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Picking the Wood for Floors

Martha Stewart Living, September 2006

A floor's appearance depends first and foremost on what material it has been milled from. Here are a handful of common options.

1. Australian cypress is distinguished by its wavy grain pattern with black rings; coloring ranges from creamy white to light brown.

Pros: Stands up to humidity, making it an ideal choice for moisture-prone areas, such as a kitchen.

Cons: Among the more difficult woods to stain. Knots can cause splitting during installation, so extra material must be ordered.

2., 3. Reclaimed lumber has been salvaged from old structures, such as barns, wine barrels, and warehouses.

Pros: No two floors are ever the same; lumber often has distinctive markings leftover from its original use.

Cons: Reclaimed wood tends to be more expensive than other flooring options, and it may not be as easy to finish because of existing surface conditions.

4. Oak is the most common type of flooring in the United States. Red oak has salmon tones while white oak is more ashen.

Pros: Accepts just about any finish, installs easily, and withstands heavy foot traffic.

Cons: Oak floorboards can blacken if exposed to moisture, so they're not suitable for bathrooms or kitchens.

5. Santos mahogany boasts undulating grain patterns and deep, dark undertones that are flecked with red and gold.

Pros: Durable and moisture-resistant, so it can even be used in bathrooms. Santos mahogany takes a finish surprisingly well for a wood of its hardness.

Cons: It is rarer than other species and thus more expensive.

6. Brazilian cherry has a straight, even grain pattern and a reddish hue that evokes the formality of fine furniture.

Pros: Color gets deeper over time, improving the appearance of the floor; extremely hardwearing and moisture-resistant.

Cons: Like other very hard woods, cherry is prone to splitting and is difficult to nail through, which make it a challenge to install.

7. American walnut, also referred to as black walnut, has been used for centuries for both floors and furniture.

Pros: Noted for its deep, almost purplish coloring and consistent grain pattern; stains beautifully.

Cons: Unlike Brazilian walnut, or ipe, which ranks among the most durable woods, American walnut is relatively soft, and thus not suited to busy areas.

8. Natural bamboo is technically a woody grass, which results in very little grain pattern; its blond coloring looks good in contemporary settings.

Pros: Because its shoots grow rapidly and are only trimmed (not cut down, as trees are), bamboo is considered an eco-friendly material.

Cons: Bamboo is almost always prefinished, so it is more difficult to match to existing architecture.

9. Pine has enormous variety, with colors from brown to yellow and grain patterns that can be straight or wavy.

Pros: Ranks among the most affordable flooring options; quick and easy to install.

Cons: Relatively soft and water-retentive, so it is not intended for damp or high-traffic areas.