Best actual wood floors?
November 10, 2018 8:50 PM   Subscribe

We are buying a home and want to replace roughly 800-1,000 sf of carpet with hardwood. One kid, no pets. REALLY prefer real wood. Do you have any recommended products or tips?

Our new house (good lord, it’s really happening) is a plain but nicer 1970s ranch in excellent condition. It is VERY bland and has dark oak trim, which I guess we’ll live with. We want to get hardwood in the open LR/DR and maybe the master bedroom. Honestly, if we had more money I’d do it in the whole main floor, but this is fine for now.

We would like a pretty classic look - medium toned oak, maybe a little midcentury-ish, standard width. REALLY don’t want LVP, laminate or an engineered product unless it’s astoundingly real-looking. I’ve also heard that Lumber Liquidators lies about the safety of their products (e.g. chemical off-gassing and other stuff from Chinese manufacturers who don’t disclose). We will likely have someone install this for us, but it’s... maybe possible we could get a handy couple friends to help? We live in Wisconsin, and there are no moisture issues.

Products some friends have used successfully:
Helmsman engineered floors (I am not a fan of the hand-scraped look)
Great Lakes from Menards

Any other tips would be very welcome. Thanks!
posted by St. Hubbins to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Look for an architectural salvage place near you. You might be able to get a reclaimed floor from an old building (we got one from an old YMCA - super nice maple). It will cost less than a new floor, but you might end up spending the difference on installation, since it's a little more trouble for the installers than a new floor.
posted by amtho at 9:08 PM on November 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

So much has to do with your subfloor.
If it is a concrete slab, you will have to build the floor on strips to keep it from contacting the concrete, raising your floor by at least a couple inches, with the attendant issues re: doors, transitions to existing tile floors, etc. Or use an engineered wood product, which is what we did, reluctantly.
This is because of moisture. It's basically impossible to permanently isolate solid wood from the moisture of the slab without lifting it up on slats or something. It then expands and contracts with changes in moisture level and will buckle. Because engineered wood is basically plywood, where the grain runs perpendicular in each layer, it is more dimensionally stable.

The good quality engineered wood looks very good! It is real wood. The planks just aren't one solid chunk all the way through. You could even cut nails short and hammer them in at the end of runs to really fool people!

You won't get the flexing and squeaking that I really love in real hardwood floors.
The more expensive stuff even has thicker top layers that will allow you to sand and refinish them a few times throughout their lifetime.
But yeah, real hardwood in midcentury-and-later houses is very expensive and kind of impractical.
posted by Krawczak at 9:12 PM on November 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best is subjective, but when it comes to wood flooring in my opinion, hardness is the best indicator of best, where best is least likely to be damaged under normal use.

So check the Janka Hardness Rating for wood flooring you like, and choose among that. Birch, red oak, white oak, and hickory are really good.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:15 PM on November 10, 2018

As for DIY These folks have a neat system that allows hardwood floors to be installed by almost anybody who wants to, almost idiot-proof simplicity. And if you do some or all of the labor yourself, you can afford to buy nicer wood.

Disclosure: I know these people, and would consider their products for my own use.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:41 PM on November 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm no expert but flooring is one place where I think you get what you pay for. That said based on recently shopping for some hardwood flooring myself there are always sales - I ended up getting some 2.5" hickory from Home Depot for 50% off (I'm guessing it was an intro price). Before I bought this house I was living in a place where the owner got a good deal on hickory from lumber liquidators that looks fantastic, but yes they have a bad rep.

