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.
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.
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.
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.