Hardwood: Developments in design - April 2015

By Darius Helm


Recently, several trends, some that have been building for over a decade and others that are only a year or two old, have coincided in the domestic market to create a unique hardwood aesthetic, an updated take on Americana. Even though its greatest influence comes from Europe, as do most trends in color and design, its cultural heritage is distinctly American, rooted in the nostalgia of the nation’s rural landscapes—the elegant decay of barnwood oak, the rugged spirit of hand hewn planks—and brought into the 21st century with a thoughtful, expressive palette of soft, pale, greyed tones and a modernist, oversized scale.

As with many industries, from apparel and automobiles to interior design elements like paint and furniture, the bulk of the volume comes from the most conservative and generic part of the market. In the case of hardwood, that’s red or maybe white oak flooring in strips and narrow planks with a flat surface and a medium gloss finish in a color ranging from natural to a medium brown. That’s the biggest piece of the market right there. Maple makes up another chunk. 

Once you get that out of the way, things get more interesting. The story becomes about wood grades, other species, gloss levels, cuts, surface textures and finishes. It’s about what they like in Texas and Arizona, compared to the tastes of those in the Northeast, California and the states of the South. And it’s also about technology, and the new design capabilities it affords.

These days, demographics are having a huge impact on the development of flooring design. The youngest Baby Boomers have crossed the half-century mark, and the oldest are closing in on 70. And for those in the latter half of their lives, the standard selling points of comfort, durability, value and design now also include more emotive and sentimental elements, like visuals that echo thoughts and feelings about American iconography, remembrances of childhood, lofty ideals, permanence, more serene times. 

Baby Boomers are also generally more familiar with hardwood than subsequent generations; hardwood’s dominance in residential spaces effectively ended in 1966 with new FHA regulations for carpet that transformed the tract home market. But even those people who didn’t grow up with hardwood are drawn to it because of its beauty and connection to nature. 

In fact, in the healthcare market, hardwood looks are increasingly essential because of evidence that its qualities (perhaps its comfort and familiarity) improve overall patient outcomes. And there it’s all about the look of wood, since what they’re putting down is actually LVT or sheet vinyl.

Technological developments are also behind a lot of trends, and the most significant development is still engineered hardwood. It’s been nearly 75 years since Kährs invented engineered flooring and 60 years since Anderson brought the technology to the U.S., but it’s only in the last 20 years that it has really taken on the market—and since 2011 it has been bigger than solid hardwood.

The hardwood market started to come back in the early 1980s, and engineered flooring slowly started to find demand in sections of the country—most notably the South—where homes built on slabs made it difficult to install solid hardwood. As acceptance has grown and as consumers have stopped seeing it as inferior to solid hardwood, engineered flooring has moved into traditional solid hardwood markets, like the Northeast.

Engineered hardwood has also played a fundamental role in the development of wider boards, because solid hardwood can’t go much wider than 5” or so without succumbing to the urge to warp. All those trendy wide widths—up to 12”—are made with engineered flooring.

More recently, with constrained domestic sawmill capacity, engineered flooring has made some additional gains over solid hardwood because it uses less of the log, so lumber price increases don’t have the same impact.

Those wider widths in engineered hardwood are part of a larger trend in the overall hard surface industry. Led by the commercial sector—and again following European trends—formats for ceramic tile, hardwood and LVT have been getting as big as current technology allows. That means ceramic tiles as large as 48”x48”, LVT planks up to 8’ long, and hardwood up to 1’x12’.

However, these larger sizes are not necessarily being used to create monolithic looks. More often, they’re used to showcase the design and patterns of the material. In the case of hardwood, the scale of the patterning of today’s plank flooring isn’t much different from the scale of traditional hardwood strip floor. Instead, the busyness is shifted from the ordered strip floor pattern to the organic patterns and colors within the visual of the larger planks.

One limitation of these escalating plank sizes is that they can’t go into too small a room, so there’s not only a limit to how big they will get—they won’t get much bigger than they are now—but there also will remain a sizeable market for narrower planks. Currently, the hottest widths seem to be 6” and 7”, placing them firmly in the realm of engineered hardwood.

