Adding Unique Accents - Stenciling on the oak flooring in the Linda Daily Farmhouse draws attention to the kitchen island and sets it apart from the rest of the room.

Because they allow for individualized design choices, the wide variety of customizing options available today provides specialty retailers with ample leverage to boost their hardwood flooring sales. Perhaps the three most popular ways to add custom design elements to hardwood floors involve the use of laser-produced inlays, stenciling and mixed-media installations.

Laser-Produced Decorative Inlays

With the advent of laser technology, decorative inlays have become an affordable way to create hardwood floors with “signature” styling. In fact, recently developed laser-cutting techniques are stirring a revival in this classic old-world design tradition.

Scott Chastain, sales manager of Dynamic Laser Applications in Marietta, GA, says 60% to 70% of his company’s business involves custom design inlays. Most such inlays, Chastain notes, are limited only by imagination. “We have done unique projects, including a 22-foot tribal symbol inlay for an Indian reservation and an inlay of a prize-winning dog created from a photograph,” he explains.

Chastain says Dynamic Laser Applications’ most popular standard design is a starburst medallion that ranges in cost from $400 to several thousand dollars, depending on size and design intricacy.

How inlays are made. Most often, decorative inlays are constructed from a carefully designed combination of individual hardwood components. Once the design has been decided, components are laser cut from hardwood flooring planks, usually 5/16-inch-thick.

The components then are joined with glue or urethane adhesive. When the inlay is dry, its edges are routed to match the tongue-and-groove joints in the surrounding field of hardwood flooring, and the inlay is set in place.

To create more dramatic inlays, hardwood components are sometimes saturated with aniline dyes to add color and contrast.


Stenciling decorative designs onto hardwood floors is another affordable way to add a unique design element to a home. According to the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, stencils that are applied to sanded floors and protected with a few coats of polyurethane finish should last for years. The finished stencils require no special cleaning. The estimated cost of a simple stenciled border is $40. Stencil patterns can take the form of children’s designs, country motifs and more. They can even be made to mimic the elegant looks of marble or inlaid wood.

How to stencil a hardwood floor. The Hardwood Council recommends the following steps for creating a stenciled hardwood floor:

  • Clean the floor. Make sure it’s smooth and in good condition.
  • Measure the floor and map out the stencil locations.
  • Spray mount the stencils or set them in place with masking tape. Then, apply the stain or paint with a brush or spray applicator.
  • While the paint or stain is still wet, carefully remove the stencil (being careful not to smear the design).
  • If you’re stenciling a border, reposition the stencil by overlapping slightly with the previous application. Continue applying paint/stain until the border is complete.
  • When the floor is completely dry, remove any remaining tape and glue.
  • Wait at least 24 hours. Then apply a protective coating, such as polyurethane or varnish, over the finished stencil.

To obtain more detailed information on hardwood floor stenciling, visit the Hardwood Information Center Web site (see sidebar).

Laser Technology Expands Design Possibilities - This custom installation, which mixes red oak with maple and white ash hardwood flooring, was produced through the use of state-of-the-art laser cutting technology.

Mixed-Media Installations

Multimedia combinations can add one-of-a-kind design accents to hardwood flooring. According to the National Wood Flooring Association, the use of complementary and contrasting media is a centuries-old tradition, and some of the ornamental floors with the most striking visual impact are those that use combinations of wood, metal and stone.

Stone, whether natural or manmade, is especially useful for creating borders and accenting floor fields. For instance, a granite inlay can be used with hardwood flooring in a kitchen to complement a granite countertop. Similarly, a marble inlay can be created to complement an adjoining marble floor.

Metals such as brass, aluminum, copper, and stainless steel add brilliance to multimedia installations. For this reason, these metals are often used to accentuate other flooring materials.

Mixing and Matching For Dramatic Effects - A highly distinctive look was achieved in this foyer by placing a marble inlay within a field of cherry hardwood.

Creating and Finishing a Unique Multimedia Installation

“Installing Hardwoods with Other Decorative Media,” a section included in The Hardwood Council’s Tips & Techniques no. 9 brochure, offers guidelines for the installation of a square ceramic tile medallion in the center of a hardwood floor. The main points are as follows:

This particular project involves installation of a 2-foot-square ceramic tile medallion 45º off center (diamond style) in the middle of a room, and surrounded by a hardwood floor. The 12 x 12 room used in this example has a ¾-inch plywood subfloor. The hardwood flooring is unfinished, ¾-inch-thick, 2¼-inch-wide select red oak. The medallion is composed of four 12-inch-square, hand-painted ceramic tiles that are ¼-inch-thick (see fig. 1).

Because the ends of the hardwood strips abut the secondary material, the flooring in this project will produce a “fanning” effect as it works its way out from the medallion.

Fig. 1 - Planning the key aspects of a ceramic tile and wood multimedia installation.
Keep in mind that each building material is unique, and many factors dictate which material is best installed first. Measurements, working drawings, building schedules, and finishing requirements all must be thoroughly thought out before the start of construction.

For this example, the ceramic tiles are installed first, because it is easier to work around the smaller inlay. Because the tiles are ¼-inch thick and the hardwood flooring is ¾-inch thick, a 2 x 2 square of ½-inch plywood must be installed beneath the medallion inset to make the two materials level with each other.

Once you’ve anchored the 2-foot-square plywood lift, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for installing, grouting and finishing the tile. Be sure to allow for the necessary drying times.

It’s also important to finish each material as it is installed. If the tiles were installed first, they should be finished before work on the hardwood flooring begins. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when finishing and cleaning these secondary materials, because some are prefinished. Remember that most secondary materials are cleaned with water, which can damage the adjoining hardwood flooring. To prevent moisture damage, thoroughly seal the sides and bottoms of any hardwood that is installed next to the medallion.

For additional details on mixed-media maintenance, installation, and managing expansion and contraction of accompanying hardwood flooring, check out the Tips & Techniques brochure No. 9, which is available at the Hardwood Council’s website.

Custom hardwood flooring options — such as laser-produced inlays, stenciling and mixed-media installations — have tremendous design potential to complement any décor. In addition to marketing hardwood flooring on the basis of its well-known beauty, longevity and value, retailers also can promote the material for it its home design potential.