As a first time buyer of new hardwood flooring there is certainly plenty to think about and much to learn, it’s not as simple as choosing a species of wood or deciding on a color scheme and getting out your credit card. To make a fully informed decision some technical analysis is required as well. We always recommend getting a free estimate or quote as soon as is viable, not only so you can start to budget, but so you can get some feedback from a professional on what you want to achieve (even if your thinking of doing the work yourself!).
In this Home Flooring Pros blog post we take a look at the sometimes confusing topic of hardwood flooring grades. What are they and how do they impact your buying decisions?
What are we referring to when we talk about wood floor grades?
First let’s dispel a couple of myths. The grade of a wood floor does not refer to the ‘quality’ of the wood (although a higher price tag is often attached to higher grades of wood) nor does it concern the durability of the flooring. Take a look at this article on flooring hardness and the Janka test for more info on the density and durability of different wood species.
The grading of lumber actually refers to the appearance of the wood planks, so its really about aesthetics. As wood is a natural product there are wide variations in color and texture, from species to species and from tree to tree. An industry recognized grading system was created to allow buyers and sellers a common point of reference to describe batches of wood with similar qualities. Although not set in stone, these different grades also gave the consumer an idea of what use the wood they are buying is most suited to eg, furniture, shelving, flooring etc.
The Different Grades of Hardwood Flooring Explained
Although there are only a few different grades that, as a floor consumer, you need to concern yourself with, it doesn’t help that each grade is often referred to in different ways. This is thanks to the various different grading agencies and retailers, giving different terms to, essentially, describe the same thing! So here are the different grades you need to look out for and a definition and description of each.
Clear Grade – Also referred to as FAS (firsts and seconds). Taken from the heart (center) of the tree this is the highest grade of wood and is ‘clear’ in the sense that it will have the highest uniformity of color and pattern, lacking any marks, blemishes or defects. This type of wood is primarily used in moldings and joinery (like door frames etc) where the priority is a subtle, unobtrusive and clean look. There’s not a great deal of clear grade hardwood flooring available and what you do find will likely come as engineered hardwood.
Select Grade – May also be referred to as Prime grade, AB grade or 1st grade. Select grade shares traits with clear grade in as much as there will still be a strong uniformity of color and pattern, so you shouldn’t see any glaring differences from plank to plank or in the finished floor overall. However the natural colors and grain patterns of the wood will be more diverse, allowing more of the woods character to come through. For example clear grade wood typically has more straight/vertical grain patterning while select grade will show far more open grain patterning like swirls and burls (see photos). As only around 15% of the wood of each tree conforms to this grade it is a more expensive option, but that doesn’t mean it is better. This is a great choice for homeowners looking for a refined, clean and unfussy finish.
Number 1 Common Grade – Can sometimes be referred to as Natural grade or 2nd grade. With this grade of wood you will really start to see the natural character of the natural wood species that you’ve chosen. There will be bigger variations in color tone from plank to plank, more noticeable marks, including small knots, streaks, worm holes, checks and fine cracks. It is perfect for owners who want to achieve that natural, non-uniform look of real wood.
Number 2 Common Grade – Can also be known as Rustic grade, Mill run grade or 3rd grade. If you like your wood floors rough and ready with any and all variations in color, grain patterns and character defects then this grade is for you. Pieces will vary wildly from one another creating a beautiful patchwork effect. It is worth mentioning that once you start looking at Number 1 and Number 2 common grades you will also really start to see the difference between different species of wood.
Cabin Grade – Also known as Tavern grade. This is about as close as it gets to a hardwood version of seconds! It’s basically all the rest of the wood that hasn’t been graded into the other grades described above. Typically cabin grade wood planks are shorter and the possible imperfections will be greater, including damage marks created during the milling process. Again it’s not that the wood is ‘bad quality’ it’s simply that the pieces to not match up to the standards that both manufactures and consumers expect. On the plus side it is much, much cheaper and suitable for certain projects (rentals?), expect a higher degree of wastage (order 20% more than you need) and having to sort through all the planks before installation (bit like putting together a puzzle!).
A word on flooring grades and price
As mentioned above, clear and select grade woods are only more expensive because there is less of it per tree! Choosing the grade of wood for your floors really is a personal preference based on the look and appearance that you are trying to achieve. Indeed given the current trends in hardwood flooring, with a return to a vintage, ‘old-world’ look it is often the cheaper grades that are more sought after.
Please let us know your experiences of choosing different floor grades or any questions you may still have. You can also contact us direct.
More Floor Grade Photos
About the Author:
Jamie Sandford is the Owner and Chief Editor of Home Flooring Pros (find out more). After 10 years’ experience in screen and stage set construction followed by a further 15 years working in the home renovation/remodeling business he now writes and curates online home improvement advice.
“Buying and installing home flooring should be a fairly straightforward process, but often it isn’t. After more than 15 years’ experience in home flooring and remodeling, I started Home Flooring Pros in 2013 to help homeowners navigate the often-overcomplicated process of choosing, buying and installing a home floor. The aim is to save you time and money by helping you to make better floor buying decisions.”