Engineered hardwood has also had a disproportionate influence on the development of color in hardwood flooring. Built on engineered platforms, exotic hardwood sales started to surge in the late 1990s—it’s a lot more affordable to put an exotic hardwood veneer on top of commodity wood plies than it is to make the whole thing out of exotic wood—flooding the domestic market with dramatic species that most people had never seen, all reasonably affordable. Some of it was low-grade product out of the burgeoning Chinese manufacturing industry and some of it was high quality, from domestic producers like Anderson and Armstrong. 

The exotic look became a strong trend, taking colors into territory ranging from warm to fiery. Many of the exotics have naturally red or orange hues, and many are darker than North American hardwoods. So the market went fairly warm for a while. 

Then came the Lacey Act Amendment, which hobbled exotic production and laid the groundwork for marketing products made in America. Around 2009, there was a short-lived trend of coloring domestics in the warm hues of exotics. That gained limited traction. And that was when manufacturers shifted their focus to the development of the range of available domestic species, and they started experimenting with them.

The most important color in the flooring market, and in fact in whole built environment, is grey. It rose as an alternative to the warm, earthy hues, from the endless beiges to the ruddy browns. It began as a refreshing cool snap, urban and industrial. Canadian hardwood firms, with their closer relationship to the European styles, were first to embrace grey, led by firms like Preverco. Greys steadily flooded the flooring market, both residential and commercial, becoming more nuanced and sophisticated along the way, until, it could be argued, they finally displaced earth tones as the new neutral palette. 

While grey started out as a cool, dry alternative to the warm, earthy colors in the market, it quickly evolved in several directions. And over the last few years, warmer greys have proliferated the market, or warm and cool combos, and greys have been used to soften and smoke the more vivid, higher chroma colors. 

In hardwood, the greys today are generally warm and soft, and they’re often light. The biggest color trend in the hardwood market is toward light and soft—buttery greys, creamy yellows, smoky pastels. The trend has been strong in Europe for a few years, and in the U.S. it’s strongest in California, but it’s gaining traction in all regions, moving inward from the coasts. Sometimes it comes in the form of very pale stains, like a washed-out natural hue, and other times it comes via distressing techniques, like cerusing oak boards to highlight the grain in white pigment or other colors.

It’s not that darker colors are out. They’re still in demand, particularly in traditional markets stretching from Texas across the South and up to the Northeast. In fact, there is strong demand for deeper browns in rustic constructions for the Texas and Oklahoma markets.

Hardwood floors started going low gloss a decade ago. First, satin finishes softened, then they got progressively more matte. This year, the trendiest hardwoods are close to zero gloss. It’s worth noting that most manufacturers offer a range of products with mid range gloss levels, which is in higher demand in suburban markets than in city living. Like darker browns, higher glosses are also more traditional, and there’s always a market for tradition. 

Though low gloss finishes are mostly in demand because of how they showcase the hardwood, some hardwood characteristics are more effectively revealed with higher gloss, including flame maple looks and the pearlescent effects found in some exotics. From a durability and maintenance perspective, matte finishes have a big advantage over high gloss because they hide scuffs and scratches far better. 

These low gloss finishes are often described as having the look of an oil finish. In fact, some hardwood manufacturers, like US Floors and DuChateau, offer only oil finished floors. Others offer lines with oil and wax finishes. 

Oil finishes were standard before the development of urethanes. While urethanes fuse to the top surface of the wood, oil finishes sink into the grain, enhancing the hardness of the wood itself. That’s why oil finishes tend to be low gloss—the treatment is in the wood, not on the wood, so it doesn’t increase the reflectivity of the product. However, traditional oil finished floors also used a wax and buff to attain a higher gleam.

It is generally recommended that oiled floors be maintained twice a year, but some people just spot finish in the high traffic areas. And the oil effectively seals the wood, so a well maintained floor can tolerate a lot of spills without staining. 

Oil and low gloss urethane finishes are an essential element in the strongest trend in the U.S. hardwood market, wirebrushed hardwood. Wirebrushing works best on woods with an open grain, like the oaks, because the technique digs out the soft wood between the grains, highlighting the pattern and also allowing for techniques that fill the grain with color—whitewash is most common. While some hardwood mills are offering wirebrushed hickory, oak is by far the top choice. 

