Hardwood is regarded as one of the most desirable of flooring materials, and it almost always adds value to a home. But it's also well known among professionals that hardwood floors are somewhat high-maintenance and are a poor choice for wet locations. Some flooring manufacturers make claims that the factory finishes make their products water-resistant, but it's worth noting that they are never described as waterproof. Hardwood is easily discolored by water and the can fibers swell, which can cause the entire flooring surface to buckle. Manufacturers always caution against the installation of hardwood in rooms where wet conditions are likely, and even installation against concrete slabs is questionable since moisture can migrate through the concrete.
And yet, there is a gray area when it comes to kitchens since these rooms can best be described as semi-moist, or sporadically moist. It may be possible to use hardwood as a flooring material, but much depends on the nature of your household. A very busy household or a home designed so that traffic comes directly into the kitchen from a pool deck or garage is probably not the best place for a wood floor. If you are considering wood flooring for the kitchen, you will have to take some precautions, and also keep in mind some of the other qualities of hardwood that might make you reconsider its use.
Can be refinished
Increases home value
Softer, warmer than tile
Susceptible to water damage, scratches, dents
Difficult for DIYers to install
Types of Hardwood Flooring
Many aspects of hardwood flooring—costs, maintenance, installation, etc.—vary depending on what form is being used. Hardwood flooring used in kitchens and elsewhere generally falls into one of several types:
Solid unfinished planks: Installing solid hardwood planks, then staining and finishing them in place, gives the best possible wood flooring for a kitchen. With this installation, the boards butt up tightly together and are covered with a sealer coat that covers the entire surface, providing protection that won't be penetrated by water or staining materials. And solid hardwood planks have one very big advantage: They can be sanded down and refinished several times over the life of the floor. Solid hardwood floors have been known to last a century or more. This is the best form of hardwood for kitchens, though increasingly rare.
Solid prefinished planks: Many manufacturers now offer prefinished solid hardwood planks, which take some of the extra work out of flooring installation. Prefinished flooring has increasingly replaced unfinished flooring as the favorite. The planks are sanded, sealed, stained, and finished at the factory, which means the installer doesn't have to do it after installation. However, prefinished hardwood flooring is sometimes milled so that the planks have slightly beveled edges, and this design can be problematic in kitchens.
Engineered planks: This type of flooring is created by bonding a thin veneer of hardwood to a base of plywood or MDF. This type of flooring is always prefinished and is often created with a "click-lock" system in which the planks interlock at the edges. This makes it possible to install it as a "floating floor" with no attachment to the subfloor. This form of hardwood is the easiest for DIYers to install. Engineered hardwood is quite stable thanks to the plywood core, and many types are suitable for installation against concrete slabs.
Reclaimed planks: There is a growing market for using repurposed hardwood flooring, such as the materials salvaged when factories, office buildings, or bowling alleys are demolished. This option is very appealing to anyone interested in eco-friendly building practices since it uses recycled materials. Most larger communities have retailers who specialize in repurposed building materials, such as Habitat for Humanity's ReStore outlets. If carefully installed so that boards butt tightly and a good sealer is applied, reclaimed planks can be an acceptable choice for kitchens.
Hardwood Flooring Cost
The cost of hardwood flooring varies greatly depending on the type of wood and the quality of the product. Surprisingly, there is not a huge difference between costs for solid hardwoods and engineered hardwoods. Although engineered woods use less actual hardwood, this is offset by manufacturing that is more complicated and costly. And these products provide an easier installation process that people are willing to pay for.
For solid wood flooring, the general range of costs for materials alone is between $5 and $10 per square foot for standard domestic hardwoods, such as oak, maple, and cherry. Tropical hardwoods (mahogany, Brazilian walnut) cost between $8 and $14 per square foot, and sometimes more. For engineered hardwood, costs can be as little as $3 per square foot to as high as $13, depending on the type of wood, the thickness of the veneer, and the quality of the finish.
In addition to the cost of materials, expect to pay anywhere from $3 to $8 per square foot for professional installation. The wide range of labor cost is affected by local labor standards and on the complexity of the job. For example, a floor installation that requires removal of an old floor or structural reinforcement will cost more than a floor laid on a fully prepared subfloor.
Maintenance and Repair
If the right type of hardwood flooring is installed and if it is kept properly sealed, a hardwood floor in the kitchen is fairly easy to care for. In kitchens, the best flooring installation is one where the boards tightly butt up against one another, and where the floor are kept well sealed to block moisture from penetrating. Under these conditions, maintenance is a very simple matter of sweeping and periodic wiping with a barely-damp mop or hardwood cleaner.
However, if these conditions aren't met, hardwood in a kitchen can create a much different experience. Scratches, traffic wear, and other issues can easily compromise the seal coat and allow moisture or stains to permanently damage the wood. And certain forms of flooring are less suited to kitchens. Many prefinished hardwood flooring products have beveled edges that create grooves that channel water down between the boards. This usually doesn't happen with solid hardwood that has been properly sealed with an uninterrupted top coat of polyurethane.
