Solid Hardwood Flooring: A Starter Guide

Choose, Install, and Maintain This Perenially Favorite Flooring

Unfurnished home interior with hardwood
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Poor solid hardwood.

At one time, it was the only game in town if you wanted wood flooring.  Then, simulations popped up, some better than others--engineered wood, laminate "wood" flooring, resilient tile mimicking wood, and more.

Yet as the ads like to tout, nothing quite feels like real, solid wood flooring. It's sturdy, feels substantial under foot, and maintains value.

What Is Solid Hardwood?

First, let's look at its closest cousin, engineered wood.

 Engineered wood flooring--a plywood-type base topped with hardwood--is often called hardwood flooring. Flooring manufacturers like to claim this, too.

Thus the emphasis on the word solid--flooring that is hardwood from top to bottom.

Interestingly, it is not all hardwood.  Soft woods abound.  Even bamboo--not a wood at all--is often sold within the same category. Finally, classic tongue-and-groove is one hallmark of solid hardwood flooring.

  • Learn the Basic Types of Wood Flooring
  • Why Do I Keep Hearing 'Solid' Hardwood Flooring?"

Places It Can Be Installed

Solid. Hard. Those words give the impression that solid hardwood flooring is an indestructible material, suited for all places in the house. Let's look at various parts of the house and how they are suited for hardwood installation:

  • Dining, Bedroom, Living, etc.: Yes. All at-grade or above-grade locations, with the possible exception of the locations listed below, are excellent choices.
  • Kitchens: Possible. Solid hardwood can work in kitchens, but many homeowners choose to install more moisture-resistant surfaces such as tile or resilient flooring.
  • Bathrooms: Not recommended. Too much moisture.

Solid Hardwood Vs. Other Floor Coverings

Sure, engineered wood flooring, laminate, and resilient flooring may look like solid hardwood. But how do they compare on major points?

  • Solidity: Solid hardwood feels solid. Except for engineered wood floor, no other wood or wood-type flooring gives you that same feeling of solidity.
  • Structural Properties: This solidity is due to solid hardwood's structural properties, bridging minor gaps, smoothing minor bumps. Engineered wood provides this, but laminate and resilient flooring do not.
  • Resale Value: Solid hardwood is a plus that will increase the value of your home. Engineered wood's resale value is comparable.
  • Price: Good solid hardwood floor starts around $4.50 per square foot. Engineered flooring ranges around the same price, and laminate is far cheaper than either.
  • Installation: If you're considering DIY-installing your solid hardwood, you may get a better result if you hire a crew. Laminate and resilient flooring are DIY-friendly.
  • Learn the Basics of Engineered Wood Flooring
  • Laminate Floor Guide

Choosing a Wood Species

Wood species refers to the type of wood--oak, maple, ipe, tigerwood, etc. Provenance, hardness and grain are two factors that will affect your choice.

Provenance: i.e., Where does the wood flooring come from? Wood flooring falls into either domestic or exotic species. Domestic species--oak, maple, beech--tend to be cheaper and have milder coloration. Exotic hardwood flooring--ipe, kempas, anything "Brazilian"--may have dramatically contrasting colors and be harder woods.

Hardness: Any wood can be soft or hard, and even so-called hardwoods can be quite soft. Heartpine and ash are soft hardwoods that may dent and scratch over time; mahogany and Brazilian walnut are two examples of hard hardwoods. The Janka hardness rating system rates the hardness of wood by firing a .444 inch steel ball into the wood and measuring depth of impact.

Grain: Close-grain wood has fibers which are packed tighter together and offer a harder surface. Maple, alder, and walnut are examples of close-grained woods.

Open-grained woods are loosely packed and splinter more easily. Pine and fir are extreme (non-flooring) examples of close-grained wood. Within the flooring world, oak and ash, while still relatively hard, are more open-grained that other types.

  • Maple: Maple is a close-grained light wood with a creamy color.
  • Red Oak: Possibly the most popular solid hardwood floor species, red oak has a pink tinge and an open grain. It is relatively inexpensive.
  • Beech: Beech is one of my personal favorites, as I once installed it in my house. Beech has very dramatic, contrasting streaking and whorls.
  • White Oak: Not white, but with a coloration verging on light brown and a medium Janka hardness similar to his red oak cousin.
  • Cypress: Cypress, like beech, has a very in-your-face appearance, not for the faint of heart. Cypress will give your home a home-like, cabin-y feel.
  • Bamboo: Absolutely not a hardwood, not even a wood. But bamboo is now categorized in the solid hardwood arena, so we include it. Bamboo is a grass. Bamboo is made durable for flooring by the adhesive used to bind the materials and by use of the strand bamboo method.
  • Kempas: Kempas is a very hard flooring wood originating from Malaysia and Indonesia, ranking a high 1710 on the Janka scale.

Janka Scale:  The Hardness Factor

Douglas Fir660
S. Yellow Pine, Shortleaf690
S. Yellow Pine, Longleaf890
Black Cherry950
Black Walnut1010
Yellow Birch1260
Red Oak, Northern1290
American Beech1300
Bamboo* - Teragren Craftsman II1307
White Oak1360
Australian Cypress1375
Hard Maple1450
African Pedauk1725
Santos Mahogany2200
Brazilian Cherry2350
Brazilian Walnut3800
Bamboo* - Cali Bamboo Fossilized5000

* = Bamboo is not a wood, but in the flooring industry it is often classified in this area and can be subjected to a Janka test, too.

5. Hardwood Floor Sizing: From Strips to Planks

  • Thickness: 1/2" to 3/4".
  • Width - Strip Flooring: 1 1/2", 2 1/4", 2 1/2"
  • Width - Plank: Six inches or wider.

6. Staining Your Unfinished Hardwood Floor

Staining and sealing are separate steps. While sealing is mandatory, staining is not.

7. Sealing: Prefinished or Unfinished Hardwood Flooring?

Increasingly, solid hardwood floors are sold as pre-finished, with a factory-applied aluminum oxide/polyurethene coating. Unfinished wood flooring is becoming a rarity. When making a decision about pre-finished vs. unfinished hardwood flooring, consider these points:
  • Pre-finished flooring takes the noxious finishing process out of the home and into a factory.
  • Unfinished flooring allows you to choose the finish treatment rather than having it chosen for you.
  • Pre-finished wood flooring typically comes with a microbevel between floorboards.
  • By finishing your hardwood flooring after installation, the sealant can cover the seams between the boards, providing a tighter surface.

8. Installation

Real, honest-to-God solid hardwood installs by nail or staple through the product's tongue and groove. End pieces, where tongue-and-groove fastening is impossible due to space, are face-nailed.

Because special equipment must be purchased or rented, and then you must learn how to operate this equipment, it is advisable to hire professional floor installers.

9. Maintenance

Water, pets, and kids are the enemies of solid hardwood floors. Fortunately, scratches inflicted by the latter two are sandable (see below).

Water is a more serious matter. But given quick enough action, even flooded hardwood floors can be saved.

10. Sanding Your Solid Hardwood Flooring

The true beauty of solid hardwood--and the factor that distinguishes it from all other types of flooring--is that is can be repeatedly sanded.
  • Drum Sander: The "beast" of floor sanders, the drum sander is capable of ripping a quarter-inch off of your solid hardwood floor in the blink of an eye.
  • Orbital Sander: A lighter sander that is easier to operate. Yet deep sanding is not possible.