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For flooring, it's good to be wood wise

Wood is, without a doubt, one of most desirable residential flooring materials around.

It's a hard, sturdy surface that, when well sealed, will resist spills, stains and surface scratching. Natural wood grains and tones that range from hay and honey golds to rich dark reds and browns suggest an organic warmth that can't be replicated by other materials.

Properly maintained, wood flooring will last 100 years or more — my house is nearly that old, and while the hardwood floors certainly don't look new, they are in great shape with plenty of life left in them. A big benefit of solid hardwood flooring is that it can be repaired and refinished several times before it needs to be replaced.

Today, the options are greater than ever before, as eco-friendly and recycled materials become more widely available. Big-box home centers like Home Depot and Lowe's offer hundreds of options, from bamboo to hardwoods to laminates. The variety is great, but what will work best for you? To help homeowners decide, I caught up with some local pros who offered some advice to help separate the wide-plank cumaru from red oak, the Brazilian cherry from the bamboo.

Selecting the wood

A good starting point for selecting wood floors is to decide on which species has the physical and visual characteristics you desire. There are over 20 North American hardwoods commonly used as flooring material, but here in Maryland, white and red oak, cherry, hickory and maple are the most common. Each has a distinct appeal, and according to Bob Logan, owner of Baltimore Flooring supply, "It is always better to choose a wood that gives you the color you want naturally if possible."

Species decided, the next decisions involve how eco-friendly you want to be, the benefits of solid hardwood versus an engineered floor, and whether prefinished or finished-in-place flooring is best.

Logan sells only unfinished materials that are installed raw, then sanded, stained if necessary, and finished with a polyurethane, he says. His biggest sellers tend to be 21/4-inch or 31/4-inch oak (white and red) and random-width planks in oak, hickory, cherry, walnut, ash and maple.

"The narrower oaks and maple are the least expensive at $2 to $3 per square foot for quality materials," says Logan, "and the wider boards are more expensive. Wood species other than oak are also more expensive, with wider cherry and walnut more like $4 to $5 per square foot."

For an upscale look, consider imported tropical or exotic hardwoods, which skew toward the luxury end of the continuum. To ease the buying process (or confuse it, depending on whom you ask), many of the exotic or tropical species are given names to which Americans can relate.

"Popular species include Brazillian cherry (or jatoba), Santos mahogany (cabreuva), and Brazillian teak (cumaru)," says Logan. "The benefit of tropical species is the superior hardness, color, and grain configuration. Seemingly every tropical species we sell is considerably harder than most domestic species."

Prices for most exotic woods start where the domestic species leave off and climb quickly depending on the rarity and geographic source.

Finishing and installation

Brett Schoolnick, owner of Baywood Design-Build in Columbia, prefers prefinished wood floors over those that need to be finished because it makes installation easier for the homeowner.

"When doing a remodeling project, they are less stressful for the client," says Schoolnick. "The [flooring] manufacturers apply five coats of polyurethane versus three for floors that are finished in place, plus the job can be done in a few days versus weeks."

For prefinished goods, Michele Amedeo, director of retail stores for Bode Floors, likes products from Canadian manufacturers like Preverco, Lauzon and Mirage.

"They produce a more superior product because of their milling and selection of better quality boards. They apply a UV protection and more layers of urethane that make [the floors] more durable," she says.

Material prices for the better quality prefinished flooring in the increasingly popular 31/4- to 5-inch widths can range from $5.69 to $10.95 per square foot, says Amedeo.

Before you install, consider adding details for a custom look. Amedeo likes to suggest decorative borders or medallions and matching wooden floor vents.

Logan offers the same advice. "You can add architectural interest by using borders of different species of wood to achieve a different color and delineate something like a kitchen island or stair landing," he says. "It is a neat, inexpensive way to dress up an otherwise vanilla wood-flooring installation."

Going green

Along with traditional hardwoods, there are a variety of eco-friendly wood flooring products that either come from sustainable sources or are manufactured using processes that don't harm the environment — or both.

Amedeo suggests that the best eco-friendly bang for your buck can be had by using a prefinished engineered wood floor "because more of the wood is used from each tree that is cut down."

"Engineered wood floors are essentially a multi-ply product with plywood against the floor and a hardwood veneer on the top," says Schoolnick. "We use them for subterranean projects because they are very dimensionally stable." In other words, they are less prone to expanding and contracting with temperature and humidity fluctuations.

"Starting prices for quality engineered products range from $4.25 to $14.95 per square foot for materials." says Amedeo.

"Some of the more unique products have hand-scraped or wire brushed surfaces for a more rustic look. These products you typically see in the wider 4-inch to 7-inch boards, and material prices range from $11.25 to $15.95 per square foot," says Amedeo.

In addition to the engineered woods, Logan points to flooring certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The wood comes from forests that are managed with strict standards of sustainability and environmental responsibility, but it can be more costly.

"A year ago, we were doing more with the FSC-certified woods, but lately we're doing a lot less because of the pricing, which is subject to about a 25 percent premium over standard materials," says Logan.

As an alternative to FSC-certified wood, Logan suggests reclaimed or recycled antique wood, like antique remilled heart pine, also known as longleaf pine.

Now an endangered and protected species, heart pine for flooring involves remilling from materials like beams and roof sheathing from old industrial buildings.

"Unfinished antique heart pine can cost anywhere from $6 to $25 per square foot, depending upon grain configuration, knots, tightness of grain and uniformity of color," says Logan.

For a less expensive antique option, try oak. "Antique remanufactured fence boards can create a very interesting-looking rustic floor. The 41/2-inch-wide red and white oak materials cost $6 to $7 a square foot," says Logan.

Growing in popularity over the last decade, bamboo's green benefits have been widely publicized. Bamboo is a sustainabile source because it regenerates naturally and can be harvested every five to seven years. But what most people don't know is that some bamboo flooring is manufactured with toxic glues and a process that wastes much of the raw material.

"Do your research on and make sure that you are dealing with a company that does everything in-house, from harvesting to packaging," says Amedeo. "We sell Teragren, which has a 25-year warranty, and materials cost anywhere from $5.95 a square foot to $13.95 a square foot."

Mohawk's strand-woven bamboo is another good example for sustainability. The manufacturing process uses environmentally friendly adhesives and 100 percent of the bamboo stalk, eliminating environmental waste as a byproduct.

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.

Cousin cork

Cork is an increasingly popular material for flooring especially for people looking for the warmth of wood without the hardness.

Sealed cork is durable yet resilient, and because it is made of the renewable bark of the cork tree, it is eco-friendly as well.

Cork is also nearly impermeable, which is why its used to seal wine bottles, making it a great solution for kitchens, mudrooms and other less formal rooms that might be prone to spills or occassional wetness.

It is available in a range of colors similar to that of solid wood, and, according to Michele Amedeo of Bode Floors, prices range upwards from $6.59 per square foot for material only.

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