Although moisture is its nemesis, hardwood flooring ranks up there with tile and vinyl as one of the better floor coverings for your kitchen, as long as you choose your product sensibly. The kitchen is not only a den of water and juice spills, it's a place of scratches, impact dents and heavy foot traffic. The best wood flooring is impact resistant, has a durable, moisture-resistant finish and is darker in color to reduce the visual impact of dents and scratches.
How Hard Is That Floor?
Wood hardness is not simply a matter of subjective experience -- it's quantifiable, and scientists have devised a simple test to rank wood species. They press a steel ball into a board and measure the amount of force it takes to compress it into the board by half its diameter. The hardness is measured in pounds of force, and the resulting scale is called the Janka hardness scale.
Exotics Rank Highest
Not surprisingly, the hardest woods are also the densest ones, and because these species grow in the tropics, they're also usually the most expensive -- but not always. Tropical growers, mindful of the lucrative worldwide flooring market, grow several species on plantations, making such durable species as cumaru and ipe available at affordable prices. If you're looking for flooring that is durable -- but not necessarily indestructible -- you might consider one of several species of mahogany or teak.
Among the hardest domestic flooring woods, red and white oak are two of the most plentiful and least expensive, although their Janka ratings are a third those of the hardest exotics. Although highly featured, hickory is one of the hardest of the domestic species, and ash and maple are all comparable. All can be stained dark.
The Engineered Option
Engineered flooring is constructed by gluing a veneer of exotic or domestic hardwood over a core of less expensive material. It offers three powerful advantages over solid flooring and a significant disadvantage:
- Because it's essentially plywood with a veneer coating, an engineered flooring is more stable than solid hardwood; it's less likely to react to moisture in the kitchen by swelling and cupping.
- Engineered flooring almost always comes prefinished with a highly durable, baked-on finish that is more spill- and impact-resistant than any that can be applied on site. Many -- but not all -- solid hardwoods come with a comparable finish.
- Because the veneer is thin -- usually less than 3/8 inches thick -- engineered flooring offers the look of solid hardwood for a fraction of the cost of solid boards.
Hardwood flooring finishes don't last forever -- especially in the kitchen -- and when one is scuffed and worn beyond repair, you simply refinish the floor. You can do this several times to a solid hardwood floor, but only once -- or maybe not at all -- to an engineered floor. Because the thickness of the veneer determines the feasibility of sanding, it's something you definitely want to research before deciding on a product.
What About Bamboo?
When it comes to sustainability, bamboo is hard to beat. It's a fast-growing grass that manufacturers turn into a variety of building and flooring products, using a variety of slicing and gluing methods.
Not all bamboo flooring is created equal, though. The darker carbonized products my look better in the kitchen, but they are softer than lighter non-carbonized boards. Moreover, although bamboo boards laminated in a conventional horizontal or vertical process are comparable in hardness to oak, strand-woven bamboo is nearly twice as hard.
Bamboo isn't completely moisture-proof, but it doesn't swell laterally in the way that wood does, and the effects of longitudinal swelling -- curling at the ends of boards -- isn't as noticeable. This, together with the fact that bamboo almost always come with a durable factory finish, makes this material a good choice for the kitchen.