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Martha Stewart: Wood flooring comes in variety of types, sizes

Maple floor adds formality to a dining area. Oak, mahogany, walnut, pine and cherry are also popular choices for wood flooring.
Maple floor adds formality to a dining area. Oak, mahogany, walnut, pine and cherry are also popular choices for wood flooring.
William Abranowicz

There's something reassuring about walking on a wood floor. But choosing one for your home can feel anything but comforting, given everything there is to consider: the more than 50 species of wood, the many shapes and sizes of the boards and the various surface treatments.

The major decisions you'll face throughout the purchase and installation process are outlined here; consider them all before you visit flooring showrooms or sit down with an architect. If possible, borrow sample boards of your favorites to see how they coordinate with your walls and furnishings. Once you've narrowed the options, listen to your instincts. They'll lead you to the wood floor that's just right for your home.

Picking the wood

A floor's appearance depends primarily on the material it has been milled from. Here are some common options.

AUSTRALIAN CYPRESS is characterized by its wavy grain pattern with black rings. Its color ranges from creamy white to light brown.

Pros: It can hold up to humidity, making it an excellent choice for moisture-prone areas, such as a kitchen.

Cons: Knots can cause splitting during installation, so it is necessary to order extra material. It is also fairly difficult to stain.

RECLAIMED LUMBER is wood that has been salvaged from old structures, such as barns and wine barrels.

Pros: No two floors are alike, since the lumber often has distinctive markings left over from its original use.

Cons: Reclaimed wood tends to be more expensive than other options, and is not as easy to finish due to existing surface conditions.

OAK is the most popular flooring used in the United States. Red oak has pinkish hues; white oak is more ashen.

Pros: Pairs well with almost any finish, installs easily, and stands up to heavy foot traffic.

Cons: Oak floorboards can turn black if exposed to moisture, so they're not recommended for bathrooms or kitchens.

SANTOS MAHOGANY is distinguished by its undulating grain patterns and deep undertones that are flecked with red and gold.

Pros: Considering the hardness of this wood, it takes a finish surprisingly well. It's also durable and moisture-resistant enough to be used in bathrooms.

Cons: Santos mahogany is a fairly rare species and thus more expensive.

AMERICAN WALNUT, also called black walnut, has been used for floors and furniture for hundreds of years.

Pros: Distinguished for its deep, purplish coloring and even grain pattern; stains beautifully.

Cons: Unlike Brazilian walnut, or ipe, which is quite durable, the American variety is relatively soft, and therefore not ideal for high-traffic spaces.

PINE has tremendous variety, with colors ranging from brown to yellow and grain patterns that can be straight or wavy.

Pros: Among the most affordable flooring options. It's also quick and easy to install.

Cons: Fairly soft and retains water; therefore it is not intended for damp or busy areas.

BRAZILIAN CHERRY has a straight, consistent grain pattern and reddish hue that recalls the formality of fine furniture.

Pros: Color deepens over time, improving the appearance of the floor; moisture-resistant and extremely hard-wearing.

Cons: Like other very hard woods, cherry is prone to splitting and is difficult to nail through, making it a challenge to install.

NATURAL BAMBOO is technically a woody grass, so it has little grain pattern; its blond color suits contemporary settings.

Pros: Because its shoots grow rapidly and are trimmed, not cut, bamboo is an eco-friendly material.

Cons: It is usually prefinished, so it is more difficult to match to existing architecture.

Settling on style

The size and shape of the floorboard affects the finished look. Here are the three main options.

STRIPS are the most common and most versatile, suiting classic and contemporary settings. They typically measure 1 1/2 inches to 3 1/4 inches wide and 1 foot to 7 feet long.

PLANKS are anything wider than 3 1/4 inches. They're usually less than 5 inches wide but can be as wide as the tree they come from. These have a more rustic look, especially if they are face-nailed (as opposed to having tongue-and-groove nailing, where the fasteners are hidden).

PARQUETS are patterned-wood tiles. Typically reserved for formal settings, they're often paired with decorative borders that are inlaid in the floor at additional expense.

CHOOSING THE CUT: How a floorboard is sawed from the log affects its appearance, cost, and performance.

QUARTERSAWN BOARDS bear a straight grain pattern, are extremely stable, and wear evenly. The milling process takes longer and results in more waste, and therefore these are the more expensive choice.

PLAINSAWN BOARDS are more common than quartersawn boards and have a wavy grain pattern. However, in humid regions, gaps can develop between boards, since they expand and contract from side to side.

Treating the surface

Floors can be prefinished at the factory or finished on site after installation.

Prefinishing spares you from days of irritating dust and fumes, but the wood options are fewer, so you may not be able to match new floors exactly to other decorative elements, such as molding. Whether finished on site or in the factory, the process involves several steps. After boards are sanded, they are often treated with a stain, which can range from clear to ebony. Keep in mind that darker floors, while striking, show scratches and dust more than lighter ones. You can also forgo the stain and opt for the wood's natural color.

Either way, boards should receive several protective topcoats. The main options are oil-based urethane, which is amber-tinted and takes about eight hours to dry, and water-based urethane, which is clear and dries in less than half the time. Wax is another option. It develops a distinctive patina but must be rebuffed and reapplied more regularly than urethane.

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