Inspector’s Report – Hickory: Hardwood with a Dark Side

Hickory Grade 2
Photo Courtesy of NWFA

Finicky, uniquely beautiful, difficult to work with, extremely durable, sensitive to its environment, oversold, and sometimes unable to live up to expectations. All the previous have been used to describe the wonderful world of hickory flooring. Hickory is one of my favorite species that I love to look at in all aspects of woodworking. There is nothing more beautiful than the unique graining and color movement in a character grade hickory floor or other woodwork.

Even though select grade hickory ranks lower on my personal favorites list, the calico look can be used to create absolutely breathtaking works. But, for every positive that comes with hickory, there also comes a negative. In this article, I want to talk about both because if the negatives are presented with the positives at the time of sale, the customer can make an informed decision and know what to expect from the floor they buy.

In many instances, hickory is chosen because of its unique grain and natural characteristics, especially in a more rustic grade. In the Pacific Northwest, this tends to be in more rural areas: mountains, high desert, and even suburb areas where nature meets urban areas. It matches the décor or building style of the home or the personality of the homeowner. All these areas are beautiful, but tend to be less than ideal with temperatures and humidity.

I went on two jobsites within two hours of each other in the same week last December, where the humidity level was over 60 percent on one and under 20 percent on the other. Both inspections were engineered hickory floors, both having issues stemming from two different environmental extremes. When you stretch the limitations of a product, bad things tend to happen. Not with just hickory; it can happen with any species.

Hickory Characteristics
These photos show where failure happened that corresponds to the characteristics that make hickory uniquely beautiful

Hickory just tends to exaggerate the effects of temperature and humidity. The same things that make hickory beautiful and unique are the same things that can make it not as friendly to environmental changes as other species. The knots, mineral streaks, and wavy grain patterns, which give hickory its unique appearance, tend to showcase the distortions when it’s pushed to the edges of its environmental limits.

Both failures were very much preventable by having better control of the environment of the homes in which they were installed. Both homeowners picked the floors. One was a new build; the other was a remodel. Neither one had any idea that they needed to maintain any sort of humidity levels. The home that had less than 20 percent humidity had a humidification system built into their HVAC system, but they had no idea it needed to be set to maintain an environment between 35-55 percent, as was the manufacturer’s specifications for the product warranty. The other home, which was the remodel that recorded a reading of 60 percent humidity, also had no idea that the manufacturer stated a specification of 30-50 percent humidity. They liked it cooler and loved the smell and sound of the rain, so they kept some windows open. They also failed to insulate the crawlspace, and the floor picked up moisture from both the top and bottom sides. Both floors were bought at very reputable flooring retailers, but neither owner was educated on how to maintain and care for their floor other than being recommended a cleaning kit.

I have been asked many times over the years why a product is sold to areas where seasonal humidity falls outside of the specifications of the manufacturer. One answer is the manufacturer is not responsible for the environment, but warrants in what environments the floor won’t fail (or shouldn’t). It is the responsibility of the retailer/distributor to decide whether that product should be put into that area or building. Internal building temperature and humidity can be manipulated in any natural environment to create a microenvironment inside the building to meet the manufacturer’s specifications. This is a conversation that needs to be had during the selection process. Customers need to be educated, and this factor needs to become part of the selection process. I personally have had to make the decision for the distributor that I worked for that we would not offer products (strand-woven bamboo, engineered hickory) in areas (Alaska, Montana) where the known environment is very hostile, and these products had a very low success rate.

Real Wood Real LifeIn my previous examples, both homeowners could have made very simple environmental changes to their homes to prevent catastrophic failures of their hickory floors. All they needed was some education at the point of sale to help them comprehend that all floors have a humidity and temperature specification by the manufacturer that needs to be maintained. In addition, hickory is not as stable as other species and more effort may need to be made, or special accommodations within the home would need to be made, to keep their beautiful floors, beautiful. In the end, this education would have saved them lots of heartache and money, although, a homeowner once told me he believed that humidity affecting floors was a myth and had nothing to do with how hardwood floors performed. If this was the case, manufacturers would not specify a humidity range where their product must reside to maintain the warranty coverage of the product. Humidity matters in many aspects of our health and in home construction, and especially with hardwood flooring, so it is important that the homeowners understand and know how to maintain the proper environment.

Hickory wood makes stunning hardwood floors, but this species’ characteristics require a little additional care to ensure they remain beautiful. I believe that the extra work is worth it. Choosing hickory floors, like all hardwoods, for a home will turn that home into a work of art, but know your environment. Know when to make the environmental changes necessary to maintain that work of art.

Nathan Carter is vice president of Wood Floor Consulting Corp. in Boring, Oregon, and a NWFA Certified Install, Sand & Finish Professional, Sales Advisor, and Inspector and a director on the NWFA CP Board of Directors. He can be reached at hardwoodswest@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts

  1. Carter,
    Great article! Couldn’t agree more…
    My only comment is that we all have a responsibility for success of the flooring – (Manufacturer, Distributer, Architect, Installer and the lastly the client).

    Anyone turning a blind eye to the wood requirements (known or not) potentially can take the ship down.

    Cheers

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