Flooring 101: Understanding Wood Flooring Grades
When it comes to selecting a new wood floor for your home, you will be faced with many decisions.
The type of wood – Oak hardwood flooring, pine floors, etc – is one of the most important. Second to that, is the style of flooring you want. The style of flooring you will create for your home is based on many variables, but one of the most important is how your floor will be graded. The grading of your floor determines the final aesthetic – will it have knots, will it have color variation, or will it be more refined and “clean”.
Wood flooring grades can be a confusing matter, after all, there are lumber grades and flooring grades. Flooring manufacturers have their own grading standards, others may comply with national grading rules, and some flooring styles have no grade at all – antique flooring for example. Today, we will review the array of terminology, educate you about the different options, and give you some tips to conduct your research to understand which grade is right for you.
After all, there are many different organizations that have established grading standards for the array of lumber available on the market. You may have heard of some of them – American Hardwood Lumber Grades, Northeast Lumber Manufacturers Association (NELMA), and Southern Pine Inspection Bureau. You may have also heard terms like FAS, #1 common, Select, which are components of these grades. These grading practices exist to standardize lumber buying practices in multiple markets and countries. They grade wood on rough lumber, not the finished flooring you will be installing your home.
Additionally, these grading standards are primarily designed to provide material to the furniture and cabinetry market, NOT wide plank flooring. So they set up grading that will produce clean boards, once you chop it up into short, narrow pieces, that will then be stained and finished. That might be perfect for building kitchen cabinets, but NOT for building a wide plank floor.
Let me give you an example of this. Imagine you are shopping for a floor and you want a “clear floor” – one with very few knots. Now, review the flooring panels below featuring #1 lumber grade milled into flooring, and a proprietary flooring grade – both of Hickory flooring, both creating a “clear” floor. But the flooring grade panel is more aesthetically pleasing with less color variation, in addition to creating a floor with fewer knots, for a nice, clean look.
You want to make sure the flooring manufacturer you are working with is not selling you a floor based on common lumber grades. You could end up spending a lot of money on a floor that really doesn't meet your needs. Talk about buyer's remorse!
Standard Flooring Grades
Many wood flooring manufacturers use standard flooring grades, such as those from the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA), or the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association (MFMA).
Even those these grading standards grade flooring, they are just as standardized as lumber grades. This will limit the aesthetics of your floor, and the overall dimensions. For example, let's look at the typical widths and thicknesses for these two grading guidelines:
MFMA Maple flooring
- Standard Width – No wider than 3 1/4″ wide
- Lengths Range – 9″ – 96″ long allowing for 55 – 85% of the floor less than 42″, depending on grade
NOFMA White Oak
- Average Length – 22″ – 36″
- Actual width – 3 1/4″ wide
Now, let me give you an example of a standard flooring grade compared to a proprietary flooring grades. The panel on the left is a common NOFMA #2 White Oak. It has plenty of variation, knots, but a lot of natural character you may not want, like color variation, a wild grain pattern, and unsightly black mineral streaks. Notice the panel on the right is a proprietary flooring grade. Here the flooring has been graded to eliminate the wild grain and variation, and overly rustic character. Most people would agree the floor on the right is more aesthetic appealing.
You may pay a lower square foot cost for the floor on the left, but you end up buying a larger amount of flooring to grade through on site. Plus, your floor is made up of 3 1/4″ wide boards only 2' long – that means a lot of seams which can deter the eye from the beauty of the room.
Verify with the wood floor manufacturer you are working with if they are using one of these standardized flooring grades. Otherwise, this will seriously limit your design options for grading and actually creating a wide plank floor. After all, 3 1/4″ is not a wide plank floor, nor is 5″.
Proprietary Flooring Grades
To simplify the design and selection process for customers, custom flooring manufacturers typically create proprietary grading standards that are unique to their product. Because these floors are crafted from better quality raw materials standard lumber grades don't apply anymore. This provides five benefits to proprietary grades:
- Lumber is cut from older, more mature timbers and only from the first 40' of the log – the oldest and best part of the tree
- Older timbers produce wider widths, up to 20″ to achieve a wide plank look
- Older, taller trees product longer lengths to minimize the number of seams in your floor
- Grading for higher heart content in every board, creating a more stable floor
- Older timbers produce boards with higher quality and less overall character (i.e. knots) so you can customize your grade to get the perfect look whether you want a casual or formal floor
See an example below of Carlisle's Hickory hardwood flooring grades
Read more about Carlisle's proprietary flooring grades here. Carlisle's proprietary wood flooring grades reflect the aesthetics of the floor, not the quality. Every board is sawn from the first 40' of a log, cut only from mature timbers that have grown in the best climates. Carlisle wood flooring grades produce the best quality – so you can choose the floor you love most based on the look.
There is one category of wood that has no known grading standards – antique wood. You may find Reclaimed Heart Pine floors available in different grades, but it depends on the manufacturer. I bring this up to caution consumers when searching for antique floors or reclaimed flooring to do your homework and understand the “risks” if you don't.
Here is an example of a potential risk you face. The following photo was sent to us by an Architect who purchased antique oak from a new supplier. He was shocked when the wood arrived with giant holes, mortis and tenon holes, some planks that didn't even resemble boards and many that were falling apart. You can see how he then began the laborious process of marking every section of the floor that had to be cut out to produce flooring boards that could actually be installed. In the end this floor was not useable and had to be rejected and sent back to the manufacturer.
Before purchasing reclaimed wood flooring it is so important to understand exactly what you should expect. Procure samples, and photos of the finished flooring you are considering, and understand your waste factor/cutting allowance (the amount of extra flooring you need to order to allow for waste). Also understand what condition the flooring will be in when it arrives. And make sure the material is coming from beams and thick floor joists.
In your quest for the perfect wood floor remember one thing – lumber grades reflect lumber not flooring, most of which goes to the furniture and cabinetry market. And standard flooring grades limit your design options significantly. Antique wood is a free for all when it comes to grading if you don't set the right expectations.
Work closely with your flooring partner to understand their grading standards to ensure the best outcome and ask questions.