When it comes to hardwood flooring, the wood can either be sourced domestically or from overseas. Brazilian pecan, with its wildly contrasting colors, or Australian cypress, with its knots, whorls, and recesses, fit into the overseas, foreign, or exotic category. An unusual appearance is, at best, a casual definition. To properly understand exotic hardwood flooring, a more formal definition is needed.
What Exotic Hardwood Flooring Means
The North America-based flooring industry defines exotic hardwood flooring as flooring made from wood sources outside of the United States and Canada.
So, for residents of the United States, white oak, red oak, maple, and hickory are domestic. Jatoba and ipe are considered foreign products. Brazilians would consider jatoba and ipe to be domestic, and Australians would think of Australian cypress as domestic, too. So, for many buyers, a wider definition would include additional qualities like:
Most imported wood flooring is hardwood, but not all are equally hard. Purpleheart and Australian cypress, both of which are considered hardwoods, fall mid-range on the Janka hardness scale. That's far below the hardness of products like teak, mahogany, ipe, and jatoba. However, most exotics tend to be quite hard as measured by the Janka scale.
Grains on exotic hardwoods are often wide and pronounced. Exotic hardwoods often exhibit vibrant, unusual colors—from reds to classic browns and even purples. Some imported hardwoods, like Brazilian pecan and tigerwood, show night-and-day contrasts between colors, from deep black to light tan, all on the same board.
Imported hardwood flooring will generally cost more than similar domestic hardwoods. Shipping the products overseas on container ships adds to the cost.
Hardwood Flooring Environmental Issues
Hardwoods, in general, grow far slower than softwoods, and hence the widespread harvest of these woods can lead to heavy deforestation of vulnerable landscapes in tropical regions. While fast-growing softwoods can be grown almost as an agricultural crop, hardwoods take many years to mature, and unless carefully controlled, much of the harvesting occurs in original-growth forests.
A variety of organizations exist to monitor logging practices and verify that they are being done in sustainable ways. One of the strictest such certification programs is that of the FSC (Forest Sustainability Council).
Generally speaking, wood supplies that carry the FSC certification can be assumed to be harvested in a sustainable way. However, strict environmental protection organizations such as Rainforest Relief take a more conservative approach, insisting that only lumber from second-growth, managed forests can be said to be truly sustainable. In their view, simple certification from FSC is not enough, unless that certification also specifies that the lumber comes from managed second-growth forests.
This is a subject of debate, as some sources argue that most clear-cutting of tropical forests is done for the purpose of creating grazing land for cattle, not for the timber industry. In their view, creating a market for forest timber actually helps rainforest species, creating an economic reason to protect and plant hardwoods.
The best advice for concerned consumers is to make sure you buy FSC-certified woods. Although not perfect, the Forest Stewardship Council does an admirable job of monitoring the logging and processing of hardwoods to ensure that they are done in a reasonably sustainable manner.
The hardwood species discussed here were all selected because they do not fall into the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listings for appendix I (most endangered), or appendix II (controlled trade necessary). But it is still important to make sure you are buying from sources that practice sustainable harvest techniques
Otherwise known as Jatoba, this fiery red hardwood hails not just from Brazil, but also from Peru and Mexico. Even though jatoba is not as popular as it once was, the good news for you is that the once sky-high prices have subsided to more reasonable levels.
- Pros: At 2350 on the Janka scale, jatoba is extremely hard. It can take sanding and refinishing many times over the course of its life.
- Cons: If you're interested in following trends, Brazilian cherry flooring's popularity began around 2000 and peaked in 2007. Brazilian cherry is also a hardwood that shows water stains more readily than many hardwoods.
In the early 2000s, Brazilian cherry quickly became a very popular wood that fueled a considerable amount of deforestation in South America. Make sure to look for FCS (Forest Stewardship Council) certification when buying this flooring product.
Showy and dramatic, the perfectly-named tigerwood announces itself with its wildly contrasting wide grains. Tigers, zebras, and any animal with stripes come to mind with this truly unique flooring.
- Pros: Tigerwood is all about the drama that this flooring brings to a room. It also has very good resistance to moisture.
- Cons: Sunlight may fade those darker stripes, evening out the contrasts that first attracted you to this type of wood.
Harvesting practices vary widely on this unique wood that is native to South America and the African Congo. Organizations such as Rainforest Relief list tigerwood as one of the species to be on alert for. Although it takes some research, it is best to choose flooring that is not only FCS-certified but also verified to come from managed second-growth forests rather than old-growth sources.
Kempas is a reddish-pinkish brown wood from Indonesia and Malaysia that attractively darkens when stained. Kempas creates no drama in your home. Rather, it provides a good, solid hardwood floor that lets other parts of the room shine.
- Pros: This is a durable wood that is reasonably priced for imported hardwood since it is rarely used for purposes other than flooring.
- Cons: Kempas will progressively darken with exposure to sunlight.
Kempas wood comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, and there are concerns about large quantities of this wood being imported illegally. This is not an endangered species, but responsible consumers are advised to check into where their wood is sourced and how it is harvested.
Rated a mid-range 1,410 on the Janka scale, sapele mahogany is a tight, wavy-grained hardwood from tropical Africa.
- Pros: Sapele mahogany is ideal when you want flooring with a lush, wavy pattern that looks rich and very up-scale.
- Cons: Sapele is reported to be very photo-sensitive. So, areas that are carpeted, have sofas on them, or are otherwise covered may retain an outline. Sapele is also somewhat softer than other tropical hardwoods, though more durable than other forms of mahogany.
Sapele mahogany is a widely-sold wood from tropical Africa, and while the species is not considered endangered, it is listed as a species "of concern" by organizations such as the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It is, however, a good alternative to other forms of mahogany that are more seriously threatened, provided you can verify that it is FSC-certified.
Australian cypress is a very rustic-looking wood with whorls and pronounced grain. Australian cypress is considered a cost-effective imported hardwood. It's highly sustainable and is sourced from second-growth forests.
- Pros: Use Australian cypress when you want to give your home a cottage or cabin feeling.
- Cons: As far as hardwoods go, Australian cypress is fairly soft, so it would not be the best wood flooring for a house with dogs.
Environmental groups call Australian cypress a species "of least concern," and consumers can generally use it without guilt. Australia is extremely diligent about protecting its natural resources; more than 90-percent of Australian cypress is harvested from second-growth forests. You can generally use Australian cypress without fear of environmental issues.
Ipe (Brazilian Walnut)
Known as ipe or ironwood, Brazilian Walnut is one of the toughest hardwood floors available. Ipe rates at about 3,680 on the Janka hardness scale. By comparison, tigerwood is 2,160 on the Janka scale. At the lowest end of the scale is Douglas fir, which is used for structural work and not for flooring, with a Janka score of around 620.
- Pros: Ipe is so strong and hard that it's often used for exterior decking.
- Cons: Ipe is so difficult to fabricate that many floor installers may balk at taking on this wood.
Harvested from Central and South America, Ipe was once regarded as one of the better options for exotic hardwood. More recently it has come into question as heavy demand has reduced the availability of FSC-certified supplies.
Environmentally conscious consumers should verify that their wood is sustainably harvested as indicated by certification by the FSC.