One advantage of wirebrushing is that it allows for a high contrast in the graining, which is an effect that works in dark woods, light woods and everything in between. At this year’s Surfaces, wirebrushed oaks came in every shape, size and color. But the best of them had dry matte finishes, bringing the grain patterns into sharp relief.

Handscraped woods are still in demand, but wirebrushed products are clearly siphoning off some of that marketshare. And in general, handscraped looks continue to soften. These days, soft timeworn looks are more common than heavy scraping. The big market for handscraped hardwood continues to be the Southwest, led by Texas.

Chatter and saw marks are still in demand because of the visual interest they bring to the wood, but the aggressive texture itself is trending away. So these days a lot of the chatter marks have less of a scrape, and staining and printing techniques can help them stand out.

In the domestic market, oak accounts for about two thirds of the hardwood flooring market, and the bulk of that is red oak. Maple makes up another 10% or so, other domestics account for closer to 15%, and the balance is mostly exotics. The builder market and the low end of the retail market are dominated by oak. It’s a classic look but not one that has been in high demand by the design-driven higher end of the market. 

Wirebrushing has changed all that. Abruptly, oak is in vogue. That same graining pattern of which everyone had grown so weary takes center stage in wirebrushed oak. It looks great in many colors and shades. 

However, with wirebrushing not all oaks are equal, and it turns out that the most desirable wirebrushed aesthetic comes from European white oak (quercus robur), also known as English oak. There are a few reasons for this demand. One is because European white oak is cut differently from domestic oak, resulting in a wider plank with more grain patterning on a single plank than the North American process yields. Also, European white oak has a tighter grain pattern than American white oak. 

Another important quality of European white oak is its colorations. While its natural color is close to American white oak (quercus alba), it has less of a greenish and more of a golden cast, and more tannins make it marginally darker. Those differences are accentuated when the wood is darkened by ammonia fuming, because the tannins make European white oak react with more color change.

American white oak is in high demand right now, while red oak seems to be losing some ground. Another species riding a wave of popularity is hickory, one of the most distinctive American hardwood species. Its unique natural color variations give it a rustic look without any treatments at all. Manufacturers are adding hickory lines all the time, so demand is currently outpacing supply. Hickory’s growth is mainly on the engineered side.

Also, walnut is growing in popularity. Its natural color is darker than most hardwoods, a dry, cool brown with a good amount of color variation but without color jumps seen in hickory. And maple, one species that isn’t generally wirebrushed and has a refined look that is almost anti-trend, has also been in demand.

Another consideration when discussing species is the grade of the hardwood, and the trend over the last decade has been to use character grade hardwood (#1 and #2 Common) over the clear and select grades. It’s essentially part of the same rustic trend, because those character grade hardwoods have worm holes and all manner of knot and burl, along with mineral streaks. Some products go even further, showcasing cracks and splits that would never have made the cut before this 21st century trend.

Hardwood looks dominate the LVT, sheet vinyl, laminate and ceramic categories, as they have for some time. In the past, hardwood designs in these categories would trail behind trends, so they were generally not fashion forward. But that has changed now. These days, most hard surface manufacturers have developed processes to track trends, so the hardwood manufacturer is following the same trends as the laminate and LVT producers. Sheet vinyl is the only one that lags a bit, and it also has more stone and tile looks in general, but even this category has significantly improved its visuals and textures.

Wirebrushed looks are also hot in LVT, laminate and ceramic tile. And because of advancements in digital printing, these products are generally photorealistic. And new technologies have also enhanced textures, which find their highest expression in embossed in-register designs, where the texture perfectly matches the visual. So a lot of these products on the market look and feel like wood, and even the experts often can’t tell the difference. 

In her design of a new laminate for the Architectural Remnants line, Armstrong’s hardwood and laminate design manager, Sara Babinski, took unfinished hickory planks from the firm’s American Scrape hardwood line and used color and finish to create the fashion forward look she was after. The hardwood planks were then scanned, and once Babinski had a variety that met her standards, they were produced as laminates. The product, called To The Sea, comes in teal and grey and features rustic boards in a worn paint visual.

