WASHINGTON — Some people knock on wood; others prefer to walk on it.
Wood floors are available from more than 50 species of trees, both domestic and exotic, in a wide range of colors, hardness and prices.
One way to judge the quality of unfinished hardwood flooring is through the grading system created by the Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association. Its grades are based primarily on color, grain and markings. The best — and most expensive — grades of wood are labeled "clear" and "select."
But these days, not everyone is aiming for perfection. "People are going more toward the natural-looking characteristics of wood," said Sprigg Lynn of Universal Floors in Washington, D.C. "Years ago people wanted very clear. Now they like to see a knot. They like to see a variation, or texture."
Wood flooring can be finished on site or purchased already finished. Pre-finishing generally increases the cost of materials, though it can save on labor because the boards can be put down more quickly and with less mess than a traditional wood floor. However, such flooring is not graded, so you may want to bring home a test carton — not just the retail sample — to make sure you like the way it looks. "It's better to make a 100-square-foot mistake than a 1,500-square-foot mistake," said Paul Stringer, director of marketing for Somerset, a Kentucky company that sells both types.
Here's a look at what you can get for your money. Prices are per square foot and do not include installation.
If you have a tight budget and you're aiming for a rustic look, consider flooring made of lower-grade, 21/4-inch strips of domestic red oak, which is sold unfinished for as little as $1 a square foot by iFloor (ifloor.com). At that price, you get a "cabin" grade wood, with a lot of imperfections and boards of various lengths. You will have to finish it yourself.
For about $5 a square foot, you can buy the standard choice for U.S. homeowners and builders: high-grade red oak.
Half of the market here is domestic red oak, said Anita Howard, a spokeswoman for the National Wood Flooring Association. In this category, Somerset sells 21/4-inch oak strips in a natural finish for about $6 per square foot.
A budget of up to $10 per square foot opens up a range of options, including wider planks and exotic or more costly domestic woods, such as American walnut. One option in this price range is Mullican's (www.mullicanflooring.com) three-inch-wide strips of walnut in a natural finish.
Those with the most generous budgets have their pick of the highest grades of exotic and domestic woods, custom designs, and hand-scraped wood for a well-worn historic look. If the latter interests you, consider the planks of hand-scraped walnut in three-, five- or seven-inch planks from Somerset's Handscraped Collection (www.somersetfloors.com/handscrapedflooring.asp) for about $20 a square foot.
Or, you can buy unfinished flooring and hire a skilled craftsman to scrape it for you at your home. That will cost you up to $100 a square foot, said Lynn, who still uses tools that his grandfather had in the 1890s to hand-scrape floors. "It's labor, labor, labor intensive, but it doesn't have a contrived look to it."