The most commonly used hardwood for floors is Oak of which there are many varieties from Europe, Africa, The Americas and Asia. Some hardwoods are extremely hard to find and when they do come onto the market, their ecological sustainability is sometimes open to question. Oak can be coloured, finished and textured to mimic most other hardwoods.
Here is a brief description of some of the hardwoods suitable for residential, office and showroom floors:
Oak has been the stalwart of Europe's great Men of War going back to the Viking longboats. It is chosen for its strength, hardness and durability. In furniture, attractive grain adds to its suitability. In hardwood flooring, it can be treated and finished to resemble and perform like most other hardwoods for less cost.
Walnut is a magnificent open-grained hardwood. Its colour starts out a dark mustard colour that, within a few days, turns to a rich chocolate-brown or black. What gives it an almost magical quality is its beautiful lustre combined with a sap seam with a cat's eye effect.
Merbau was used extensively by China in the 2008 Olympic Stadium. It is durable with an orange/brown colour when cut that darkens with age The grain is flecked with small, water soluble yellow mineral deposits that distinguish it from other species.
Beech and Oak are closely related. Both are hardwoods but Beech has a straighter grain with and even texture with a signature fleck in it. The colour is pinkish which can vary from fawn to brown and, when steamed, can turn to an attractive reddish brown.
Ash has an alluring pale honey colour that spans from pale to creamy brown. It is known for its strength and durability hence its frequent use in shops and offices.
Mahogany, once the cabinetmakers' choice for its beauty, durability and colour. It can also be given a lustrous patina to make it look like burnished gold. It is a straight-grained, reddish-brown wood indigenous to Central and South America. These days, stocks have diminished to the extent that much of its harvesting is illegal.
Maple comes from Canada. It has a light, subtle grain barely visible in the evenness of its colour. Over time it will mellow to warm golden hue. Because of its colour, texture and resilience it is a good choice for residential homes and is also often used as an indoor sports floor.
Cherry has a delightful warmth but the colour is significantly affected by light. After a while areas exposed to light start to turn an auburn colour while those in the shade will maintain a lighter shade.
Elm only just makes it to this list of hardwoods. It has a creamy colour and an attractive grain but it does not have the durability. That doesn't mean it should not be fitted for a floor; rooms with little traffic can look a dream with an Elm floor.
Ipe comes from South America and is one of the densest, hardest of woods. It is widely used for decking a it is almost impervious to insects and water. The Ipe decking at Coney Island, New York, lasted for 25 years before parts of it were replaced.
Massaranduba is a hardwood, purple in colour, with a red heart largely forested in Brazil. Known also as Bulletwood, it is so dense that it sinks in water and, if nails are used, holes have to be drilled to accommodate the nail.
Wenge comes from Central Africa and is heavy and very hard, particularly suited to floors an staircases. It has a deep brown colour so distinctive that it is used as a standard descriptive term in many colour palettes.
Zebrano, known also as Zebrawood, originates in Central Africa. It is pale brown wood with a defined streaks of dark brown or black from which it gets its name. This exciting feature makes it an unusual and very striking timber for floors and staircases
Bubinga is a dark tropical wood similar to Rosewood and used extensively in the production of guitars and the like. Its grain patterns vary a great deal with the rarer of them fetching high prices. The exotic nature of the wood makes for very distinctive hardwood floors.
Kampas comes from the tropics of the Far East. It is a very hard, about 80% as hard as Mahogany and similar in colour, a reddish brown with a shadow of a darker grain. It is characterised by its very hardwearing qualities that resist scuffing and decay.
Teak is an Asian timber with a heartwood that is brownish red in colour with a pale custard colour grain. It has the scent of newly cut wood or leather. It is water resistant and, being hard, lends itself to use on boats, floors and decking that have to endure heavy weather and footfall.
Hardwoods are graded according the look of the grain: those that that are free from knots are the top grade, those heavily marked with knots and blemishes form the lowest grade and there are typically two grades in between. For the rustic look, the knottiest grade works very well.
The grading system varies slightly between suppliers. There is no hard and fast definition just a consensus within the trade.