Wood floors are beautiful but tough. Pound, kick, scuff and maltreat them – they really don't mind. Indeed they cheerfully come back for more, good looks unimpaired.
Wood flooring is the quintessential natural product, with its varied colours and textured grain. It feels warm to the touch and pleasantly resilient, and mellows rather than wears. Dust and debris which would be trapped in carpets is simply swept or vacuumed away, whereas wood simply shrugs off spills and demands little more arduous cleaning than a damp mop. A solid wood floor can last the life of a home but must be properly installed
Before you buy
Choose a well-established supplier with a good reputation, who offers a guarantee on both supply and fitting. Talk to them about your type of house, the room for which the flooring is intended and how it is decorated. Your supplier should send a surveyor to site to check the sub- floor and measurements. Never buy a floor from a photograph or small piece. Go to a showroom where you can inspect a large panel.
How much? Wherever possible, don't buy on price – look for good quality, finish, service and installation. Chosen and installed correctly, a wood floor could last as long as your home. Avoid cheap poor quality imports with no service back up. Prices on the internet start at around £18 per sqm, but expect to pay from around £35 to £40 per sqm for a good quality floor (for example beech). Prices of various timbers are affected by market supply. A good quality oak floor could cost £50 per sqm, with ash at £60, maple and walnut at £80, and exotic timbers at £150. Special finishes will increase the price.
Points to consider. They say there are as many colours for wood floors as there are shades of human hair. You'll find even the same species of timber is very different depending on where it's grown, how it's sawn, and how it's finished. Sapwood is the outer part of the tree. In maple and ash, highest grade timber is the white sapwood, but in walnut and oak the highest grade is free from sap. Most woods get deeper and richer in colour as they age. There may be blushes of lighter wood, due to naturally-occurring white minerals. But this adds to an individual effect.
Hardwood or softwood? These terms are muddling. They are botanical classifications rather than an objective measure of density. Hardwoods come from ‘deciduous' broad-leaved trees -– that is, they shed leaves in winter. Most timber flooring comes from hardwoods. Softwoods, such as familiar fir and pine, stay green all year and are ‘coniferous', with needles and cones. Some softwoods are hard enough to use for flooring in the home, or for building frameworks. Do not use new softwoods such as pine or spruce in areas of particularly hard wear.
Timber types Oak (typically from Europe or the US) is reasonably hardwearing and is the most popular timber for floors, and it goes well with traditional or modern rooms. It can be stained, smoked, brushed (to emphasise the grain), or even treated with white oil. Ash is hard and pale, with an open grain. Beech (harder than oak) is a classic: good-looking but unobtrusive. Birch(very hard) has a hint of silky silver which looks good with white furniture. Cherry is a little softer than oak, typically with a reddish colour. Maple is especially hard with a bland grain and a yellowy tint. Walnut is a hard, rich, and dark timber with an attractive grain. Wenge is a dark dense timber (the colour of a well-roasted coffee bean) with a distinctive grain. Plum and jatoba are other exotic dark and hard timbers. Bamboo is not strictly a wood but a grass, which grows very quickly and is therefore particularly sustainable. It is compressed into thin strips which are glued together, and still have the knobbly patterns of the original stems. It is even harder than maple.
Types of board
Planks or strips? Planks for solid wood floors are from 110mm wide, with widths of up to 490mm from a specialist supplier such as Ebony and Co (020 7259 0000; ebonyandco.com). Narrower strips, around 65mm wide, can be glued together to form planks – this can work out cheaper.
Engineered boards Engineered boards may be cheaper than solid wood, but some people consider them less desirable. Beware! Imitation plastic wood flooring with a photographic printed grain is also called laminate. It will fade. Scratches can't be refinished.
Joining boards Typically both planks and boards fit flush together with a tongue and groove joint. Some engineered boards simply click together for a permanent fit. End-matched boards have interlocking ends, so can fit together between joists to minimise waste.
Grades ‘Select' is the highest, knot-free grade. These floors are the most expensive, but some find them bland. ‘Natural' or ‘factory' grades have grain and colour to add character. ‘Rustic', the cheapest, has small knots and colour variations.
Preparation and finish
What’s underneath? You can lay wood flooring on most sub-floors, but procedures vary. The sub-floor (or joists) must be flat – no more than a 3mm gap showing beneath a 3m straight edge. The sub-floor also has to be dry so find and cure any sources of damp, and allow drying-out times for new concrete and screed. Wood floors laid over ground floor joists must be ventilated from underneath. Various types of wood floors can be laid over underfloor heating, but specialist advice is essential. Find details on ukwoodfloors.co.uk. For sound insulation, invest in an acoustic underlay. Impact noise to a floor below can be lessened by 25 decibels to 60 decibels – underlays cost from £3.50 to £36 per sqm or more.
What finish? Lacquer finishes are smooth, hard wearing and easy to clean. They come in either gloss or matt. Some floors are supplied pre-finished with lacquer. A badly scratched lacquered finish has to be sanded down all over, and then re-lacquered. Oiled (or oil-and-waxed) finishes may cost from £3.50 to £5 per sqm more than a lacquered finish. They enhance the natural grain of the wood. Dents and scratches are easily sanded out and re-finished.
Certification schemes (with a logo or label) indicate a sustainable source. This means a managed wood or forest in which saplings replace cut trees. Growing trees absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, giving off vital oxygen and reducing the effects of global warming.
However, there are over 100 such schemes, and they vary hugely in scope and credibility. And some major suppliers (Junckers, for example) believe their good name has better credentials than any scheme.
Good schemes should have a chain of custody. This is an unbroken path from the forest to you, the end-user, which should include manufacture, transport and distribution. The best-known scheme is the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, which has working groups in 28 countries. FSC UK is a registered charity. This is the only scheme recognised by the major environmental groups because it takes into account the interests of people living where the wood comes from.
The Environmental Investigation Agency keeps a close watch on the timber industry (look at eia-international.org). They are a small group of independent campaigners, who recently claimed that well-known manufacturers and retailers are using merbau (a wood found in New Guinea) from illegal sources. Question your supplier rigorously on the source of its timber and buy only if satisfied.
- High-gloss finishes may show every mark – consider satin or matt effects.
- Dark black floors are fashionable – but it can be difficult to keep them looking clean.
- Put down doormats to trap grit from shoes.
- Lay sound-reducing underlays in upstairs rooms and under staircases.
- Skirtings can be cut to match most woods.
- Staircases can have treads and risers that match your floor.
- Don't lay solid wood floors in bathrooms/wet areas – they may warp or even rot.
- Some engineered boards may be suitable: check with your supplier.
- Conservatories with wood floors should be heated during winter to avoid a build-up of humidity.
- Leave an expansion gap around the edge of a floor to allow it to expand and contract across the width of the board.
- A floating floor – a wood floor laid over concrete – is laid without gluing or nailing.
- Kiln-drying gets rid of moisture in timber to make it stable – even in a centrally-heated room.