Pictured is the Doussie wood species from Africa. The species -- which is very dense with a very high weight -- is much stronger than North American oak, and does not mar or dent easily. Photos courtesy of Shelman USA.

The hardwood flooring industry's strength and continued growth is largely predicated upon its use of the tried-and-true oak species grown and harvested in North America. Unlike its deciduous foliage, which comes and goes with the changing of the seasons, the oak family of trees will always represent the core wood supply for our industry.

I sometimes wonder whether, when the original grading guidelines for oak were established, a double meaning was implied by the term "common grade" based upon its frequent use in floor installations. For that matter, is it coincidence that most of the woods utilized for flooring -- and throughout the construction industry as well -- are "plain" sawn and go by simple, one-syllable names such as oak, pine, ash, and birch? I guess it's something to ponder.

During the past decade, however, exotic hardwoods have become more "common" in wood flooring products. Early on, dealers/contractors showed interest in exotic species but, at the same time, they were reluctant to embrace them in flooring products.

This was the result of pressure exerted by environmentalists combined with an unofficial boycott on the part of North America manufacturers. Exotic hardwoods had the potential to become hot sellers in our marketplace. Unfortunately, preservation of the Rain Forests from which these species were harvested was considered a hotter issue.

For the hardwood flooring professional who, from an ecological standpoint, wanted to "do the right thing," the 1990s represented a troubling stutter step after a decade of great forward strides. Demand for wood floors was on the rise, but simultaneously rising was concern about the future of world's tropical forests.

Further inhibiting exotics' penetration of the U.S. flooring market was pricing. Products that may have entered the marketplace with a reasonable price tag were saddled with addition expenses that, for all practical purposes, put exotic wood floors beyond the budgets of all but the most extravagant consumers.

One of the reasons why exotics carried additional cost was due to the lack of wide-scale distributor support, in terms of stocking significant inventory, for the exotic wood floor manufacturers. Remember, products from overseas come in huge shipping containers. As a result, exporters found it economically necessary to withhold shipments until they accumulated enough orders to fill a container.

In spite of all the obstacles, environmentalist pressure and the industry's reticence in supporting something new, exotics began to win acceptance. Probably, had not it been for exotics, an extensive review of North American forest preservation could have been shelved for an extended period of time.

We may live in North America, but our economy is globally driven. How can you fault any manufacturer for searching out new markets? Today's exotic manufacturers understand the U.S. market, as well as the forestry management practices necessary to ensure the sustainability of their wood resources.

As it turned out, the word "exotic" in itself generated interest among consumers who were interested in making an installation statement. Had the term "imported" rather than "exotic" been used to describe these floors, I wonder whether consumers would have been as intrigued with the product.

Asian exotics were only the beginning. Dry-climate countries capitalized on the rain forest controversy. Soon, the manufacture of hardwood flooring from multiple species took off in Australia. Products began arriving in European markets from "Out of Africa," and it wasn't long before these floors began making their way further west and, ultimately, across the Atlantic to North America.

One of the challenges created by the North American introduction of exotic wood flooring products was the need to identify and describe the many available species. Eventually, a glossary was established to cross reference the myriad product names and countries of origin with other species that are identical with regard to their natural color and characteristic markings.

For instance, have you ever seen "Kwila?" Actually, this is a common exotic species that more frequently goes by the name of Merbau. "Makore" is African Cherry. "Pradu" is the same as Padauk.

The tropical Sapelli species is native to a region of Africa that stretches from Sierra Leone to Uganda and Zaire.
Confused? Don't be. There are simple answers to consumer questions and specifications inquiries from architects and designers. You can find them in any imported wood flooring product glossary. Additional helpful information is contained in a handbook entitled, "Imported Wood Purchasing Guide." This literature not only describes the various species, it also lists distributors from whom you can obtain the products. One can usually obtain product samples from these distributors so that customers can get an up-close look at the material before they order.

A word of caution: the natural aging process deepens the coloration of most species. The consumer needs to be informed that the appearance of a "fresh" product installation can vary greatly from the sample.

Other attributes, besides uniqueness, have made exotic/imported hardwood flooring products highly desirable to U.S. consumers. First among them is the products' natural color. Without question, their dramatic color variations have turned many heads.

Second, due to the quality of the yield, most manufacturers mill the product in quartered sawn, rather than plain sawn, format. This enhances the wood's color consistency. Also, quarter-sawn flooring generally exhibits improved stability.

Third, most exotics/imports carry a higher ratings in terms of their resistance to impacts made perpendicular to the grain. Ratings for exotic species usually fall within a range of 3,000 to 6,000. In comparison, North American oaks typically rate in the range of 2,000.

Finally, exotic products have traditionally been available in unfinished form, which is fine provided you are a professional sander and finisher. But manufacturers now recognize that many flooring mechanics are skilled in installation only. Hence, many producers are now beginning to make prefinished products. And exotic flooring products adhere to the same standard acclimation and installation guidelines that for years have applied to domestic species.

Whether these products are utilized for borders, medallions or for a full-house installation, exotic hardwoods can definitely be at home in your customer's house. All Wood or Wood Knot asks is that you invite them in.