Imported Wood Flooring
April 23, 2007
Imported wood flooring of other than the typical North American species can give the consumer additional and unique choices for a wood floor. The most important aspect of this flooring is to KNOW the product that is to be supplied.
The process begins with something as simple as the name of the product. Take for instance “Brazilian Cherry.” This name is neither a species name nor is it in the cherry family for wood. We often call it “Jatoba,” but this too does not specifically ID the wood. Other names associated with it are: Caupinol, Gaupinol, Locust, Rode lokus, Algarrobo, and Jatahy. The Scientific name is Hymenaea courbaril. Identifying the wood by the scientific name helps to eliminate confusion, particularly where the marketing or common name can include multiple species that may have different mechanical and physical characteristics. “Brazilian Walnut” and “Ipe,” are common names for Tabebuia spp. This wood can include multiple species that are further divided into four separate groups.
Next, how is the product manufactured? The answer to this question can include multiple issues. For NOFMA certified products there are standards of manufacture for configuration, moisture content, grade, and average length that assure a consistent properly manufactured product. Imported flooring may have a configuration that does not fit with the standard. The tools used to put it down may not work with these products and they may require time consuming modification. Also where multiple species are used such as with patterns and borders, the different woods may not fit together properly. These issues may not be evident until the flooring is being installed, at which point it may be too late to recoup payment for the extra effort to modify the product and make it work.
A very important issue is moisture content of the product at manufacture. Some imported woods are marketed for multiple uses. “Ipe,” which is extremely durable can be used for exterior decking as well as interior flooring. The exterior product often is not kiln dried to the same conditions as interior flooring. If the wood for decking is used inside, excessive shrinkage gaps are often the result. Units of wood within the same shipment may also come from different manufacturers and the variation between them may be significant and affect the performance of the flooring. All of these manufacturing issues should be reviewed with the supplier. Your relation with the supplier is very important in order to provide you with the proper support when performance issues arise.
Customer expectations are also critical when dealing with imported wood flooring. Color changes are common with many of the tropical wood species. So the look that is installed is not necessarily what you will ultimately get. The natural oils in the wood may also limit the type of finish that can be used. This should be discussed with the finish manufacturer to advise the customer of the choices and the procedures necessary to properly finish the flooring.
Know how the particular wood finishes. The dust and subsequent contact with the skin of some species are known to cause respiratory and skin reactions. The air borne dust may also discolor surrounding materials and result in additional costs for later repair. Depending on the site of origin of the wood, chemicals taken up by the tree and deposited in the wood may interfere with finish coats. I have heard of severe allergic reactions from wood contact, have seen stained pink walls from sander dust, and have seen blotchy finish associated with small deposits within the wood.
Be aware of potential environmental issues as well. Today’s consumer might be surprised to learn that many imported flooring products are manufactured from resources that might not be managed sustainably or are being illegally logged. Some species come from tropical rainforests and a number of countries where imported flooring is being made are dealing with rampart black market trade of logs and lumber.
Factory-finished and engineered flooring can have additional issues, such as unregulated use of chemicals that are restricted or banned in the U.S. Among those to be aware of are formaldehyde used in the adhesives to make engineered flooring and concentrations of lead, mercury, or other heavy metals used in the finishes applied at overseas factories. These can result in remediation issues later, if the floors are to be refinished. It is unclear whether liability issues surrounding these products might linger decades after they are installed. It’s best to know in advance what you have to work with.
Finally, who do you go to when problems arise? Unless you know the manufacturer and their distribution representatives and have a good relationship with them, you are generally on your own. What are the manufacturer’s proprietary performance and quality criteria? And, do the application directions fit the construction and environment of your area? With no generally accepted industry standards for imported products quality standards are proprietary to the individual manufacturer and they may or may not fit the application of the product supplied. You may not be advised of the standard of manufacture and thus cannot make an informed decision about the suitability of the product. You are assured of consistent manufacture with products manufactured by members of the flooring manufacturing associations such as NOFMA, MFMA, CLMA, and SPIB. You have industry-recognized recourse with these products whereas it is a one on one situation where imported flooring is involved. Bottom line? KNOW the product and KNOW your supply chain for good flooring performance.