooring company, at 800-639-3006.

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Species

Hardwood Species Profile: Douglas Fir

Introduction and Distribution:

Despite the name, which is somewhat misleading, the Douglas Fir isn’t actually a true fir tree, as it isn’t a member of the fir genus Abies. Douglas Firs are very prevalent in Oregon and Washington, where some areas show long continuous ranges. The Rocky Mountain or Interior variety of Douglas Firs can be found further inland from the west coast, and there is also a Mexican variety of the tree.

Physical Appearance:

The Douglas Fir is a medium-to-large sized evergreen tree, growing to heights of 20 to 100 meters tall. Its leaves, which take the appearance of needles like other evergreens, are soft and almost perfectly linear. In a particularly dense forest, the branches and needles may start growing higher off the ground to help the tree absorb sunlight. Like other evergreens, Female Douglas Firs contain cones, but unlike other members of the fir family, Douglas cones have persistent scales.

Uses for Construction:

In areas where it isn’t a native species, they are frequently used as lumber trees due to the hardness and durability of the wood. Of all North American softwoods, a family that the Douglas Fir is a member of, it rates as the hardest. addition, unlike other softwood species, it retains its shape and structure as it ages as it is seasoned by exposing it to varying humidity. Because of these qualities, it is frequently used for building, including for the building of bridges and other suspended structures. It is also ideal for structures that may be exposed to earthquakes or powerful winds.

Learn more about Humidity for Wood Floors.

For Hardwood Flooring:

The physical qualities of the wood also make it a popular choice for use in hardwood flooring. The stiffness and durability of the fir allow hardwood flooring to resist wear, and it’s common to see buildings hundreds of years old that contain wood from Douglas Firs in their flooring or structure, particularly in the Pacific Northwest where the tree is prevalent.

Other Uses:

Because of its aesthetically pleasing appearance, this species is frequently planted in parks, gardens or trails for visual appeal. Its appearance has also made it very popular as a Christmas tree, and Douglas Firs are often grown on tree plantations to be cut down for the holidays. The buds of the tree have even been used flavor eau de vie, a type of fruit brandy that is clear and colorless in appearance. Finally, the durability of the wood has led it to be used for crafting canoes and other boats in some cultures.

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Hardwood Flooring Species

Where Can I Buy Exotic Wood Species?

For many home-improvement or artistic products that require wood, a trip to a nearby lumber yard marks the beginning and end of the work. However, there are certain projects where one or more qualities of an exotic wood species, like the color, grain, or texture, make it a necessity. If you’re wondering, “where can I buy exotic wood?” the answer is that it can be a bit more difficult than finding common wood species. But if you’re willing to drive a bit, or pay money for shipping, there are many ways to find exotic wood for sale. Here’s a quick run-through of the steps you’ll want to take to acquire high-quality exotic wood.

1. Local Sellers

If you can find a seller of exotic wood near you, you’ll save on either time or shipping costs. Do a quick search for distributors nearby that carry exotic wood, and even if it’s a bit of a drive, it’s worth it to be able to inspect the slabs or pieces yourself. It’s also worth checking if anybody in your town or area owns a portable saw mill. Typically, people with portable saw mills will mill logs for individuals or companies. By talking to them and asking about past clients, you can get a good idea of who to purchase exotic wood from.

2. Visit Hardware Stores

Hardware chains that carry standard lumber, such as the Home Depot, as well as local hardware stores that supply lumber, can be a source you use to find exotic wood sellers. In most cases, the stores you visit in this manner won’t have the type of exotic wood you need. However, they are certainly in contact with lumber distributors, and through these connections they can often point you towards a distributor that sells exotic wood.

3. Check Craiglist and Similar Platforms

Sites like Craigslist, which you can search for individuals or small businesses that fit your needs, are a great resource to find exotic woods. Simply look for wood millers or woodworkers near you, and find one that has the required equipment and knowledge. Even if they don’t have the type of wood you want on hand, they probably have the connections to acquire it that you lack. There will often be additional costs to get the wood to the millers, but this is often cheaper than working with a large distributor, and this way you help out a local business.

