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Wooden floors remain popular, but the competition is growing

  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.

    Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bamboo floor in Ursa Heidinger  room  at their home in Westhampton.

    Bamboo floor in Ursa Heidinger room at their home in Westhampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.

    Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.

    Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.

    Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton. Purchase photo reprints »

  • An example of a solid wood floor.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    An example of a solid wood floor.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • This view of engineered wood flooring shows layers of wood that helps prevent warping.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    This view of engineered wood flooring shows layers of wood that helps prevent warping.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A bamboo floor on display at RK Miles in Hatfield.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A bamboo floor on display at RK Miles in Hatfield.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cindy Kunz, an interior decorator for RK Miles in Hatfield, displays samples of engineered wood flooring Wednesday in the store.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Cindy Kunz, an interior decorator for RK Miles in Hatfield, displays samples of engineered wood flooring Wednesday in the store.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cindy Kunz, an interior decorator for RK Miles in Hatfield, displays samples of engineered wood flooring Wednesday in the store.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Cindy Kunz, an interior decorator for RK Miles in Hatfield, displays samples of engineered wood flooring Wednesday in the store.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Solid hardwood samples used for residential flooring are shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. Back row, left to right: Rift Sawn Red Oak, Aged Ash, Quarter Sawn Red Oak and Rustic Cherry. Front row, left to right: Jatoba, White Oak, Ash, Bamboo, Walnut and Maple.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Solid hardwood samples used for residential flooring are shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. Back row, left to right: Rift Sawn Red Oak, Aged Ash, Quarter Sawn Red Oak and Rustic Cherry. Front row, left to right: Jatoba, White Oak, Ash, Bamboo, Walnut and Maple.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Solid hardwood samples used for residential flooring are shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. Back row, left to right: Rift Sawn Red Oak, Aged Ash, Quarter Sawn Red Oak and Rustic Cherry. Front row, left to right: Jatoba, White Oak, Ash, Bamboo, Walnut and Maple.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Solid hardwood samples used for residential flooring are shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. Back row, left to right: Rift Sawn Red Oak, Aged Ash, Quarter Sawn Red Oak and Rustic Cherry. Front row, left to right: Jatoba, White Oak, Ash, Bamboo, Walnut and Maple.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A Rustic Cherry hardwood sample is shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. The top portion shows the unfinished wood flaws that have been removed from the lower, finished portion.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A Rustic Cherry hardwood sample is shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. The top portion shows the unfinished wood flaws that have been removed from the lower, finished portion.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wesley Jillson feeds a rough piece of wood through the Weinig Moulder and it comes out smooth on the other side at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Wesley Jillson feeds a rough piece of wood through the Weinig Moulder and it comes out smooth on the other side at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A rough piece of wood is fed through the Weinig Moulder at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A rough piece of wood is fed through the Weinig Moulder at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A rough piece of wood has been through the Weinig Moulder and comes out smooth at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A rough piece of wood has been through the Weinig Moulder and comes out smooth at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A display of snap-on refinished cork flooring samples are displayed at Hampton Flooring Center in Easthampton on February 6, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A display of snap-on refinished cork flooring samples are displayed at Hampton Flooring Center in Easthampton on February 6, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.
  • Bamboo floor in Ursa Heidinger  room  at their home in Westhampton.
  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.
  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.
  • Ursa Heidinger in her room which has a bamboo floor at their home in Westhampton.
  • An example of a solid wood floor.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • This view of engineered wood flooring shows layers of wood that helps prevent warping.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A bamboo floor on display at RK Miles in Hatfield.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Cindy Kunz, an interior decorator for RK Miles in Hatfield, displays samples of engineered wood flooring Wednesday in the store.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Cindy Kunz, an interior decorator for RK Miles in Hatfield, displays samples of engineered wood flooring Wednesday in the store.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Solid hardwood samples used for residential flooring are shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. Back row, left to right: Rift Sawn Red Oak, Aged Ash, Quarter Sawn Red Oak and Rustic Cherry. Front row, left to right: Jatoba, White Oak, Ash, Bamboo, Walnut and Maple.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Solid hardwood samples used for residential flooring are shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. Back row, left to right: Rift Sawn Red Oak, Aged Ash, Quarter Sawn Red Oak and Rustic Cherry. Front row, left to right: Jatoba, White Oak, Ash, Bamboo, Walnut and Maple.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A Rustic Cherry hardwood sample is shown at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. The top portion shows the unfinished wood flaws that have been removed from the lower, finished portion.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Wesley Jillson feeds a rough piece of wood through the Weinig Moulder and it comes out smooth on the other side at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A rough piece of wood is fed through the Weinig Moulder at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A rough piece of wood has been through the Weinig Moulder and comes out smooth at Copper Beech Millwork in Northampton on February 6, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A display of snap-on refinished cork flooring samples are displayed at Hampton Flooring Center in Easthampton on February 6, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Wooden floors, it might be said, are as American as apple pie. For much of European history, simple oak planks in a house, even on a second-story floor, were a sign of respectable means; most working or peasant families were accustomed to walking on earth or grass mats when indoors. Not until the Colonial era in North America, where settlers were met with abundant forests stretching thousands of miles to the west, did a wooden floor become a basic staple of the average household.

