Guide to Different Types of Hardwood Floors

a large room with hardwood floors

Hardwood flooring is one of the most popular flooring options for homeowners as it offers long-lasting protection with many options to choose from. Contemporary or older homes both benefit from the look and durability of hardwood floors which can last more than 25 years with minimal maintenance.

The biggest decision for homeowners is choosing what kind of hardwood flooring to install, as there are not only many wood species, but also subcategories to choose from.

Most people shop at big box stores, but independent retailers and lumber companies can provide good quality hardwood flooring options at reasonable prices, too.

Hardwood flooring may cost more than other options like vinyl or laminate, however, their price tag increases the value of your home when you go to resell, so it's an excellent investment if you can afford it.

As you search for the best options for your home, take a look at this guide to different types of hardwood floors to help you make the right decision.

Types of Hardwood Flooring

Maple and Oak are the most popular types of hardwood flooring, and are still found in older homes today. This is also why many homes with original flooring are touted for their character and aesthetic.

Maple is often lighter than oak and can modernize your space, whereas oak has a more traditional grain and color to blend in with various color schemes. Both can be bought unfinished so that you can apply a custom stain, or come in a variety of finishes.

Other popular hardwoods used for flooring are birch, walnut, hickory, and cherry. Each has its own unique grain and coloring so you can match your flooring to the rest of the house, but they will have variations in durability and cost.

Hickory is quite strong but the unique grain pushes some people away. The dark drama of walnut is admired, but very expensive.

Bamboo is used like a hardwood and is a great option for flooring, but it's technically a grass and isn't cheap. Acacia is another exotic hardwood that is rising in popularity because of it's unique look and moderate price. Both are sustainable flooring options since acacia grows quickly and bamboo is very lightweight.

The availability of different wood species is going to depend on your region if you are looking for local, independent suppliers. Otherwise, big box stores will have the most variety available in oak and maple, with some options for birch, hickory, walnut, and even bamboo or acacia.

Hardwood vs Softwood

Pine floors are common in some homes and cabins, but pine is a softwood, since it's from a coniferous tree. Hardwoods are sourced from deciduous trees and are generally more durable, last longer, and are not as prone to dents and scratches.

They are recommended for areas with heavy foot traffic, and come in varieties to meet the demands of specific rooms like basements and mudrooms.

On the flip side, softwoods often cost less money to purchase (installation will be similar), and can be good options for areas that aren't very busy, or where you aren't worried about scratching. An attic that you hardly go into may be cheaper to do with pine floors while still looking great and offering a reliable flooring option.

Hardwoods come in more options than softwoods, and popular softwood species like pine and cedar are used more commonly for framing or outdoor fence and decking. For main areas of the home, hardwoods will win over most softwoods for flooring options because of their beauty and durability.

soft wood flooring

Durability or "Hardness"

The Janka scale measures the durability or hardness of wood flooring by giving it a rating depending on how much weight needs to be pressed down for a steel ball to press halfway through a piece of wood. Essentially this lets you know how easily a type of wood will dent, warp, or scratch.

For example, the hardest wood in the world is the Australian Buloke which has a rating of 5060 LBF (pound of force), whereas white pine, a softwood, has a rating of 420.

Maple is one of the hardest common flooring species with a rating of 1450, whereas white oak is just under with 1360, but scores higher than red oak, which is rated at 1290.

Hickory is even harder than maple, with a rating of 1820, whereas American walnut is considered a softer hardwood at 1010. The exotic and luxurious "genuine" Mahogany scores extremely high at 2697, but has the price tag to go with it.

Note that certain softwoods can be "harder" than hardwoods on the Janka scale—the distinction is whether they come from a deciduous or coniferous tree. For example, heart or longleaf pine are both rated at 1225 on the Janka scale, which beats out walnut and contends with red oak.

Raw or Finished

The majority of hardwood flooring will come prefinished, which means it's ready to install and won't need any stain or sealer. This is the simplest type of hardwood flooring to buy and takes the guessing out of what kind of stain to choose.

Some folks want control over the staining process and may opt for custom staining, so raw hardwood is the only option.

Prefinished hardwood flooring doesn't need to be refinished as often as raw hardwood flooring, even if raw hardwood has been stained and treated after installation. Prefinished flooring is usually made in a factory where it's been cured with UV-finishes that provide extra durability and resistance to scratching.

While you may need to resurface every now and again depending on the foot traffic or pets in your home, this is less expensive and time consuming than refinishing completely. Engineered hardwoods only have the top layer available for refinishing, unlike solid hardwood, which can be refinished more times throughout its lifespan.

Solid vs Engineered Hardwood

hands installing engineered wood flooring

Solid and engineered hardwood are both great options for your home, but they have a few differences that affect their application.

Solid hardwood flooring is just what it sounds like: it's made of a solid piece of wood, whereas engineered hardwood flooring has a layer of hardwood on the top to give you the finish you want, with sub-layers of plywood, high-density fiberboard, or softwood glued underneath.

