Go with the Grain

Well-installed wood floors are a smart choice for coastal homes. Here's the lowdown.
By Michael Haigley

What's the advantage of wood floors in coastal settings? My customers ask me that, hoping that my answer will support the flooring decision they've already made.

The truth is, when properly installed and maintained, most floor coverings that work inland will also work on the coast-provided you live in your beach house the way you live in the suburbs or the city. But you don't.

At your beach place, you want to be comfortable letting the outside in. You want it to be OK for kids and dogs to track in a little sand. And wood surfaces not only clean easily, but also wear gracefully. Wood just feels right. Here's what you should know about it:

Customize wood and finish choices. Oak is the least expensive choice, a little more than $2 a square foot in Nantucket uninstalled. But the latest finishing techniques can run the total installed cost to as much as $30 a square foot.

Bamboo, which we're using in our Nantucket project house, offers a harder, more durable surface and is a renewable forest product. It replaces itself in a few years as opposed to decades.

Many of my customers want an ultranatural aged look, which means protective finishes that are clear and low-gloss. They may also opt for a treatment that brings out what we used to consider imperfections. Bleaching lightens the wood. Pickling adds a hint of natural, faded color.

For more formal settings, the wood choice is often a rich-grained hardwood like red birch or antique pecan, two to three times the cost of oak.

Carefully consider the protective coating. You may think you can make wood flooring feel more natural by not using a protective sealer. But allowing wood to absorb spills and scuffs makes the floor look damaged. Soaked-in moisture can cause buckling and require a nightmare series of repairs. To avoid such problems, apply four coats of oil-based sealers or five coats of water-based mixtures. How often should you refinish floors? If there's no out-of-the-ordinary damage and you enjoy the natural feel of aging wood, you can make the finish last for decades. If you want the high-gloss, unmarred look, plan on refinishing every few years.

Understand wood's nature. All wood floors move. The densest grains in the smallest widths in an air-conditioned space move the least. The softer woods and wider planking move the most, especially in rooms with windows open to the damp, the winter cold, and the summer heat.

Wood flooring needs to acclimatize in the rooms where it will be installed. That means taking apart the bundles and letting air get to all the layers. When we nail it down, we put spacers every 3 to 5 feet and a 3/8-inch space along walls to accommodate expansion.

In the winter, there may be slight gaps when interior heating dries the wood. You can get laminate wood flooring layered in cross-grain configurations that resists movement better than wood with grain running in the same direction. But even with standard wood and radiant heating beneath the whole floor, you're likely to have at least a consistent level of contraction.

Although it has more variables than some other materials, wood flooring compensates with durability, tactile appeal, and natural beauty.