Today’s market is proliferated with a wide range of timber and timber-based flooring products, including the more traditional solid tongue and groove products and parquetry, through to a range of engineered, laminate and bamboo products.
These products feature many New Zealand, Australian and imported species and, in the latter cases, a vast array of building methods.
But this does not mean all products are ideally suited to all situations, and there are many instances where product selection or poor trade skills have led to floors that do not perform as they should, or that lose aesthetic appeal.
Understanding product characteristics
The traditional tongue and groove flooring and parquetry products are generally laid, sanded and finished by the timber flooring professional and, as specific skills and knowledge are extremely important with these products, it is considered that it should remain this way.
Tongue and groove flooring is the most responsive to changes in board width from relative humidity changes in the air, and it is for this reason that many aspects need to be considered when laying the floor.
This includes the moisture content of the supplied product and sub-floor, as well as a careful assessment of the environment in which the floor is to be laid.
In order to achieve a product that is more stable — and by this we mean has less dimensional change in board width with changing air humidity — engineered and laminate products have been developed.
Engineered flooring has a decorative face layer of solid timber bonded to plywood or blocks of timber running at right angles to the face layer.
As such, in appearance these floors look no different to a solid timber floor.
It is this cross banding that adds stability to the product, resulting in reduced in-service movement.
Laminate flooring products differ in that there is a photograph of timber boards that are bonded onto high density fibre board. The face is then protected by hard-wearing melamine.
Engineered flooring is often laid by direct adhesive fix to the sub-floor but, as with laminate flooring, it is also installed as a floating floor.
With floating floors, boards are connected to each other and, therefore, a large “raft” is created.
Methods of fixing differ between products and may require adhesive at board joints, but many products now interlock as they are laid.
This differs to glue down floors where boards are located but not fixed to each other.
Engineered and laminate products are more often seen in hardware outlets, and although benefits exist from professional installation, they are also well established in the DIY market.
However, it should be noted that even with the increased stability of these products, it is a fallacy to think that expansion and shrinkage no longer needs consideration.
We see expansion joints with floor tiles and in ceilings and, similarly, some movement still occurs in these products that must be accommodated.
However, the movement, expansion or shrinkage differs from solid timber floors which expand and contract in board width — but not to any appreciable degree in board length.
Hence, with a solid timber floor, expansion allowance across board width is of prime importance.
Although the movement in engineered and laminate flooring is much less than solid timber floors, the cross lamination in engineered flooring results in some movement in both the width and length of the floor, and a typical ratio is 5:1.
Therefore, for longer floors, accommodating expansion down the length of the floor is just as important as across the floor, and due consideration must also be given around doorways and the like.
In laminate flooring, due to the more homogenous fibreboard layer, the movement ratio is 1:1.
Hence, it is important to understand that there are differences between and with product types, and this should also highlight the need to carefully read and adhere to installation instructions.
Timber floors, irrespective of their type, have a strong dislike to water so care is always necessary to provide adequate protection.
However, in saying this, all flooring types can take the occasional spill of water without detrimental effects, but it does need to be mopped up relatively quickly.
It is aspects of possible moisture from sub-floors, building and appliance leaks that need to be considered.
Moisture from sub-floors requires careful assessment, and there are many effective moisture vapour barriers that are used with each product type.
Dishwasher and fridge leaks are potential sources of unexpected moisture and, particularly with dishwashers, a metal tray beneath can save a floor from potential problems. In wet areas, timber floors are often not used.
The right product in the right place
We have discussed some of the commonalities and differences of the products, but the question that may be asked is, are there products that are more suited to some building types and locations than others?
When it comes to this question there are many aspects to consider that do not relate to technical aspects.
These include the cost of the product, time to complete the installation, the type of look that is desired, how the floor sounds when walked on, how the floor feels underfoot, and how long you want the floor to last.
As such, there is no standard answer, and it is often the client that has the major influence on choice. However, what is important is that before suggesting or providing a product, both the benefits and the limitations of the product are known, clearly outlined to the client and that the product fits within its limitations.
It is important to realise that some flooring products, although of increased stability, may not always perform as desired in very high humidity climates.
Also, that, while prefinished flooring often has very hard wearing additives to the coating, it can still be subject to lack of care by other trades after the floor is installed, resulting in dents and scratches. Therefore, at times, an in-situ sanded and finished floor, be it engineered or solid, could provide a better option.
If it is expected that the floor is to be sanded and finished at some later date, then this is not possible with laminate flooring, and the degree to which this can be done varies with engineered flooring.
To finish off we would like to stress that, due to the diversity of products available, it is incumbent on the supplier of the product that they have an in-depth knowledge of the product or products that they sell.
As such, it should be expected that those selling timber flooring products are fully aware of the installation requirements, and are fully aware of the benefits and limitations.
By reading the installation instructions and the terms of the warranty, these aspects will be evident and, thereby, it can assist to ensure the product is directed to where it will provide customer satisfaction.
• Comprehensive information and training on timber floors is available from the Australasian Timber Flooring Association (ATFA).
The Association can be contacted at email@example.com or visit www.atfa.com.au.