Boardwalk empire: Which timber is right for your home?

From cherry and oak to bamboo and walnut, Caroline Kamp has the answer
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The Independent Online

A wood floor adds warmth, charm and character,"says interior designer Melinda Ashton Turner. "Restored boards will add a sense of history and new boards can be the constant visual base when furniture changes in a large space. The trend is heading towards dark wenge – almost black boards with a slight sheen. A dark board with a hint of the grain is nice and adds definition."

With so much choice available, a good place to start is with your budget. "A wood floor is an investment," advises Ashton Turner. "If you want wide boards, which are more expensive, it is worth saving your money, otherwise you may forever wonder 'what if'. Always go for a hardwood as it is less likely to dent and will wear longer. Pine tends to be too soft and ages to an orangey colour. And remember, floorboards, like curtains, will be affected by sunlight so keep a watchful eye and maintain regularly."

If you already have the original floorboards in your home, then you have a couple of options.

"Apart from restoring them you can paint them in either a solid colour or a tiled pattern using the existing timber, plus a colour. Or paint an area as if it was a rug, or a strip down the stairs. Whatever you do, use a strong clear varnish to seal and protect the boards, as well as the design you create.

"Replacing your original floorboards is an option, but always replace boards with the same timber. If you have gone to the trouble to restore your floor, using a different timber will only look odd and will either wear or age differently to the existing boards. If possible use reclaimed boards, but should this not be an option, always source woods from an ethical and ecologically sustainable source. Ask questions: where did it come from? Does it have an FSC label (the Forest Stewardship Council is an independent organisation which promotes responsible management of the world's forests)?

"Wood floors are brilliant in all rooms: they are easy to clean and you can place a rug on top should you wish to feel softness underfoot," adds Ashton Turner. "The only downside is that they can be noisy.

"In a flat, insulate properly between cavities. If you want to lay a floating floor, use the best underlay you can afford – this is not an area to save money on, and it will save on noise levels below and above."

There are a lot of products out there and the price per square metre is not necessarily the final price, as you may also need to consider the cost of getting the floor sanded and waxed, and maintaining it over time. Oak

Oak is by far the most popular wood on the market and for good reason. Once you've got an oak floor, you've got it forever – you can have any look you want. It has a natural character and a mid-light colour, it's one of the easiest woods to stain, and it is sustainably produced on a large scale in Europe so it is one of the most environmentally sound choices and available at a good price.

There are several options: choose solid wood boards with an oiled or waxed finish to show off the natural grain. Or if you like the look of hard, shiny finishes, try pre-lacquered boards (finished in the factory before they are laid) which may cost a bit more, but are easier to put in and don't require any maintenance.

Engineered oak floors (where the structure is made of plywood and only the 5mm top layer is real oak) are the solution if you want underfloor heating as the boards won't warp – whereas solid wood will.


American walnut has a beautiful, dark colour and will give you a very clean and modern floor. But it gets scratched easily which can make it look a bit scruffy. It doesn't age as well as oak. Plus it is 60 per cent more expensive per square metre than oak.


A beautiful light wood. Very popular 10 years ago. It comes as a narrow strip, but is not necessarily cheaper for being narrower, because it comes from Canada. Gyms are done in narrow maple, very dense and light in colour. But it's not stable, so you get gaps.


Beech can be affected by moisture so there is a risk of warping. Harder than most woods, but not very attractive to look at. A bit bland and featureless. It's most commonly used for things like lollipop sticks.

The top three woods that have fallen out of fashion in the last few years are: maple, beech and ash. Now the fashion is for mid or darker colours.


An eco-friendly option. It's a grass, not a wood, and it grows fast. In five years, it will grow from a shoot to your floor. It can be good in areas of high humidity such as bathrooms.


This is a dark red wood which comes from South-east Asia and is similar to teak. It is one of the hardest and most durable wood-floor options, it's harder than oak and maple. The wood has a natural yellow flecking in the pores which on a finished floor may look like it is flecked with gold.


Brazilian cherry is an exotic imported hardwood. It's an already dark-red coloured wood which will, over time and exposure to light, darken to a very burnished auburn colour. It has a distinctive flowing grain and warmth.

The floors the limit

*If you have old floorboards,consider yourself lucky as it can be fairly straightforward to restore them. First they need to be cleaned.

* Make sure all nails have been secured and recessed slightly otherwise when you sand the floor, the nails will heat up and create hundreds of tiny burn marks – and you'll bust the sander and have to pay for that. Remove any additional debris with a scraper or a pair of pliers, then wash the floor.

* If you feel up to the job yourself, then you will need to hire a heavy-duty sander to sand the floors. Be warned this is dusty work, you must wear a protective dust mask, goggles and gloves. Seal the doorways with tape and dust sheets as the dust flies around – and always work in the direction of the grain of the wood, not across it.

* Before you seal the floorboards, it is vital to fill the gaps with a filler material – you can use the sawdust and a bit of glue – to prevent draughts and dust coming up from beneath the boards, and to give a bit of noise insulation.

* There are several ways to finish the boards: waxes or oils give the floor a natural shine and protect it; varnishes come in matt or gloss finishes and will need several coats; wood stains add character to bland coloured floors, such as pine, but will still need sealing; paint is good for scruffy natural boards as the paint brings out the imperfections – use at least two coats of proper floor paint.

Where to buy

* Ambience Hardwood Flooring offers a selection of cherry, ash and walnut flooring (

* The Natural Wood Flooring Company is ideal for traditional and more contemporary solid-oak flooring (

* Visit Kahrs for a wide variety of different woods including ash, cherry, walnut and popular (

* The Bamboo Flooring company offer a durable alternative to traditional wood choices (