Wide plank flooring has traditionally been relegated to a subset of the wood flooring market. Reasons abound, and some of those reasons are solid, such as that wide plank costs more and is more difficult to install. But misconceptions and myths surround wide plank flooring, as well. It helps to shine some light on the gap between the perception of wide plank flooring and its reality so that you can decide whether to make this costly and permanent purchase.
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Basics of True Wide Plank Flooring
Wide plank flooring's look doesn't lend itself to every style of home. Its grand appearance, especially in darker tones and highly textured (or distressed) is well-suited to traditionally styled homes. At the same time, smooth and undistressed wide plank flooring in lighter shades is slowly working its way into more modern and contemporary styled homes. Swedish-style, wood-centric homes look fabulous when floored in wide plank flooring.
Besides style-matching, another advantage of wide plank flooring is that it means fewer seams between boards. "There's not as much interruption of lines," says Dan McMillan of Carlisle Wide Plank Floors, "and you can see the vertical grain better. It's simply a floor for anyone who has respect for wood." In the case of Carlisle, which does not sell short so-called commodity flooring, seams are reduced in both directions: width and length.
Another company that sells authentic wide plank flooring is Vermont Plank Flooring. They sell end-matched flooring up to 12 inches wide and 16 feet long, depending on the wood species you choose.
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Wide Plank Flooring: Widths and Lengths
Much of the wood flooring that is called wide plank stops at around 10 inches wide, if that. Genuine wide-plank from a retailer that specializes in such products includes those widths but can go all the way up to 20 inches wide. These are widths almost comparable to American Colonial-era flooring that was as wide as 24 inches wide.
Oak, hickory, and other hardwoods tend to be narrower, around 10 inches to 12 inches, due to the nature of the source trees. Available hardwood trees are smaller in diameter than the softwoods. While you may see a neighbor's 36-inch wide oak tree, this is not indicative of the type of trees available for the commercial flooring market.
"Cheap wood flooring," says Carlisle's McMillan, "is cut from every part of the tree, with lengths ranging from one foot to six feet." Wide plank flooring is cut from the thickest part of the tree, the trunk. Limbs are excluded not only as smaller, but inferior, source materials.
Wide planks tend to run longer, too. This is partially because the source material runs longer, but also because longer boards visually compensate for those increased widths.
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Wide Plank Flooring's Humidity Window
One myth is that wide plank flooring only has a very narrow window of moisture in which it can be installed.
It is true that between 28 percent to 48 percent humidity is still the best range. But as one example of how better-quality wide plank stands up well even against humidity outliers, Carlisle's McMillan mentions a glue-down solid hardwood floor that was installed in New York. That area experienced a drastic humidity level drop down to 9 percent. The lower part of the floor did not contract because the glue held it firmly in check. But the top of the floor began to "dry-cup."
McMillan says that high-quality wood flooring, by "utilizing center cut, old growth timber which is properly air- and kiln-dried, is always more stable." Simply put, better wood allows for a greater success in a wider range.
In the New York example, there was no need to sand and refinish. The owners only had to wait until the humidity came back and the floor re-acclimated. Often it's best to give the floor a full cycle of seasons to allow for problems to resolve themselves. Sometimes, being aware of the space’s relative humidity can help make installation decisions that ensure success. In this case, a second sanding would be a rare event.
Humidity stability is key. Hot, dry locales like Arizona work fine for wood flooring because humidity levels are stable. Colorado's fluctuating moisture levels make it one of the more challenging states for wide plank wood floor installation.
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Pre-Finished vs. Unfinished Wide Plank Flooring
Over the last several years, the balance has shifted from unfinished flooring (later finished on-site) to pre-finished floors (which are finished in a factory).
For the do-it-yourselfer who loves dry work (cutting and stapling down floorboards) but dislikes smelly chemical-based work, pre-finished flooring is a match made in heaven.
What can be better than finishing flooring in a factory? Conditions are stable, workers are focused on one task, and there are no bothersome homeowners hanging around.
However, much of the factory-finished flooring out there has a hard shell that must first be chemically stripped if you ever want to sand and refinish it. By contrast, site-finished flooring has a more forgiving surface that lends itself well to refinishing. Carlisle makes a factory-finished floor whose surface has site-finished qualities, the best of both worlds.
Site-finished flooring has another advantage: seam-filling. After the floorboards are laid down, there are thin seams between the boards that can allow for moisture infiltration. Water is one of the worst enemies of natural wood flooring. When wood flooring is site-finished, the sealant fills in between the seams, acting as a barrier between outside elements and the floor's delicate underside.