There’s nothing quite like wooden flooring for bringing instant character and warmth to a new home. But with different grades, finishes and species on offer, not to mention choosing between a solid or engineered floor, specifying the right product can be a difficult decision to make. Claire Lloyd explains the options.

How to Choose

Full of character and reassuringly warm underfoot, wooden flooring is not just perfect for traditional homes, but with the wealth of woods, finishes and different widths on offer, it’s a fitting choice for the modern home too. But before specifying distressed solid oak boards for your cottage-style interiors, or perhaps wide pale planks for a contemporary kitchen diner, there’s a few key points to consider, aesthetics aside.

Where will the floor be laid, for starters? Will it be introduced in a room which will receive lots of wear (or ‘high traffic’) such as in the hall, or in the kitchen where there’s higher humidity, or laid across an open plan space, needing to meet several different demands? Importantly, will it be laid over underfloor heating (UFH)? And, will you opt for solid boards or an engineered alternative?

Added to this is whether you’ll be specifying a product to last (or outlast) your duration in the house, with additional budget reflecting this, or anticipate that you’ll be replacing it in the not-so-distant future.

Engineered or Solid?

Unlike solid wood boards, which consist of a single piece of wood, engineered boards are made up of several layers. The visible top layer – or wear layer – is ‘real’ wood, beneath which typically lies layers of plywood or sometimes a three-ply construction (usually with an MDF or HDF core), laid and glued at 90° to the layer above. Some products consist of three pieces of the same wood, again arranged at right angles.

Wood is hygroscopic, and as such can expand and contract with changes in humidity and temperature. Engineered wood boards, as a result of their construction, are less prone to movement — typically offering 75% more stability than solid boards. This means that engineered wood flooring can be a good companion for UFH and for rooms such as the kitchen. You’ll note most manufacturers don’t recommend it, though, if you’re going to be running your UFH above 27°C. “This also applies to areas next to radiators, under furniture and under rugs,” says Harvey Booth of Kährs.

“Multi-layer hardwood-ply engineered flooring tends to be the more stable option, as the thinner ply layers (of which there are usually 11) become more rigid when sandwiched together,” says Peter Keane, Director of The Natural Wood Floor Company. “The use of a multi-layer ply also reduces the risk of cupping (when edges push up, creating a corrugated, uneven effect), so it’s the most obvious choice with wider width boards.” As a result of such benefits, multi-ply tends to be more expensive than three-ply alternatives.

Cheaper products are typically those with thin wear layers – which can be as little as 0.6mm – making them unsuitable for resanding. (But as some suppliers are quick to point out, you may not even want to resand, with indents and scratches adding to character.) Such options can be fine in rooms not subject to lots of wear, like a guest bedroom.

The higher-quality engineered woods (which can rival or even exceed the cost of quality solid boards) are those with a thicker wear layer – up to 6mm in some cases – which take lots of wear and can be sanded several times if required. –

When it comes to aesthetics, engineered wood flooring can be ‘three strip’ – one board is made up of three pieces of wood – which tends to cheaper. ‘Two strip’ is also an option, but more expensive and popular are ‘one-strip’ boards or planks consisting of a single piece of wood across the width, providing a cleaner look.

Turning to solid wood floors, not only do they ooze character, but they can be sanded numerous times. “They’re the real thing and have a resonance and authenticity that even the best engineered alternatives can’t quite match,” says Broadleaf Timber’s Vanessa Garrett. In some instances, solid wood can be specified over UFH (typically if the timber undergoes further kiln-drying), so do enquire with manufacturers if your heart’s set on solid wood.

Choosing a Wood

Oak and pine were traditionally the timbers of choice, but options now range from tropical hardwoods such as jarrah to temperate hardwoods like American walnut and hardy softwoods such as larch. Maple, ash and now bamboo are also popular.

Hardiness is one consideration which can have a bearing on application. “Softwoods such as pine or fir can show dents and marks more easily, but hardwoods such as oak, maple and ipe are more durable, making them best suited for a kitchen floor,” explains Ecora’s Jeandre du Toit.

The Janka hardness test (the Brinell test is also used) can provide a useful reference here. Tropical hardwoods such as Brazilian walnut – not to be confused with American walnut, which is a lot less hardy – are shown to be the most durable.

Bamboo is celebrated for its durability, too, but it’s the strand-woven type which is hardiest. “In its strand-woven form it also has a 7% moisture content which is very low and makes it suitable for kitchens and bathrooms,” says Mike Williams, Director of Panda Flooring.

Clean or Characterful?

