The older the house, the more likely it is to have floors hand-hewn or milled from forests nearby. This is especially true along the East Coast, where New Englanders cut floorboards from abundant stocks of virgin Eastern white pine and Southerners put old-growth, longleaf heart pine to good use. In the Midwest, red and white oak are still popular for new and replacement floors. Other species—including chestnut, maple, walnut, hickory, and cherry—have had their moments in time and place, too.
Although it’s now possible to lay floors in exotic species shipped halfway around the world, a wood harvested or reclaimed closer to home is not only likely “greener,” but it also may suit the house better. Home buyers like to see the same wood carried consistently throughout the house. Many of these “old” woods can be milled for installation over concrete or radiant heat sources. Here are a few of the woods most likely to appear in your home, roughly from oldest use to more recent.
Eastern White Pine
Planks of this densely grained wood up to 24″ wide and 20′ long are still in service in homes more than 250 years old in New England. Eastern white pine is still harvested (often sustainably) and is available as reclaimed lumber. Widths still check in at up to 20″; lengths generally range to 10′. Reclaimed white pine has a rich, mellow “pumpkin pine” appearance. Modern treatments include hand-scraping and saw marks to enhance the sense of age on newly milled wood.
Once common from Canada to Georgia, the chestnut tree was nearly wiped out by blight more than a century ago. Today, almost all chestnut flooring is reclaimed from old mills, barns, and occasionally houses built before 1900. Old chestnut is prized for its light brown to darker cocoa color, prominent grain, and character marks like wormholes. It’s available in widths up to 6″ and lengths of 6′ to 8′.
Light to medium brown with a straight closed grain, maple vied with oak as the strip flooring of choice in homes built between 1875 and 1920. Primarily harvested in the Northeast, maple flooring was shipped far beyond its native habitat. Then as now, it’s milled as tongue-and-groove strip flooring, although wider and random widths are also available. Lengths average 5′ to 8′.
Sawn from old-growth forests throughout the Southeast before 1920, heart pine and longleaf pine typically have a tight, vertical grain that’s as dense and strong as many hardwoods. Reclaimed and antique versions offer rich orange, amber, and pumpkin hues. Ubiquitous in factories, warehouses, and other structures built along the Eastern Seaboard in the 19th century, heart pine is widely available as a reclaimed wood today.
White & Red Oak
Native to the upper Midwest, white oak is more prized. The ideal strip floor, this light cream to gray wood was often rift-sawn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to produce a remarkably straight grain pattern that’s unique to oak. Red oak is slightly redder than white oak, and it has a coarser, more porous grain. Red oak is widely available (especially in cheaper, fast-growth products), so look for floor material that grew slowly in a cool climate.
In addition to rift sawing, oak can be quarter-sawn, a cut that reveals beautiful rays and flecks in the grain. Sustainably harvested oak flooring is widely available today. Reclaimed oak is prized for its rustic qualities, such as darker coloration and character marks (knots, nail holes, bug tracks). Reclaimed flooring may be a mix of white and red oak.
One of nature’s toughest woods, hickory has a tensile strength that rivals steel. Common throughout eastern North America, hickory is unusual for its contrasting patterns of creamy white or yellow sapwood and rich brown heartwood. “Rustic” grades include knots and other variations in color. Hickory is available in wide and random widths and in lengths from 5′ to 8′.
Cherry & Walnut
These richly colored hardwoods have always been expensive flooring materials, historically appearing mostly as accent strips in homes built between 1880 and 1930. Walnut has a rich, chocolately color with purplish overtones and swirling grain patterns. Cherry was especially prized for furniture and paneling because it could be polished to a lustrous red. Both woods are available today in both wide-plank and strip flooring as well as accents suitable for inlays. Face widths vary from 3″ to 12″, with lengths up to 8′.
A dense, straight-grained wood from the pine family, Douglas fir was the flooring of choice for homes built in the West from the 1880s well into the 20th century. The wood is yellowish tan to light reddish brown, but it darkens when exposed to sunlight. More dimensionally stable than oak, it makes an ideal strip or wide-plank floor. Vertical-grain Douglas fir is available in widths from 3″ to 10″.Published in: Old-House Interiors September/October 2011