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For All You New Kids On The Block

Terry Guilford on wood block flooring

One of the things that surprises me about the wood flooring industry is the lack of interest in installing new wood block flooring.
We are all used to seeing wood block in old public buildings (schools being the primary example) and any estate agent will tell you that a property with a beautiful floor of this type will sell quicker and at a higher price, add to this that technically, a wood block floor suits modern living better than any other type of solid wood floor and the mystery deepens.
Part of the attraction of a wood floor is that people think of wood as a natural product, a living breathing thing and in a flooring environment they are partially correct. Of course, when a tree is felled it is no longer living, but it will stay ‘breathing’ until the day it is totally destroyed.
The ‘breathing’ in the case of wood consists of absorbing moisture and therefore swelling and losing moisture and shrinking in the process. If all houses were fitted with climate control it would be easy to acclimatise any size wood flooring to the house norm, install it and forget about it.
The reality is that most houses don’t have climate control. In the summer we turn our heating off and the moisture content of the air in the house increases and peaks towards the end of summer beginning of autumn (the incidence of wood floor problems increases during this period).
As winter sets in we turn on our central heating and this dries out the air and therefore the wood in your house. So in effect our wood floors expand and contract annually. This is the reason all wood flooring needs expansion gaps, at least around the perimeter.
So back to my statement about wood block floors suiting modern living. Why is this? If we accept the fact that wood expands, we need to realise that the wider the board (expansion is mainly on the width of the board) the more the expansion.
As wood block flooring is made up of quite narrow pieces, each block expands only a small amount. The gap between one block and the next will be a small, but important. The neighbouring block can ‘move into’ the gap at times of high humidity.
In addition to this, several other factors come into play.
The first is that the most popular patterns for this type of flooring are herringbone and basket weave.
If you look at both these patterns you will notice that the sides of the blocks are laid against the ends of some their neighbours. This helps with expansion issues due to expansion mainly being on the width.
The second factor is that modern adhesives allow the blocks to move during expansion. They can also to some degree pull back again during contraction, unlike old fashioned bitumen or nails.
Finally the very nature of a patterned floor made up of small blocks fools the eye and disguises any discrepancies.
So let’s compare wood block to the latest ‘designer fad’, wide plank boards. Yes wide plank is beautiful. When it’s an engineered board it is reasonably practical (engineered boards do not suffer from extreme expansion or contraction), but an engineered board is not for life like a solid wood block floor.
If engineered boards were around in Victorian times would they still be giving good service in those schools?
I don’t think so. If you go for solid wide plank be prepared to carry an ice axe during the winter months. You will need it to climb back out of those gaps….
So finally to return to my question: ‘Why isn’t wood block installation more common’? Maybe it’s because we live in an ‘instant’ world and wide plank or for that matter any other prefinished wood floor fulfils that need at the lowest cost.
Wood block itself isn’t expensive, but it does require a good fitter and sanding and finishing to a high standard. But as my daughters would say, ‘it’s just soooo worth it!!!’

Terry Guilford is technical director of The Ultimate Floor Sanding Co, a corporate member of the National Carpet Cleaners Association (NCCA).

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal website. You can find them at