The beauty of wooden flooring is not simply the wide variety of naturally occurring colours across the different species – from pale ash to reddy-brown cherry to dark walnuts – but the different wood grains gained from a single tree. Wooden flooring is graded accordingly. ‘Prime’ boards possess few small knots, a uniform colour and cleaner appearance. The wood is taken from near the core, the heartwood, meaning it’s more expensive but looks great in contemporary interiors. Next is ‘select’. ‘Natural’ is a middle ground, with some smallish knots, colour variation and mineral streaks. Finally, ‘rustic’ contains lots of large knots and variations — it’s full of character and more forgiving when it comes to hiding marks. In addition, manufacturers offer ‘brushed’ finishes whereby soft wood fibres are removed to enhance the grain, or ‘hand-scraped’ offering a distressed look.

Oil, Wax or Lacquer?

Wooden flooring can be specified as unfinished – requiring more work on site – but many products are now offered pre-finished, with a factory finish already applied.

When it comes to protective finishes, choices include lacquer, vanish, oil and wax. “For those looking for simple maintenance, particularly in busy areas such as halls, then good-quality lacquer is a sensible option for a durable finish,” says Josh Ashby, Product Manager of UK Flooring Direct. It’s available in gloss or matt.“For a more natural look opt for a matt lacquer with a brushed finish,” adds Ashby.

Lacquers form a protective coating over the surface of the wood, whereas wax and oils penetrate it. “Oils and waxes offer the most natural look, protecting the wood from within. They give a very natural appearance and can be applied with a brush to give a rustic finish,” says Josh Ashby. “However, these types of finishes may require some spot repairing over time, particularly in busy areas such as around dining tables and where feet rest. Give your wooden floor finish the best chance of survival with felt pads on furniture legs.”

While oil and waxed floors require more maintenance, if you hope to rid a lacquered floor of marks you’ll have to resand the whole surface.

“Many lacquers and varnishes have a high VOC (volatile organic compound) content, but the good news is that some companies produce low-VOC products and some produce finishes with zero,” adds Jeremy Grove of Sibley Grove, who also recommends natural, more sustainable products, such as Auro Linseed Oil.

Installation

Installing wooden flooring can be within the means of a competent DIYer, particularly where the subfloor is even, and in rooms without awkward corners or shapes to contend with. While you’ll make savings on the cost of hiring a professional fitter, it’s worth weighing this up against the cost of your flooring: if you’ve just paid upwards of £60 to £70/m2, do you really want to potentially compromise the end result?

It’s worth bearing in mind that if you hope to do it yourself, different products require different installations (not to mention the subfloor, be it concrete or timber, which can also have a bearing). Solid wood boards are typically glued (when the subfloor is concrete) or nailed down (with timber joists), with the tongue-and-groove fixing glued together. However, engineered wood flooring can be ‘floating’, whereby the boards rest upon a membrane (which in turn sits on the subfloor) without being stuck down. Click-in floating systems that don’t require glue or nails are marketed for their ease of installation for the DIYer.

It should go without saying, but always follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions carefully. And remember, preparing the subfloor (as below) is key to avoiding problems. “Concrete subfloors should always contain a damp-proof membrane (or have one applied over them) and be tested for moisture with a professional moisture meter — we recommend using a Tramex Concrete Encounter Meter as this is the easiest one for non-professionals to use accurately,” says Broadleaf Timber’s Vanessa Garrett.

Preparation and Acclimatising

“Most problems with wooden floors after installation are a direct result of poor subfloor preparation or installation,” says Liz Boddy of John Boddy Timber (01423 322370), who offers her advice here:

  • Ensure the subfloor and site are both environmentally and structurally suitable for wooden floor installation.
  • During transportation and storage, woods can accumulate moisture or dry out, so it’s very important to acclimatise the floor prior to laying. The loss of moisture manifests itself as shrinkage, and if sudden or extreme there can also be a breakdown in the cellular structure of the wood, leading to splits in the boards. So acclimatise the floor on site by allowing seven to 14+ days in the place of fitting with the heating system running normally. Store the boards flat at least 100mm off the ground in small packs of 10–15m2 during this process. This enables the flooring to become at equilibrium with the surroundings.
  • On new sites only acclimatise the floor when all windows and doors have been fitted and the masonry, plastering and floors are completely dry.
  • If using underfloor heating, the heating must run for at least 28 days to accelerate the evaporation of moisture from the screed. The underfloor heating should be turned off 48 hours prior to installation. Once laid, the underfloor heating must be turned on for 96 hours at lowest temperature, rising to maximum temperature over a 21-day period.

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