What’s under your feet (or however you get around) is as important as anything when it comes to home. That’s why this fall, we collaborated with The Home Depot on an A to Z guide that’ll give you the confidence to make flooring choices you’ll love. Check out the A to Z handbook here.
When it comes to hardwood flooring, different styles possess varying levels of durability and sturdiness. Hardwoods (and so-called “softwoods,” which are sometimes used in homes or for outdoor porches) have a vast range of hardness that can profoundly impact their functionality and longevity in your living space. So how do you find out which woods are the hardest? The Janka Scale, of course.
Pronounced “yanka”, the Janka Scale was created by an Austrian-born wood researcher named Gabriel Janka. It assesses a wood’s resistance to wear and denting by measuring the force required to embed a BB-sized steel ball halfway into a sample. The “score” each type of wood receives is then recorded in “pound force” (lbf) on the Janka Scale.
Rule of thumb: 1,000 or above
The rule of thumb when shopping for hardwood flooring is that a Janka Scale score of 1,000 or above is the level of durability one wants in their home, and consulting the Janka Scale graphic makes it easy to see which woods rank where in the hierarchy. (If you plan to DIY your flooring, it’s also a great resource for understanding out how difficult it will be to nail into the wood when laying your boards.)
Knowing your hardwood’s rating on the Janka Scale comes in handy when you’re buying for a high-traffic room where a softer wood underfoot might be damaged by rowdy puppy paws or the crash of sporting equipment hitting the floor after practice.
Hickory and oak score high
Hickory and oak, as well as their variants, are two common hardwoods that score high on the Janka Scale and can easily withstand the pressures of an active household while still providing a timeless look. Hard maple is also a hardy option, but, as general contractor Joe Truini points out, it’s the type of wood used for basketball courts. That is to say: Unless you’re trying to give off a real March Madness vibe inside your home, it might be worth skipping.
Softer hardwoods like ash, cherry, and birch tend to have more subtle variations in their color and gradation, which can create a more sophisticated look, with a higher price tag. These hardwoods are ideal for flooring adults-only, low-traffic spaces, or homes where everyone respects the “no shoes in the house” rule. (This writer likes to think about putting down cherry hardwood as “retirement flooring.”)
The Janka Scale can even reveal subtle hardness differences between woods that appear to be quite similar. “The most popular hardwood flooring out there is red oak, and it has a rating of about 1,290,” says Truini. But he also notes that white oak, which people don’t often consider, looks similar to red oak and has a rating of about 1,350—100 points higher than its cousin.
But hardness isn’t everything
Hardness, however, isn’t everything in a floor, and Truini recommends considering about the Holy Trinity of hardwood—aesthetic appeal, price point, and durability—when making a decision. “If you fall in love with American black walnut boards, which have a rating of 1,010, you should get them even though they don’t have a super-high [Janka] score,” he advises. Additionally, Truini lives in New England and sees pine floors in many houses. “They don’t have a rating higher than 1,000. It might dent a little more and it might wear a little more, but if you like the look of pine or walnut, you should do it.”
When it comes to durability, though, even the Janka Scale has its limits. The rating system doesn’t have any bearing on how well hardwood floors can stand up to stains from spilled Pinot Noir and marker accidents. That all comes down to the finish. “Whether you choose ash, oak, maple, or even walnut, they’re all hardwood,” Truini says. “They’re all relatively hard as far as just walking across it day-to-day. Even if the floor is bamboo [which has a hardness of 1,300 or more] and the finish is worn off the top, it’s going to stain.”
Having all the information possible at your fingertips before you make a major flooring decision is empowering, and will ensure the best decision for your family’s unique lifestyle. So let’s give a round of applause to Gabriel Janka, the patron saint of helping even the least math-inclined person grasp the complexities of hardwood hardness.