They both come in any of the popular wood varieties, so you can get the look you want, however, engineered hardwood won't likely come in a raw form. They are both durable and long-lasting, but solid hardwood flooring will have more surface area available for sanding and refinishing than engineered hardwood because of its solid nature.

Engineered hardwood can only be sanded and refinished up to the point where the top layer ends.

The main difference between the two is that engineered hardwood has more versatility in terms of what rooms it can be installed in. Most engineered hardwood is rated for basements or any room below grade, and may also work with radiant heat - you just need to check with individual manufacturers.

Essentially, engineered hardwood is able to withstand moisture or temperature variation better than solid hardwood, so it can be installed over concrete or other porous subfloors, whereas solid hardwood needs to be installed over a wooden subfloor, and is more prone to warping and buckling when exposed to humidity and moisture.

Just remember that engineered hardwood flooring is moisture-resistant, not waterproof. This means it's still not recommended in bathrooms or any room that might experience direct contact with water. It will suffer water damage if water is left to sit on it, or if there's any flooding.

Hardwood Flooring Sizes

Old hardwood flooring generally came in standard 2-inch boards that were 3/4-inch thick. These days the standard is a wider 4-inch board which takes less time to install. There are also options for narrow and wide "plank" floorboards, depending on the look you want.

You'll find the most options in the standard 4 or 5-inch boards, and this is what professional installers will use as the default when quoting you on a job. This size looks great in any room and won't make the room look exceptionally bigger or smaller.

Wider "plank" boards are considered six inches or more, but generally under a foot wide. These are trendy right now for rustic, barn-board type applications, and can be an interesting choice for kitchens, bedrooms, or living rooms.

Just remember that while wider boards may decrease installation time, they may be more finicky than narrower options. They are prone to cupping and will need a little extra care to keep them straight and secured to the floor.

They aren't recommended for small rooms as they can make them look even smaller, though if continuously run throughout many rooms, this may not be a problem.

Older style narrow boards or strip planks that are 2 or 3-inches wide are still available and give off a timeless look to new homes. They're also a good option if you are replacing old boards and want to keep the same style in an older home.

While their installation will take a little longer, they're fairly easy to nail down and keep straight. They aren't as prone to warping, and make for a very strong floor. They won't have as many knots or quirks, either, which can be a good thing if you want seamless looking floors.

wide wood boards for flooring

Hardwood Flooring Costs

Oak and maple will be the easiest species of hardwood to find at reasonable prices when looking at big box stores or even local retailers, although a quick search on Home Depot's website shows engineered hardwood options for birch and acacia similarly priced starting around $3.50/ sqft.

Solid hardwood flooring may be a little bit more expensive than engineered hardwood, but when looking at big retailers, it's only a starting difference of around 50 cents more per square foot.

Check with local lumber yards for their price on hardwood, especially since the market is always changing with supply chains being disrupted all the time.

These places will also have a lot more variety of wood species to choose from if you want something a little outside of the oak and maple box. They'll have good knowledge of the market and what to expect in terms of product availability and sales.

Keep in mind that the price of the flooring itself is only half of the overall cost, and the price to install flooring isn't cheap.

Installing engineered hardwood floors may be cheaper than solid hardwood if they are click-lock instead of nail-down, but there are many factors that go into installation costs, so best to get an estimate from a reputable flooring company before you buy your materials.

Another option to keep the budget down is to use reclaimed hardwood flooring. This is a great option for anyone who doesn't mind shopping around or browsing through old salvage stores (or absolutely loves it).

This kind of flooring may have some bumps and bruises, but these character flaws add vintage cache to your design, and may save you up to half of what new flooring would cost.

couches in an open room with wood floors

Hardwood Flooring Styles

If you want a simple, easy-to-install option with a universal application, engineered oak or maple hardwood flooring is probably what you're looking for. This kind of flooring is ready to install and will probably look good anywhere in the house if you aren't design savvy.

For something bolder, consider a wood species with a more unique grain to it like hickory or acacia, or opt for something that brings a pop of color to the room naturally like walnut or cherry.

Most of the common wood species come in different stain options, so choosing between a darker or lighter hardwood can make a huge difference in your overall design, as well.

Interior designers will tell you that dark floors should be matched with heavier, maximalist styled furniture instead of sleek, contemporary items. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but lighter colored wood tends to blend in nicely with the clean and simple look of minimalist furniture.

The higher the quality of hardwood, the better your floors will look, so opt for a cheaper wood grain of better quality to meet the demands on your budget. Installing tongue and groove flooring will take longer than click-lock flooring, but for this reason it's usually less expensive.

Click-lock is more DIY-friendly, however, so if you want to install the flooring yourself, the price may justify itself in the end by saving on labor costs.

Choosing hardwood floors isn't always an easy decision, but whatever you pick in the end will add character, warmth, and value to your home. This guide to different types of hardwood floors can help you make the decision that will have long-lasting effects for years to come.