Zebra finish

Preverco's wirescraped zebra finish offers a nice contrast of light and dark graining. (Preverco / September 2, 2011)

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."