Wood floors may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of innovation, as its origins trace back to the 1600s. However, in those early days, wood flooring was far less sophisticated, without finish, and placed directly over dirt.
Turning trees into lumber was a tedious task, as was the installation process, both of which required every piece of wood to be cut by hand. Choices were minimal when it came to species, width, and color, often based on what was available locally.
While some may assume an industry filled with such a rich history is stuck in the past, innovation and technology have made real wood flooring more accessible, by way of it being easier to manufacture and install. This article showcases five areas of advancement for the wood flooring industry.
Using wood for products has long faced the perception of some that cutting down trees is a bad thing. The wood flooring industry has pushed back on that notion, touting responsible forest management and the many environmental benefits of wood floors.
In the 1990s, the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) even released a children’s book, called “Truax,” to help young readers understand harvesting trees, regeneration, old growth, biodiversity, and other forestry issues.
“The U.S. has one of the most vibrant national forest inventory systems in the world,” says John Forbes, director of manufacturer services for the NWFA. “The U.S. Forest Service regularly compiles data demonstrating that the raw material used to produce wood flooring is sustainable. We know how much hardwood of each species grows, how much is harvested, and how much dies in each county across the U.S. Our working hardwood forests are sustainable in all states, and net annual growth across the U.S. exceeds harvest and mortality by 33 percent each year.”
“The U.S. has one of the most vibrant national forest inventory systems in the world. The U.S. Forest Service regularly compiles data demonstrating that the raw material used to produce wood flooring is sustainable. We know how much hardwood of each species grows, how much is harvested, and how much dies in each county across the U.S. Our working hardwood forests are sustainable in all states, and net annual growth across the U.S. exceeds harvest and mortality by 33 percent each year.”
— John Forbes, NWFA
The wood flooring industry is an innovative leader in sustainability, with proof real wood is the most environmentally-friendly flooring available. The NWFA and the Decorative Hardwoods Association (DHA) announced earlier this year the completion of comprehensive Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for wood flooring products. EPDs are a means to verify a product’s environmental impacts by providing data that quantifies how a product is made and its effects on the environment throughout its entire life cycle. The results of the joint NWFA/DHA EPDs revealed that solid and engineered wood flooring possess a considerably smaller carbon footprint, or Global Warming Potential (GWP), than all other flooring categories.
Nydree Flooring infuses its wood with acrylic resin to create a stronger floor in its Karthaus, Pennsylvania manufacturing facility. | Photos courtesy of Nydree
“Wood flooring is unique in that it has the potential to be a net zero or net negative impact product,” adds Forbes. “This is possible because the impact generated by fossil fuel used during the production process is largely offset by the use of bio-based fuels (wood residuals), and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 92 percent of the carbon in wood flooring is stored permanently in the landfill at the end of its service life.”
The popularity of biophilic design (wanting to connect with nature in interior spaces) paired with a society that is much more conscious of sustainability and what the products around them are made of, has given a further advantage to the wood industry.
“I think floors are frequently the most obvious use of wood in a home,” says Elizabeth Baldwin, environmental compliance officer for Metropolitan Hardwood Floors. “While you might occasionally see someone talk about wood cabinets, ‘real wood floors’ remain a top feature in real estate listings. So, we have a responsibility to tell the story even more than other wood industries – we’re the face of the wood building products industry.”
Baldwin adds that safety and compliance play an important role. “The Lacey Act has decreased the risk of illegal wood entering the U.S. marketplace. It also has improved conditions overseas as suppliers learn the value of compliance. Expansion of formaldehyde emission regulations (FERs) from the original CARB regulation to TSCA Title VI and now to CANFER in Canada means more homes with better indoor air quality than ever,” she says.
“No one brags about having vinyl flooring in their house but they do brag about having real wood flooring so the question becomes ‘how can we make wood better,’ not more desirable because it’s already the most desirable option.”
— Jason Brubaker, Nydree Flooring
From showing customers what floors will look like in a home to producing accurate financial statements, a variety of technologies can make it easier for wood flooring professionals to run their businesses.
“The moment we learn to apply technology to our day-to-day operations, progress starts happening and things only get better from there. We have to work smarter, not harder,” says Osiel Betancourt, co-founder of Insight Flooring Technologies LLC. The company’s QuoteHero app uses room measurements and product information to allow contractors to provide a job estimate on the spot.
“As an industry, we need to incorporate tools that make us more efficient, portray us in a professional way, and help us close more deals faster,” explains Betancourt. “The whole industry benefits from this. If you really think about it, not a single manufacturer will be making or distributing products if someone is not out there measuring a job and closing a deal.”
Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) machines are another way installers can bring digital technology to the jobsite. Modern-day CNC machines process a piece of material to meet specifications by following coded programmed instructions. They hold multiple tools, make many types of cuts, and commonly are used for customized inlay work.
Zach Dunham, head of marketing for Shaper Tools, describes the process with the Shaper Origin. “It brings CNC precision to a wide range of cutting operations, from a modest Dutchman Patch to the most intricate custom medallion. Installers can design directly on-tool, and make changes on-the-fly to accommodate a project’s unique characteristics,” he says.
