The Humanizing of Wood

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The Humanizing of Wood

Man standing outdoord near water


By Chris Sy, President
Carlisle Wide Plank Floors

“It should be seen, not hidden.  It tells the story of the tree.” Ultimately my father would alter the dimensions of the piece he was building to allow the knot to shine as a highlight.  To him, the wood was the main actor in anything he made.  The form of the piece could always be changed, but the wood took 100’s of years to arrive at what it had become.  It should be altered as little as possible.

Today, in my house, I still have some of the pieces my dad made, but every day I worry that his belief which many craftsmen and other wood lovers around the world share are disappearing.  I have been working at Carlisle since the Summer of 7th grade, nearly 40 years ago, stacking lumber to air dry.  I started full time in 1995, and I have seen much change regarding how the larger market views wood flooring.  It’s no longer viewed the way my father, and others like him, viewed wood.  Wood is being humanized, and it is to our loss.

One of our Wide Plank Specialist who has been here over 20 years and currently working from home, wrote me an email last week.

In it, she said, “…where the wood flooring industry has exploded in the last few years, we (as a society) have become so far removed from the natural beauty of the wood.  I kind of feel bad for the trees as so many people try and manipulate what we can get from them.   Can you imagine if your spouse, partner, etc., said you would be perfect if your nose was more centered or if your eyes weren’t so far apart!”.  I understand what she means.

I don’t believe everyone should just slice up a tree and put it on their floor.  Although, in this age of green products and organic architecture, this would be the best solution; however, I know that it doesn’t work for everyone, and I know that to make a house a home, you have to make decisions that allow the interior to tell your story.  Your house, after all, is not being built to tell the story of the timber.  I embrace the more significant design decisions that are made in flooring, what species should it be?  What width will work best? What character should we include?

The Benefits of Custom Hardwood Floors

We built our entire company by allowing customers to create their custom combinations of these wood attributes.  However, what I see now is that design demands are focusing on even narrower characteristics of wood —the tiny flow of the grain, the slicing of colors into more delicate shades, or defining the size of a knot where a  dime is ok but a nickel is not.  It is not uncommon for us to receive a control sample returned for production where a single 12” piece of wood contains notes stating that specific shade of wood is acceptable, but the tone 3” over is not.  I accept the significant design decisions that we all make, but the harder we try to press our fingerprint onto a natural product, the less natural that product becomes.  The more demands we put on the wood, the less it becomes like itself.  By insisting on more excellent gradations of acceptable, we make the wood more homogeneous, easier to understand, more comfortable to relate to…more humane.

White Kitchen with brown wood floorsWhat do I attribute this trend to?  I could argue the rise of Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) with its digital print that produces a tighter range of color versus a natural wood floor has altered the customer’s expectations.  I could insist that lower quality wood products stretch the color range into unsightly outcomes, and consumers are simply trying to protect themselves.  I could emphasize the growth of design across the industry creates a climate where we are chasing the cover of a luxury home magazine…., but in the end, it is our fault as manufacturers.  We are in such a rush to get the customer to the perfect color, or the ideal price point or the perfect lead time that we miss the chance to teach the customer about trees.

  • What is sapwood, why are some trees different colors?
  • How old is the tree that produced this board?
  • Where did the wood come from?  Why does it matter where it came from?

We rush to provide “yes” answers instead of a connection to the source.  We hesitate to say “no” because we are convinced they will leave.  In short, we don’t put the tree where it can be seen.  We hide the story of the tree, and that is on us.

Why High Variation Wood Floors are Better

We all need to understand that the variation in wood is what makes it beautiful.  No doubt, the range can be controlled, but it should never be eliminated.  Instead, it should be embraced.  Some products strive to create a variation that feels natural without looking fake, but they always fall short of mother nature.  We need to remember that each plank comes from a tree that lived for over 80 years.  We should respect that life and allow it to be told.  We should not alter wood to meet our limited understanding.  Instead, our understanding should expand.Contemporary Bedroom with Whitewashed Hickory Floors


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