Longer and wider board boost sales but also present challenges

By Brett Miller

This past April in an education session at the NWFA’s 2015 Expo in St. Louis, Missouri, Emily Morrow, the recently retired director of color, style and design at Shaw Industries, identified the current hot trends in wood flooring, including wider boards, random widths, rich character, rustic species, texturing techniques and new finish hues. These trends were on full display on the show floor as well.

According to many of the exhibitors, the biggest trend for the past several years has been a movement away from traditional strip flooring in favor of longer and wider boards. This trend was made possible by the shift to engineered construction, which provides more stability to wider width boards. Warping can be an issue even with fairly narrow solid hardwood, but engineered hardwood goes as wide as 12" and will retain its form, even in below grade installations.

Wayne Lee, business development representative and technical advisor with Middle Tennessee Lumber in Burns, Tennessee, says his company historically has not manufactured strip flooring, but has seen a significant increase in sales of wider and longer flooring. Middle Tennessee specializes in long plank flooring, ranging from about 6' to 10' lengths, with huge demand for widths of about 6". Lee postulates that the trend is driven primarily by the style of new homes, which have “wide open floor plans and tall ceilings. Remodel sales are up because homeowners are trying to bring a new rustic look to their homes.” Lee says the rustic look includes techniques like wirebrushing and handscraping. “Strip flooring does not offer that look,” he adds.

At Galleher Hardwood Company in Santa Fe Springs, California, Dan Harrington agrees, adding, “It’s gotten to the point where, in our market, 7" is the new 3". And with the desire for wider boards comes the need for longer material, since wide, short boards create a blocky look that most consumers don’t want.” According to Harrington, Galleher has been investing in wider and wider products, “and it seems that each time we do, people demand the next width up. We are now stocking products as wide as 16", and we have standard prefinished collections as wide as 12".”

Designers have been the primary drivers of this demand, according to Don Finkell, CEO of South Carolina’s American OEM. “Starting as early as 2009, larger and wider boards started to make their presence known,” he says. “As is often the case, the upper end of specified design projects set the trend for the masses to follow as they aspired for the look.”

In Europe, demand for longer and wider flooring has been the norm for many years, according to Ulrich Stöhr, flooring export manager with Berg & Berg in Södra, Sweden. “Wider and longer boards are becoming more and more fashionable,” says Stöhr, adding that Swedish species “are very stable because they are slow growing. They will stand every kind of climate without showing gaps and are very suitable for subfloor heated floors, which are becoming more and more popular in the United States.”

Barbara Titus, vice president of Middlefield, Ohio based Sheoga Hardwood Flooring and Paneling, says that her company has always manufactured a random mix of widths ranging from 2-1/4" to 5-1/4" to utilize the entire log with as little waste as possible. Sheoga often has requests for up to 18" widths, but the firm increasingly struggles with having an outlet for its 2-1/4" width in any of the domestic species, and frequently needs to moderately discount these items in order to keep them from building up in inventory. Whether or not there is high demand for these smaller profiles, they are a necessary byproduct, according to Titus. “In order to achieve those longer lengths and wider boards,” she states, “2-1/4" flooring is generated to utilize the full log and eliminate waste.”

Demand may be down for traditional strip flooring, but many exhibitors at the NWFA Expo contend that there is still significant appetite for wood flooring in all widths and lengths.

In Micanopy, Florida, Goodwin Heart Pine Company’s CEO, Carol Goodwin, observes that demand for longer and wider boards is up, but that “the true antique wood” is still mostly 4" and 6", while exhibitor Tim Ellrich with Lewis Lumber & Milling in Dickson, Tennessee believes that “more people are demanding wood flooring in general,” no matter what the size.

