Hardwood Flooring Grades and Quality

By Jill

Posted on Wednesday, December 24, 2014 6:38 PM


When shopping for hardwood flooring, you’ll likely come across the term “grade.”  And if you’re like many consumers, you may wonder if a high-grade wood ensures the best-quality flooring. The short answer is: Sometimes yes – and sometimes no. Hardwood Flooring Grades rate the wood's natural appearance. GAT-OAW7-GWD-3 Oak flooring is rustic grade.Actually, grade and quality are two independent measures that together help evaluate a product’s overall value. Grade can best be thought of as “what the tree gave you to work with” – the wood’s natural appearance. Grade is evaluated along a wide spectrum that ranges from woods that are very uniform in appearance and color, without knots or other noticeable character markings, to woods with significant color variations and other visible natural character features. Quality is tied more closely to manufacturing – how the final planks are produced. Quality issues may include milling defects, finish imperfections, and stain color variations, for instance. So back to my answer above: A high-grade wood doesn’t necessarily guarantee a floor’s long-term value. For example, flooring made from a high-grade wood may include manufacturing defects that would lower the flooring’s “quality” – and thus its overall value. On the other hand, flooring made from a lower-grade wood, but with little to no manufacturing defects, would be considered higher quality, raising the flooring’s value. For this reason, product warranties are often based largely on quality and are much less dependent on a wood’s grade. Oak, with more active graining patterns and natural color variations, will never look as “clean” as Maple, even at its highest hardwood flooring grade.Additionally, since no two tree species are exactly the same, grade is not always the best indication of a wood’s appearance. For example, Maple, which characteristically has clean lines and light coloring, looks almost white at its highest grade. Whereas a wood such as Oak, with more active graining patterns and natural color variations, will never look as “clean” as Maple, even at its highest grade. And grading doesn’t always account for the wood’s source. For example, reclaimed woods are often sought-after flooring choices because of their rich patina. While board-to-board color variations are typically a low-grade characteristic, in this case, this time-worn look is what makes reclaimed wood uniquely beautiful and often far more expensive.

Hardwood Flooring Grades: How Woods Are Graded

Within each species of wood, the highest grades will be the ones that are the most uniform in color and have the longest board lengths. Following is a brief description of each grade. The allowable defects for these grades are considered part of the industry’s standard 5% allowable waste for all better wood flooring grades (this can be as high as15%-20% for low-grade woods). While the descriptions within each category are fairly similar for prefinished and unfinished woods, the names used to refer to these grades may differ depending on the manufacturer.
  • Prime Hardwood Flooring Grade Natural White Oak FlooringPrime Grade: Representing the top grade within each wood species, these boards are also referred to as Clear, A, 1st, and Select & Better Grade. Woods are uniform in appearance with minimal natural color variations and character marks, and they include the longest plank lengths. Allowable defects include: occasional small burls, very small, tight knots, and fine pinworm holes – in limited pieces and when properly filled. After finishing, the face of the plank will have the cleanest appearance within the species.
  • Standard Grade: The next-best wood flooring grade, these boards contain more wood characteristics relevant to the species, while the face is still even and smooth after filling and finishing. Also referred to as Select, #1, 2nd,  Common, and Common & Better Grade, boards include the following allowable defects: small worm holes; season and kiln checks;  dime-size broken knots; larger open knots, if properly filled and finished; minor imperfections from machining; and other minor characteristics that will not affect the floor’s durability.
  • Builder Grade: Boards include most of the wood’s spectrum of natural character – more color, bigger knots, and creamy-colored sapwood. Sometimes referred to as Natural, #2 Common, C, Mill Run, Run, Rustic, Sapwood, or Shorts, boards have a limited amount of unfilled or unfinished open characteristics. Allowable finish irregularities include: bubbles; small skips; lines; stain or color variations; and surface scratches. Expect overall shorter pieces.
  • Cabin Grade Riverbed Flint White Oak FlooringCabin or Tavern Grade: This grade tends to have better board lengths and cleaner faces but may include some low-grade wood characteristics and quality imperfections such as machining issues. Overall, this grade has shorter board lengths, more color variations, and small dings, and is thus expected to have more than a 10% waste factor. Because quality defects are allowed, there typically is no structural warranty offered on this wood, but a warranty on the finish may be available. [Add image showing some common imperfections]
  • Utility Grade: Also called #3 Common or D Grade, these boards include those with the most wood imperfections and matching issues.  The expected waste factor is 10%, and there is generally no structural warranty offered on this wood, but a warranty on the finish may still be available.
  • Shop Grade: The lowest-grade of wood flooring, these woods include all of wood’s imperfections. Often offered at the best prices, these woods can be a great value but expect more labor, waste and added materials to get the desired look.

Deciding if a Flooring Makes the Grade

It’s important to remember that grade is only a spectrum, with the “cleanest” woods rating the highest. If you prefer hardwood flooring with more color variations and character, there’s nothing wrong with going with a lower grade. The main consideration here is quality. In general, the lowest-priced woods will be those that are both low-grade and include manufacturing defects that impact quality. Ask_An_Expert_logo_colorHave more questions about wood grades?  Ask one of our Barry Carpet hardwood flooring experts. Or visit our Barry Carpet showroom in West Los Angeles.

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