An Introduction to Atypical Wood Flooring

Most wood flooring installed in plank or strip format is predictable in how it performs and is installed. “Traditional” wood flooring formats have weaknesses in terms of specific performance attributes. For decades, manufacturers have attempted to design products with features to combat known performance issues, including dimensional stability, resistance to static and dynamic loads, and color consistency. While product design elements of engineered structures often involve substituting the plywood core with other core materials to improve hardness and dimensional stability, chemical and physical changes to the lumber or decorative wood veneer also have been implemented to achieve similar performance improvements. Niche markets were formed around these “atypical” products exhibiting enhanced performance.

Thermal treatment of wood has been used for decades to improve wood’s properties against dimensional changes in severe environments and degradation to fungal attack. The thermal treatment process degrades certain chemical constituents in the wood cell wall, limiting its applicability primarily to non-structural products. Engineered wood flooring manufacturers experimented with thermally treated face veneers on flooring products. They believed that thermally treated veneers could address some of the dimensional issues of wood flooring while providing unique, rich aesthetics. These manufacturers quickly discovered that the thermally treated veneers were too soft to perform well long-term, showing significant indentation and gouging.

Other, more commercially successful technologies were developed and implemented to improve physical performance. Some proprietary methods were invented to fill the void space in wood with different polymers cured or hardened with pressure and heat. The resulting wood product is dense and highly resistant to indentation from static and dynamic loads, making it an ideal option for most light commercial applications. This technology typically does not significantly alter the wood’s dimensional properties because the chemicals do not alter the wood cell walls. Other wood chemical treatment technologies alter the wood cell wall to improve dimensional stability or increase physical properties.

Alternate proprietary technologies were developed to increase the hardness and bolster the dimensional stability of wood. Controlled compression of heated and plasticized wood improves the indent resistance significantly. The heating process is achieved differently and occurs below the temperatures of traditional thermally treated wood used in exterior applications.

Mark your calendars now to join us
The Science of Atypical Wood Flooring
Pre-Expo Symposium
Tuesday, April 16 | 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Moderator: Dr. Brian Beakler
Panelists: AHF Products, Carlisle Wide Plank, Dinesen Floors, Kaswell Flooring Systems, Olde Wood Ltd., Oregon Lumber, and Välinge/Bjelin

Pressure applied to the heated wood reduces the void space, increasing the wood density. In turn, the wood becomes highly indent-resistant.

The treatment methods described are complex and make manufacturing these products more expensive. However, these products have performance attributes that enable them to be used effectively in environments where other traditional wood flooring cannot.

The aesthetic desires of designers and consumers have created additional atypical product categories. Many companies have specialized in offering wide (12”+) and long plank (12’+) products to meet the growing market demand for these formats. Great care is needed in designing, manufacturing, and installing wide and long plank products. Wide, long-format engineered wood flooring products can show cupping and crowning more prominently if not fabricated, stored, or used correctly. Internal stress development from varying environmental conditions can cause cracking of the face veneer on wide planks before and after installation.

In addition to wide and long planks, reclaimed wood continues to grow in popularity. Reclaimed wood flooring has an excellent reuse story, and its rustic visual caters to many designers and consumers. Wood flooring using reclaimed lumber or reclaimed wood has challenges. Manufacturers must pay more care to ensure the reclaimed wood is dried correctly and adequately sterilized to eliminate beetle larvae. Some reclaimed wood also can contain contaminants in the form of heavy metals (lead-based paints) and other chemicals.

End grain flooring is a product that has been in use for many commercial and residential applications for well over a century. End grain flooring is tough and indent-resistant. It also provides a unique visual in many formats, including squares to rectangles. This product also has different challenges regarding dimensional stability and installation.

As new wood technologies and visual trends impact wood flooring consumers in the future, it is likely to assume that we will see more atypical categories, each with its own set of challenges. The products and technologies briefly highlighted in this article will be discussed in more detail by key manufacturers of these products during the NWFA Pre-Expo Symposium: The Science of Atypical Wood Flooring. Panelists will discuss manufacturing challenges, installation nuances, and what to look for when maintaining and inspecting these products.

Brian Beakler, Ph.D., is the owner of Beakler Consulting Services, LLC. He can be reached at 717.449.6898 or brian@beaklerconsulting.com.

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