Tommy Maxwell in Monticello, Arkansas states that his company has not experienced a decline in marketshare for traditional strip flooring. Maxwell does confirm, however, that his company has experienced an increase in demand for the wider and longer boards. “Maxwell Hardwood Flooring has been in a position for many years now to service our customers who need this material,” says Maxwell. “Our unfinished Townsend Additions engineered line offers a 2' to 10'; product that has been popular with many of our distributors. We have seen a positive impact with this trend as it helps us diversify our offerings and ultimately move more mixed truckloads of product.”

That increasing demand means that suppliers are turning inventory as fast as they can make it. Donna Millard, director of sales for Tennessee based McMinnville Manufacturing Company, says that “the amount of 4" and 5" products we produce are sold right away. We do not carry an inventory.”

In Cortez, Colorado, co-owner Karen Harbaugh says that Muscanell has worked on procuring material for wide formats for many years. She says, “It is a challenge to get what we need, but we accomplish this through long-term relationships with trusted suppliers.”

Like many manufacturers, Galleher’s Harrington believes that raw material supplies are adequate, but that the issue becomes a question of price. “Wider and longer equals more expensive,” he says.

Richard Poirier, director of sales for Ashland, Maine based Moosewood Flooring, agrees. “There is much more interest in wider boards, no question, but there is still a market for traditional widths,” he says. “As footprints of houses increase, wider boards have their place. However, narrow boards can make smaller rooms look much larger, and there is always the price, which still leaves demand for narrow floors.”

Despite their growing popularity, wider and longer boards present some manufacturing challenges. American OEM’s Finkell explains, “It is not that easy to make long boards if your plant is set up for short boards. Wider is not a big problem, but long can be a real issue, especially if you are highly automated.”

Middle Tennessee’s Lee adds, “Longer boards can be a challenge for grading. We cannot run it out of lower grades for rough lumber. It is harder to keep the wider boards tighter to the specifications and maintain the NWFA/NOFMA standards.”

Peter Connor, president of WD Flooring in Laona, Wisconsin, says, “For solid manufacturers, the challenges are plenty. You have to use a different lumber specification than you would for strip flooring, so your costs go up. What’s more, you cannot keep these items in a warehouse very long—it’s not fine wine—and it will start to move as it acclimates to different climates and seasons, even in a warehouse.”

Additional challenges include drying, according to Kris Young, director of sales at Olde Wood Limited in Magnolia, Ohio. “The most important thing is to make sure that the wood is properly dried and milled correctly,” she says. Olde Wood uses state-of-the-art drying and manufacturing equipment and thorough quality control measures to ensure that all of its products are milled to precise specifications.

Acclimation is another important consideration. Muscanell’s Harbaugh explains that with wider floors comes more movement across the width of the floor. She adds, “It takes contractors who understand the movement issues and know when to say wide flooring is not the right thing for this application. We have great relationships with craftsmen in very dramatic climate conditions who install wide plank floors every day and understand that with the proper acclimation and installation, a wide plank floor can live anywhere.”

Galleher’s Harrington agrees. “Some contractors aren’t aware of how much more important acclimation can be, even with some engineered products,” he says. “Contractors need to understand that wide plank solid flooring can pose special challenges, as some planks will bend a bit during acclimation and by their sheer size are difficult to straighten during installation.”

Proper education for the owner of the floor is critical as well, according to Sheoga’s Titus. “There seems to be an uptick in jobsite issues with the wider plank if humidity factors are not discussed and controlled,” she says. “Much of this responsibility must fall on the installer as he is the last person to have direct contact with the homeowner or end user.”

While all the manufacturers we spoke to agree that the trend toward longer and wider flooring will continue for quite some time, several warn that like all trends, this one will evolve over time.

Olde Wood’s Young says that fads are like bell-bottoms and “they will come and go,” while Moosewood’s Poirier says that trends are trends. “They are very fluid and can change quickly,” Poirier adds. “We may argue that the consumer can have too many choices and generally gets confused. The 20/80 rule still applies, meaning that 20% of your products will result in 80% of your sales.”

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc., NWFA Expo