- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

A few years ago, homeowners who wanted a hardwood floor had anywhere from 20 to 30 tree species from which to select.

Today, that number has jumped to about 52, says Edward Korczak, executive director of the St. Louis-based National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA).

It’s just one of the changes fueling the current hardwood-floor market, giving consumers a greater variety in the styles and wooden hues from which they can choose.

Hardwood floors, in general, cost more than carpeted spaces. But they can last for decades, prove a breeze to clean and can be made of recycled wood for an environmental bonus.

The floors can be refinished numerous times, the final number depending on the refinisher’s touch. A less skilled craftsman can take too much wood off during the sanding process, robbing years from the floor’s life. In a best-case scenario, the floor will last for more than a century.

According to the National Wood Flooring Association, 90 percent of real estate agents surveyed by the group said houses with wood flooring sell faster and for higher prices than those without wood floors.

The expanded wood palette — in part due to higher number of wood-floor products being imported from China, Australia and Brazil — is but one trend in the industry.

Sprigg Lynn, owner of Universal Floors in the District, says the local wood of choice is oak. But that doesn’t mean homeowners restrict themselves to only a few wood choices.

“From ash to zebra wood, anything goes today,” he says.

The variety of woods available gives homeowners greater flexibility in their design choices. If someone wants a durable wood with a deep cherry color, they may opt for a tough oak floor, then stain it a rich cherry red, he says.

In the District, the youth-friendly condominium market is getting in on the scene, says Mr. Lynn.

“There is a massive amount of condominiums in Washington. The majority of them are going with hardwood floors. People are demanding it,” Mr. Lynn says.

Mr. Korczak says many consumers are shifting toward a plank aesthetic, with boards 3, 4 or 5 inches wide, as opposed to the 21/4-inch width. The former provides a more casual, rustic appearance, he says.

That ties into another swing in consumer interest. Homeowners are opting to recycle found wood into their next wood floor, he says. That wood can be lumber salvaged from another old home’s flooring or simply wood that’s milled for fresh purposes. Bringing in recycled wood is an expensive option, but it can be the only way to make sure to properly match existing floors.

Another newer trend is ebonized wood floors, wood stained to a nearly black finish. The process is unforgiving — there is no going back once the stains are applied — but it provides a striking visual.

Consumers are also turning to bamboo floors for another aesthetic option. While bamboo is technically a grass, the bamboo floors bring a rich, mottled patterning and can be left finished or unfinished. They also can be as hard as an oak floor.

Mr. Korczak says the average hardwood-floor owner is 40 years old or older with an average income of $50,000 or higher.

Mr. Lynn says owners of older homes in the region often stick by their antiquated wood, replacing damaged sections with wood from a similar time frame for matching purposes.

“In Washington, D.C., they have many floors that are put down in the 1800s,” Mr. Lynn says.

Or much earlier, says John McAuliffe, owner of Admiral Floors in the District.

Mr. McAuliffe, who specializes in antique-floor repair and installation, recently helped a Georgetown homeowner replace a wood floor from his home circa 1730 with wood from another house built that year.

“If you own a house here and you want your floor to look like it was installed in the 1700s, the way to do it is to use wood from the 1700s,” he says.

Owners of houses old or new are turning to hardwood floors for every room in the house, even the bath, he says.

“I’ve even seen it in wet baths that have pedestal claw-foot bathtubs,” he says. “The finishes of today can withstand water.”

The bulk of wood-floor finishes are either oil- or water based, he says. The difference between the two boils down primarily to color options.

“The oil has a golden hue, and the water has a very clear hue,” he says. “The oil is actually penetrated into the wood, [giving it] more depth and clarity. It gives you a deeper, richer color.”

Bill Altman, president of Reston-based Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association, says homeowners installing a new hardwood floor have more than aesthetic options to mull.

“If it’s a new home, think about the kind of subfloor and underlayment they’re gonna use,” Mr. Altman says. “Is the house going to be radiant-floor heated or standard?”

Another new wrinkle in hardwood-floor installation is the “floating” floor installation, Mr. Altman says. Popularized in Europe, the technique is growing in popularity here.

Instead of gluing the wood to the subfloor, the wood is glued to a small pad of foam.

“It allows the floor to flex slightly. And it also adds some sound-deafening [properties],” he says.

Mr. Altman says owners of new hardwood floors should be ready for some slight shifting throughout the average year.

“Wood, like any natural material, expands and contracts with moisture, even if it’s finished,” Mr. Altman says. “In deep winter, people with hardwood floors will notice slight gaps when the humidity is really low.”

Caring for one’s wood floor sounds simple, but many people make simple mistakes that rob them of their luster.

Mr. Lynn says that homeowners use everything from Mop & Glo to Endust to clean the floors but that some readily available products contain silicon, which can build up and dull the floor’s natural shine.

“It might look good for a while, but it builds up a film on the floor,” says Mr. Lynn, adding that the silicon layer could affect future finish applications. The fresh finish might not bond properly to the wood if there is a layer of silicon between the two, he says.

For more information on hardwood floors, visit www.woodfloors.org, an NWFA Web site.

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