CHICAGO -- Potential home buyers often ask sellers what's underneath the carpeting, anxiously hoping the answer will be, "Hardwood floors." Preferably gleaming, of course, and in prime condition. If you're remodeling or building from scratch, you too might want hardwood floors and wonder what's best. Brian Quinn of Birger Juell, a floor manufacturer and contractor with offices in Chicago's Merchandise Mart, tells all.
Going Dark If you want an almost-black floor, opt for ebony, the darkest hue, but know that its rarity and price make it too expensive for most people. Better to use it as a border accent. Wenge is also very dark and pricey, but not as exorbitant. Walnut is not quite as dark but is more affordable. Mahogany is as dark as walnut and costs the same but has a slightly different look. Bottom line: Look at samples and study grain patterns to decide what appeals most.
If you want to have wood boards stained dark, go with white oak, which accepts any color stain and isn't expensive.
Be prepared for the fact that dark floors reveal dirt and dust more than light floors do. How often you need to tidy up depends on your lifestyle -- whether you have a dog, children or like to open your windows in the spring or fall to let air circulate. When you clean, use a dust mop or soft bristle brush.
Dark floors can make a room look larger if the room has lots of windows to reflect light. They also have a more modern look than light-colored floors, but they also can work well when paired with antiques.
If you choose almost-black or very dark boards, their width won't matter since you won't be able to see where one board ends and another begins.
The best way to finish dark boards is to oil and wax them, which will allow scuff marks and imperfections to be buffed out. A polyurethane finish tends to scratch and be harder to repair, almost like trying to fix nail polish once it chips.
Going Wide Standard flooring is two-inch strip oak boards; wider means three inches and up but usually no more than 13 inches.
Any wood can be used in wide planks, but the boards most commonly selected are walnut, maple, hickory and white oak. Avoid using hickory boards more than eight inches wide because they're prone to expand and contract too much.
Wider boards tend to give a country look, which sometimes looks smarter with antiques, but for a twist, salvaged boards up to 12 inches wide or so can look great with modern furnishings. The most modern look is to mix and match boards in different widths, from between four inches and six inches to between eight inches and 10 inches.
If you use boards more than three inches wide, be sure they're glued and nailed to adjacent boards, rather than just nailed, to avoid warping.
About Embellishment Paint or stain floor boards to add extra color or pattern. Paint creates an opaque look; stain reveals the wood's natural grain. Use inlays sparingly when adding a border in a room or when dressing up the center of an entry foyer. Inlays or medallions in the center of a room tend to create a formal look. Beware: Too many inlays or medallions may make the setting look ostentatious or pretentious.
Zigzag rather than go straight by laying boards in a pattern like bricks on a walk rather than arranging them in straight rows.
Exotic woods such as Caribbean Koa, with an almost striped pattern and in a dark chocolate brown, or Bubinga, in a more solid design and mahogany hue, add interest and cachet to a room, but tend to be pricey, so use them judiciously.
When selecting an exotic wood, be sure your distributor knows the wood's history to ensure that you're helping rather than hurting the environment.
Odds and Ends If you don't want the same floors in every room, try to stay within the same family of colors rather than put together opposite ends of the spectrum, like a pale maple and a Brazilian cherry.
When installing radiant pads underneath wood boards, be sure the wood has acclimated in the house for at least a week before being installed, to help prevent warping.
To achieve the stain you'll be happiest with, have a large enough sample done -- 2 feet by 2 feet rather than 1 foot by 1 foot or smaller. Examine the sample at various times of the day and evening before making your selection. Natural and artificial light will change the look.
Know that bamboo, a great renewable resource and a good floor choice, is a grass and not a wood, and it can dent.
In general, less care of wooden floorboards is better. Use water with a splash of vinegar to clean floors rather than scrub them aggressively. If the floor has been waxed and looks lifeless, strip the wax and reoil. If the floor has been polyurethaned, have it screened and recoated.
The biggest mistake most homeowners make is to not educate themselves sufficiently about different woods, stains, colors and finishes. Spend time looking, researching and talking to experts before any boards are put down.