As home construction has ballooned in the past 50 years, traditional solid wood has been overtaken by synthetic design, including linoleum and polyplastic “faux wood” that proved easy to mass-produce and install. However, recent years have seen many varieties of natural wood make a comeback across all different markets, especially in New England, the traditional home of the simple hardwood surface.

Copper Beech Millworks on Industrial Road in Northampton, a cavernous warehouse and manufacturing space filled with aisles and aisles of fresh lumber, is one departure point for the interested homeowner.

“We’ve started to see an uptick in sales on some common flooring hardwoods in the last decade or so,” said David Short, the owner of Copper Beech, which is also affiliated with Amherst Woodworking and Supply.

The Millworks supplies contractors and individual renovators with material for everything from shelving to molding and wainscoting pieces, but unfinished floor planking has proven to be a resilient part of their business.

“For a long time, the most popular wood in this region was red oak, which is a dense, versatile tree that’s always been common in the area,” Short said. During the postwar era, along with a boom in prefabricated construction products, oak began to lose ground to smoother and lighter hardwoods such as maple and cherry, but according to the staff at Copper Beech, that’s been changing.

“We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the older hardwoods that fit with the character of the houses in this area,” Short said. “Oak and hickory trees have a wider grain, they look a little more traditional and they have great longevity if they’re installed carefully. We call them ‘100-year floors’ because in many old houses, they’re still going strong.”

In addition, ash and other less popular hardwoods provide a similar look to oak or hickory, often at a lower price point.

“Ash, like cherry wood, ages into a darker tone, so it moves from a very light color to a golden hue over the course of its life.”

Jim O’Brien of O’Brien Flooring agrees.

“A solid hardwood floor is really your best bet,” O’Brien said as he worked in the shop at his brand-new location on Union Street in Easthampton. With 16 years of experience, O’Brien has carved out a niche as a contract expert for hardwood surfacing, working with home and business owners to choose a lumber supply, create a custom arrangement and perform the finishing. However, the bulk of his business is in maintaining his clients’ floors as they are.

“At three-quarters of an inch think, a hardwood can easily take seven or eight sandings and refinishings before you have to replace it,” he said. “With the right upkeep, your wood floor will probably last longer in that house than anyone living there.”

Sanding and layers of finish are the key to producing smooth, durable wood floors, according to O’Brien.

“Humidity is the most important factor in giving a wooden surface a long life,” he said. “High-humidity places in the home, like basements and bathrooms, are vulnerable to lots of warping and weakening in the grain, so you have to have a high-quality wood and give it some attention every so often.”

Using his shop tools, O’Brien and his employees can also create block mosaic or custom design patterns in the wood for new floors, sometimes using a mixture of woods, such as a lighter oak and a darker, redder cherry wood, to give a sense of individuality to the room.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the room as a whole, looking at the moldings and doorframes and trying to make everything fit together,” he said.

The competition

While solid and unfinished lumber has been making a comeback, though, the market for engineered and prefinished products has continued to widen. No longer content to fill a lower tier of materials below solid-grain wood, many providers have introduced composite flooring incorporating wooden strands laid on top of one another at cross grains, a feature designed to improve strength and reduce seasonal swelling and contracting in the planks. Usually, a plywood base underpins a top layer of hardwood in one of several varieties, allowing for a greater range of styles and materials to be incorporated into the home.

“We call this type of material a floating floor,” said Chris Sbrega, owner of Hampton Flooring Center on Northampton Street in Easthampton, which specializes in engineered and composite prefinished wood. “You can lock these boards together and then use adhesive or industrial staples to attach them to the underlying surface. There’s a lot of flexibility of placement there.”