“The industry is turning to the use of electronic monitoring sensors, software apps, and cloud-based solutions to monitor jobsite conditions in real-time and archive it in the cloud.”
— Scott Banda, Floorcloud
“It’s important to remember that technology and traditional skills aren’t in opposition to one another,” adds Dunham. “We’ve talked to many flooring professionals who appreciate that Origin – and other technological advances in their industry – enable them to expand their ambition on larger and more intricate projects while making them more efficient.”
“Technology helps organize and streamline your business; it improves productivity and profitability. You are able to take on more work without increasing your overhead. And you make better decisions because you have up-to-date and accurate information about your company.”
— Chad Ogden, QFloors
Brandon Shidlowski, senior director of strategy at Roomvo says it is essential to provide a highly engaging, frictionless customer experience. Roomvo’s technology allows shoppers to upload a photo of their room to a visualizer to see how products will look in their homes before they purchase.
“In a retail context, personalization means tailoring the customer experience to suit the unique needs of the individual,” explains Shidlowski. “Almost every interaction in the customer journey can be personalized, no matter which channels the shopper uses. From website visits to emails and social media messages, each touchpoint should feel familiar and build on the customer’s previous interactions.”
The efficiency of business operations is a place where Chad Ogden, CEO of QFloors, sees an opportunity for improvement in the wood flooring industry. He says more companies are realizing they can’t continue doing business like they have done it for 30 years and are making technologies work for them.
“There are software technologies that can greatly improve running a flooring business – helping track and streamline operations, providing a clear picture of what’s happening, and allowing you to do more work with fewer people,” shares Ogden. “Generally speaking, businesses that are slow to adopt and utilize these business tools continue to be behind their competitors.”
Ogden recommends that as the economy has slowed slightly, use this time to make changes and improvements on the business side. He says to invest in your business, get organized, and improve your practices so that when the economy ramps back up, you are ready to go.
Further, the actual floors are meshing up with digital tools to revolutionize wood flooring’s capabilities. The data logger is one way floors are becoming “smart.” Data loggers can be stand-alone devices or installed into the flooring, ultimately sending alerts to the owner if there is an abnormal spike in conditions. Scott Banda, co-founder and president of Floorcloud, says products like these result in higher-quality installations with less risk and more profitability to the flooring installer.
“Enabling wood flooring to be monitored 24/7 before, during, and after the installation will help safeguard it from the issues that traditionally plague its success – ambient and subfloor moisture issues,” explains Banda. “A wood floor properly monitored will compete head-to-head with any alternative materials.”
The NWFA Wood Flooring Installation Guidelines suggest using data loggers when installing wood over radiant heat. If a customer raises concerns about wood floors feeling too cold in the winter, hydronic (water/fluid flowing through pipes) or electric (electric resistance heating elements) radiant heating placed under the flooring offers a solution. The use of a data logger reduces the risk of failure.
“Adding an in-floor heating system under a wood floor allows you to take what typically would be carpeted in a bedroom or basement and put in a wood floor with heat that is significantly more luxurious,” shares Sergey Shlyapintokh, director of business development for ThermoSoft. “A homeowner can get the comfort that they’re used to.”
Radiant heat and moisture monitoring can help solve what could be viewed as a problem with performance or be a barrier to a consumer choosing wood over other floor surfaces. With so many things changing, Shlyapintokh says it’s important to be open to learning more.
“Some people in the industry say, ‘Well, I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years.’ Yes, but the standards have changed and what was correct then may no longer be correct. Using things like cutback adhesives and asbestos, which we now know are bad for us, are examples of this. Keeping an open mind to the way things change and reaching out after you hear about something to ask how you can try it or where you can see it is the best way to go about it.”
DURABILITY AND PERFORMANCE
As wood-look products such as LVT, WPC, and laminate began being marketed as waterproof, durable, and low maintenance, the message resonated with consumers. More than half of NWFA 2023 Industry Outlook survey respondents remained concerned about the impacts of wood-look products on their business. Manufacturers have been working to raise the bar on the attributes of real wood products and provide an answer to the buzzwords of plastic floors.
Listening to the customer is something AHF Products says is part of the company’s DNA. A few years ago, AHF Products launched Bruce Dogwood, a densified wood technology that uses a patent-pending process to increase the density of the face veneer using heat and pressure. The company says Dogwood is a 100 percent wood floor that is resistant to scratches, gouges, and dents.
“Innovation is so important because it addresses consumers’ needs and we listen to what they need and want in flooring,” says Brian Parker, vice president of product management for solid hardwood at AHF Products. “It also creates differentiation for our customers, for our distributors, for our independent retailers, and that creates value for them when they’re trying to sell against competitive products in the market.”
Välinge Innovation also touts dent and wear resistance and the technologies used in its wood flooring products. Examples include Woodura technology, which Zach Adams, general manager of Välinge Flooring, says has a wear-resistant surface. Locking mechanisms are another area of evolution that can make installation easier and faster. Välinge claims stake in its founder inventing the first-ever mechanical floor locking system and showcases 5G Fold Down as a way to install without glue or nails.
