Flooring Goes Longer & Wider

Although the utlisation of longer and wider boards for wood flooring has become a popular trend in the sector, some manufacturing challenges most be overcome to ensure success of these formats. By Michael Martin, President & CEO, National Wood Flooring Association


One of the big wood flooring trends that has evolved in the US during the past few years has been a movement toward longer and wider boards. This trend has been on full display at many trade shows, including the Wood Flooring Expo held in April, The International Surfaces Event 2016 held in January, DOMOTEX Hannover, held in January, and DOMOTEX asia/CHINAFLOOR held in March in Shanghai.


Numerous exhibitors at these events were showcasing wider and longer products, with some measuring as much as 16 inches wide and 10 feet long. What is even more intriguing is that several of these exhibitors indicated these wider widths and longer lengths are now standard products that they offer, with demand significantly outpacing supply.According to these companies, the biggest trend for the past several years has been a movement away from traditional strip flooring in favour of longer and wider boards.


Wayne Lee, business development representative and technical advisor with Middle Tennessee Lumber in Burns, Tennessee, says his company historically has not manufactured strip flooring, but has seen a significant increase in sales with the growing popularity of wider and longer flooring.


Middle Tennessee specialises in long plank flooring, ranging from about six to 10-foot lengths, with huge demand for widths of about six inches. Mr Lee postulates that the trend is driven primarily by the style of new homes, which have “wide open floor plans and tall ceilings.Remodel sales are up because homeowners are trying to bring a new rustic look to their homes.”


He defined that rustic look as including techniques like wire brushing and hand scraping.“Strip flooring does not offer that look,” he says.


At Galleher Hardwood in Sante Fe Springs, California, Dan Harrington agrees.“It’s gotten to the point where, in our market, seven inches in the new three inch,” he quips.“And with the desire for wider boards comes the need for longer material since wide, short boards create a blocky look that most consumers don’t want.”According to Mr Harrington, the company has been investing in wider and wider products, “and it seems that each time we do, people demand the next width up.We are now stocking products as wide as 16 inches, and we have standard prefinished collections as wide as 12 inches.”


Demand Driven By Designers

Designers have been the primary drivers of this demand, according to Don Finkell, CEO of American OEM in Greenville, South Carolina.“Starting as early as 2009, larger and wider boards started to make their presence known,” says Mr Finkell.“As is often the case, the upper end of specified design projects set the trend for the masses to follow as they aspired for the look.”


In Europe, demand for longer and wider flooring has been the norm for many years according to Ulrich Stöhr, export sales with Berg & Berg in Södra, Sweden.“Wider and longer boards are becoming more and more fashionable.Swedish species,” he adds, “are very stable because they are slow growing.They will stand every kind of climate without showing gaps and are very suitable for subfloor heated floors, which are becoming more and more popular in the US.”


Middlefield, Ohio-based Sheoga Hardwood Flooring and Paneling VP Barbara Titus, shares that her company has always manufactured a random mix of widths ranging from 2.25 to 5.25 inches to utilise the entire log with as little waste as possible.


The company often has requests for up to 18 inch widths, but Ms Titus shares that “more and more, we struggle to have an outlet for our 2¼ width in any of the domestic species and frequently need to moderately discount these items in order to keep them from building up in inventory.”


To accommodate this issue, the company has had to add warehouse space and reduce profit margins on this smaller profile flooring in order to keep the inventory from stagnating.Whether or not there is high demand for these smaller profiles, they are a necessary by-product according to Ms Titus.“In order to achieve those longer lengths and wider boards,” she states, “2.25 inch flooring is generated to utilize the full log and eliminate waste.”


Wood Flooring Demand Stable

Demand may be down for traditional strip flooring, but many companies contend that there is still significant demand for wood flooring in all widths and lengths.


In Micanopy, Florida, Goodwin Heart Pine Company’s CEO, Carol Goodwin, observes that demand for longer and wider boards is up, but that “the true antique wood is still mostly four inch and six inch,” while exhibitor Tim Ellrich with Lewis Lumber & Milling in Dickson, Tennessee, believes that “more people are demanding wood flooring in general,” no matter what the size.


Tommy Maxwell with Monticello, Arkansas-based Maxwell Hardwood Flooring states that his company has not experienced a decline in market share for traditional strip flooring. Mr Maxwell did confirm, however, that his company has experienced an increase in demand for the wider and longer boards.