Sbrega notes that quality and technical design for manufactured lumber has improved substantially, to the point where it’s a direct competitor with traditional wood.

“The focus is on ease of installation and reliability,” he said. “Many homeowners in this area are looking for a product that won’t create a headache, that gives you a lot of options, and that’s good for the environment. A prefinished setup is really a great option.”

Many of the leading brands at Hampton Flooring, including Mullican Flooring of Tennessee and Goodfellow Flooring of Quebec, Canada, offer both pure hardwood and composite engineered products, offering exterior paneling from more exotic tree species such as mahogany and teak, as well as various shades of maple and oak.

“Most of these come with 25-year or lifetime warrantees on the structural integrity or the finish on these products,” Sbrega said.

Most of the engineered models have patented fitting-edge technology that allows different panels to “click” together, producing a much finer surface and cutting down on labor.

“I think these companies get a lot of favor from building contractors and do-it-yourself homeowners, because their products have really come a long way,” Sbrega said.

Other fibers

One of the most impressive competitors to solid wood, though, isn’t actually a tree at all. At R.K. Miles, an interior design builder in Hatfield, several large displays have been devoted to the benefits of bamboo, a famously fast-growing species of hollow wild grass native to Asia. The hard, fibrous material has become a popular component of engineered flooring, as its strands can be woven together and compressed to create a very convincing wood substitute with a very high degree of density and strength.

“We’ve been surprised at the interest in bamboo that we’ve gotten from our customers,” said Emily Brewster, a sales representative with R.K. Miles.

Flooring providers such as Teragren of Washington now offer bamboo floorplans in a wide variety of color palettes, as the fiber responds well to dyes and finish.

“I think the environmental aspect is part of its appeal,” Brewster said. “Once bamboo matures, it grows very quickly and it’s a very sustainable crop. When you’re thinking about preserving forestland, that’s an important benefit.”

Though it can look nearly identical to a set of polished maple or cherry floorboards, processed bamboo is very dense. The Janka Hardness Test, a measurement of resistance for commercial lumber, rates strand bamboo planks at over 3,000 pounds per square foot of pressure; by comparison, sugar maple clocks in at 1,450, less than half that, and red oak tops out at 1,300.

“For people looking for a custom shade in a floor that won’t give out very easily, it’s a great alternative to solid or engineered hardwood,” Brewster said.

Ecological consciousness has indeed been a driver behind the development of lumber alternatives in recent years, said John Asselin of Earth First Flooring Inc., of Florence. “There’s a big niche for products that meet consumer-specific needs without producing more waste or a more complicated installation,” Asselin said.

In addition to bamboo, Earth First carries flooring tiles made out of compacted cork, an eco-friendly choice that happens to be easy on the knees as well.

“It’s tight, springy material, so it’s great for older homeowners or for places where it will contact water, like the kitchen.”

Asselin also stocks several alternatives to oil-based polyurethane finish and laminate tiles that approximate a wooden surface using biodegradable synthetic material.

“The idea is, you don’t have to choose between affordability and sustainability, or between sustainability and an attractive floor,” he said.

Proponents of natural, solid lumber, though, are confident that solid wood is back on the rise.

“You get back what you put in when you install new floorboards,” Jim O’Brien said. “Floating floors are easy to set down, but if you don’t have high-quality material or a secure construction, you have more opportunity for water damage, humidity or structural damage.

“It’s harder to repair than if you have pure wood that you can sand or refinish afterwards.”

John Asselin notes that reclaimed and repurposed lumber has a loyal following, especially among craft woodworkers or individual renovators. Northern Wide Plank, a Canadian supplier, offers reclaimed hardwoods from older and ancestral homes, refitting them for use as new floorboards.

“These planks are over a hundred years old and they’re still ready to be used again,” he said. “It’s a higher price point, but many people really want that older, more weathered look that you get along with it.”

Improved logging practices have also created a more sustainable future for local forests as well. Copper Beech Millworks has partnered with the Commonwealth Quality Initiative, a Massachusetts state program designed to provide locally harvested natural resources to commercial markets within the commonwealth.

“Normally we get lumber from one of our distributors, but this program has allowed us to buy sustainably cut red oak from within a 50-75 mile radius,” David Short said. “This way, we can offer this lumber for a much better price, and our customers can support the local economy and the economy through us.”

Though Copper Beech specializes in solid hardwood, it offers an array of engineered and prefinished lumber as well for use in the home or business world.

“All these products just mean more choices that we can offer,” Short said.

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