In today's market, hardwood floors that display character are having a magnetic effect on floor covering consumers. Though the products have just begun to draw widespread attention, any decline in demand for character hardwood is nowhere in sight as far as I can tell.
Historically, hardwood flooring has always been categorized according to grading rules that were established in a somewhat raw form for the lumber industry. When it came to grading hardwood flooring according to these guidelines, the higher grades fell under categories such as "clear" and "select." Flooring with knots in the grain was considered inferior in comparison.
Conventional wisdom held that less variation in color was better. And grain variation in the wood between the spring and summer growth rings was also viewed as less than ideal. In a perfect world, one type of seasonal growth would've been preferred.
Unfortunately, with all its emphasis on products that rated high according to traditional grading systems, the wood floor industry never really focused its marketing efforts on the color and design potential of the so-called lower grades -- even though they were loaded with character.
Ironically, even as manufacturers of alternative floor coverings worked constantly to develop products with improved aesthetics and styling, our industry's potential for enhanced color and design has always been there for the taking -- bestowed upon us by Mother Nature herself.
First of all, we must recognize that our market is now global. Mother Nature is no stranger to any continent. Our industry has always drawn from a tremendous assortment of raw resources in North America alone. And now, with unique species of the forest in the form of hardwood flooring arriving in the U.S. marketplace daily from other countries, the range of resources available to us has been dramatically multiplied. It also appears that out-of-the-ordinary species are much more frequently requested by today's consumers. Obviously, exotics were the inspiration. And responding to that challenge, homegrown manufacturers have begun in earnest to pursue other species besides red and white oak.
The real key to the increased popularity of such products lies in their knots and color variations. We've finally realized that knots in the grain of a plank or strip enhance the character of the product. Hence, no longer are such "imperfections" being cut away as scrap and left behind on the floor of the manufacturing plant.
These wood flooring products are at their best when their natural colors are emphasized and celebrated. Why anyone would ever want to stain wood flooring in species such as walnut, hickory or ash is beyond me. In my opinion, doing so would be a disservice to the distinctive look of these products.
Some of the most common characteristics of wood grains are classified by terminology that actually describes their physical appearance. For instance, a "burl" is a swirl in the grain that is commonly found near a knot, but doesn't contain a knot. A "flag" is a dark-colored mineral streak that actually resembles a banner.
Knots themselves are classified according to three distinct variations. The "small knot" has a diameter of less than 1/2 inch. The "pin knot," as its name would indicate, is even smaller. Finally, the "sound knot" is a knot cut parallel to the axis of the board, which gives it an elongated facial appearance.
Early on in the development of prefinished hardwood floors, manufacturers whose primary function encompassed the production of unfinished graded hardwood began to look for ways to put to productive use boards that were culled out and classified among the lower-grade categories. But when they began putting the lower-grade boards to use, manufacturers found themselves facing another dilemma. The problem: if consumers desired a cleaner appearance in wood flooring, products that were given a natural finish would tend to highlight the "undesirable" character markings in the grain.
The prefinished flooring manufactures found the solution in wood stains. When stained in colors ranging from the light tone of chestnut to the dark rich flavor of coffee brown, the wild grain and knots became part of the perfect blend.
These early prefinished wood floors frequently featured a deep "V" groove to eliminate the overwood at the sidematch. Thus, the edges became even darker than the field of board when stained -- which also drew attention away from the character marks.
Interestingly, the change in attitude regarding the desirability of character marks now extends to existing site-sanded-and-finished installations. Today, many homeowners who sand and refinish their wood floors do so to give full representation to the grain variations. We now have knots that had never looked so good.
Without question, plank boards are a better format for highlighting the visual effect of character marks in the wood grain. Whether the species be a light and warm maple, or a dramatic black walnut or hickory, these products have Mother Nature’s distinctive "handprints" all over them. How can we lose with her on our side?
Hopefully over the years, I've established a positive connotation to the word "knot" by utilizing it in the title of this column. It belongs here just as much as it belongs in the wood flooring industry that I represent. In conclusion, Wood or Wood Knot invites you to "branch" out in your business. There has never been a better time to "blossom."