Complete Guide to Wood Species for Hardwood Floors
Nothing matters more for a hardwood floor than the type of wood.
No surprise there, but the beauty of hardwood floors is they are simple. There really isn’t much to them except a solid hunk of wood. Yes, there are many different things that can make up the appearance of your floor.
But the durability of the floor is much simpler. Other than how you take care of it, it really comes down to the type of wood you get.
And that’s the purpose of this article: learn about each type of wood. You’ll learn:
- why the species of wood matters
- each wood species ranked by durability/hardness
- rough pricing on the most common species of wood
- appearance and background information on the most common woods
Let’s start out with why you should care about what would you pick (yes, durability is a big factor, but there’s a little more to it than that):
What makes a difference in wood species?
The wood type you pick matters for two reasons: the appearance and the hardness.
The appearance in some ways doesn’t matter. But Captain, I care about what my wood floor looks like… I’m spending a lot of money on it! Agree 100%, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t care. What I mean by “it doesn’t matter” is you don’t need to think about how a wood looks. You just shop for wood floors. The only exception to this is if you’re going for a certain rare look, you can ask a salesman specifically for that type of wood that you saw.
Hardness is what really matters. You can find a wood floor you like, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the hardness, and the hardness matters more than anything for hardwood durability. The good thing is there is an international rating of wood hardness that gives you exactly what you need to know. More on this later.
Oh yeah, one last thing on wood species. They all have a story. Sometimes its cool to know a little bit about the wood you have in your home. If you pick out a nice wood floor, guarantee someone will comment on it, and it’s nice to be able to tell them a little about it.
What is the Janka hardness scale?
The Janka hardness scale is a quick way to tell how dense and durable the wood is going to be once you install it in your home. It was invented in 1906 by an Austrian wood researcher, Gabriel Janka, and standardized by the American Society for Testing and Materials in 1927. The test measures hardness of the wood by driving a 0.444 inch steel ball into the wood. The amount of pressure it takes to drive the ball halfway into the woods diameter determines its hardness.
The numbers start at 600. On the low-end, you will find species such as Douglas Fir (660) or Southern Yellow Pine (870). If you install those wood floors into your home, you will need to be more careful, as they are easily damaged by foot traffic and furniture.
As the numbers increase, so do the wood’s natural hardness and defenses. Brazilian Cherry ranks 2350, so you can know at a glance that this wood is very dense and difficult to scratch or damage.
No wood floor is entirely impervious to wear and tear, but checking the wood on the Janka scale will give you a pretty good idea of whether or not a particular species is going to work in a high traffic area.
How does each wood species rank in hardness?
Using the Janka scale, we have an apples to apple comparison of how hard all wood species area. Since hardness is the biggest factor in the durability of the wood, we also know how durable each wood is. Below are the most common woods used in hardwood flooring ranked by hardness:
Figure 1. Wood durability chart
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Hardness and other qualities of the common wood species
Last time I counted, there were 119 species of wood listed on Wikipedia.
And I probably missed some. Many of those don’t make great hardwood floors or are just too rare to be a reasonable cost or come across your radar.
This is good news for me because this article would go on forever. Every wood species has a story. Where it comes from, how it looks, it’s appearance variations, and sometimes unique characteristics (changes with sunlight, resistance to moisture, etc).
We already covered how the main (and many more) species of wood rank in hardness and durability. Now let’s cover the nuances of each piece of wood. These are in relative order of least to most durable:
Pine: best wood floor on a budget, part 1
Pine wood flooring has a traditional appearance. You’ll often find natural imperfections that some love and some don’t (although this will still depend on the grade of your wood.) It stains easily and comes out in a variety of rich wood tones, and as pine ages, the color continues to improve. You may love your pine floor when it is first installed, and love it even more years later.
The main drawback of pine is its relative softness (exception: heart pine which you can read about more below). Pine floors are easily dented or scratched so they are not entirely suited for high-traffic areas or homes with kids and pets running around the floors. If you do, you can expect to spend some extra time on maintenance to keep the floor looking at its best.