The dynamic U.S. hardwood business is far less consolidated than most other flooring categories. Domestic production is dominated by a handful of companies, led by Armstrong, Shaw, Mohawk, Mullican, Somerset and Mannington, but there are dozens more, including specialists in unfinished flooring at one end and artisan hardwood producers at the other. The Canadian hardwood industry is centered on Quebec manufacturers, including Mirage, Lauzon, Mercier, Preverco and Tembec. 

By and large, these North American mills manufacture most of their flooring, but many will use overseas manufacturing partnerships to develop unique products. Then there are hardwood producers that get all or most of their product through manufacturing partnerships, and some of the finest, most trendy hardwood comes from these players, like US Floors, DuChateau and Hallmark. Finally, there are the overseas producers, including Sweden’s Kährs and Johnson Hardwood, which does the bulk of its manufacturing through its Chinese mills.

The newest domestic producer is American OEM, founded by Don Finkell, previously with Anderson and Shaw. (Finkell is profiled in this month’s Focus on Leadership, starting on page 13.)

Armstrong, the domestic hardwood market leader, also producers LVT, laminates, sheet flooring and linoleum. Its hardwood is both solid and engineered. Its solid offering is generally 3/4” thick while its engineered thicknesses range from 3/8” to 1/2”, a thickness particularly in demand in California. 

While the firm still offers 31/4”widths, it also makes planks up to 6” wide and plans on going wider still. Average lengths tend to be 4’ to 5’.

A lot of Armstrong’s business is focused on lower price points, but it also has substantial lines of trendy products, like American Scrape and Prime Harvest, as well as Performance Plus, its commercial line of acrylic-impregnated hardwood that recently received a style upgrade with 15 SKUs of low gloss products. The firm goes to market under the Bruce and Armstrong brands. Bruce is stronger in the builder and home center market with a higher proportion of solid hardwood, while Armstrong is focused on the independent flooring retailer.

Another market leader is Shaw, which also has massive carpet operations, along with laminate production and an LVT facility in Georgia that will start up later this year. The firm makes both solid and engineered hardwood, along with a hybrid engineered floor with a high density fiberboard core, called Epic. Its solids are 3/4” thick, engineered is either 1/2” or 3/8”, and Epic is also 3/8”. Solid hardwoods get as wide as 5”, which is the main width on the engineered side. The firm also sells multiple widths, like 3”, 5” and 63/8”, in a single box. 

Like Armstrong, Shaw does a lot of business at the entry level and also offers fashion forward looks that are competitvely priced. Its three retail brands are Shaw Hardwood, Anderson and Virginia Vintage. The premium brand, Virginia Vintage, is sold through distributors, along with Anderson, while Shaw Hardwood goes through aligned dealers and buying groups.

The firm’s Smoky Mountain collection features solid 4” oak planks in three surface textures—one smooth, one handscraped and one wirebrushed—in shared colors that look different in each texture.

Mohawk, the world’s largest flooring company, has a substantial domestic hardwood business, under the Mohawk, Columbia and Century brands, along with QWood, a relatively new hardwood line under the Quick-Step brand. QWood has the look of an oiled finish and is even spot buffed like an oiled floor with a special QWood Renewal Spray.

Columbia and Century go through distribution and Mohawk goes through its aligned dealers. The firm’s hardwood, both branded and unbranded, also goes to home centers. Products include 3/4” solid hardwood and engineered in 3/8”, 1/2” and 9/16”. The firm has widths up to 7”, and it also offers multi-width packages. Lengths go up to 72”. 

Its new Sawbridge line is a 7” engineered hardwood with wirebrushing in dark browns and greys, protected with Scotchgard and ArmorMax coating. 

Mannington, headquartered in Salem, New Jersey, manufactures hardwood, VCT, sheet vinyl, LVT, rubber flooring, laminate and carpet. In hardwood, it only manufacturers engineered products, 3/8”, 1/2” or 9/16” thick, and mostly in widths from 3” to 5”. The firm focuses on the residential remodel and builder markets, but it’s also growing its commercial program. 

One of its new premium products is Mercado Oak, an addition to the Antigua line. It’s 7” wide and up to 84” long. The collection, manufactured in Central America, features wirebrushing and a hand-rubbed finish.

