Choosing the right hardwood floor for your house is one of the most effective ways to define your space, but there’s much more to hardwoods than how they look in brochures. Wood species, plank sizes and finishes are just a few elements that effect the behavior, look and feel of your floors. Developing some familiarity with wood characteristics and finishes will help you to choose a floor that will work with your home, last for a lifetime and be environmentally friendly.
Questions to Consider:
- Light wood or dark wood?
- What are the best local and sustainable wood species available to me?
- What about finishing, How should the wood be treated?
- How can I get the most durable, beautiful floor in a ecologically responsible way?
There are many, many options when you begin looking into hardwood floors, but once you understand what woods to consider and why they are processed and finished the way they are, the design process leads to some pretty clear answers.
In Ontario we are lucky to have one of the best selections of beautiful hardwoods right on our doorstep. Northern Ontario and Quebec has lots of responsibly managed wood lots that provide world-class hardwoods. When it comes to hardwood flooring it just does not make sense to pay for pricey exotic woods.
You’ll want to consider the density or hardness of the wood. This is often expressed in pounds per cubic foot (lb/ft³) or kilograms per cubic meter (kg/m³). A very low-density, or soft wood like Balsa is 160kg/m³ or 10lb.ft³ while a very dense, hard wood like Hard Maple is 740kg/m³ or 46lb/ft³. Choose a floor that will be hard enough to stand up to daily use and resist denting , we recommend about 30lbs/ft³ as a minimum.
Grain and Graphics
Each species has its own grain character, some woods like Red Oak, or White Ash, have a highly graphic grain character – there’s a lot going on! Other species like hard-maple have less graphic grain patterns we can call it a less featured or quiet grain pattern. [image]
After considering grain, density, aesthetics and local availability some clear choices emerge. In Ontario we have access to incredible hardwoods, so selecting a beautiful, durable and sustainable floor is easy – and makes a huge impact on your home. Here are some woods you should be familiar with.
The Reigning Champ – Red Oak
There are more Red Oak floors in Toronto than anything else – and for good reason. Red Oak is hard (45 lbs/ft³) with a graphic open grain pattern, which helps it to accept a stain well making it easy to match the colour to your existing palette. Naturally it has a pale light colour with a slightly red hue. It’s also widely available. Red Oak is beautiful, durable and it is a great choice for any home.
Light Wood – Hard Maple
There’s nothing that can compare with Hard Maple’s clean, quiet grain, blonde colour and exceptional hardness. At 47lbs/ft³ its extremely tough and long lasting, which is why it is a popular choice for furniture and major league Baseball bats. Because it has such a tight dense grain it does not accept a stain as well as more open grain woods so go with a clear finish when working with Hard Maple.
Natural Dark Wood – Black Walnut
Black Walnut is one of the most beautiful and sought after woods in both flooring and furniture. Ontario has a good amount of fantastic Black Walnut so it can be sourced responsibly. This slower growing wood is 38lb/ft³ and little more pricey than most, but what you get is a naturally dark chocolate colour with lighter sapwood highlights that looks both rich and warm. It finishes to a deep dark brown with a poly-urethane finish.
Because of the Ash Borer beetle Canadian White Ash has been at risk for several years now. Ash trees that are infested with the beetle are cut right away to prevent the spread of the destructive pest. This means that there has been a surplus of White Ash on the market, making it one of the best bargains in hardwood – but it won’t last forever. At about 45lbs/ft³ its very hard and will last a lifetime. Ash has a more graphic grain pattern which lots of variances in its colour. The more open grain helps is accept a stain reasonably well. Its a great option for a lighter floor that has tons of character, it is also commonly used in furniture and for baseball bats!
Wood grades connote the presence of knots, sapwood and other irregularities in the colour and grain pattern. It is not an indication of the quality of the wood, and the visual features of standard grades can make a floor much more beautiful and distinctive, celebrating the true character of a species. Higher grades allow for less variance and so less of the tree can be used, making high grade slightly less eco-friendly. Choosing a grade is not a choice about quality – only aesthetics.
Staining and Finishing
Becuase wood staining is a messy job, often involving chemical compounds and requiring a skilled application it is best if you can avoid staining by choosing a wood species with a natural colour that suits your needs. If you decide that you do want to stain your floor, try to use a water based rather than an oil based stain. Water based stains are healthier for the environment and for you. An oil based stain will take longer to cure, and will off-gas for several weeks, even months after it is applied. When deciding to stain a floor, make sure you use a qualified and experienced wood finisher to do the work, and leave ample time for your floor to cure before using it.
In most cases the best thing you can do is to apply a clear, water based Poly-Urethane finish. Poly-Urethane offers long lasting protection from scratching and moisture damage. It requires little to no maintenance and is easy to apply with great results. A typical approach is to use water based urethane with blonde wood and oil based urethane with dark wood. This is because the oil based products tend to yellow the blonde woods, while that same tinting provides a deep, rich colour on darker woods. However, water based stains are becoming increasingly effective in providing rich, complex tones in dark woods as well.
We like to work with smaller boutique suppliers that work exclusively with high quality, eco-friendly wood lots and mills. This ensures that all their timber is local and beautiful. Ontario and Quebec has some of the best hardwoods in the world, so finding a great source is easy. We often recommend Logs End and Nadurra – they both provide high quality timber with a strong focus on environmental sustainability and responsible wood lot management.
Engineered or Solid?
Engineered wood can be advantageous, especially in higher moisture areas. An engineered floor is typically made up of a plywood substrate with a hardwood top layer. The plywood helps prevent the wood from expanding, contracting and twisting, often helping to increase the life of the floor. It good to make sure that you are getting a high quality plywood substrate and a nice thick hardwood top layer when considering an engineered floor. Typically an engineered floor will cost you slightly more than a solid wood floor, though not always. It may be cheaper when working with more expensive hardwoods.
Big wide floor boards are beautiful but can be problematic. They are more prone to warping through expansion, contraction and twisting, and also result in a lower yield of timber per tree since only the widest middle boards of each log can be used. If you do want to put a wide plank floor in your home consider going with an older wood, reclaimed lumber will have had a longer time to dry, and so will move less as temperatures, humidity and seasons change. It’s also a great option to consider an engineered wood with a stable plywood substrate to help keep you floor from warping.
Making Your Choice
A high quality hardwood floor can elevate any room, and choosing the right floor will be something you appreciate everyday you are in your home. The warmth, feel and look of a beautiful hardwood is a wonderful feature for any home, and well worth some extra thought and investment. Support our local, responsible timber industry and put a floor in your home that will provide decades of beauty and durability.