Saturday, February 26, 2011

Choosing Floor Materials

Walnut Floor, Wide Plank Hardwood
We have used a lot of different flooring materials over the years in our remodeling and building projects, so the field is wide open with respect to the new house. Looking back on previous projects, we’ve used…

Linoleum tiles in a former kitchen,

White marble tiles in the main bath;

Granite tiles in the guest bath;

Laminate in the basement multi-purpose room;

Wide plank heart pine with a Swedish finish at the house on Whidbey Island; and

Slate in the entry on Whidbey.

All of these were relatively low maintenance and quite durable. The linoleum was virtually indestructible and had the benefit of being resilient enough that if you dropped a dish it wouldn’t necessarily break. I never even got around to sealing it as was recommended—or the marble or granite—but it never seemed to matter! The Pergo laminate was a little vulnerable to dents if you dropped something on it, but otherwise cleaned up very easily and stayed fresh and bright looking. We love the wide plank pine flooring on Whidbey; same with the slate which handles tracked-in mud and wet shoes very nicely. It never shows any wear. 

Pine Floor at our house on Whidbey Island
Softwood vs. Hardwood The fir floors in the old farmhouse on the Sunset Hill site had certainly seen a lot of wear, but still could have been refinished. In fact, that fir flooring was salvaged and may already be in someone’s house living a new life. Our pine floors on Whidbey are quite soft but we haven't had any problems. I really don’t know why there is so much concern over fir and pine being soft woods. Sure, they dent more easily than other materials or harder woods, but unless you are walking around in spike boots or stiletto heels, the damage is really minimal.

Solid Wood for Longevity
Given our success with all these materials, the question is what will we choose for the new house?
Oddly enough, there has never any doubt in my mind: it has to be solid wood floors for the main rooms. That little farmhouse on the site stood for 100 years. We are aiming for a house that reaches the same birthday and then some, in which case nothing wears like, is as timeless, and is as easily cared for as a solid wood floor.

Flooring Widths and Lengths
With the traditional center hall floor plan, I’m also finding myself drawn to a wide plank floor. Not because I want a country or rustic look—I don’t—but because I think the wider boards are a better fit with the scale of the house and its primary rooms. There are stretches of floor down the entry hall and the living room as long as 28 feet. Somehow I think that standard 2 ½ to 3 inch wide pieces of flooring would look too busy. A 10 foot wide hall would result in 48 individual strips of flooring at 2 ½”. Visually that is a lot of narrow lines versus just 20 strips at 6” wide.

Similarly I think the long room dimensions also call for longer lengths of flooring. Budget wood flooring usually comes in lengths of 18” to 7’ with the average length at about 3-4 feet. Do I really want to see 7 or more pieces of flooring in each row down the 28’ hallway? It is possible to get longer lengths of up to 16’ which would mean just 2 or 3 strips of flooring in the same hallway length. The longer lengths and wider widths are higher in price per square foot (of course). But averaged over 100 years, I think it is worth it—even if I won’t be around to see the last 70 years!

Domestic vs. Exotic Wood Species
In keeping with the idea of this as an American house, I’m leaning toward using domestic wood species, specifically American Black walnut and North American Cherry. Neither are as hard as most of the exotic species from South America and Africa, but—at least for this house—I really like the idea of the wood flooring coming from our own terra firma. I would even have been okay with some of the softer West Coast woods like Big Leaf Maple, Douglas Fir, and Madrone, but MTH is a little more concerned about wood hardness than I.

 Janka Hardness Scale

The Janka hardness test measures the hardness of wood based on the amount of force required to embed a steel ball into the wood to half the ball’s diameter; basically how easily the wood dents and/or is penetrated. Brazilian Walnut, rates 3680 on the scale whereas American Black Walnut rates just 1010. The higher the number, the harder the wood. Brazilian cherry is 2820 while American cherry is 950. Douglas Fir is 660 and Southern Yellow Pine is 870.

Wood samples laid out on the dining room table

Playing with Wood Samples
Never one to make a decision lightly, I have thrown myself into wood flooring research and have sent away for a variety of prefinished and unfinished wood samples. I’ve found that I prefer the unfinished wood because it allows us to choose our own finish. I took several of the unfinished samples and tested a variety of oil and water-based stains and finishes on them. It is astounding how different a piece of wood looks with stain or clear finish on it! The grain and the color really come out and there is much more depth to the surface. There are parts of the walnut that almost seem to shimmer like a moire pattern.

So we’re poised to order 1500sf of American Walnut and 800sf of American Cherry; 6” widths and up to 16’ lengths. Phew! Another decision made and just six gazillion more to go!!    ; )

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