Earth-Friendly Flooring

These five earth-friendly flooring options are not only good for the environment, but also durable, stylish, and good for your home. » See Photos

When you choose wood, you're choosing one of the warmest, most time-tested, and versatile flooring materials. And one that looks better with time.

Types of wood
Many wood species are used for flooring. Each one has its own natural color, markings, and advantages.

Oak flooring comes in either white or red. The color of white oak runs from a creamy white or light brown to medium brown. It's a bit harder than red oak, has smaller markings, and has a more uniform appearance. Red oak is reddish brown, and its open grain makes it somewhat porous.

Maple flooring runs from pale white to light reddish brown. It has a uniform texture and closed grain and is very hard, harder than red oak.

Pine, considered a softwood rather than a hardwood like oak or maple, was commonly used in early American flooring because of its natural stability. Longleaf heart pine (on a par with red oak) and southern yellow pine are the hardest of all pines. Minor dents and dings will happen over time but tend to enhance a floor's character.

Bamboo flooring is similar to oak in dent resistance and is much more dimensionally stable than most wood flooring. Because bamboo is harvested from grass and rejuvenates itself to maturity in three to five years, it is environmentally friendly. It comes in both vertical and flat-grain patterns and in a light natural and a darker amber color.

Cherry is appreciated for its warm reddish coloring, straight grain, and smooth texture. It looks sleek when sanded and finished and is frequently used for cabinetry. Of medium density, it is dimensionally stable upon kiln drying.

Mahogany, an extremely durable high-density wood, has a deep reddish brown color and very fine graining. Mahogany encompasses a few different timber species. It was first discovered in the West Indies but now, due to sustainable harvesting, comes from Mexico, and Central and South America.

Teak, similar in strength to oak, is naturally resistant to insects, fungus, termites, and temperature shifts. Recently brought back into vogue through sustainable sources, it has a distinct shading that varies from yellowish brown to dark golden brown. Its grain runs straight, although its texture can be uneven.


Wood floors can be made from solid wood, from engineered wood, or from reclaimed wood.

 

Types of construction

Solid wood is any wood that is one piece from top to bottom. It performs best in a moisture-controlled environment. Engineered wood flooring is made of cross-stacked layers of base wood with a veneer top layer of your choice of wood. Engineered wood flooring is more dimensionally stable and can be installed where solid wood cannot because of moisture. Reclaimed or recycled woods are made from boards salvaged from old buildings or river bottoms. The salvaged pieces can be 60 to 70 years old and sometimes come with a history. Since this wood usually comes from old-growth forests, it is harder and denser than new-growth wood. Typical reclaimed species include chestnut, hickory, cherry, and oak.

Sizes
Wood flooring started as planks or wide boards; then the standard moved to 21/4-inch-wide strips and later to 11/2-inch strips. Now there's a broad range available. Strip flooring still ranges from 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches wide. Plank flooring ranges from 3 to 8 inches wide. Parquet is another form of wood flooring that involves decorative cuts of wood pieced together to create a geometric design. The pieces are usually held in place by nails or with adhesives or with both.

Grade
Different species of woods have different standards. The higher the grade, the clearer the wood. Oak has three basic grades. Select oak is mostly clear, but shows some natural characteristics, such as knots and color variations. No. 1 Common oak shows light and dark colors, knots, flags, and wormholes. No. 2 Common oak is even more rustic. Maple has three grades ranging from Clear, with limited character marks, to No. 1 Common and No. 2 Common, with more characteristics of the species. There are various grades as well as hardnesses of pine flooring. Within each type of pine -- yellow, white, or heart, the grades range from a rustic country look with all of the wood's characteristics to a clear wood.

Cut
The angle that a saw cuts a piece of wood determines its cut. The three standard hardwood cuts include plainsawn, quartersawn, and riftsawn. Plainsawn, which shows growth ring patterns, is the most common. Quartersawn wood is more refined and less susceptible to moisture, but it's also more costly. Riftsawn wood is cut at an angle slightly different from quartersawn wood.

Finishes and treatments
To finish a wood floor, you can choose a surface finish made of synthetic resin or use a penetrating stain or wax. Surface finishes are available in high-gloss, semigloss, satin, and matte.

But your choices don't end there. Surface finishes include oil-modified urethane, moisture-cured urethane, conversion varnish, and water-based urethane. Moisture-cured urethane is the most durable of these finishes, yet it's the hardest to apply. With a two- to three-hour drying time, water-based urethane dries the fastest.

Penetrating stains and waxes will soak into the pores of your wood floor and harden to form a protective seal. If you wax your floor, you should only use cleaning products specifically made for wax finishes. Also recognize that these same stains can be used to mimic the inlays of exotic woods.

As wood floors grow more popular, many homeowners are turning to faux finishes for cost-effective custom looks. You can paint hardwood floors of any type, whether they are old or new and whether the finish was applied on-site or in the factory. Paint professionals recommend water-based paints for best results.

Although experts caution you may weaken your floor, wood flooring can be bleached for effect too. Bleaching wood involves brushing the wood with caustic soda or ammonia and applying hydrogen peroxide. If you're looking for a whitish finish, pickling may be a better choice. By rubbing white paint into your wood flooring, pickling will highlight its markings.

Inlays
Ready-to-install, prefabricated wood tiles with medallions, starbursts, and borders are available through most wood flooring dealers. Most of these off-the-shelf designs are laser-cut creations. At one time, such designs needed to be hand-cut and so were quite costly. These prefabricated pieces let you affordably mix and match to create your own patterns. Preplanning your floor design is crucial if you decide to use an inlay.

Care and cleaning
Dirt, grit, and sand pose the main threat to a hardwood floor. They act like sandpaper on a floor's finish, resulting in scratches, dents, and dulling. Placing floor mats or area rugs at your home's entrances will help trap dirt and prevent damage. It's also important that you wipe up spills right away, and when you vacuum be sure to use a vacuum with a brush attachment, not a beater bar. After vacuuming or sweeping, you may damp-mop your floor using a neutral-pH wood cleaner. If your floor is sealed properly, water won't damage it.

Installation
To allow your wood flooring to acclimate, it will probably be delivered to you about four days before installation. The most popular way to install a solid wood floor is to nail down unfinished solid wood flooring to a wood subfloor (usually 3/4-inch plywood) or joists (or glue parquet tiles directly to a concrete slab), then sand it and apply a finish. If you can bear the dust and fumes, this method provides the most design options. Wood flooring can be made to lie end to end, or it can have a tongue-and-groove construction that fits together like a puzzle. Prefinished flooring is sanded and finished in the factory, cutting on-site job time by at least half. Floating installations, in which planks are joined to one another rather than a subfloor, are used for engineered wood floors. Some engineered wood flooring can be nailed down, which requires a wood subfloor.

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