I'm going to install the flooring myself, hopefully starting later this week - if you are really considering it I would go watch some youtube videos on the process. One spot where you could get into trouble is if your floor needs leveling. Mine definitely needs some - nothing crazy but the effort level is higher than installing the flooring itself, which is to me relatively straightforward.
posted by MillMan at 10:23 PM on November 10, 2018

The prework of installing flooring - leveling, making sure you have a proper subfloor, and setting the first row straight and true - is insanely hard the first time you do it. The rest of the rows after the first are easy.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:59 PM on November 10, 2018

As for DIY These folks have a neat system

That is absolutely genius. As the owner/ maintainer of two houses with nail down real wood floors I will 100% buy that the next time I do a floor. The idea of just popping up a damaged bit and fixing or replacing it in minutes is mind-boggling.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 AM on November 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Tips- follow manufacturer's instructions about acclimatization very carefully. Hire an installer with a lot of experience. In our remodel, about $7k of flooring was lost because our installer was in a hurry and didn't wait for the wood to acclimatize. The second time around we went with Brazilian cherry and it is gorgeous.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:49 AM on November 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can DIY hardwood, but an experienced pro will do it much faster and better. The basics are simple, but there are are a surprising number of ways to mess it up, paint yourself into a corner, or lay a floor that looks good at first but then starts to separate and get all wavy within the first year. A pro will be in and out of there and on to the next job before you know it, and your floor will come out absolutely perfect. This is especially true if all you want is just regular white oak, since that's the most popular type of hardwood flooring and therefore what they are installing all day every day.

If you can afford it, go with a pro.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:14 AM on November 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

And hey, there's no reason to get engineered flooring or flooring that looks like wood but isn't, if real wood is what you want. Wood is a time-honored flooring material that works very well and looks great—why mess with thousands of years of success? Wood is often imitated, but never duplicated—think of all the non-wood finishes you encounter every day that are striving to look more or less like the real thing. I sometimes get a vibe on MeFi that traditional, real hardwood flooring is a weird choice given all the other options available, but at least in my neck of the woods it's not. In renovations here in New England, 2 1/2" white oak hardwood flooring is pretty much the default general-purpose flooring type that most people get. You see a lot of tile in kitchens and bathrooms, and you'll often get carpet in bedrooms and finished basement rooms, but white oak is one of the most common go-to flooring types because it looks fantastic, wears well, has a very long track record of success, and has good resale value. Other types of flooring may come and go as construction technology and design trends shift, but wood endures. If you like wood, get wood. Accept no substitutes.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:28 AM on November 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Although I have used prefinished hardwood twice now for DIY installation, if you can deal with the extra installation hassles, expense and disruption, buying unfinished hardwood and having it finished on site is much nicer IMHO. Prefinished floors have little bevels on the edges which are kind of dirt traps, and don't look as nice as the smooth, uninterrupted look of traditional hardwood.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 6:57 AM on November 11, 2018

The benefit of prefinished is that factories can apply harder finishes by using more aggressive chemicals that aren't suitable for field use. In my area, the cost for prefinished vs. traditional is about the same—prefinished costs more in materials, but traditional costs more in labor and it pretty much balances out. Totally right about the microbevels being dirt traps, though. Traditional hardwood with its smooth, uninterrupted varnish layer is a nicer look in my opinion.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:19 AM on November 11, 2018

We put 4” site finished white oak floors in our newly purchased 1970s ranch this year and I could not happier. There is no down side, if you’re willing to make the investment. It’s really important to us to have all natural materials too and I’m glad we made the commitment. If you can get them done before you move in it will be much much more convenient - the sanding makes a big mess.

Our realtor was really helpful with recommending contacts for this sort of thing, so that might be a good place to start in finding someone to install them. I also had a couple other people I found online come and give quotes, but we ended up going with the guy our realtor recommended.
posted by something something at 8:21 AM on November 11, 2018

Another thing about real, site-finished wood - you choose the stain. So in a few years if you want to do the rest of the house, you can buy the same wood and the same stain and have a seamless look throughout. We did laminate in a former house and years later that exact product was impossible to find.
posted by something something at 8:24 AM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is the hardwood-surfaced engineered flooring we used in our old house, construction ca. 2002. As you'll see, it doesn't have the beveled edges noted above. We lived there until this year. It was installed as a "floating floor" above Trus-Joist laminated joists. It never squeaked though you could feel it flex a little. The blond maple (like the "maple activity floor" but narrower) became darker with exposure to sunlight, so when we moved out there were lighter areas where furniture had been.
posted by jet_silver at 9:09 AM on November 11, 2018

