The sales trend in distressed wood floors is nothing short of phenomenal. Demand for this texture and classical look has prompted many producers to handcraft distressed flooring products in their business locations. The resulting products are then marketed under the brand names chosen by these producers.
The history of these beautiful and unique products has its origins back in time when earth floors were gradually replaced with wood. During the Renaissance, wood flooring was introduced as more than a simple utilitarian surface -- the floor's appearance became paramount. Parquet flooring made of inlays or veneers in small short planks were assembled in small squares (6 to 8 inches) to form a geometric design. Marquet flooring also was crafted the same way, although such floors are designed to create pictorial images.
All of this was the result of flooring craftsmen picking up on the techniques pioneered by French and Italian cabinet masters. Plank flooring (2 to 6 inches) also became popular in Europe and was used extensively.
During the Roaring Twenties, parquet became the rage. This sophisticated look worked extremely well with the period's Art Deco style. During the 1930s and '40s, most flooring was made from strip oak. Strip flooring remained popular through the mid-1950s.
When the 1980s dawned, so did a new era for fine wood flooring. Carpet's relatively short lifespan and health concerns associated with the material added to the popularity of wood and ceramic flooring products. It became apparent that consumers had new desires.
After demonstrating its resistance to hard usage and minimal maintenance requirements, distressed hardwood flooring developed its own personality and character. Perhaps you've heard the old saying, "Civilized man can live without books but not without cooks." I think you can add to that adage that man cannot live without long-lasting beautiful floors either. And distressed wood floors certainly fit that bill.
Generations ago in Europe, no lumber was rejected as it was laboriously split or whipsawed from the log -- especially if the wood's practical usefulness was not compromised. In the modern era, much lumber was rejected for possessing what we call "defects."
But today, many have come to feel there is neither beauty nor art in the so-called clear grades of wood. Increasingly, people consider knots or mineral streaks in the grain to be beauty spots rather than defects.
Early American colonists used different wood floor widths not for beauty but simply because it was the most utilitarian use of the resource. In New England, there was an abundance of white pine. In Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, oak and walnut reigned supreme in popularity. Planks were originally fastened with square wood pins. These pins were later replaced with hand-wrought iron nails. The installed floors were finished with wax and hand polished.
The current trend in hardwood reflects the looks found in European castles. Our customers want to create that same time-worn look -- one that showcases the character and longevity of the wood.
The original time-worn patterns follow the natural grain pattern of hard and soft grains. The soft grain naturally wears comparatively quickly, thus leaving the hard grain in greater prominence. We now scrape to remove the soft wood. The old floors exposed to moisture had raised, "proud" edges (cupped) that were rounded with wear and time to create the "round-over" effect. Producers now purposely round them to create that prized worn look.
My research shows that distressed woods are mostly engineered and mostly prefinished -- with the exception of custom requests. Typically, the engineered distressed woods are glued down and solid products are nailed down. Current estimates indicate that 90 percent of distressed floors are prefinished and 80 to 85 percent are glued down.
Average retail pricing ranges between $6 and $20 per square foot. Some products go for as much as $45. Popular distressed wood preferences start with walnut, with hickory, cherry, oak and maple following. But walnut definitely leads the pack.
If we could only appreciate the natural beauty of knots, mineral streaks, blackened edges, soft undulating texture, and different lengths and widths, it would immeasurably add to the beauty, charm, satisfaction and investment value of the American home.
I wish to thank Richard Marshall Fine Flooring, Old Master Products, Gallaher distributors and Avalon for contributing their insights and photos for this article.