4. Order Online

You can purchase almost anything online today, and exotic wood is no exception. On wood distributor sites or platforms like Amazon, search the type of wood you need and you’ll almost certainly see options that can be shipped to you. However, buying online can often result in significant shipping charges, but if you have the money to spend, it’s extremely convenient. The only other downside is that when buying online you have little choice in selecting the stock–you get what you get. Because of this, it’s best to check other options first if you’re very particular about your work.

In short, the answer to the question, “where can I buy exotic wood?” is that there are a variety of sources, but the best advice is to ask around. Start with local distributors or lumberyards and branch outward, and if the sources you find don’t carry the type of wood you need, ask them of distributors that may carry it. Finally, nearly any type of wood can be bought online, but due to shipping costs, this should be a last resort unless you’re willing to spend a bit extra.

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Hardwood Flooring Species

Species Profile: Beech

Species Profile: Beech

The Beech tree, a type of deciduous tree with the genus Fagaceae, flourishes in Europe, Asia, and North America. We break it into two subgenera: Engleriana, which is found exclusively in East Asia, and Fagus, which encompasses the rest. In North America, the “American Beech” or Fagus grandifolia grows in central and southeastern states (as far down as east Texas), as well as states bordering the Great Lakes. Distinctive characteristics include low-hanging branches with yellow-green leaves in spring and small, triangular “beechnuts” in winter.

Appearance

The beech tree has a distinctive, silvery bark, and tends to grow very tall, up to 80 feet. Inside, its wood is dense and robust, with evenly textured stock and a straight grain. The light color of the sapwood echoes that of the yellow birch, although beech is more reddish in the heartwood. Growth rings develop surrounded by slightly darker latewood. Beech wood’s distinctive rays branch out short, yet unusually broad.

Its natural light color easily can be changed. Beech’s fine grain helps it to take well to varnish and staining (except for the heartwood).

Uses

Beech wood’s versatility demonstrated itself early– in ancient Germanic cultures, they utilized beech to make primitive tablets before paper was invented. The German word for book, “Buch,” comes from their word for beech, “Buche.”

Though beech wood doesn’t take well to drying, it excels in turning and bending. Beech resists breaks and compression and sticks well with glue. It also bends exceptionally well with steam, and so it functions frequently as chair backs and legs. With beech wood, woodworkers create materials as wide-ranging as delicate goblets since it bends and wooden spoons since it holds up to wear and tear. People also use harvested beech wood for flooring, containers, and railroad tracks.

Compared to other lighter-colored wood such as pine, beech withstands more abuse without denting or scratching; in fact, beech wood may grow smoother the more it is used. It also has only a very mild wood smell. However, beech wood is susceptible to moisture and particularly rot. Because of this, it endures best in a dry environment.

Cost and Availability

Until the invention of the modern chainsaw, beech trees were not harvested in mass quantities because of their density. For this reason, some unusually large groves of old beech trees remain. Now, they are regularly cut down but still quite plentiful.

Those looking for a hard, high-density wood should consider beech wood as a top option. The NHLA has graded the underappreciated beech “standard,” and it costs much less than other woods of comparable hardness. Demand for it in recent years has not increased, yet supply continues to be readily available. Many people utilize beech wood as a cheaper option to hard maple or oak.

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Hardwood Flooring Home Decor Species

The Best Hardwoods for Colorado Floors

Hardwood comes from a vast variety of species.  Some are not appropriate for flooring because of their density, susceptibility to moisture, or other factors.  Even among the hardwoods used for flooring, some are better for certain climates than others.  Here in Colorado, where the weather is relatively dry, domestic hardwoods tend to be especially popular, though there are a few exotic species that do well, too.

Best Hardwoods for Flooring in Colorado

Bamboo

While Bamboo is a grass and not a wood, modern strand-weaving methods produce Bamboo flooring that is, in some cases, harder than hardwood.  Bamboo flooring is a popular choice among those concerned with environmental sustainability because it grows quite quickly and is generally not harvested from natural-growing forests.

