Brazilian Hardwood Flooring: The Basics

Installing Hardwood Floor
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Despite concerns about the deforestation of tropical rainforest regions, hardwoods from the rainforests of Brazil and nearby regions remain in high demand for flooring and woodworking projects. It's not hard to understand why, since these exotic hardwoods have unique grain and color, and are at the top of the scale when it comes to hardness. The hardness factor alone makes Brazilian hardwood flooring better than domestic hardwoods, since these dense woods make for flooring that is very durable and resistant to damage.

Exotic vs. Domestic Hardwoods

Brazilian hardwoods are regarded as exotic hardwoods, though the distinction between native and exotic woods is a bit dated and nativistic. A domestic hardwood is defined as a wood hailing from North America (U.S. and Canada), while exotic hardwoods are those that come from anywhere else in the world. Domestics include familiar favorites such as birch, cherry, pine, hickory, red oak, white oak, and maple. All are certainly hard woods as judged by the Janka hardness chart, but nowhere near as hard as exotics from South America. On the basis of hardness and resistance to damage, most South American exotic hardwoods are more desirable than the most common domestic hardwoods.

Flooring labeled Brazilian hardwood very often does come from forests in Brazil, but the term is used somewhat generically, and the products you buy often originate in other Central or South American nations. For example ipe wood, common known as Brazilian teak, can come from anywhere from Mexico to Argentina. Buying so-called Brazilian hardwood does not necessarily mean you are complicit in the logging of Brazilian rainforests.

Comparing Hardness

Wood hardness is traditionally categorized according the Janka hardness scale, in which a numerical value is assigned according to how the wood performs on a test in which a steel ball is pressed against the wood until it depresses to half its thickness. The higher the assigned number, the harder the wood. The relative hardness of the most common domestic and Brazilian hardwoods are:

Hardwood Origin Janka Hardness Rating
Birch Domestic 1260
Cherry Domestic 950
Red Oak Domestic 1290
White Oak Domestic 1360
Maple Domestic 1450
Jatoba (Brazilian cherry) South American exotic 2350
Ipe (Brazilian walnut) South American exotic 3684
Cumaru (Brazilian teak) South American exotic 3540
Tigerwood (Brazilian koa) South American exotic 2160

As the chart makes evident, even the softer of the exotic woods is harder than the hardest of the domestic hardwoods. It's no surprise, then, that these South American exotic hardwoods are in high demand for flooring, where resistance to wear is a supreme virtue.

Species of Brazilian Hardwood

The most common Brazilian hardwoods used for flooring include:

  • Jatoba: Jatoba, otherwise known as Brazilian cherry, is a hardwood with a rich, deep reddish-brown color and superior durability.
  • Ipe: Also known as ironwood or Brazilian walnut, this extremely hard and expensive wood takes on a rich brown tone. Due to its density, it can be left untreated, if so desired. For this reason, ipe is often used for exterior decking.
  • Cumaru: Also known as Brazilian teak, cumaru offers a golden-brown, almost honey-like, color. Like the other Brazilians, its dense interlocking grain makes this a durable favorite.
  • Tigerwood: Looking for drama in your floor? Try tigerwood, otherwise known as Brazilian koa. With its bold, orangish stripes, it will attract attention.

Sustainability Issues

Despite common fears, buying hardwoods from Brazil and other South American nations does not necessarily mean you are participating in the devastation of the Amazon rainforest. In reality, clear-cutting or burning forests is most often done to clear territory for other forms of agriculture or to graze cattle, not to harvest the timber. Provided the harvesting of hardwood trees is done responsibly, there is a good argument to be made that an ongoing timber industry actually preserves forests, since it creates an economic reason for their continued existence.

A good portion of the South American logging industry now uses sustainable forestry practices. Much Brazilian hardwood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the gold standard for maintaining good forestry practices. Such certification means the trees are selectively harvested in a manner that preserves the overall forest to ensure that ongoing harvesting is possible.

Look for the "FSC" tree logo on flooring company websites, and cross-check the company's certification by searching by company name on the FSC website itself: FSC Public Search.

Costs

Exotic hardwood flooring comes with a high price tag. While domestic hardwood flooring typically costs $5 to $10 per square foot, exotic Brazilian hardwood flooring ranges from $8 to $14 per square foot, not including installation. The higher cost is due partly to the shipping costs of bringing these woods to market from long distances. And because Brazilian hardwoods are very hard, milling is more difficult and slower—meaning it is more expensive.

Further, there may be ethical concerns with saving money by buying the cheapest of exotic hardwoods. Ethical business practices (such as paying fair wages, etc.) are still not wide-spread in the Brazilian lumber industry, although progress is being made. A few of the more accountable operations, such as Brazilian Direct, ensure that mill and forest workers are paid fair wages. You will need to do some research, but generally speaking, bargain-basement exotic hardwoods are very often produced by companies that treat workers poorly. For socially conscious consumers, such issues need to be weighed against cost savings.

Solid vs. Engineered Hardwood Flooring

Whether made from domestic or exotic lumber, hardwood flooring is available in two forms—solid hardwood planks, and engineered hardwood, which is made by bonding a thin layer of true hardwood to a laminated core of plywood layers or wood composite material. Solid hardwood was once a far better choice than engineered wood flooring, as early iterations of engineered wood tended to delaminate. But engineered wood flooring has come into its own, and it has many strong points that make it a better choice for many homeowners. 

For one thing, less hardwood is consumed in the manufacturing of engineered wood flooring, and the core layers are usually made from wood byproducts leftover from other industrial uses. Consumers concerned about forestry practices can feel better about the environmental impact of using engineered wood flooring. For DIYers, engineered wood flooring often uses a click-lock tongue-and-groove system that makes it possible to install the flooring themselves. Solid hardwood flooring, by contrast, almost always requires professional installation. Finally—and most important for some consumers—engineered wood flooring is generally cheaper than solid hardwood plank flooring.

Considering the vastly improved quality of today's engineered wood flooring, it is well worth considering if you are purchasing Brazilian hardwood flooring.