“Our unfinished engineered line offers a two-foot to 10-foot product that has been popular with many of our distributors. We have seen a positive impact with this trend as it helps us diversify our offerings and ultimately move more mixed truckloads of product,” he adds.


That increasing demand means that suppliers are turning inventory as fast as they can make it. McMinnville, Tennessee-based McMinnville Manufacturing Company Director of Sales, Donna Millard, says that “the amount of four inch and five inch products we produce are sold right away.We do not carry an inventory.”


At Muscanell Millworks in Cortez, Colorado, co-owner Karen Harbaugh says that the company has worked on procuring material for wide formats for many years.She says that “it is a challenge to get what we need, but we accomplish this through long-term relationships with trusted suppliers.”


A Question Of Price

Like many manufacturers we talked to, Mr Harrington believes that raw material supplies are adequate, but that the issue becomes “a question of price.”


“Wider and longer equals more expensive,” he says.


Moosewood Flooring director of sales, Richard Poirier, based in Ashland, Maine, agrees.“There is much more interest in wider boards, no question, but there is still a market for traditional widths,” he says.“As footprints of houses increase, wider boards have their place.However, narrow boards can make smaller rooms look much larger and there is always the price, which still leaves demand for narrow floors.”


Despite their growing popularity, wider and longer boards present some manufacturing challenges. Mr Finkell explains that “it is not that easy to make long boards if your plant is set up for short boards.Wider is not a big problem, but long can be a real issue, especially if you are highly automated.”


Middle Tennessee’s Lee also reports that “longer boards can be a challenge for grading.We cannot run it out of lower grades for rough lumber.It is harder to keep the wider boards tighter to the specifications and maintain the NWFA/NOFMA standards.”


Peter Connor, president of WD Flooring in Laona, Wisconsin, says that “for solid manufacturers, the challenges are plenty.”Connor explains that “you have to use a different lumber specification than you would for strip flooring.So your costs go up.What’s more, you cannot keep these items in a warehouse very long—it’s not fine wine—and it will start to move as it acclimates to different climates and seasons, even in a warehouse.”


Other Considerations

Additional challenges include drying, according to Kris Young, director of sales at Olde Wood Limited in Magnolia, Ohio. She says that “the most important thing is to make sure that the wood is properly dried and milled correctly.”


The company uses state-of-the-art drying and manufacturing equipment and thorough quality control measures to ensure that all of its products are milled to precise specifications.“We also abide by the NWFA Guidelines and recommend all installers of our products do the same,” she says.


Acclimation is another important consideration. Mr Harbaugh explains that “with wider floors comes more movement across the width of the floor.It takes contractors who understand the movement issues and know when to say wide flooring is not the right thing for this application.We have great relationships with craftsmen in very dramatic climate conditions who install wide plank floors every day and understand that with the proper acclimation and installation, a wide plank floor can live anywhere.”


Mr Harrington agrees.“Some contractors aren’t aware of how much more important acclimation can be, even with some engineered products,” he says.“Contractors need to understand that wide plank solid flooring can pose special challenges, as some planks will bend a bit during acclimation and by their sheer size are difficult to straighten during installation.”


Proper education for the owner of the floor is critical as well, according to Ms Titus.“There seems to be an uptick in jobsite issues with the wider plank if humidity factors are not discussed and controlled,” she says.“Much of this responsibility must fall on the installer as he is the last person to have direct contact with the homeowner or end-user.”


Mr Harrington adds that “flooring professionals need to help end-users have realistic expectations about movement and how the look of the floor may develop over time.”He believes that, ultimately, good education will result in a happy customer.


While most manufacturers agree that the trend toward longer and wider flooring will continue for quite some time, several warn that like all trends, this one will evolve over time.


Ms Young says that fads are like bell bottoms, “they will come and go,” while Moosewood’s Poirier says that “trends are trends.They are very fluid and can change quickly.We may argue that the consumer can have too many choices and generally gets confused.The 20/80 rule still applies, meaning that 20 percent of your products will result in 80 percent of your sales.”Manufacturers should respond accordingly.


Other trends showcased at recent flooring exhibitions include a continuation of grey stains and finishes, texturing of the wood versus smooth finishes, utilising random widths in a single installation, a preference for rustic species, selecting boards based on significant character inclusions like knot holes and saw blade marks, and a return to oil finishes.As Harrington noted, trends tend to come full circle, and manufacturers need to be quick to adapt to maintain their competitive edge.


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