Despite their hardness, these floors are very susceptible to scratching and they will be damaged by toenails of pets and general wear-and-tear. Make sure to choose hardwood flooring that can be sanded down and refinished. This means that solid hardwood will be a better choice than most engineered hardwood flooring. There are, however, some upper-end engineered products with very thick veneers that can be refinished. The refinishing process can range from light screening to remove the surface finish to more aggressive sanding that removes a thin layer of wood to erase scratches and damage. Either way, a fresh coat of varnish is then applied.
Hardwood is considered a premium flooring material and it almost always adds real estate value to a home. It offers visual warmth and texture and creates an earthy naturalness that can work with virtually any architectural style. If hardwood flooring has been installed elsewhere in the house, using the same hardwood in the kitchen allows for the flooring to uniformly flow throughout the house, unifying the decor.
Hardwood Flooring Installation
At one time, most hardwood floors were built with unfinished planks, but it has become much more common for new floors to make use of prefinished flooring.
The installation process for hardwood flooring varies according to different product types. Solid hardwood planks are usually milled with a tongue-and-groove design that allows the boards to lock at the edges. They are usually attached to the subfloor with nails driven down through the edges of the boards and into the subfloor, using a process known as "blind-nailing" which requires a special nailing tool. Solid hardwood boards are sometimes glued down using construction adhesives, such as when they are installed over concrete or an existing hard floor, such as ceramic tile.
Engineered hardwood and some prefinished solid hardwood planks are attached with a modified tongue-and-groove system, sometimes known as "click-lock." These floors are usually "floating floors" that simply rest on a thin dense foam underlayment pad without any attachment to the subfloor. The interlocking edges allow the flooring to float as a large mat over the underlayment. This method also has the advantage of allowing the floor to expand and contract with seasonal temperature and humidity changes.
After installation, unfinished flooring is stained by hand and is then coated with a polyurethane varnish that protects the finish and prevents moisture and stains from penetrating. This protective surface finish should be renewed every few years, especially for kitchen floors.
Solid hardwood flooring planks are usually installed by professionals since the installation is difficult and requires special tools. Engineered hardwood flooring, on the other hand, is often installed by DIYers; the process is similar to that used for other types of click-lock floating floors, such as laminates or luxury vinyl planks.
Top Brands of Hardwood Flooring
Almost all of the giant flooring brands now offer prefinished hardwood floor products, both solid and engineered. For unfinished hardwood, your best bet is to seek out a local specialty flooring store.
For prefinished flooring, consider these brands:
- Bruce: Owned and manufactured by flooring giant Armstrong, Bruce offers prefinished products in both solid hardwood and engineered planks. Bruce is available at both Home Depot and Lowe's stores, at specialty flooring stores, and from online retailers. Bruce offers moderately good flooring at affordable prices.
- Mannington: This flooring giant offers very good engineered hardwood flooring in more than 100 different colors, styles, and species. Its products are available at specialty flooring stores. Mannington flooring products are somewhat more expensive, but they are top-quality and extremely durable.
- Bellawood: This is Lumber Liquidator's house brand and features both prefinished solid hardwood and engineered hardwood products. These products, known to be good though not great, are priced very affordably.
- Carlisle: This company offers excellent wide-plank hardwood flooring in both prefinished solid planks and engineered planks.
- Kahrs: Although not a household name, Kahrs, a Swedish company, offers an impressive line of engineered hardwood flooring. Unlike many engineered products, Kahrs flooring has a very thick surface veneer that can be sanded and refinished. And the proprietary WoodLoc joinery system makes this a very easy flooring for DIYers to install.
Comfort and Convenience
In kitchens, hardwood makes for a slightly more comfortable flooring surface than harder materials, such as stone or ceramic tile, but it is considerably harder than more resilient flooring materials, such as vinyl or cork. Dishware may well survive falls onto hardwood flooring, but at the same time, a dropped can of vegetables could dent the wood. Hardwood will also feel warmer underfoot than ceramic or stone tile, though not as comfortable as vinyl.
Hardwood vs. Luxury Vinyl Flooring
Since hardwood's real drawback in a kitchen is its susceptibility to moisture and scratching, a flooring alternative to consider is one that is fully moisture-proof and more resistant to wear—luxury vinyl flooring (LVF). Also known as vinyl plank flooring, luxury vinyl is a thicker form of resilient vinyl, manufactured in multi-layer planks that join edge-to-edge to form a floating floor that rests on a foam underlayment pad. New manufacturing techniques are allowing luxury vinyl to take on the look of many different materials, including stone and wood. So realistic are these floors that you may need to view them on hands-and-knees to recognize that the planks are actually made of vinyl.
Luxury vinyl is completely impervious to water and most stains; it's easier to install than most hardwood flooring and much less expensive. Unless you are insistent on wood because it is a completely natural material, it is worth considering vinyl planks instead of wood for your kitchen.
Is Hardwood Flooring in the Kitchen Right for You?
Hardwood flooring is a good choice for your kitchen if you can afford it, are willing to be diligent about caring for it, and want the appeal of wholly natural flooring material. It will be a less successful choice if you have a busy or messy family, or if you have budget concerns.