Two Unknown Things That Affect Solid Hardwood Floor Appearance

October 13, 2016 - 9:59am

The worst thing to happen is to have a beautiful new solid hardwood floor installed that doesn't look like what you expected. Picking out the wood species and color you want is not the only things that will affect the appearance of your solid hardwood floor.  Wood grade and Wood Cut also determine variations, grain, and natural characteristics.  Wood Grade refers to how much (or how little) of the natural features of real hardwood flooring such as knots, wood tone variation, mineral streaks, etc. appear on your floor.  The Wood Cut is how the log is cut to achieve the grain pattern. 


Almost all boards sold for solid hardwood flooring in the U.S. are graded according to standards originally laid out by the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA) to help create consistency in the quality of Oak flooring in the U.S. These standards are now used to grade virtually all hardwood flooring throughout the country and are promoted and upheld by the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA).  Wood grades are determined based on the physical characteristics of the wood. All grades are equally strong and serviceable, but each looks different.  Once you know what each grade looks like, it will help you decide which floor you are looking for.

Clear Grade

Clear Grade face is pretty much free of character marks like knots and burls. The grain of Clear Grade boards will tend to be quite consistent, as will the color from board to board. Clear Grade boards are taken from the heartwood of a tree and create a very smooth, uniform look often desired when a clean, classic tone is the goal. Since boards that can be graded as Clear are somewhat rare, it is often easier to find engineered Clear Grade, as a single piece of clear lumber goes much further when sliced thin for engineered boards than it would as a solid floor board. For the same reason, Clear Grade wood will almost always cost more than other grades.

Select  Grade

Select Grade wood will show a reasonably consistent face, mostly free of “imperfections”. However, with Select Grade, which is cut from both heartwood and sapwood, you will find more color variation between and within the boards as well as subtle diversions in the grain pattern that start to display some of the wood’s natural character. Though easier to mill than Clear Grade, Select Grade wood is still relatively sparse, generally accounting for no more than 15% of a given tree, so it tends to fall into the same cost category as Clear Grade, and, in fact, they are often bundled together.

#1 Common Grade

In #1 Common, you will see characteristics like swirls, knots, and streaks in a good number of the boards, though these will be limited in size and prominence. When you look at a #1 Common Grade floor, you know are reminded that you are looking at a natural, organic material. #1 Common is an excellent choice for those who wish their floors to be a centerpiece of the room. The Common Grades are also the most forgiving choice for high traffic areas or with children and pets.  Dings and scratches are easily masked among the natural imperfections of the wood.

#2 Common Grade

#2 Common is similar to #1, but with more boards displaying the characteristic marks of natural wood and greater color variation among the boards. #2 Common, sometimes referred to as Rustic Grade, retains much of the organic, natural quality of the trees from which it comes. Depending on the species of wood, stark color variations and bold streaks, prominent knots and burls, and highly inconsistent grain patterns make #2 Common Grade floors an excellent choice when the natural, living look is what you seek.

The type of wood cut is determined by the angle at which a board is cut from the log. There are three cuts of wood:  Plain sawn (AKA Flat sawn), Quarter sawn, and Rift sawn, and each cut produces a board of a different appearance and quality.

Plain sawn  - the most common cut is plain sawn. The log is squared and sawed lengthwise in a series of parallel cuts. The annual growth rings appear as approximately straight lines on the board, joining at the end to form a “cathedral arch.” Because of this arch, plain sawn boards are often considered the most beautiful of the cuts. These boards are ideal for large visual areas like whole floors, tabletops, drawer fronts, sides of dressers or other similar projects. Plain sawn boards are the least expensive of the three cuts as they are the least labor-intensive to produce and leave the least waste.

Quarter sawn boards are created by first cutting a log into quarters and then making a series of parallel cuts perpendicular to the tree's rings, cutting on the radius. The grain in quarter sawn wood is relatively consistent, and the growth rings (grain) will be at a 60-90-degree angle in the profile of the flooring plank. This also makes quarter sawn boards less likely to bow, warp or twist than plain sawn.  This makes it an excellent choice for floors being placed in high traffic areas. 

Rift sawn The third cut is rift sawn. In this cutting method, the log is still quartered and then cut as you see on the right and in the video below. As the cuts get closer to the outside of the log the angle of the grain changes to 30-60 degrees and reducing the amount of ray flecks appearing in the wood. This makes it easy to match boards for a uniform appearance. This cut is the most expensive one.

Knowing your new solid wood floor grade and cut will help you select your dream floor and meet your vision of a consistent, uniform look or a more natural, varied look.  It is important to know that most wood flooring grades deal with the aesthetics of the floor, not the serviceability. All grades will perform equally well; it's their facial appearances that vary. In this sense, flooring of a higher grade is not necessarily "better." Instead, it is a matter of personal taste.