Special finishes add to exotic wood's appeal

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As hardwood floors continue to capture the hearts of many home buyers, there is a growing demand for specialty finished exotic woods. Floors that have been hand-scraped to create a beveled edge or fitted into a unique parquet pattern often command a premium. Some people also are splurging on woods such as Ipe, a Brazilian walnut, or Wenge, a dark brown wood from Africa.

To learn more about these trends, we talked with Chuck Crispin, president of Birger Juell Ltd. in Chicago. The company specializes in custom designed wood floors that are hand-finished with European techniques.

Q. What are the latest important trends you are seeing?

A. The major trend is the desire for hand-scraped, custom finished hardwood floors.

We might do a custom size herringbone pattern or a Versailles parquet design using several woods. If the buyers are spending a lot of money on hardwood floors, they don't want it to look like everyone else's.

There also is still a great desire for wide plank floors that might be six to 12 inches wide.

Q. Your company focuses on hand-scraped floors. Does that mean they always have a distressed look?

A. No. Hand-scraping can be very elegant and very refined. It's an alternative to a sanded floor. It's all about the way the floor is finished and detailed.

Q. What are the advantages of a hand-scraped floor?

A. Hand-scraped floors tend to take use and abuse better than sanded floors. When you sand a floor you make it perfect and that doesn't always fit with the way we live. We hand-scrape a floor to make sure that it will take normal wear and tear gracefully.

Q. How long should a floor finish last?

A. If you get seven years out of a sanded, polyurethane floor you are lucky. We've had floors down for 35 to 40 years and all we do is go in and run the buffer periodically and rewax it.

Q. Your company works a lot with "green" lumber. Where do you find it and how is it reused?

A. We've always liked using domestic lumber and green lumber that is reclaimed (from old buildings) or harvested from trees that would otherwise be lost. Chicago has swamp oak trees that are 350 years old and have reached the end of their lifespan. When they get cut down, the tree guys go out and chop them up into little pieces.

We try to reuse them when we can. We work with companies to have them harvested and cut to make into floor and furniture. Thirty percent of our business has to do with salvaged timber, whether it is from old growth wood or old barns.

Q. What are the most popular domestic woods used for flooring?

A. Walnut is big right now. Walnut has always been popular, but people are into dark, rich tones. It's kind of a fashion statement. Other popular domestic wood is rift and quarter-sawn white oak, cherry, hickory and spalted maple -- that's maple that has begun to decay.

Q. What are some popular imported woods?

A. From Bali there is teak and rosewood. Most of those trees are protected so you want to make sure its origin is certified. That wood typically comes from salvaged lumber.

Q. From a cost standpoint, how do hand-scraped floors or those made from reclaimed lumber compare with more standard wood floors?

A. All of the custom floors are much more labor-intensive than buying milled hardwood. It's typically five or six times more expensive.

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