We had old-fashioned site finished 2.5” floors installed in the addition on our house because it could be matched exactly to the existing 70-year old floor. You can’t even tell where the new floor begins. Site finished is more labour intensive than prefinished but there is no other way to get a nice groove less wood floor. You can also get matching vent installed that are sanded and finished to be seemless and flush with the floor. Those are really awesome.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:48 AM on November 11, 2018

The nice thing about plain hardwood is you don't really need to worry much about where you get it; it's only made of tree. If it is still straight and looks good after acclimatization, it will look good for the next 100 years. Be careful of staining because the product gets much darker once the polyurethane is applied.

But if Krawczak's limitations apply, you're back to all those artificial products or a weird floor raised up several inches.
posted by flimflam at 6:04 PM on November 11, 2018

We went with floors from Vintage Flooring, via the small-town local furniture/flooring store. We did the living room and den first, and two years later did the kitchen and dining room. The newer floor is a perfect match to the older floor. We went with pre-finished because it's much less hassle (we refinished the wood floor in a previous house, and swore to never do that again in a house we were actually living in).

The floor is very smooth, but much of that is due to the absolutely level and square nature of the modular house we have. The installation crews repeatedly commented on how much they liked working with flooring from Vintage, and five (or seven) years later it still looks practically new.
posted by jlkr at 11:24 AM on November 12, 2018

Response by poster: UPDATE:
We went with solid red oak, 2.5" with a very lightly tinted sealer, no real stain. It's super light, but we figured if we wanted it darker in the future, it'd be easier to do than making it TOO dark and having to sand it down. Also, we went with some sort of matte/satin finish instead of glossy, and it feels almost gritty (because we're not used to it; it'll smooth out a little more over time). At any rate, it looks amazing and is mostly covered with a rug anyway.

We had a guy we know do it. While it was true that this guy is "a dude I know from shows," as my husband put it, he actually had a flooring business and owned several properties, and we were very satisfied. They got both the unfinished and prefinished wood (see below) from a local wholesaler, and the wood was (I believe) Aacer brand from up nort' in Wisconsin, which was nice.

We got three quotes: 1) just L-shaped LR and DR, 2) LR, DR and bedrooms, 3) LR, DR, bedrooms and kitchen. We ended up doing the living room and dining room, then added the narrow bedroom hallway as well. That gives it a much nicer planned look, and will make it easy to add in if we put hardwood in the bedrooms later.

They delivered the giant bundles of wood on Thursday or so (this was January in Wisconsin...), started laying it on Monday, sanded Tuesday and I believe did the sealer on Wednesday. We used water-based sealer (a bit more expensive), since oil-based would have taken longer to dry and potentially off-gassed a bit.

During the process, we had originally planned to keep the carpet in our den, but changed our minds. We tried to price out new berber carpet (anything from the cheap Home Depot kind to the independent 100% wool kind) and eventually thought, "Okay, this is gonna cost more anyway, so let's just go with wood again." It will always be separated from the other wood by the kitchen/entry, so it didn't have to match. In that room, we went with prefinished 100% red oak, a sort of natural stain at 3.5" width, which was easy to order from a local supplier, cheaper, and installed quickly.

HERE'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRE-FINISHED AND ON-SITE FINISHING: as Larry David Syndrome noted, the bevels on the edges are dirt traps. Which wasn't a huge deal for that room, but what we DID notice was that the bevels enhanced the visibility of the board lengths, which were sometimes quite different. Here I thought that the installers would just keep going "long board, long board, long board" and put the short boards on the edges, but they had a bunch of short boards in the middle, and that looked weird to me. But, again, we covered it with a rug. If it ends up bugging us more, we can sand it way down and remove the bevels later on.

If you're looking for wood floor info, here's our guy's site. If you're in the Madison, WI area, use them. They're great. They also re-cut the best of the wall-to-wall carpet from the living room and re-installed it in our daughter's room so it would be better than the weird plastic-backed stuff that was in there.
posted by St. Hubbins at 3:08 PM on August 15, 2019

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