Hardwood flooring is one of the most beloved flooring options today. With a rich look and many different options, hardwood flooring complements just about any design scheme or décor. However, all of those options out there make for some big decisions. The hardness of such flooring is a common topic, and there are three ways to judge hardwood floor hardness.
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Yet hardness is not the end-all be-all solution to hardwood flooring. Wood flooring still needs to be properly installed and maintained a great deal to keep it looking great year after year. Even the hardest of wood flooring will look bad if it is not cleaned and taken care of.
Wood Hardness Definition
Generally, in the flooring industry, the term hardness refers to how well the wood stands up to scratches and marks. This is most important in hardwood floors, as marring damage will detract from the overall look and appearance of the wood. Kids, pets, and high heels are all culprits for putting scratches and dings on hardwood flooring.
Hardness is not totally related to the terms hardwood and softwood. These terms merely refer to classifications of types of trees, with softwood examples being conifers such as pine, fir, cedar, and spruce and hardwoods being deciduous, broad-leaf trees like oak, maple, birch, and cherry.
While most wood flooring is made from hardwood, softwood is also used for some flooring as well. Furthermore, bamboo is a popular wood flooring, yet its classification is not even a tree! However, wood flooring made from softwood generally has less hardness than hardwoods used in flooring.
In general terms, a flooring type’s hardness will give you an indication of how durable the flooring will be, but high hardness factor does not guarantee that a hardwood flooring will resist all dings, dents, and scratches. Even the hardest hardwood flooring can be marred or damaged if proper care is not taken.
The Janka Hardness Test
The Janka hardness test is used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Division. The test measures how much force is needed to drive a steel ball into the wood to a set depth, according to the site Sizes.com. The indentation is to create a circle in the wood with the area of 100 square millimeters before the test is completed.
Measurements for the Janka hardness test are not the same everywhere. In the U.S., the measurement is reported in pounds-force. Many just refer to the name “janka” as a unit of measurement to refer to the results of the test.
Wood with a greater hardness will require more pounds-force, or janka, to pound the steel ball into the wood. This hardness test can give an indication of how well the wood will be able to stand up as flooring to the wear and tear of feet, pets, and furniture.
According to the Janka hardness test, common woods for flooring that have a high hardness rating are maple, birch, oak, and ash. Cherry and walnut are softer options for hardwood flooring, and pine, hemlock, and fir are softwood options for flooring that have a lower rating on the Janka hardness test.
It is important to note that not all types of the hardwood from the same family of tree will have the same hardness. For instance, sugar maple has a hardness of 1460 on the Janka hardness test while red maple only registers at 950.
Generally, the woods with the greatest hardness rating in the Janka hardness test are actually foreign or exotic woods not native to the U.S.
With everyone on the lookout for new sources of wood, there are now whole lines of flooring made from foreign wood sources. Some have hardness scores into the 2,000s and 3,000s pounds-force, such as Brazilian cherry with a hardness of 2350.
Why You Might Choose a Softer Wood
Hardness is not the only factor to consider when choosing a hardwood flooring. Cost is an important factor to many homeowners, so it cannot be overlooked. Woods that are high up on the hardness scale are there because they are denser. The denser the wood, the harder it is to scratch or dent.
However, denser wood is also heavier, making it much more expensive to ship. A homeowner might choose a softer wood because its price was within their budget. One trick that people have been doing for years is to choose an expensive, wear-resistant hardwood for high-traffic, public areas such as living rooms, dining rooms, entries, and hallways, while cheaper, softer wood flooring was laid down in bedrooms and the like.
Another reason that a homeowner might choose a softer wood flooring is because of the look. Every single type of wood flooring has its own look and adds to the ambiance of a room. Softwoods generally have a country or cottage look, rather than a formal feel. If a homeowner desires flooring that looks at home in a country or cottage décor, then a softwood flooring is likely to be chosen.
Wood Grade and Hardness
The grade of your hardwood flooring is also a way to judge the hardness of the flooring, though it is not as important as the Janka hardness test. The grades were set by the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) more than 100 years ago to standardize wood grading.
The grade of the wood is an indication of how free it is from knots and other natural blemishes in the wood.
The grading also indicates how valuable a board is, because a knot-free board can be used for any application; none of the wood has to be wasted in cutting out the knot. Knots alter the grain direction of the wood as the tree fibers grew around it. These alternating fibers can weaken the strength of the wood at the knot points.
The highest grade of wood is FAS, which stands for First and Seconds. This wood is relatively uniform in clarity, and it is often used for furniture. FAS hardwood flooring would be very expensive. Most hardwood floor is Number 1 Common or Number 2A Common, or 1C and 2AC; designations might even be listed as Common #1, #2, #3, etc.
The higher the grade, the more expensive the hardwood flooring will be. Again, many homeowners might prefer the look of lower grade hardwood flooring, as well as the lower price. The natural patterns and unique pieces produce a rustic look that many desire in flooring.
The Cut of the Wood and Hardness
The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) lists the cut of the wood as another factor in hardwood flooring durability. There are three different kinds of cut, and the price goes up with the increased durability of the cuts.
Plain sawn cuts are the easiest cuts to produce. The boards are cut almost on a parallel with the log. Plain sawn cuts increase production, so plain saw cut flooring is the least expensive. However, plain sawn cuts still produce beautiful pieces of wood.
Quarter sawn is when the wood is cut across the wood’s cells, creating shining flakes in the appearance of the wood called ray flecks. Essentially, the log is cut into fours, creating four long quarters of the log. Boards are then cut out of the wedges. Quarter sawn flooring is much more durable than plain sawn and stands up better to wear and tear–it is also highly prized for the ray flecks effect. However, there is a lot more wasted wood in quarter sawn production, so it is also much more expensive.
Rift sawn is the third cut, and it is like quarter sawn wood, but at less of an angle to the grain of the wood. Rift sawn creates the most stable wood, but it does produce the most waste, making rip sawn wood flooring the most expensive. It also does not have the ray flecks found in quarter sawn wood.
When Hardness Doesn’t Matter
Hardwood flooring is a very desirable option for any home, and the hardness of the wood is related to durability, but even the hardest of wood flooring will not hold up if it is not well-maintained. One of the biggest culprits is water.
While a hardwood floor is generally finished, stained, and clear-coated to protect it from moisture and liquids, few things can withstand long contact with water.
Leaks, high moisture content, and spills that aren’t cleaned up immediately will mar and warp even the hardest flooring. This is why most hardwood manufacturers consider their warranties null and void if you use hardwood flooring below ground level, such as in a basement.
Other enemies of wood flooring are sand, dirt, and other small particles. Working almost like sandpaper every time you walk on it, the constant presence of dirt and sand will wear down any hardwood floors. Constant cleaning is a must, and throw rugs and runners are an excellent idea for high-traffic areas.
A myriad of dents, dings, and scratches can be caused by pets, high-heeled shoes, furniture legs such as those of chairs, and the occasional dropped item. Any wood flooring needs to be protected from such damage as much as possible if the floor is to look good for years to come.
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