First and foremost, know your hardwood flooring: Flooring Forensics - Apr 2016

By Lew Migliore

Wood is one of the most popular floorcovering products today. All you have to do is watch home fix-up or buyer TV shows to figure out that everyone wants hardwood floors. Wood is also a floorcovering that can get you in a lot of trouble if you don’t understand a few things about it.

You may not know that there are as many suppliers, it seems, as there are trees. For instance, I had a conversation with our wood expert, who was recently in China, and he was telling me that in one province there were approximately 3,500 government-owned wood manufacturers and one “overseer.” So if you are disillusioned with the product or service that you’re getting and switch to someone else, you may still be dealing with the same entity. 

The quality issue is one to be acutely aware of. Wood is a tree cut into boards to be used on the floor, and it will continue to behave as a tree—expanding and contracting, drying out, cracking, indenting, scratching and discoloring. Think of wood, whether softwood or hardwood, as a bundle of straws, with the hollow center of the straw being the vessel for transporting water and nutrients, and the outside of the straw being the firmer walls. This will give you a mental visual of wood to put this information in perspective for you. 

Reputable manufacturers that have been providing quality products for years should still be the ones you trust the most. They control product quality, and they have the experience to provide you with materials designed to be the best. What you don’t want to buy is wood that has been harvested in another part of the world and then sawed and finished on a ship while en route to your store. In the zeal to buy at the lowest price, you may be getting a deal that pulls you right into a buzz saw—pun intended—with no recourse when a problem arises. 

To avoid wood flooring problems, you have to know the characteristics of the wood you’re selling, how it will perform, the environmental conditions that affect and influence it, how to control these conditions, how the wood has to be acclimated, how it has to be installed, and other pertinent information. If you leave out one of these important pieces of information, it will come back to bite you. 

You also have to know and understand the quality of wood you are buying and installing—the source, how it was processed and cut (which affects performance and stability), where it came from, such as country of origin, and much more. There is a lot of information available from the NWFA (National Wood Flooring Association), so do your homework and get the information to keep yourself out of trouble. Most often we find the reasons for a wood complaint are fairly easy to determine, and there are a multitude of tools to help you analyze the conditions of the wood and the environment in which it is installed. 

There is also a lot of information available regarding wood species, installation, acclimation, testing and appropriate conditions for installation. It should come as no surprise to you that if you glue hardwood to a concrete substrate and you haven’t tested for moisture, you’re headed for a problem. The space where the wood is installed also has to be controlled—too damp or dry will result in reactions in the wood from cupping and curling to drying out and cracking. 

For example, we had a situation this week where a wood floor was installed over a cushion, and the boards along the perimeter expanded measurably. The dealer wanted to blame the adhesive people, the cushion people, everyone but himself. The problem was moisture vapor traveling under the cushion and venting at the perimeter areas. The wood was absorbing the moisture and swelling, just as nature and the laws of physics would have it. No moisture tests had been conducted, so the dealer had no idea that he was in trouble from the start. Now he’ll have to not only replace the floor, but he’ll also have to pull everything up to remediate the substrate, an expensive undertaking. 

We also regularly hear from dealers regarding problems with cupping and warped boards, tenting, checking and cracking of the finish, noise and squeaks, and gaps at the sides and ends. These things can and do happen to wood, as most of you who sell wood should be well aware. Again, humidity conditions, whether they are affected by the weather outside or by issues with the home’s HVAC system, can alter what the floor looks like and how it performs after it’s installed. And using the wrong species, not knowing who processed it, or taking chances on buying product that is sold at a bargain price and not cured correctly can result in latent performance issues. These defects may not reveal themselves until well after the product is installed. Our lab often tests imported wood flooring for clients prior to acceptance to ensure that the product was processed correctly. We also test products for domestic producers that want to ensure they are putting out a quality product. 

Another concern is wood hardness, and its fitness for the intended purpose. Hardwood flooring produced for a residential application will not work in a commercial environment that gets a lot of traffic. Commercial wood flooring should have a finish, such as an acrylic impregnated treatment, that allows it to perform beyond the inherent capabilities of that species. Wood in a commercial application, like any commercial flooring product, is subject to greater volumes of traffic in varying forms, from rolling loads to foot traffic, all kinds of shoes from high heels to soft-soled athletic shoes, contamination elements that get tracked in, and ongoing maintenance. All of these factors can affect hardwood’s appearance, stability and performance. 

It is incumbent upon whoever is making the decision to use any flooring material—wood or otherwise—to know whether the product selected will actually be capable of delivering the expected performance, and if not, to be wise enough to pick something that will. You can’t defend against a flooring failure when the product was never suited to perform in the conditions of the space or for the intended use. 

With wood you can’t be too trusting. Unfortunately, you have to be a little paranoid if you stray too far off the beaten path with wood flooring suppliers and manufacturers you’ve never heard of. Stick with the manufacturers that have reputations for delivering quality products. Heed how they tell you to use the products, and learn about the wood you want to use. Then you’ll avoid problems and be successful. 

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus 

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