“The wood flooring industry is known to have been quite traditional, but with the market’s changing demands, it will need to adapt to the new circumstances,” says Adams. “In short, customers love the look and feel of real wood and the ambiance it creates in all spaces, but it needs to be compatible with their lifestyle and not be the cause of worry.”
Nydree Flooring has long used proprietary technology to infuse its wood with acrylic resin to create a stronger floor. Jason Brubaker, vice president of sales and marketing for Nydree Flooring, says the acrylic infusion makes their wood flooring three to four times harder, keeping real wood competitive with other flooring surfaces.
“No one brags about having vinyl flooring in their house, but they do brag about having real wood flooring,” says Brubaker. “The question becomes ‘how can we make wood better,’ not more desirable because it’s already the most desirable option.”
In addition to increased durability, finishes are one of the areas of greatest advancement, as they are now easier to use, faster to dry, and safer. RJ Symalla, territory manager for PALLMANN, says lower volatile organic compounds (VOCs) translate to better indoor air quality and an overall safer experience for the homeowner, manufacturer, and installer. VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids and can be regulated based on product category, as well as on the state and federal levels. Such regulations and consumers’ desire for more eco-friendly products have led to the adaptation of finishes.
“Consistent research and development into cleaner and safer raw materials have led to both ‘greener and better-performing products’ in all categories of floor finishing (adhesives, stains, finishes),” explains Symalla. “The long-awaited switch away from solvent-based (mostly mineral spirit-based) stains and finishes to water-based and natural oils is the main component at work here. The chemistry involved in making this switch is incredibly complicated, and we should be very proud as an industry of the advancements being made.”
“I feel, more than anything, the consumers’ overall experience with a sand and finish job now versus just 10 years ago can’t be overstated – dust containment, noise reduction, planetary sanding for quality, as well as low-solvent/low-VOC stains and finishes all add up to a dramatically more-positive experience for the consumer.”
— RJ Symalla, PALLMANN
He notes that today’s wider range of sheens and penetrating natural oils offer a different finish category altogether. Whether the desired look is the matte, natural trend, or matching the dark, rustic look of a historic floor, almost any style and color can now be achieved with the vastness of available finishes.
INSTALLATION/SAND AND FINISH
Cutting by hand, searching for power outlets, and covering a house in dust used to be the norm at a jobsite. While the jobsite does not seem to change much on a daily basis, it certainly has evolved an incredible amount from decades ago. Brett Miller, vice president of technical standards, training, and certification for NWFA, lists a few of these game changers that have been introduced to our industry over the years, as wall jacks, pull-up nailers, floor straps, oscillating saws, tracksaws, lasers, compressed air for nailers, handheld CNC tools, and cordless tools. He notes advancement is not exclusive to tools.
“Adhesives used to be about how well they stick the wood to the subfloor,” explains Miller. “Today, adhesives are used not only to stick wood, but also for controlling moisture, bridging cracks, and even controlling sound transmission. These multi-purpose adhesives have simplified the installation process, shortening the time necessary for a project to get completed, and are less messy than the products of old.”
On the sand and finish side, the evolution of equipment starts with the big machines. “Multi-head or planetary sanders have become mainstream in the professional’s sanding artillery,” notes Miller. “A multi-head sander can produce a finished result comparable to fine furniture quality, in terms of flatness and scratch pattern. We also are seeing sanding equipment that can produce textures in the floor such as wire-brushing, scraping, or even allow the sander to quickly remove the hardest of finishes.”
Dust containment throughout that process now is far beyond a shop vac and hanging plastic at doorways. With high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, containment systems, and negative air systems, many companies promote a dustless experience to customers. Finishes are mentioned again in this area as a major area of innovation, for some of the same reasons as mentioned earlier – the modern-day durability, ease of application and repair, as well as the improved safety of these products for contractors from a health perspective. Additionally, site-applied UV- and LED-cured finishes provide options for a nearly instant cure.
It’s impossible to include every way that innovation and technology have contributed to the industry as we know and love it today. So, how can you keep up? Manufacturer trainings, webinars, and social media groups are options, and the NWFA offers the Wood Flooring Expo, NWFAU, the LiveEdge webinar series, the latest news from Hardwood Floors magazine, technical publications, and hands-on schools.
“Live training is the only place where the student can see new products, try them out, and practice with different equipment without the fear of messing up. There is no better place to test out a new tool or product, than on the practice floors of a school. Definitely better than the customer’s home,” says Miller.
And if you aren’t sure where to start with implementation, Ogden says first get your core business system in place. “If you don’t get your core in place first, you’ll struggle keeping up. But once you do, you can add awesome innovative tools that help with estimation, room visualization, websites, digital marketing, labor scheduling, and more,” he suggests.
The main piece of advice from wood flooring professionals interviewed for this article is whether you are a rookie or have been in the industry for decades, give new technologies a chance. Embracing an innovative tool or software may be just what you need to gain greater productivity, a better experience for your customers, and a stronger bottom line.
Libby White Johnston is the publisher of Hardwood Floors magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.