Pine trees grow relatively quickly compared to some other species. That, and their abundance in North America makes them a respectably eco-friendly wood floor option for your home. That, along with its softness, makes it a more affordable wood floor.
Janka Rating: Varies. Southern Yellow Pine is 620. Western White Pine is 420. You will need to check the source of your pine floor for more details.
Cherry: best wood floor on a budget, part 2
While cherry floors are very striking, visually, they are best kept out of direct sunlight and in low-traffic areas. One of the best ways to lay out a cherry wood floor is with large, 8-inch boards to showcase the unique grain patterns and coloring.
Cherry is a softer hardwood, so it will show scratches and scuffs more easily than other wood choices, such as maple or white oak. When exposed to bright sunlight, its colors will darken so it may require precise staining to match a new board to the old.
Janka Rating: 950
American/Black Walnut: light to moderate traffic
Walnut floors can be domestic, like the American walnut, or imported like Brazilian walnut (more on this one later in the article)
American Walnut floors have deep brown, almost chocolate overtones. They are usually paired with a dramatic or contemporary decorating style. The boards are closely matched in color, which creates a smooth and consistent look.
The main drawback to walnut floors is a lack of durability. It is fine for low to medium-traffic areas but can show wear after just a few years in a high-traffic setting.
Janka Rating: 1010
Heart Pine: pine on steroids
Remember when we talked about the softness of pine earlier?
Heart pine is like normal pine on steroids. It is taken from the “heartwood” of the tree. Quick tree biology lesson: heartwood is the inner denser part of the tree. It doesn’t have to carry water and nutrients up the tree—that is the outer, softer sections.
All pines make natural looking hardwood floors, and that’s a look many people desire. With heart pine overcoming pine’s weakness of softness, this floor can go in nearly any room in your home.
The heartwood requires an older tree, so you’re seeing less and less heart pine on the market. Prices can fluctuate, and in some locations, you may not even find it.
Janka Rating: 1225
Birch: multiple species in one
People often confuse birch wood with maple. And while birch may not like this, it’s really a good comparison. That is, for yellow birch.
The unique thing about birch is there are many different species that vary greatly in quality. You’ll see this most easily in the hardness scores. Yellow birch is the one we graded here at 1260, but you’ll find a range of paper birch in the 900s to sweet birch at 1470! That’s a big range, so make sure you take a look at your particular birch.
Not only does it’s hardness change, but different varieties of birch can have many different colors and appearances. This is one wood you won’t really know what you get until you see it.
Janka Rating: 1260 (varies greatly depending on the species of birch)
Price: $$ (see above)
Red/White Oak: the wood prom queen and king (aka most popular)
Oak is the most common wood flooring. It has “good enough” hardness—not the most durable but definitely can hold up in most rooms. And since it’s common in the United States, it’s also relatively affordable.
Red oak has warm tones which flow from rusty red to golden brown. It is the most popular hardwood floor choice in the USA, mostly because it compliments many home decor styles, including classic, contemporary and country.
White oak is even harder than red oak, so you will often see it used in high traffic areas or homes filled with kids and pets. Despite that, it is very similar in price.
Unlike red oak, its overtones are shaded with gray and have little to no red at all. The tones and colors vary far less from plank to plank, giving the final floor a unified appearance.
Janka Rating (red): 1290
Janka Rating (white): 1360
Ash: an alternative to oak
Ash floors have a unique look that has made them a popular choice for chic and modern homes. Its color patterns are lighter than other woods. Some ash floor planks have white hues mixed in with the browns and beige.
Its light hue has made it attractive for smaller rooms the same as maple and white oak floors. Ash floors are also noteworthy for the way they catch and hold many stains so you can end up with a finished ash floor tinted to your tastes.
Ash has a medium hardness. White ash’s durability is comparable to white and red oak. It can easily withstand moderate foot traffic but remains comfortable enough to stand on.
