Hardwood flooring hardness is one key factor in choosing a species. But, there are a number of softer wood species that are still long-serving in residential spaces. Here are a few examples.
Just because a hardwood flooring is lower on the Janka Hardness Scale than red oak (which is the industry median at 1290), that doesn’t mean you should discount it as an option for your home. While durability and hardness are important, these aren’t the only two criteria to consider when you’re looking for a long-lasting, beautiful hardwood floor.
In fact, woods that are usually considered softer than the median make excellent additions to your home, with distinct color spectrums and decorative patterning you can’t find in other species. And sometimes, that lived in look in a floor is just what you’re looking for. Before we go any further on some selected varieties of softer wood floors, let’s clear up some of the terminology.
The difference between hardwood and softwood
The general rule to the difference between these two wood categories is that deciduous trees produce hardwood, and conifers produce softwoods. These two groups of species, as you learned in school, is about how the tree reproduces, what kinds of seeds they make, and how those seeds are delivered to the soil; fruit, flower, or cone. It also has to do with leaf shape, and whether or not those leaves fall to the ground in autumn to be replaced only in the next season. Simple enough, right? Well, mostly.
There is an important element to acknowledge when it comes to hardwood flooring hardness that should be well understood and that is this. Unlike the grouping of actual species, the measurement of hardness isn’t drawn along the lines of “hardwood” and “softwood”. This is because all hardwoods aren’t necessarily harder and denser than all softwoods, and all softwoods aren’t necessarily softer and less dense than certain varieties of hardwood.
For instance, balsa wood is one of the least dense and lightest woods around, yet it’s considered a hardwood because of how the species grows and reproduces . In this, there is a difference between a softwood and “a soft wood”, if you see what we mean. The hardness of wood all depends on the species and where each of them score on the Janka scale. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at that Janka hardness scale again to refresh our memories.
Janka hardness scale
The Janka hardness scale is an industry rating to measure the hardness of wood, and it’s by this scale that hardenss should be judged when you’re choosing wood species. The higher number the wood receives, the harder it is. The rating is determined by calculating how much force it takes to drive a 0.444-inch steel ball into the wood until half the ball is in the wood. This in turn is a measure of how well a wood can withstand wear and denting.
The scale can also tell you how difficult it is to mill or to saw the particular species of wood. In that, softer wood varieties present a distinct advantage during installation. When wood is easier to cut and nail, that makes the process a bit less intense, and more expedient.
Here’s a snippet of the Janka scale borrowed from the BuildDirect Learning Center right here:
Beyond this snippet above, Australian buloke tops the scale with a rating of 5060, while cuipo is on the bottom with a rating of 22. As mentioned earlier, red oak has a Janka rating of 1290, so the hardness of other wood species is usually compared to this. This is only a median rating, though. There are plenty of robust and decorative wood floors that can bring your interiors to life. Here are a selection of them to consider.
American black walnut
American walnut is a great choice if you’re looking for flooring that offers an immediate good first impression on the eyes, with second and third impressions being just as good. It has a Janka rating of 1,010 and is one of the preferred hardwoods for woodworking and fine furniture. If you’re looking for an earthy hardwood flooring option, the dark, rich tones of American black walnut are the way to go. While the grain is mostly straight, it can have a marked wavy grain that gives life and interest to a floor.
Since American black walnut is naturally dark, it does well in both traditional and modern homes. While it may not be dent or abrasion-resistant enough for the most frequently used parts of the house like an entryway, it is still a tasteful and decorative option to consider.
American black walnut generally requires waxing and sealing to keep it healthy. The sealant will break down over time of course, which leaves the floor susceptible to fading from sunlight and damage. It’s a good idea to re-apply the sealant every few years to keep the floor from looking dull. Fortunately, one advantage that American walnut has over other hardwoods susceptible to this is that it can go longer between sealings.
While yellow birch has a Janka rating of 1260, it’s still excellent for domestic hardwood flooring. It has a smooth white color with a small amount of yellow undertones. There is slight color variation from board to board, although with almost no color distinction between the annual growth rings, yellow birch is relatively uniform in appearance. The grain is usually straight, although it might have some waves to it. It also has an even texture with low natural luster.
Since it’s slightly lower on the Janka Hardness Scale, it’s generally easy to work with when using machine and hand tools. These boards also glue and finish well. With no characteristic odor, yellow birch is common for interior trim and other small and specialty wood items.
Unlike sapwood, which is the living outer layer of the tree that transports nutrients, heart pine is the heartwood of a pine tree, or the nonliving center of a tree trunk. Builders and woodworkers prefer heart pine to sapwood because of its hardness, strength, and beautiful coloration.
Since heart pine comes from a pine tree, it has the tone, richness, and color of softwood. Yet, with a Janka rating of 1,225, it also has the durability and strength of hardwood. Since heart pine is so strong and stable, it’s an excellent choice for flooring.
American black cherry
American black cherry, which is also called rum cherry or black cherry, is native to the eastern United States. Its color ranges from a reddish brown to a rich, dark red, and it’s highly prized as one of the best domestic wood flooring choices. American black cherry has a uniform grain that’s very fine with a smooth texture. While it can contain gum pockets and pith flecks, these marks are actually valued, because they give the wood character and add to the distinctiveness of its look.
While American black cherry has a Janka Hardness rating of 950, it’s actually very stable. This means that it tends to keep its shape, and not twist or warp over time. Not only is it popular for cabinetmaking, furniture, musical instruments, and boat interiors, but its durability and resistance to warping also make it great for both underflooring and regular flooring. It isn’t challenging to work with American black cherry, as it’s easy to cut, nail, and glue. Once again, that’s a big advantage to softer species of wood.
Softer can be just what you need
Hardwood flooring hardness isn’t just about harder being better. There are all kinds of factors that can make for the best flooring in your space, including the workability and unique visual benefits of wood species that sometimes happen to fall under the Janka hardness median of 1290.
If you’re considering new hardwood floors (or hard wood floors as the case may be!) for your home, don’t forget to consider woods that are typically thought of as “soft”. Remember, “soft” is only relative term. These woods still offer durability while also adding a unique style to the home.