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.