Ash’s main downside is that it requires more of cleaning and care than darker wood floors. Dirt easily shows on the lighter colored flooring so you will want to keep on top of it with regular sweeping and maintenance.
Janka Rating: 1320
Maple: the soft-spoken contender
If you need a floor to withstand a busy home full of kids, pets, and activities, you may want to consider a maple floor. Maple is an even more durable choice than oak and one of the best, non-imported sources for high-traffic areas.
It has a light, golden brown color with shades of beige, cream, and pink. Maple’s fine grain often includes interesting specks or streaks.
Maple is another very popular flooring choice. It blends with almost any home, from the contemporary to the classic.
Janka Rating: 1450
Captain’s design tip! If you are remodeling a home and working in limited space, maple is a good choice because the lighter color will not dominate the space the way a dark floor would.
Hickory: best bang for your buck
Hickory floors have a long-established history in the United States. During that time, it has been noted for its durability and long lifespan. With the proper care, a hickory floor will outlast the generation that installs it.
Usually, hickory floors come in light tan or reddish-brown colors but you can sometimes find a creamy white color without staining it first. Regardless, hickory has large and distinctive grains and patterns throughout the wood. It’s very popular for rustic and classic homes because you can clearly see the wood when you look at the floor.
Janka Rating: 1820
Bamboo: you caught me. I’m not really wood
Let’s start by setting the record straight: Bamboo isn’t a wood. It’s actually a grass. But calling bamboo a grass is like calling a tomato a fruit: it may be true, but it fits in better with the other guys (vegetables in the case of tomatoes, and wood in the case of bamboo).
Generally, bamboo performs similarly to hardwood, but you can see the differences in bamboo vs hardwood here. Bamboo is extremely strong, as you can see with it’s Janka rating. It’s also kind of cool when people ask what kind of wood” floor you have. Most bamboo as you’d expect is harvested from Asia.
Janka Rating: 2789
Brazilian Walnut: the winner for durability
Brazilian Walnut is sometimes called Ipe or Lapacho. It is three times harder than oak and gives a vibrant, rich tone to any room. Its coloring is an even deeper brown than American walnut.
Brazilian Walnut is often installed in kitchens and high traffic areas because its extreme durability includes a limited resistance to moisture. It is dense enough to resist pet scratches, mold, and insects.
Like other imported species, Brazilian walnut will be one of the more expensive hardwoods you can buy. However, the quality of the product closely matches its cost and you can expect its durability to last a long time.
Janka Rating: 3684
Teak: a luxurious conversation piece
Teak is one of the fastest growing segments of the flooring market.
Unlike some of the other woods, teak floors are often left unfinished so the homeowners can watch the floors age naturally over the decades. It has a vibrant, upscale vibe, with distinctive brown and black lines on each piece.
Teak requires oiling every few years so you will need to be prepared to do maintenance and upkeep or the floor loses its characteristic luster. You also should check for FSC certification from the manufacturer, since there are companies harvesting endangered forests for teak woods.
Once installed, teak floors are ideal for high traffic areas and homeowners worried about their kids and pets playing on the new hardwood floors.
Teak mainly comes from Southeast Asia but it also has a subspecies, known as Brazilian teak, which is even better for high-traffic areas. Both are imported and considered exotic wood floors.
Janka Rating (teak): 1155
Janka Rating (Brazilian teak): 3540
Captain’s parting words!
Like most things for flooring, what you need depends on your needs. Or better put, your room’s needs.
The room you put in a bedroom might be different than your hallway. And the wood in your hallway might be different than your kitchen.
Without considering appearance and cost, I’d go with the hardest wood you can. You’re less likely to get frustrated, and it’s going to last longer. But there are many times when a softer Pine or Cherry wood looks awesome, and it saves you a bunch of money. And at the end of the day, you still have a hardwood floor. No one’s going to judge you on how hard it is.
Any questions or opinions on wood species? Let me know in the comments below.