Brazilian Hardwood Flooring Basics

Installing Hardwood Floor
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Hardwoods from the rainforests of Brazil and nearby regions remain in high demand for flooring and woodworking projects. It's easy to understand why. These imported hardwoods have unique grain patterns and colors, and they are at the top of the scale when it comes to hardness. The hardness factor alone makes Brazilian hardwood flooring desirable since these durable, dense woods make some of the best flooring options.

Domestic vs. Imported Hardwoods

Domestic hardwood is defined as a wood hailing from North America (U.S. and Canada), while imported hardwoods are those that come from anywhere else in the world. Domestics include familiar favorites such as birch, cherry, pine, hickory, red and white oak, and maple. Domestic hardwoods are all certainly tough and durable woods, but nowhere near as hard as lumber that comes from South America.

Flooring labeled Brazilian hardwood often comes 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, commonly known as Brazilian teak, can come from anywhere from Mexico to Argentina. Buying so-called Brazilian hardwood does not necessarily mean that the lumber even comes from Brazilian forests.

Comparing Hardness

Wood hardness is traditionally categorized according to the Janka hardness scale. The Janka is based on a numerical value resulting from a test in which a steel ball is pressed against the wood until it's depressed 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 as follows:

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 2350
Ipe (Brazilian walnut) South American 3684
Cumaru (Brazilian teak) South American 3540
Tigerwood (Brazilian koa) South American 2160

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

Species of Brazilian Hardwood

If you prefer a dramatic and bold wood floor, there are plenty of vibrant Brazilian woods to choose from. There's nothing bland about available colors, which run from reds, oranges, browns, and purples (the purpleheart tree) and some species include extreme contrasts of color all in one plank. The most common Brazilian hardwoods used for flooring include:

  • Jatoba: Otherwise known as Brazilian cherry, jatoba has a rich, deep reddish-brown color and superior durability.
  • Ipe: Also known as ironwood or Brazilian walnut, this extremely hard and expensive wood has a rich brown tone. Due to its density, ipe 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 other Brazilian hardwoods, its dense interlocking grain makes this a durable favorite.
  • Tigerwood: Tigerwood, otherwise known as Brazilian koa, has dramatic, eye-catching stripes in orange hues.

Sustainability Issues

Buying hardwoods from Brazil and other South American nations does not necessarily mean you are participating in rainforest devastation. 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. The argument is often made that harvesting hardwood trees is responsible and preserves forests because it creates an ongoing economy.

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. The certification means the trees are selectively harvested in a manner that preserves the overall forest to ensure the possibility of ongoing harvesting.

Finding FSC Products

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 of Brazilian Hardwood

Imported hardwood flooring comes with a high price tag. While domestic hardwood flooring typically costs $5 to $10 per square foot, Brazilian hardwood flooring ranges from $8 to $14 per square foot, not including installation. Part of the higher cost is due to the shipping costs of bringing these woods to market from long distances. Another reason for the higher expense is because milling Brazilian hardwood is more difficult and slower.

Beware Bargain-Basement Prices

You can get cheap imported hardwoods, but that may mean the forest and mill workers were significantly underpaid for their labor to log the wood. The good news is that the Brazilian lumber industry is making progress on paying fair wages to its laborers.

Solid vs. Engineered Hardwood Flooring

Whether made from domestic or imported lumber, hardwood flooring is available in two forms—solid hardwood planks and engineered hardwood planks. Engineered hardwood flooring is made by bonding a thin layer of hardwood to a laminated core of plywood layers or wood composite material. Solid hardwood was once favored over engineered hardwood flooring. But better technology now makes engineered wood flooring a worthwhile consideration if you plan to purchase Brazilian hardwood flooring.

Engineered hardwood flooring has two other major advantages over hardwood flooring. It's easier for DIY installation versus solid hardwood which typically requires professional installation. Engineered hardwood is made with less wood (core layers are usually made from wood byproducts leftover from other industrial uses), making it a less expensive choice over solid hardwood flooring.

Refinishing Engineered Hardwood Flooring

The thin veneer of engineered hardwood flooring can't be sanded or refinished nearly as many times as solid hardwood flooring.