The gold standard in wooden floors has long been solid hardwood or softwood boards, milled to tongue and groove edges and nailed into a wooden subfloor. Yes, it’s old-school, but still just as valid today as when this method came on the scene hundreds of years ago. Installation techniques have improved vastly, making this a much easier job than the old nail and hammer days. This has kept solid flooring in the forefront, still actively competing with pre-finished, engineered flooring, a relative upstart in the long history of wooden flooring.
But how do you go about selecting unfinished solid flooring? Let’s take a look at some of the considerations you need to know before you start on your flooring project.
Solid or Engineered Flooring
Solid flooring is exactly as it sounds; a single board, milled from a tree. It will reflect all the knots, grain variations, and color differences inherent in that tree, especially toward the edge cuts. The center cuts, or heartwood, will offer the straightest grain and fewest anomalies. As the tree is milled, these boards are separated into various grades that reflect their character, and we’ll look at grading lumber shortly.
The most common thickness of unfinished solid flooring is ¾”, which gives you plenty of depth to sand and finish, not only initially, but several times over the life of the floor, which could easily span a century. This is a very important factor to consider if you plan on owning your home for a long time. Solid flooring can also come in other thicknesses, starting as thin as 5/16”, going up to 3/8” and ½”. Some of the exotic imports from Asia and Europe are these thinner thicknesses – not necessarily bad – but a consideration for the long run. Remember: Thicker board/longer lifespan.
Solid flooring is best installed at above-grade floors, and nailed into wooden subfloors, it is not recommended for below-grade, or basement, applications. A solid and level subfloor with a nailed solid floor is a solid feeling, great looking floor.
Engineered flooring is a relatively recent innovation, but is igniting a new wave of do-it-yourselfers (DIYs) who like the easier installation and the pre-finished surface. Engineered flooring is constructed on a plywood substrate, so it’s less prone to the vicissitudes of wood, such as warping, checking or buckling.
Secondly it uses a veneer of hardwood as the top layer which is usually pre-finished thus saving time and work. Do pay attention to thickness of this top layer, the “wear layer” by inspecting the flooring from the ends. Remember that you may need to refinish your new floor in time, and you may want to opt for a thicker (and more expensive” flooring that features a ticker top veneer.
Thirdly and perhaps most appealing is that engineered floors are engineered to fit and “snap” together with a minimum of “persuasion.” In fact, the newest trend is the Lock and Fold joining method, where the two boards offer locking male/female edges that lock into place without the usually blocking and tapping into place more common with older styles.
Ok, you’ve looked, you’ve learned, you’ve seen the samples, and decided on selecting unfinished solid flooring. Good for you! Now, let’s get started.
Various Lengths, Various Widths
There is no standard length or width in solid flooring, but there are some popular sizes. For example, a traditional width is 2 ¼”, and you see this everywhere in softwoods like Douglas fir, and hardwoods, like red oak and maple. But you can also get solid flooring in widths all the way up to 18-20 inches – especially from a custom mill – but be warned that solid boards this wide often display more movement and warping tendencies than skinner boards.
Wide plank floors are making a huge comeback right now, floorboards of 6” to 12”, and they have a warm, early American or rustic look, depending on the wood, the grain, and the installation. For example, you can top nail these floors using reproduction forged nails for a super authentic look, or peg the floor, where a hole is drilled and a different species peg is inserted prior to finishing, mimicking earlier pegged floors. Even though pegging is for show only, it’s a beautiful recreation of early craftsmanship.
At a lumberyard, you can select boards all in the 84” range, but you must remember to stagger the ends, to avoid and “end-seam” that runs laterally across the floor, which is both unsightly and less stable, than measured or random length staggering – keeping end seams at least 6 inches apart.
More likely, you’ll buy a bundle of wood, and it will be made up of both longs and shorts, sometimes as short as 12”. This is fine too, and more or less insures that you’ll have a nice, random staggering on lengths as you lay out your new floor. The imported and exotice woods tend to be bundled in shorter lengths, presumably for shipping purposes.
Making the Grade
While pre-finished wooden flooring is seldom graded, you’ll get some variations in each bundle, but by and large, a premium product. The exceptions being cabin grade or tavern grade, which appear very much as they sound; rustic, rough, and not all select grade. However, the price can be well worth it for less formal applications, like, say cabins or taverns!
Selecting unfinished solid flooring is all about the grade, though, so it pays to know what your are buying. The Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) has established certification and grading protocols for unfinished flooring that are detailed on their website as follows:
Number 1. Common
Number 2. Common
The primary differentiator between the grades is the degree to which natural characteristics, such as knots and mineral streaks, or manufacturing marks, such as sticker stain, are allowed. The prominence and frequency of these characters increases from NOFMA Clear to NOFMA No. 2 Common.
For example, “NOFMA Clear” is mostly uniform in appearance, has a limited number of character marks, and is mostly heartwood. “Select” also has a uniform appearance, but this grade contains more of the natural characters such as knots and all natural color variations associated with heartwood and sapwood. The common grades will contain even more natural characters, as well as manufacturing marks.
Be sure to see samples of these grades at the lumberyard or store, and also pictures of finished floors to make an informed decision. Solid wooden floors can last a lifetime, so take few extra minutes in the selection process.