There’s a lot to like about hardwood flooring. It brings a bit of nature’s beauty into your home and it goes with just about any decor, be it traditional, contemporary, rustic or a stylish mash-up.
It requires an investment of both time and money, but when the dust settles, wood floors are almost always worth it. Whether you are thinking of installing hardwood in a single room or your entire home, here are some factors to consider.
The biggest factor in deciding whether hardwood floors will work for you is your lifestyle. Do you have children or pets? Are there high-traffic areas, such as a den, where you are always moving furniture around for gatherings or movie nights? Are you willing to put up with dings, dents and imperfections from a dropped soup can or your Aussiedoodle’s nails?
“Or are you OK with a floor that reflects you and your family’s life and history? If so, then hardwood is worth it,” says Jennifer Meska, director of merchandising for national retailer LL Flooring.
Solid wood versus engineered
Solid wood is just that: a solid piece of wood, typically 3/4-inch thick, that can be sanded and refinished multiple times. Engineered wood is a layer — ranging from paper-thin to 1/4-inch — of hardwood over a plywood core. Depending on the top layer’s thickness, engineered flooring can be refinished once or twice max. Engineered flooring is both durable and flexible. Manufacturers can also build in features such as water resistance, which can make this flooring choice a viable option even in damp areas, including kitchens and bathrooms.
Whether you choose solid or engineered wood, perhaps the toughest decision is which species of wood to use. Some have finer grains or a uniform texture, while others may contain knots or vary in color. Ask yourself what look you are trying to achieve. A light oak can create a sleek Scandinavian feel, while a dark walnut may suit a more traditional style.
Before you commit to anything, bring home large sample planks (don’t rely on a 3-by-3-inch block or a single plank) of each wood you like, and move them from room to room to get a sense of how they will look. The color in the store may differ from what you see at home. Place the samples next to furniture, baseboards and existing woodwork to ensure they don’t clash.
It may sound obvious, but hardness matters. The wood flooring industry uses the Janka scale to measure the hardness of a particular type of wood. The test measures the force needed to push a 0.444-inch steel ball halfway into the wood. At 1,290, red oak is the median. Black cherry, teak and Douglas fir rank softer; hickory and pecan are harder. Brazilian cherry is one of the hardest, at 2,350.
There’s no “good” or “bad” Janka rating; rather, it’s an indication of how much wear and tear solid wood flooring will be able to handle over the years. (Janka values don’t apply to multilayer engineered flooring.)
“If heavy use is a concern or you have a particularly active house with kids and dogs, you may want to lean into a harder species such as oak instead of walnut in your kitchen,” says Brett Miller, vice president of technical standards, training and certification for the National Wood Flooring Association.
Site-finished or prefinished
Solid hardwood is available both without stain and sealer or prefinished. For unfinished wood, a stain and finish is applied at your home after installation. You get to test multiple shades of stains, and the result is a consistent color across the entire area. One tip from Meska: Ask your installer to keep a record of your color/formula or to leave you a small can in case you have to replace a damaged area. Prefinished floors, on the other hand, are stained and sealed at the factory.
For either product, you’ll also need to consider the finish. This ranges from matte to high gloss. Some woods even come with an oil or wax finish for a soft, hand-rubbed look.
Finish is mostly a matter of personal taste, but Jeff Shipwash, owner of Shipwash Properties, a fix-and-flip real estate investment firm in Knoxville, Tennessee, says you are more likely to see imperfections with a higher gloss.
Several manufacturers now also offer texture options such as wire brushing, which “lifts the grains to give the wood a 3D look,” Meska says. “It’s very on-trend and hides a lot of sins.”
Hardwood floors can work in any climate, but you do have to take your location into consideration. Wood swells in high humidity and shrinks as humidity falls. Your installer can explain how to mitigate any potential issues. If you live in a dry climate, you may need to run a humidifier during the winter to maintain a more consistent level of humidity. In areas with sticky, hot summers, you may need air-conditioning. Miller says engineered flooring is more stable and adapts to changes in temperature and humidity better than solid wood.
Make no mistake: Installing a wood floor is invasive and disruptive. Even before installation begins, wood planks may have to acclimate to your environment. That means stacks of boxes will sit in your home for up to two weeks so the wood can adjust to the temperature and humidity.
Existing flooring must be ripped out. Furniture must be removed. Unfinished wood must be cut to fit and sanded, producing enormous amounts of sand dust, akin to a glitter bomb going off, Shipwash says.
“Then you have to stain the wood, wait for it to dry, and then sand and seal the wood three times, allowing for the finish to dry between coats,” he adds. “You can’t walk on the floors, and some folks are sensitive to sealer fumes, so you may have to move out of your home for a week or more.”
Even though it also has to acclimate, prefinished wood cuts the installation time by half or more. Once it’s down, it’s ready to go.
Engineered wood tends to be a bit cheaper than solid. For example, 3-inch-wide solid red oak costs about 20% more than engineered, Meska says, but the installation costs are the same.
Also: “People think it is cheaper to get unfinished wood, but you will pay more to finish it,” Shipwash says.
Because wood floors are a major investment, it’s best not to skimp and hire someone off Craigslist to do the installation, Shipwash says. The National Wood Flooring Association’s consumer website, woodfloors.org, has a list of certified installers and salespeople in your area — click on “Hire An NWFA Professional” and enter your ZIP code.
Another option is to locate a local or national specialty retailer. Odds are they can recommend installers. Miller says some flooring manufacturers offer their own certifications, so it may be worth the time to look at their websites to see whether they have certified installers in your area.
As with any home improvement project, you should interview installers and get multiple bids. For additional guidance, download the National Wood Flooring Association’s “Homeowner’s Handbook to Real Wood Floors.”