From the framework for building houses to baseball bats, wood embodies strength and toughness. Throw in the myriad of species on the planet and wood is also a symbol of beauty and versatility. Combine these things and you have a wood floor—beautiful and versatile for any type of interior décor and strong enough to last the lifetime of the structure.
In today’s rough economic climate, consumers are seeking high-performing, durable products that still offer spectacular de- sign, making wood one of the best choices to meet their needs. But not all wood is created equal, even within the same specie. Throw in the great deal of misinformation on the Internet about selecting a quality wood floor as well as what consumers come across shopping the boxes and mass merchants, and it becomes vital for the specialty retailer to dispel her preconceived notions and myths in helping her select the right floor for her lifestyle.
One of the most widely used methods for saying one wood is superior to another is the Janka scale. The Janka measures the force required to embed a .444- inch steel ball to half its diameter in the hardwood and is expressed numerically as the pounds per square inch of pressure required. The higher the number, the harder the wood.
While hardness does, to an extent, equate with durability, manufacturers are quick to point out there are numerous factors in which that is not necessarily the case. Plus, a Janka number does not always equate with the product in that two pieces of the same type of wood—one grown quickly further south and one slowly in more northern climates—will have quite different ratings but may not be reflected in the chart shown online or at the big boxes.
“The worst thing ever put in the hands of a consumer is the Janka scale,” said Dan Natkin, Mannington’s director of hardwood. “Just because a specie is harder than another one doesn’t mean it will perform better, or well at all.”
He pointed out Mannington “uses the right materials, construction and designs to make a product perform. It starts with using only Northern veneers. They have less color variation, less seasonal differences, plus they mill much cleaner than their southern counterparts.”
Wade Bondrowski, Mercier’s director of U.S. sales, added “Red oak is not red oak,” noting there are features and benefits that need to be taken into serious consideration. “Start at the beginning. Where did the product come from?”
Mullican’s Brian Greenwell, vice president of sales and marketing, agreed, noting, “It starts with the lumber. We use wood from the Appalachian forests. It is slow growth and from higher regions, which makes for a clearer, harder wood than the kinds you get from the swamp areas.”
Bondrowski added the slower growing trees, such as those found in the Northern Appalachian Mountain range, which is also where Mercier gets its wood from, “have tremendous properties, including improved density, less mineral streaks and a better overall color which make the products more appealing.”
Milton Goodwin, Armstrong’s vice president of product management, hardwood, said, “With wood, you get what you pay for. If you pay a lower price for what a product is typically being sold in the market for, most likely it will not be as good. It may contain blemishes, cut marks, holes and so on.”
He added that is why for Armstrong the biggest driver starts with grading or quality of the wood that is put in the box/carton so the sample shown by the dealer is truly indicative of what will be on the floor. “Many times a sample is not what is in the box in terms of quality. Armstrong spends a great deal of time testing to ensure our samples match what is being sold.”
As such, Goodwin said it is important for retailers to explain grades of wood and finishes. “Especially today, as consumers are looking for a value proposition they need to understand what having a lesser grade in the carton means because there are dramatic differences. It’s a battle we fight every day.”
Manufactures say another important aspect to a wood product’s quality is how the lumber is handled prior to being made into flooring planks. For instance, Luc Robitaille, vice president of marketing, Boa-Franc/Mirage, said “Production doesn’t start until the wood has dried for as long as each species requires, to ensure the floor won’t shrink or split in the years to come.”
Mullican’s Greenwell added, “We stack the boards every 12 inches instead of 24, so they are flatter, which allows them to be better for sanding and milling. This also helps when it comes time to install the product. Having flatter, straighter boards makes for an easier installation.”
Robitaille agreed that straight, uniformly thick boards are another important aspect to quality. “See for yourself: put a few boards on the floor next to one another. They should fit together perfectly, with no noticeable variations in thickness.”
How the boards themselves are then put together adds another element of quality often overlooked, said Don Finkell, president of Shaw Hard Surfaces/Anderson. “With all products you need to start with the platform. Ours is oak or hickory, which is different than what others use. You can feel the difference just by picking up a plank.”
Kevin Thompson, Shaw’s hardwood product category manager, added, “Most veneer/ply core engineered products use softer wood species for the core like spruce, poplar or balsa wood. We use oak, hickory and maple in our cores. These species are much harder and provide superior performance with indentations and structural stability.”
Finkell explained beyond providing a more balanced construction they are better in terms of expanding and contracting due to moisture. “Inferior cores will come apart or start to cup. So having a structurally balanced board allows it to hold up better in moist conditions. Plus it gives more of a dent resistance. When you drop a can on a wood floor, it is not the top layer that does the resisting but the core [similar to how a cushion works with carpet].”
Another reason for getting away from the Janka scale is how a floor is finished. For example, there are cases of pine floors lasting generations compared to their harder counterparts.
Harry Bogner, senior vice president, hardwood, for Mohawk’s Unilin Flooring division, said, “Through effective use of proprietary technology and cutting-edge innovations, our Mohawk and Columbia hardwood brands offer consumers products with enhanced performance features, not available in many home center offerings.”
For instance, he pointed to the company’s partnership with 3M “to bring cutting-edge, superior surface finishes to many of our products. The exclusive Mohawk Scotchgard Protector Advanced Repel Technology by 3M and Columbia’s Superior- Shield Surface Technology give our floors premier resistance to stains and grime, keeping floors cleaner and newer looking longer.”
Finishes also need to be done correctly, executives say. If applied to thick, they can dull the wood’s appearance. Conversely, if not enough is applied, the product will not perform as expected.
To preserve long-lasting beauty, Wendy Wescoat, marketing manager for HomerWood, said the company “applies the best finishes available using state-of-the-art technology to provide extra durability.”
Depending on the product, she added, this includes multi coat clear aluminum oxide; low luster and satin finishes; 100% solid urethane; UV-cured, rolled on finish; final coat urethane for ease of refinishing; no solvents, emissions or residue, and custom oil finish. “Premium products, such as HomerWood hardwood, command a higher price in direct correlation to the costs involved to produce our one-of- a-kind floors.”
Mirage’s Robitaille noted how bright light and sun can cause wood from naturally pale species to yellow. “UV protection in the finish can reduce and slow this process. Finishes need to be applied in just the right amount—neither too thin nor too thick—to avoid a plastic look. The beauty of the wood should shine through.”
Armstrong’s Goodwin concurred, noting “many companies now put a durable finish on a lower grade product. The durability may be there but it compromises the look because it is a heavier, thicker coating. We put our best finishes on our quality products. This includes the use of nano technology so we don’t impede the look as much, compared to just using a thicker coating.”
That is why Armstrong encourages customers “to lay samples of our floors down and compare them against others,” he explained. “The difference in looks is readily apparent against the cheaper products—which is why they are less expensive.”
A manufacturer can do everything possible to create a durable product, but, as Mannington’s Natkin said, “Ultimately it comes down to design and matching a product with a person’s lifestyle. We take dealers through this and are getting more involved with a university program.”
Education is the key in this, he concluded. “The retailer needs to walk her through the steps to explain how a quality floor comes about and why. Species does come into play but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in terms of performance.”