Kentucky based Somerset Hardwood makes all of its flooring in the U.S. in its FSC certified manufacturing facilities in Kentucky and Tennessee. The firm is traditionally a solid hardwood producer, but it’s been making engineered products for three years, and that part of the business is on a strong growth curve.

Somerset has four solid hardwood lines, three lines that offer both solid and engineered, and one, its Wide Plank line, that is only engineered. The firm’s engineered flooring features a 3mm sawn face on a 1/2” thick product, in widths up to 7”. Its solid flooring is all 3/4” thick in both strip (21/4” and 31/4”) and plank constructions. Somerset also offers a fairly wide range of gloss levels, including the High Gloss collection. Gloss levels go from 70% to 30%. The firm uses mostly red and white oak, along with some walnut, hickory and maple.

Mullican Flooring, based in Johnson City, Tennessee, is another major domestic producer, offering 3/4” solid and 3/8” and 1/2” engineered hardwood. The firm started out as a solid hardwood operation, but has been manufacturing engineered flooring since 2012. Its solid flooring is up to 5” wide, while engineered generally goes to 7”. Solid hardwood goes up to 84” long while engineered will go to 72”.

The firm recently went even wider with engineered on its new low gloss Mount Castle collection, part of its Castillian line. Four of the 12 Mount Castle planks are nearly 10” wide.

Mullican offers domestic species like oak, walnut, maple, birch, hickory and cherry, along with some exotics like amendoim, Brazilian cherry, cumaru and tigerwood.

Then there are the hardwood producers from Quebec, which are generally high quality producers with fashion forward products. Many of the Canadian firms were slow to embrace the handscraped look when the trend started over a decade ago, but they have been fashion forward with colors and European trends.
In terms of species, while the U.S. market leans heavily toward oak, Canadians tend to favor maple, which is a harder product with a more low key, clean visual. And while handscraped planks have never gained the same kind of traction in Canada as they have in the U.S., the wirebrushed trend is gaining more traction.

Mirage, one of the most prominent Quebec producers, makes solid and engineered flooring, along with Lock, its line of hybrid engineered with an HDF core and a wood backing, featuring the firm’s proprietary click system. Its solid flooring is 3/4” thick, while its engineered offering ranges from 3/8” to 1/2”, and the Lock line is 7/16”. The sawn hardwood faces are 4mm for engineered and 2mm for Lock. Widths go to 61/2” and lengths to 69”.

The firm recently launched a new low gloss finish called DuraMatt on its new Flair line of white oak and maple in a range of pale grey-hued colors. Flair is a smooth surface line and DuraMatt gives the look of an oiled finish.

Lauzon makes 3/4” solid hardwood in widths of 21/4”, 31/4” and 41/4”, and sawn-face engineered flooring in thicknesses ranging from 7/16” for its NextStep construction all the way up to 3/4” for its Engineered Expert collection. Engineered widths go from 31/4” strip flooring to 71/2” planks.

The firm has a lot of fashion forward colors, including a near-white line called Bianco. And while Lauzon offers a range of exotics, the bulk of its hardwood features several North American species like red and white oak, birch, cherry, walnut, maple, ash and hickory—in fact, the firm just came out with a new wide plank hickory collection with a matte finish. Lauzon also offers Pure Genius, a technology licensed from Välinge that uses a titanium dioxide treatment that helps clean the air through its photocatalytic properties.

Mercier, another Quebec firm, makes 3/4” solid, 1/2” and 3/4” engineered, and a 1/2” hybrid engineered product with a click system. Widths go from 21/4” to 71/4”, and boards will go as long as 96”. The firm’s finishes include its Pure Expression oil finish, along with Mercier Generations, a high performance finish made entirely of soybean oil.

The firm’s offerings range from smooth surface hardwoods to handscraped and brushed planks. It offers exotics, including Santos mahogany, Brazilian cherry and tigerwood, but the bulk of its products come from North American species like oak, maple, hickory, cherry and walnut.

Kährs, based in Sweden, is an engineered specialist. Most of its products are made of European oak, with nearly 90% of its hardwood sourced from within 200 miles of its Swedish facility. The firm also uses some American red oak, along with a handful of FSC certified exotics. Thicknesses generally range from 1/4” to 3/4”, but it also has a sports floor that is 13/16” thick. The firm also offers Spirit and Linnea, which are hybrid engineered floors with Välinge click systems.

