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Solid wood flooring will last more than 100 years, and the finish can be easily renewed when needed. Just having wood floors increases the value of your home. Not too long ago, the only choice you had was the old-fashioned solid wood tongue and groove strips in maple or oak. Today, wood flooring can be planks from old barns, exotic woods, prefinished engineered wood strips which eliminate the dust and disruption of finishing on site. You even can have wood laminate flooring, which isn't wood, but looks like wood at a much lower cost. SOLID WOOD FLOORING - Solid wood floors, although beautiful, can't be used everywhere. They must be nailed to a sub-floor. This makes solid wood unsuitable for use directly over concrete. Adding a sub-floor between the concrete and the wood flooring might result in a height problem where the floor meets an adjoining room. Moisture causes wood to expand, so it's not appropriate in basements. Humidity can lead to squeaking and buckling. The trend seems to be for homeowners to buy wood flooring with a factory-applied finish. This eliminates dust from sanding, fumes from finishing, and waiting before the floor can be walked on. Another benefit is that the factory finishes are usually much tougher than the polyurethane applied in the field. The downside of pre-finishing is that since that floor doesn't get sanded after it's installed, there are slight bumps and dips where the sub-floor isn't perfectly level, and where the flooring strips might vary slightly in thickness. To hide these misalignments, flooring is available with V grooves so that when together, the edges aren't touching and it's difficult to notice any imperfections in alignment. Over time, these V grooves will catch dirt and darken, becoming a prominent feature in the floor. Not my favorite scenario. Another advantage of finishing after installation is that you can have the floor stained to your liking. If you like the grain of oak, but don't care for the yellowish tone of the wood, you can make it amber, for example. A professional finisher will know how to bring out the natural patina of the wood using boiled linseed oil or tung oil. Most homeowners have hardwood flooring. There are also softwoods, like pine and fir, which are very attractive. These will get nicked up over time, but they're meant to be lived on. The more beat up they get, the better they look - especially if you have a country or antique flavor running through the house. These work especially well as wider planks rather than the 2 1/2" strips.
Prices for solid wood flooring vary from $8 to $10 per square foot for common species, to over $25 per square foot for the exotic variety. This same price range applies to engineered wood flooring. ENGINEERED WOOD FLOORING - The advantage of using engineered wood flooring is that it can be used directly over concrete (because you don't have to nail it during installation), or below grade (because moisture doesn't bother it as much as solid wood). The wood look comes from a thin veneer of the selected wood, which is pressed onto several layers of substrate. This product is available in strips, planks, or panels that look like planks. It can be nailed down, but is typically installed as a floating floor. This means the pieces are glued to each other, but not attached to a sub-floor. This allows the floor to "float" with seasonal weather changes or changes in humidity. Virtually all engineered wood flooring is pre-finished, and usually comes with the V grooves mentioned earlier. Some cannot be refinished because that top veneer is too thin. Others can be once or twice. It depends on the top layer, which can be anything from 1/12" to 1/4" depending on the manufacturer. In the end, this flooring costs about as much as solid wood flooring, and the only advantage (in my opinion) is that you can "float" it on concrete. EXOTIC WOODS - Over the past several years, many flooring manufacturers have included exotic woods in their lines to meet growing popularity. Some of these exotic looks are even available in wood laminate flooring. In solid planking, exotic woods can cost twice as much as comparable domestic species, although engineered woods remain closer to the domestic hardwoods. The appeal of these species is often in their rich colors and their durability. Many are considerably harder than oak or maple. A number of tropical woods have been acclaimed as environmentally friendly due to their quick growth rate. The quickest self-replenishers are bamboo and cork (neither are a wood). If the environment is of concern to you, look for the FSC stamp on the product you're buying. The Forest Stewardship Council is an environmental group that tracks wood production and certifies woods that are harvested in an environmentally friendly manner. RECLAIMED WOOD FLOORING - This is another way to recycle. It is not new wood that is made to look old. Reclaimed wood really is old. These antique floor boards come from several sources. It could possibly be flooring removed from an old building; or you could get old timbers that are sliced into floor boards. Salvage companies dive into lakes and rivers to pull up old trees that sank in the 19th century, on their way to be milled. Still other wood is reclaimed when old structures like barns, boxcars, or industrial building, are demolished. Some dealers will provide a history of the product you're buying. This is a win-win. You get a distinctive floor, and you help save a forest. Older wood will have a straighter, tighter grain. Decades of oxidation give it deeper, richer colors. It's not perfect, but it's got character. You might see nail holes, stains, and even minor insect damage in the boards, all of which contributes to their beauty.
Most reclaimed flooring comes unfinished. Expect to pay about twice the price of standard flooring ($16 to $20 per square foot). This wood should be kiln dried before you buy it. This will kill bugs, expose cracks, and minimize moisture in the wood, which might cause excessive expansion and contraction. This is like granite in that it's a one-of-a-kind product. Make sure you request a sample so you know what to expect before your floor arrives. WOOD LAMINATE FLOORING - This is not made from wood. It's really a photograph of wood sandwiched between a clear plastic covering and a fiberboard backing. It comes at a fraction of the cost of any of the products mentioned above (about $1.50 per square foot). It's so easy to install, many homeowners do it themselves. This product came to the United States from Sweden in 1996 and already accounts for about 10% of the entire residential flooring market. It looks very much like the real thing, but it does sound different when you walk on it. You can minimize this by putting sound-dampening under-layments below the floor. Some have sound-deadening material already incorporated into the planks. There are differences in quality. Make sure you buy high-pressure laminate (HPL) as opposed to direct-pressure laminate (DPL). For a more authentic look, buy wood laminate flooring that is "embossed in register". This means that the little lines imprinted on the surface follow the lines of the grain - to look more real. Also choose a product that has a repeat of at least 6 planks - that means 6 different grain photographs that repeat around the room - and in random lengths, to disguise repeats. Quality wood laminate flooring is generally guaranteed for 20 or 25 years. But unlike wood floors, they can't be refinished. In the event of spot damage, the individual boards can sometimes be replaced.
Charles Gueli invites you to ask questions about wood flooring, and take advantage of the resources on http://www.continuous-home-improvement-help.com, where guidance, information and support are always available - helping homeowners make better decisions.
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