Red Oak

Red Oak is by far the species used most often for flooring in the United States.  It is abundant and inexpensive and can be finished to suit practically any decor, making it one of the most versatile hardwoods available.

White Oak

White Oak shares many features with its cousin, the Red Oak, but, as its name would suggest, is a bit paler and more brown than red.  White Oak is an especially popular choice for those looking for pre-finished hardwood, as the variety of options available is quite impressive.

Hickory/ Pecan

Though technically different species, Hickory and Pecan are part of the same genus (also referred to as Hickory) and are so similar they are often sold together or interchangeably.  The grain of Hickory is its most outstanding feature, as boards often display sharp color variations that create a striking and unique look.  Hickory is also uncommonly hard for a domestic wood and makes a great choice for cabins and homes high traffic with a desire for a natural, somewhat rustic look.

alta vista historic walnut flooring
Wide plank Historic Walnut flooring from the Alta Vista Collection

American Walnut

Walnut often features a variety of figured grain patterns, which lend it a special beauty; this, combined with its natural luster, which increases over time, make it an especially recommended for natural oil finishes.

Brazilian Cherry (Jatoba)

Among the most popular of the exotic species sold in the United States, Brazilian Cherry offers a rich tone that only grows richer over time.  Significantly harder than most domestic species, it is an excellent choice for homes with families or pets who are looking for something a little special in their flooring choice.

Brazilian Walnut (Ipe)

One of the darker hardwoods popular in Colorado, Brazilian Walnut is another dense, hardwood good for high traffic areas.  Its darker hue creates a warm but sophisticated look that contrasts beautifully with lighter furniture and fixtures.

Maple

Much like Oak, Maple is a very versatile wood that can be stained to match most any decor.  It tends to offer a very consistent, understated grain and can withstand a good deal of wear and tear.

Ash

Ash is one of the palest woods used for flooring and creates a beautiful, open look that is clean and inviting.  Ash also displays an unusual shock resistance.

Final Thoughts

To help you figure out which of these species might best suit your needs, read about how to choose the best hardwood floors, or just come into the store.

Categories
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

Categories
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-cost

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_cost

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%.

Worldwide

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

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Hardwood Flooring Species

Species Profile: Black Walnut

Sauvie_island_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.

Appearance

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.

Durability

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

Categories
Hardwood Flooring Species

Species Profile: Hickory

256px-Andrew_Jackson_(Engraved_Portrait)
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

Color

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.

Grade

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

Durability

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.

Stain

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.

Stability

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
Categories
Hardwood Flooring Species

Species Profile: Oak

Northern Red OakWhen it comes to hardwood flooring in the U.S., Oak has been the go-to species not just for decades, but for well over two centuries.  Part of Oak’s popularity is due to its prevalence on the North American continent—Oaks account for more than half of all domestic hardwood trees.  Their wood is also uncommonly dense and hard, so very durable, and is high in tannins, which help it to resist fungus and repel insects, making it an ideal material for flooring.

In a recent survey of professional designers from around the country, nearly half of the respondents chose Oak as the species they recommend most—and more than half made this their recommendation for pet owners.  Modern harvesting and milling techniques allow for more customization of Oak than ever before, making it at once a classic and a contemporary favorite.

Here, we take a closer look at America’s hardwood sweetheart.

Hundreds of species

Oak trees make up the genus Quercus, of which there are some 600 different species.  Here in the States, the most popular species for flooring are the native Quercus alba, White Oak, and Quercus rubra or Borealis, Northern Red Oak.  However, there are species whose qualities are so similar to Quercus alba that they are also sometimes sold as White Oak.

White Oak

White Oak trees tend to be shorter and squatter than Red Oaks and can live for several hundred years.   These are some of the Oaks you see with sprawling limbs, ideal for climbing and tire swings.  This picturesque tree has earned a place as the state tree of Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland and is even the symbol of Connecticut minted on that state’s quarter.  It grows throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and in much of southern Canada and remains abundant thanks to sustainable harvesting and careful forest management.

