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Walnut is woeful and pitch pine is pitiful

Terry Guilford on design disasters

I AM willing to bet that there isn’t anyone connected to the construction industry who hasn’t, at some time or other, viewed the plans of a home owner or interior designer with some misgivings or downright disbelief.

Usually the concerns centre around the wisdom of shocking pink paint on the kitchen ceiling or pure white eggshell on the walls in the toddlers bedroom. But these are possible miscalculations which are easily corrected.

Flooring however, is rather more permanent and therefore expensive and intrusive to replace, so why are aesthetics allowed to completely overrule practicality in so many instances?

Speak to anyone in the stone industry and they will tell you how few homeowners realise how high maintenance their beautiful (when new) marble, travertine or terracotta flooring will be compared to porcelain. Wood flooring has its equivalents.

I started laying wood flooring in about 1996 in Ireland; at that time the overwhelming influence in wood floors was that of the returning emigrants who had lived in America. They had gotten used to beautiful hardwood flooring, predominantly oak, often maple and occasionally beech, ash or elm.

These are all sensible choices, attractive, very durable, finish well with just about any type of product. In the case of oak (okay I admit it, I love the stuff) it is also very flexible in as much as it can be made lighter by bleaching, lime washing or white oiling/waxing.

And it can be kept neutral by using water based primers and finishes, enhanced with the use of alcohol based primers (or the latest generation of colour enhancing water based primers) or darkened by staining or smoking.

In short, whatever look you want, with oak you can get it and still have a good floor which can be altered as and when fashion dictates.

Like all things dictated by human whim (and glossy magazines) very soon oak was passé’, maple mundane and beech boring, we were now entering the Celtic Tiger era (he died of over indulgence in 2008). Now we could buy whatever we wanted and to hell with the consequences.

So first up was pitch pine, mostly it wasn’t the real stuff but a ghastly imitation from of all places, Honduras. It was a nightmare to fit as the boards were wide and very distorted, very often full of large holes which meant high wastage, and containing a very high resin content which made finishing a pain.

Also being softwood in most cases it needed serious acclimation time as it was often stored badly at builders merchants, try telling the builder/homeowner the floor needs three weeks (plus) in a heated environment before you’ll lay it!

Next up came cherry. Now in all fairness cherry isn’t actually a bad floor, but very much ‘of its time’ and therefore dating. You can’t really change it in any way, so you are stuck in a time warp and it’s quite a strong look.

Last and very much least in my opinion is the blight that is walnut. If ever there was a look that was done to death and lingered way beyond its time it’s the walnut and cream look.

Back to practicalities, with the exception of some American varieties, walnut is by far the most ridiculous choice for flooring that I have come across.

To start with it has a very inconsistent density which means that when sanding it you get a lot of ‘scoop out’ of the softer parts of the grain and also those soft areas can really soak up your finishing product as well as being impractical.

Prefinished walnut shows up scratching to a unbelievable degree leading to phone calls within days of fitting from distressed homeowners (still, they should have chosen a catalysed oil finish) and of course leads to much stressing during the fitting process.

Finally of course, when this floor finally does fall off its designer pedestal, there will be absolutely nothing than can be done with its appearance.

Before I finish on walnut I just want to mention the point at which I knew the world had gone mad! It was when I heard that it had been installed as a sports hall floor somewhere in Northern Ireland. Apart from all the above issues, sports hall floors are supposed to be as consistently white as possible to show off the line markings!!

The final part in this rant against flooring faux pas concerns staining. In truth, oak (here I go again) is by far the best timber to stain. But most of the time when staining is requested, it is an effort to make a cheap softwood look like quality hardwood; which, if you ignore the difference in grain pattern, can be moderately successful.

However what is really difficult is when you get a request to match the floor colour to an existing floor, a piece of furniture or a pair of curtains (I kid you not, it happened). Why is this request unreasonable?

Well, given plenty of time and budget, it is achievable. But getting the colour right isn’t just a question of picking a stain suitable for the chosen item.

The final colour of the wood is dictated by the stain itself, the type of wood, the original colour of the wood, the level of sanding (rougher wood, darker colour) and the light in the room, so think on before you promise too much!

Everyone wants their home to be unique and special, but if you come across a client whose heart rules their head, try to get them to think six months ahead when the thrill of a pretty floor is over but the chore of maintaining it is a reality.

l Note I haven’t mentioned solvent-based finishes; there is no place in anyone’s home for these anymore. And even commercially I can only think of one situation where their use is essential.

Terry Guilford is technical director of The Ultimate Floor Sanding Co, a corporate member of the National Carpet Cleaners Association (NCCA).

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