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Hardwood Species Explained


home office room featuring hardwood flooringWood is a beautiful, natural product and most species are full of graining, color variations, knots, and other natural markings.  All of these characteristics not only affect the visual of a hardwood floor, but also its performance, regardless if the construction is engineered or solid wood. This is why it is important to understand the properties of different wood species as you make your hardwood flooring selection. 

The Nature of Hardwood

As a natural product, no two hardwood planks are the same, shown here in stunning Hearthwood Tall Timbers Pure Heart.  No manufacturer can control the unique features created by nature.  It is common to see grain and knot variation when your floors are installed.  An experienced installer will take care to make sure planks are randomly placed for a good visual result. If you would prefer a uniform, monotone look, consider the realistic wood designs available in vinyl planks and laminate collections.

Manufacturers use different terms to describe their products, which are really just labels to identify how much “character” or natural markings are in the lumber.  Clear, Prime, Number 1 Common, Number 2 Common, Tavern, and Cabin grades are all terms you might hear. 

Wood Species:  Density and Visuals

The hardness of a specie can vary greatly, depending on the climate in which it is grown.  Colder climates produce tighter growth rings, resulting in a dense, strong lumber. 

stack of freshly cut lumber

Photo Credit: iStock

Here is a list of the common species used in quality hardwood floors:

Hickory – Superior hardness and high level of character and color variation.  Stains capture the graining for a very different visual on each plank.

Maple – A good level of hardness for durability.  Fairly “clean” character with limited contrasting on each plank.  Naturally lighter color and graining.

Red Oak and White Oak – Most commonly used species for hardwood flooring; durable, highly sustainable, and economical. Fine, straight graining with light to medium creamy coloring.

Small and Mid-Leaf Acacia – Very dense and durable; variation of color and character. 

French Oak – Light, neutral with open graining.  Used in wine barrels, fuming, aging and stain color clarity easily achieved due to high tannin levels.

Birch – Light overall with darker markings and high color variance.  Cold weather Birch is durable and dense.

Wood Species: Location

The availability and cost of wood flooring can greatly depend on where certain wood species are. To better understand the variety of wood you need or want for your flooring project, we recommend American Hardwoods’ The Guide to American Hardwood Species.

For example, in the Eastern United States, it is quite difficult to find alder wood, which grows more abundantly in the Pacific Northwest. Here is a quick breakdown of where common woods used in flooring are readily available. 

  • Alder–Pacific Northwest

  • Ash–Throughout Northeast

  • Birch–Eastern U.S., but more common in the Northern Great Lake states

  • Cherry–Midwestern and Eastern states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and New York

  • Cypress–Found along the Atlantic Coastal Plains and Gulf of Mexico, it grows from Delaware to Florida, and even down the Mississippi Valley from Indiana to Texas. 

  • Elm–Eastern to Midwest states

  • Hickory/Pecan–Eastern states, Central and Southern states

  • Hard Maple–Eastern regions, but commonly Mid-Atlantic and Great Lake states

  • Red and White Oak–Eastern states for both varieties, but red oak is more common.

  • Walnut–Throughout Eastern and Central states

Wood Species: Staining Options

The wood flooring you choose may depend on the look you want to achieve. And a lot of this comes down to how well the wood species takes a coat of stain and how many coats you want to apply. Prefinished hardwood offers a clean, efficient and predictable installation, but if you are going with onsite staining, here is what to expect from each specie:

  • Alder–Quick to dry and retains dimension

  • Ash–Easily stainable and quick to dry, great performance

  • Birch–Takes stain well, but dries slowly with little degrade

  • Cherry–Quick to dry and makes a smooth finish when sanded and stained

  • Cypress–Accepts stains and finishes easily

  • Elm–Dries nicely with a lovely finish and little degrade

  • Hickory/Pecan–Creates a nice stain finish, but difficult to dry

  • Hard Maple–Stain creates a beautiful finish that polishes nicely, and is quite suitable for enamel finishes and brown-tone stains

  • Red and White Oak–Can get a golden stain finish with a variety of tones, but slow to dry 

  • Walnut–Takes stain nicely and easy to polish, but slow to dry

Twenty & Oak offers durable and beautiful hardwoods that are carefully crafted for stunning visual results and long-term value.  Visit a flooring showroom with a broad range of hardwood options and view the unique features in full sized sample panels to appreciate the diversity of nature's beauty.

Twenty & Oak Flooring Experts

Twenty & Oak Flooring Experts are a team of flooring professionals with over 150 years of combined experience in the industry. They have hands-on experience with all flooring types and bring inside industry know-how to homeowners in the Southeast.

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