Is a Hardwood Floor Right for Your Bathroom?

Wet Footprints by Bathtub
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

Hardwood flooring is a popular surface covering material that has been used in a variety of interior spaces since the dawn of modern construction. It is durable, low maintenance, long lasting, and has a beautiful natural look that is prized by many homeowners. However it does have issues regarding moist environments, and while certain types can be prepared for bathroom use, it will require a higher level of maintenance than in other places.

Is Hardwood Flooring Right For a Bathroom?

When deciding if hardwood flooring is right for your bathroom, make sure you consider these factors:

Finish: In its unprotected state, hardwood flooring ​will plump, expand, warp, and stain at the touch of any liquids, because it is naturally a very absorbent material. However, the application of a finishing agent, usually a polyurethane based sealer, can create an invisible surface over the wood, making it impossible for water to penetrate. This finish will generally have to be applied several times in a bathroom, with special attention to the seams.

It is very important that you choose a quality finish that is designed to deal with water heavy environments. There are some finishes that are marine grade, and are suited even for outdoor all weather applications, while others will be acceptable for indoor use in wet spaces. You also have to be aware that the sealer will only protect the top of the material, and any water that penetrates down through the seams can cause damage to the wood from the sides and below.

Type Of Wood: There are many different types of wood that are available for flooring installations, and some will be better at handling bathroom conditions than others. Generally, you want to avoid softwoods such as Pine and Fir, as they will be less dense and more apt to absorb moisture. Good hardwood choices include Teak, Oak, Cedar, Cherry, Maple, Ash, Walnut and Hickory.

Warranty: Most hardwood flooring will come with a set warranty that will guarantee replacement over a certain period of time if the material fails. However, these warranties often come with stipulations which void them if the floor is installed in a water heavy environment, such as a bathroom.

Water Challenges With Hardwood Bathroom Flooring

Spills and Splashes: This is going to be the first concern of any flooring installed in a bathroom. Showers and baths tend to cause splashes naturally. Even just rinsing your face in the sink can send droplets of water spilling out across the floor. While the finish will protect the material to some extent, you still need to wipe up any spills immediately so that moisture doesn’t wear away at the material's protective layer or seep down between seams.

Leveling: If your floor is not perfectly level, you're going to have a problem with liquids tending to slide down towards the low areas and collect in pools. These puddles of moisture can be very damaging to the floor, and can even weaken its structural integrity.

Moisture Barrier: With most hardwood, you're going to nail the flooring planks directly to the subfloor, which means that a vapor barrier cannot be used, as it would be punctured in the process.

Then if moisture seeps down past the surface, it can get into the structure of the building and start eating away at it. For this reason, hardwood that is installed with adhesive or click-together methods are recommended in a bathroom setting.

Flooding: This is a constant threat in a bathroom, which is exacerbated when you have hardwood flooring. If a pipe starts to leak, or a fixture malfunctions, you can very quickly find the bathroom filled with inches of water. Though you may be able to undo some of the damage, flooding will generally destroy a hardwood flooring installation, even if it is properly sealed, as the water will be able to penetrate down and seep into any crack or unprotected surface.

Chemical Stains: There are many different types of soap, cleanser, and hygienic wash which are used in bathrooms.

Many of these are slightly acidic in nature, and if they spill and splatter on hardwood, they can eat away at the finish, or cause permanent staining in the wood.

Humidity: While standing water caused by splashing gets the most attention in a bathroom, the humidity in this space can be just as damaging. When you shower, the bathroom tends to get very steamy, with the air growing warm and moist. This air will hover in the space, filling every crack, penetrating down into every tiny space, infiltrating the hardwood in your floors. While only a small amount will actually get in, over time the effects can be accumulative.

Unfortunately, humidity can attack every side of the hardwood—even the bottom, which generally does not get a finish treatment. In the case of a heavily used bathroom, humidity can result in floor boards twisting, warping, plumping and cracking.

Mold and Mildew: Because the bathroom is so moist, the growth of mold and mildew is always going to be a problem. These harmful organic substances love hot, wet environments, and they feed on natural materials such as hardwood. The finishing stain will protect the floor to some extent, but over time mold and mildew can grow in between boards, and even beneath them.

Precautionary Measures With Hardwood Bathroom Flooring

Regular Maintenance: Keeping the finish layer strong and intact is vital when you have hardwood flooring in a bathroom. This is your first line of defense, and it will need to be reapplied every few months. You can test if the finish layer is still intact by dropping a small amount of water on it and waiting to see if the water beads or absorbs into the wood. If it beads up, it is fine, but if it sinks in then you need another coat as soon as possible.

Bath Mats: These can be placed at strategic locations, such as just outside of the bathtub, or around the sink to try and catch any splashing water droplets or drips from wet fresh washed feet.

Tile Surrounds: Another way you can mitigate water damage is by having decorative tile surrounds installed along the perimeter of the bath tub.

These can be quite stylish, and matched with the features in the rest of the room, while also providing a certain level of impervious protection for the most prone areas in the space.

Fixtures: The pipes running into and out of the major fixtures in a bathroom can also be a problem. These can sometimes leak, causing water damage problems in hard to see areas. Cold water lines may also collect condensation, due to being cooler than the surrounding air in the bathroom, which can also lead to water issues. The best way to handle this is to ensure that all pipes are thoroughly caulked, and to keep an eye out for any leaks or drips.

Usage: When deciding whether or not to install hardwood floors in a particular bathroom, consider who's using it and how often. If the room gets heavy use, splashes will occur and humidity will be a problem, which can shorten the life of the material and increase your maintenance workload. This is especially true if the bathroom is used by small children. However, hardwood is a popular choice in half baths, guest bathrooms, and powder rooms where water can be better controlled.

Advantages of Hardwood In a Bathroom

Warmth: One of the biggest drawbacks to tile is that it is quite chilly, especially in the winter. Since the bathroom is a space where you will often go barefoot, this can be an issue. Hardwood floors give the room a much warmer, more comforting feel underfoot than tile. The earth tone colors also tend to make the entire room seem more inviting and welcoming.

Beauty: The biggest advantage of hardwood is that it can be really beautiful. It lends a sense of nature and wonder to a space, while also providing an environment with a unique personality, that can be seen in the one of a kind features found in every plank. Hardwood is also a classic choice that has been popular for thousands of years, and is not subject to the whims and vogues of interior design.

Refinishing Hardwood Bathroom Floors

One of the great things about hardwood is that if you mess up and ruin the floor, it can generally be fixed rather easily by simply sanding down the surface past the level of any defects, and then applying a new finishing coat to it. However the equipment used to do this is quite large, and it may be an unwieldy, and even ultimately futile process trying to refinish a floor in a very small bathroom.

Hardwood Flooring in Other Rooms

Interested in hardwood flooring in other rooms of your home?

Hardwood Flooring In Your Kitchen
Hardwood Living Room Flooring
Natural Wooden Bedroom Floors