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Using Exotic Hardwoods for Flooring

Exotic! What’s not to love? We have exotic cars and exotic fruits. Anything with the word exotic feels sexy, seductive. So, exotic hardwood floors must be a cut above all others.

The first challenge, though, is defining what is meant by exotic when it comes to hardwood flooring. Brazilian pecan, with its wildly contrasting colors, or Australian cypress, with its knots, whorls, and recesses, both fit into the category most of us would call exotic, but the unusual appearance is at best a casual definition, and to properly understand exotic hardwood flooring, we need a more formal definition.

Exotic Hardwoods Defined

The larger definition of the term exotic — “coming from a foreign country” — isn’t very useful when it comes to hardwoods, so most flooring manufacturers and retailers their exotic hardwoods into a group that meets following criteria:

  • Mostly hard: Aren’t all hardwoods physically hard? Not necessarily. purpleheart and Australian cypress, which of which fly the hardwood flag, fall mid-range on the Janka hardness scale, far below the hardness of products like teak, mahogany, ipe, and jatoba. However, most exotics tend to be quite hard as measured by the Janka scale.
  • Expensive: Exotic hardwood flooring will almost always cost more than similar domestic hardwoods.
  • Wide, rich grain: Grains on exotic hardwoods are often wide and pronounced.
    Vibrant colors: Exotic hardwoods exhibit vibrant, unusual colors—from reds to classic browns and even purples.
  • Contrasting colors: Some exotics, like Brazilian pecan and tigerwood, show night-and-day contrasts between colors, from deep black to light tan, all in the same board.

Environmental Questions

Hardwoods, in general, grow far slower than softwoods, and hence the widespread harvest of these woods can lead to heavy deforestation of vulnerable landscapes in tropical regions. While fast-growing softwoods can be grown almost as an agricultural crop, hardwoods take many years to mature, and unless carefully controlled, much of the harvesting occurs in original-growth forests.

A variety of organizations exist to monitor logging practices and verify that they are being done in sustainable ways. One of the strictest such certification programs is that of the FSC (Forest Sustainability Council). Generally speaking, wood supplies that carry the FSC certification can be assumed to be harvested in a sustainable way. However, strict environmental protection organizations such as Rainforest Relief take a more conservative approach, insisting that only lumber from second-growth, managed forests can be said to be truly sustainable. In their view, simple certification from FSC is not enough, unless that certification also specifies that the lumber comes from managed second-growth forests.

This is a subject of hot debate, as some sources argue that most clear-cutting of tropical forests is done for the purposes of creating grazing land for cattle, not for the timber industry. In their view, creating a market for forest timber actually helps rain forest species, creating an economic reason to protect and plant hardwoods.

The best advice for concerned consumers is to make sure you buy FSC-certified woods. Although not perfect, the Forest Stewardship Council does an admirable job of monitoring the logging and processing of hardwoods to ensure that they are done in a reasonably sustainable manner.

The six exotic hardwood species discussed here were all selected because they do not fall into the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listings for appendix I (most endangered), or appendix II (controlled trade necessary). But it is still important to make sure you are buying from sources that practice sustainable harvest techniques

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