The firm focuses on extremely matte finishes, including an oil finish made of linseed and pine seed. And it has wide boards—its Real line is 1’x12’. The firm also makes what might be the highest gloss product in the industry, a gleaming board called Shine that’s over 7” wide and nearly 96” long.

Johnson Hardwood, headquartered in California, makes most of its products in its Chinese mills, to which it imports lumber from all over, including Canada and the U.S. It makes 3/4” solid hardwood and 1/2” and 9/16” engineered hardwood. Widths range from 5” to 10” and lengths go from 3’ to 7’.

Johnson focuses on the mid to high end of the market with red, white and European white oak, birch, maple and hickory, along with Santos mahogany, acacia, tigerwood, and a handful of other exotic species. The firm’s new Noble Castle collection features a hard wax finish, and another new collection, Coastal Dune, has a soft wirebrushed texture.

US Floors, a fashion forward hard surface producer, makes its hardwood flooring through manufacturing partnerships. In addition to hardwood, US Floors offers cork, bamboo and its hybrid LVT line featuring its CoreTec technology. The firm serves both the residential and commercial markets.

All of US Floors’ hardwoods are oil finished European white oak. Some are rustic and some are more contemporary—and most are 71/2”x72”. Castle Combe Originals, the firm’s most rustic product, is in highest demand in Texas.

DuChateau is based in San Diego, where it has a finishing line. Like US Floors, all of DuChateau’s hardwood is oil finished. Most of it is European white oak, along with some species like acacia, and its wood is highly styled, using artisanal techniques like, for instance, darkening the wood through flame rather than black ink. The firm also produces LVT and is currently launching a porcelain line.

DuChateau’s hardwood comes in widths from about 71/2” to 12”, and lengths are 72”, except for the 91/2”x96” Atelier line. Thicknesses range from 3/8” and 5/8” with a 2mm top veneer to a substantial 3/4” with a 1/4” top veneer in its DuoFloor line.

Hallmark Floors, located in Ontario, California, partners with hardwood manufacturers both in the U.S. and in Asia (China and Vietnam) for both solid and engineered products. Widths go up to 7”, and lengths go up to 84”. Its engineered offering includes sawn face, rotary cut and sliced veneers, from 2mm to 4mm. Its species are focused on Appalachian hardwoods, and its cores are generally Baltic birch and eucalyptus from Paraguay.

Hallmark offers both urethane finishes as well as NuOil, a proprietary hybrid technology introduced in late 2013. According to the firm, while traditional oil finishes need a recoat at the time of installation, NuOil is a two-step process—thermally baked oil applied after fuming with the addition of a quick drying natural oil as a final stage. The firm also offers sprays for cleaning and renewing.


DWhen it comes to hardwood, the state with the most variety is California. Part of that is because of California’s diverse population, but the bigger reason is the ports. All of the Asian product comes into ports like Long Beach (on the outskirts of Los Angeles), where it gets channeled for distribution across North America, but California’s retailers have access to the full breadth of offerings. So it’s natural that American trends would start in California, which is almost like a test market. 

In general, lighter woods are in high demand in the California market, like whitewashed, wirebrushed oaks. However, exotics also do fairly well there, perhaps in part due to its Latino population, but also simply because of the volume of imports.

Other coastal regions follow closely behind California—the Eastern Seaboard and then the Gulf Coast. Then trends move inwards, expanding from metro markets into suburbia and rural America.

Some regions have strong tastes and their own distinctive aesthetics, none more so than Texas, where heavy handscraping is still in vogue. Despite the diversity and sheer size of Texas, rugged, weathered decors are popular throughout. The Northeast is another region with a distinct aesthetic, one that contrasts strongly with Texas. Tastes run traditional in the Northeast, more refined than hand hewn and fairly conservative in general. It’s a region that is slow to adopt trends.

Then there’s the urban versus suburban and rural aesthetic. Urban markets in the U.S. follow trends more closely. In wood, it translates to lower gloss and cleaner rustics like the wirebrushed European oaks. 

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Fuse Alliance, Engineered Floors, LLC, Armstrong Flooring, Mirage Floors, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Fuse, Mohawk Industries, Mannington Mills