Pros and cons
Timber floors have very wide appeal, particularly in living areas — they’re also a strong home selling point.
Timber flooring is available in a wide variety of types, styles and wood species. You can choose between structural solid plank styles that slot together, parquetry designs and relatively new floating floors that can be overlaid on pre-existing solid floors.
Advantages of timber include:
- High durability: well-sealed timber is spill, stain and chemical-resistant.
- Easy care.
- It’s relatively low-allergenic.
- Timber and other solid floors like tile are recommended if a member of the family suffers from allergies or asthma.
On the downside:
- Unsealed timber flooring can stain, dent and scratch easily — it’s not a very practical option for homes.
- High traffic areas will need stripping and sanding every three to four years (not only to keep it looking good, but also to maintain its moisture resistance, which is important in preventing warping or other problems).
Structural timber floors
These are the traditional type of timber boards laid on bearers or joists.
Boards of structural flooring typically come in 100 and 150 mm widths and are generally available in various click-together tongue and groove designs.
Professional installation is generally recommended for structural floors, but it can be a time-consuming process — a period of up to two weeks may be required before laying so that the moisture content of the timber boards has time to acclimatise to the intended environment.
And it’s important to ensure there’s adequate subfloor ventilation to prevent warping of the timber.
Structural timber typically varies in cost depending on grade, thickness and species.
Generally, three grades are available:
- The cheapest (around $40/m2) has more knots, grain and natural variation ...
- … than ‘standard’ or mid-grade timber ($50–$70/m2).
- The most expensive grade ($60–$100/m2) has the fewest defects.
Boards can be ordered up to 30 mm thick; 19 mm is a fairly standard thickness.
Popular species include brush box, blackbutt, spotted gum and jarrah, but there are at least 20 varieties to choose from. Read How to choose ‘good wood’ (below), for buying considerations.
Floating timber floors
Unlike structural timber floors, floating floors aren’t nailed or otherwise attached to a subfloor system — they’re laid over the existing solid floor.
They can be fitted over tiles, concrete, timber floorboards, plywood, particle board and cork. They’re usually installed on underlay, which provides good noise insulation. This makes them ideal for use in multi-storey apartment buildings and homes.
Because floating floors aren’t nailed down like conventional floorboards, any movement in the boards is spread across the entire floor, which makes gaps less likely to appear.
Floating floors don’t even have to be real timber — laminated ‘faux’ timber finishes are widely available and are commonly referred to as laminate flooring. If you go for the cheaper faux look, make sure you’re happy with how closely (or otherwise) it resembles the real thing.
Typically, ‘real’ timber floating floors consist of a thin layer of softwood or hardwood bonded to a high-density fibreboard substrate. They’re often precoated to enhance their wearability (polyurethane is common), but it’s possible to coat after installation. Unlike laminate flooring, real timber floating floors can be sanded back and refurbished if necessary.
Floating floors vary in cost according to the thickness and species of the feature timber layer. Prices start from around $40/m2 up to $100/m2 (which may or may not include underlay — around $5–$10/m2).
Laminated ‘timber-look’ products are priced from around $25/m2.
Choosing a floating floor gives you the option of DIY installation — a significant advantage if you’re looking to save money.
To install a floating floor:
Ensure the floor it will cover is level enough. Some products have variation limits, so it’s important to check your floor suits the product.
- Remove any pre-existing soft floor covering.
- Some products require an acclimatisation period in the room where they’ll be installed (a day or two is common).
- If the floor to be covered is concrete, lay plastic lining to moisture-proof it.
- Lay underlay and allow it to settle. Measure, cut the boards to size and install.
- Generally, installation during extreme weather conditions isn’t recommended and some products recommend installation by a professional. Typical professional installation costs are around $30–$40/m2, which includes underlay.
How to choose 'good wood'
While timber is generally regarded as a good environmental building material choice, the logging of native old-growth forests remains a subject of heated debate. See our 2010 sustainable flooring guide for more information.
To keep your timber floors looking good:
- Avoid direct sunlight. Draw curtains and blinds if possible — new floors, in particular, can be vulnerable to fading in direct sunlight. Heat generated by too much sunlight exposure may also cause localised changes in moisture content, causing warping.
- Keep your floors dry. Vacuuming or sweeping is best. Preferably don’t use detergent and use water sparingly. For stubborn spots use a mixture of one cup of methylated spirits in a bucket of water. Quickly wipe up spills to prevent moisture from getting beneath the boards, where it may lead to swelling or mould problems.
- Put door mats at entry points or make your home a shoe-free zone. This will reduce scratches and scrapes from dragged-in dirt and will lengthen the period before you have to resand and seal or polish.
- Use protective pads to stop furniture scratching the floor.
The Bamboo option
Bamboo is a renewable resource that grows faster than timber. It’s also a very hard-wearing and durable surface. For these reasons it’s becoming a popular flooring alternative to timber.
When our sister organisation in the US tested two samples of bamboo flooring in 2002, it found that while abrasion resistance was very high, UV colour stability wasn’t so good — it tended to darken. So the same advice applies to bamboo as timber — protect it from direct sunlight.
Bamboo costs around $90/m2 for either structural or floating-floor boards. Installation of structural boards will cost you around $50–60/m2.