White Oak wood has a closed cellular structure, which helps to make it water- and rot-resistant. Because of this trait, white oak has long been used to make barrels for fermenting wine and whiskey and in shipbuilding.  Rating at 1360 on the Janka hardness scale, the lumber is prized particularly for its strength, stability, and resiliency.

Not only is White Oak a durable hardwood, it is also a versatile flooring choice.  Its grain is generally straight, but with a coarse, uneven texture that gives it a little character.  Its natural color ranges from very pale (almost white) to light yellow or brown with slightly gray undertones, except at the heart, where it is more of a light to medium brown.  It takes stains and finishes well, opening up a world of aesthetic possibilities.   Because of the prevalence of these trees and their relatively large size, it is usually available in almost any cut—plainsawn or quartersawn (which display an interesting fleck pattern), narrow boards or wide planks, and traditional or longer lengths.

White Oak is usually a little more expensive than similar cuts of Red Oak, but the additional cost (not generally more than $1 or 2 per square foot) will be worth it if you need added stability or are looking for a harder, more durable wood.White Oak Cuts

Red Oak

Red Oak, or more accurately, Northern Red Oak, grows in many of the same parts of North America as White Oak, though it is somewhat wider spread due to its tolerance of different soil types and growing conditions.  In forests, Red Oaks tend to be taller and narrower than White Oaks and, under the right circumstances, can grow very quickly, reaching 15-20 feet in just 10 years.  They also have a relatively long lifespan, getting as old as 500 years, though their acorns take sometimes more than 3 times as long to germinate.  Like the White Oak, the Red Oak has become the symbol of many of the areas in which it grows, including the state of New Jersey and the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.

Often cited as the most popular domestic wood species for hardwood flooring, Northern Red Oak is extremely valuable for timber production for many purposes.  While the best cuts are used for flooring, trim, and furniture, even lower quality Red Oak finds its way to market, as firewood, fence posts, railroad ties, and more.

Unlike White Oak, Red Oak has an open grain, so much so that smoke can be blown through from one end of a plainsawn board to the other.  While this can be a neat trick, it unfortunately means that it is more subject to moisture infiltration and is less stable than White Oak.  It is also less dense, and consequently not as hard, rating 1290 on the Janka scale (by no means a poor score in terms of hardness).

The heartwood of Red Oak is light to medium brown, but with a reddish instead of an olive cast.  Sapwood, like that of White Oak, tends to be closer to white or light brown, but also has a pinkish tint, true to its name.  This wood is especially well-known for its ability to take stains, lending it a great deal of versatility.  Like other Oak species, quartersawn sections display prominent ray fleck patterns while plainsawn boards have a straight, coarse grain.

While Red Oak is not as resistant to insect and rot damage as its hardier cousin, modern finishes will generally serve to protect against these things.  And, though it may not be as strong as White Oak, it is a very durable wood and displays remarkable shock resistance, fending off signs of wear more adeptly than other woods might.Red Oak Cuts

Choosing Red Oak or White Oak

  • Because of its remarkable durability and resistance to everything from moisture to bugs, White Oak tends to be a little pricier than Red Oak, though the cost of both will fluctuate.
  • The natural color of the woods is, of course different, but either can be stained easily to suit your liking.   Red Oak may continue to display a slightly redder tint, though, even through the stain.
  • Both are widely available in practically any cut you might choose.
  • Red Oak’s grain is sometimes a bit stronger than that of White Oak, giving White Oak a slightly smoother look.
  • White Oak is notably harder than Red Oak, but Red Oak’s resiliency can leave it looking less worn over time.
  • White Oak is much more water resistant and therefore has greater dimensional stability.
  • If you are expanding existing Oak flooring into other areas of the house, you will want to make sure to determine whether your current floors are Red Oak or White Oak, as this will make a difference in matching the stain and general appearance of the floor.

 

Image credit:  tree: northern red oak. [Photograph]. In Britannica Online for Kids. Retrieved from http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-126764

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