Wood Flooring 101

An overview of the types of wood flooring and a word about finishes.

By Bob Vila | Updated Dec 16, 2015 2:12 PM

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Wood Flooring

Photo: flickr.com

Wood remains the most used flooring material. Its warm feel and appearance, affordability, and sheer variety probably account for its popularity. But ceramic tiles, carpeting, sheet flooring, and other options each have important uses.

Traditional “floor boards” are just what their name suggests, boards that have been nailed to the framed floor of the structure. But today there are a multitude of kinds of floor boards on the market.

The most common option is called strip flooring. It consists of solid wood with tongues and grooves on opposite sides of each piece.

The first course of strip flooring is “face nailed,” meaning the nails are driven through the top or face of each board. Those nails are subsequently hidden beneath the baseboard. Each course thereafter is “blind nailed,” a technique in which the nails are driven through the tongues of each board so that the groove of the next course hides the nail heads from sight.

Plank flooring is wider, typically 4, 5, or 6 inches. Oak, maple, cherry, ponderosa pine, Philippine mahogany, and numerous other species are milled into plank flooring. Vin­tage or recycled flooring has the same overall shape, but looks very different because it’s made from recycled boards, typically reclaimed beams or roofers. It’s character­ized by variations in color, stains, and other signs of age that give it an antique char­acter. Engineered flooring is still another option. Made of a thin ply of hardwood glued to a plywood substrate, engineered floor is very stable.

Which is best? Recycled flooring and wide plank flooring may match up best with an existing floor in an antique home. On the other hand, it’s less stable, and more likely to shrink and gap during the heating season. Most dwellings built in the twentieth century have strip flooring, which is highly durable, a very practical and perhaps the most economical choice. Engineered flooring is very stable and, when purchased prefinished at the factory, usually with an acrylic sealer, it saves time and mess during the final stages of construction. How­ever, this also adds to the price. Your builder can tell you how much. In addition, the factory finish can get scratched or damaged in installation or in the other stages of completing the renovation process.

For a variety of reasons, including tradition, solid wood flooring remains the most common choice. However, the quality of finish your new flooring will have depends upon many factors, among them the skill of the sander, the vari­ety and grade of the finish used, the number of coats applied, and care with which it’s finished.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether water-based or oil-based finishes are better. One old pro I know who just retired from the business is convinced the oil-based finishes are still more durable (though he points out water-based finishes are rapidly catching up). Yet he also admits he almost always recommended water-base polys because the oil-base gave off more noxious fumes; from an ecological standpoint, water-based is friendlier, since it requires no chemical solvent. Oil-base also takes longer to dry, which meant that he, as a flooring contractor, had to revisit each job site more times when using oil-based finishes and got paid a week or more later than when applying faster drying water-based polys. One good way for you to make a choice is to finish a few scrap boards with the polys your flooring contractor recommends, then pick the one that appeals to your eye.