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Domestic exotics becoming the wood lover’s choice

Demand increasing for locally harvested offerings

By Louis Iannaco

Volume 26/Number 26; May 13/20, 2013

Mullican’s 3⁄4-inch ‘hickory natural’ from its solid Chatelaine Collection is one of the mill’s hottest domestic exotic offerings.

For consumers who want to spice up their interiors, the lure of “domestic exotic flooring” is becoming more of a go-to option than ever before. With selections available in hickory, maple, American cherry and walnut, consumers now have additional—and more exciting, some would say—species to choose from than traditional oak. Because these alluring options are domestically sourced, environmental concerns and illegal logging are not inhibiting factors in the decision-making process.

According to Bryan Boggs, technical director for Anderson Hardwood, these species are very popular because they are Lacey compliant, domestically sourced and break away from the traditional installations. “A true appreciation of wood and what each species offers will deliver many exotic looks from each of these domestic exotic varieties. Innovative companies such as Anderson and Shaw are building on the natural character of these species with new types of distressing that add the ‘figure’ so highly valued by consumers.”

Jason Webb, Harris Wood’s product manager, and Renee Tester, product-marketing manager, agreed, noting domestic exotic species create a well-rounded selection. “However, this would be further enhanced by various factors in society as well. The fact there has been a shift toward Made in the U.S. and there have been numerous duties and regulations on various imports has certainly helped to increase this interest. Likewise, the fear of environmental problems and illegal logging have likely been factors.”

Charles Wilson, Armstrong’s hardwood product manager, noted approximately 18% of today’s wood sales come from domestic exotics. He also lent credence to the strong Made in the U.S.A. sentiment so prevalent in the minds of today’s consumers. “Domestic exotics are harvested in North America, which is no small factor as environmental and social responsibility are increasingly important to consumers. Ash, birch, cherry, hickory, walnut and red maple are all harvested for their domestic exotic styles.”

Rustic/distressed visuals continue to grow, he added, with particular styles favored in specific markets. “Hand-sculpted and color-wash products are popular in California and the Southwest. Distressed selections are more popular in the Southwest and Southeast. In the Northwest, Midwest and Northeast, traditional smooth visuals continue to capture most of the market. These new options offer retailers opportunities to expand sales.”

Wilson explained, “The exotic trend can create a mood and promote a strong fascination for all things exotic. Even in wood, we’re seeing lesser-known domestic species such as ash, hickory, walnut, birch and cherry being referred to as ‘domestic’ or ‘American’ exotics. Their rich colors and distinctive grain effects often mimic true tropical exotic species.”

And it is these rich colors that seemed to have captured the attention of consumers seeking something different yet readily available. As Brian Greenwell, vice president of sales and marketing for Mullican Flooring, put it, the most distinguishing characteristic of domestic exotics is the presence of rich, contrasting colors in the grain, which gives these floors the appearance of imported materials. “I’d say hickory is our most popular domestic exotic, especially our hand-sculpted products. People particularly like this wood’s distinctive appearance and its durability.”

According to Paul Stringer, vice president of sales and marketing for Somerset Hardwood, the Appalachian species of hickory, American cherry, walnut and maple each offer unique grain and natural color variations that fit a variety of decorating styles. “At Somerset, we recognized more than a decade ago these species would be popular with customers looking for an exciting alternative to traditional oak flooring. In fact, offering a collection of these domestic exotic species was one of the things that set the Somerset brand apart when we launched our prefinished line in the ’90s.”

Webb and Tester noted while oak has been thought of as the standard for some time, each of the domestic exotics gives some unique variation to consumers from the typical look of oak. All have varied grain patterns that create differentiation.

“Hickory has the most prominent grain and grain patterns amongst domestic exotics,” Webb said, “and is quite distinct from oak. With oak, whether red or white, there is a distinctive grain pattern seen along with rays and other associated characteristics. Likewise, there is a big color difference with hickory. Hickory naturally has more of a yellow and creamy white color as opposed to the red and green tints of red and white oak.

“Hickory also has a beautiful contrast of sap to heartwood that creates a very desirable vintage look,” he continued. “Likewise, this sharp contrast and color variation creates some really nice looking stained products. And, hickory creates a great looking scraped floor with the ability to develop the rustic look; it has been very popular in this arena.”

Maple gives the distinctive appearance of a much smoother and tighter-grained product. Opposite ends of the spectrum may be utilized in maple, Tester noted, with either a clean, almost white looking

Anderson’s Bastille, from its Virginia Vintage collection—shown here in Della Soleil—is an engineered maple product featuring beveled edges and a distressed finish.

floor or more color variation that may come from certain softer maple species. “Either way, the appeal from the smoother looking grain works as a great alternative to oak in both natural and stained products.”

American cherry offers a smooth grain visual as well, she said, yet it is distinct from maple in coloration. “It has a greater contrast in colors with the heartwood and sapwood as well as many features such as gum pockets that are often present to give it a more unique appearance. Cherry is known for the red coloration it has that deepens as it is exposed to light. While it is a little bit of a softer species, it still carries some distinction simply in its name and because it is less available than other species and, therefore, more expensive.”

Walnut is similar to cherry in many ways, Webb noted. “It is a softer species, yet very desirable due to the rich chocolate color of the heartwood. The sapwood is a drastically different white color. Most often, it’s desired for the chocolate heartwood but gives a unique coloration with the inclusion of sap. The grain is a little more open than cherry’s, but not as prominent as hickory and especially not oak.”

Overall, these species together yield an attractive color pallet and various grain patterns in their natural states, he noted. “The addition of stains allows for the creation of many more looks that create a well-rounded offering.”

Domestic species are rising in popularity for several reasons, Greenwell noted. “For one, people are more interested in buying products made here and manufactured from local timber. The economic downturn helped revive consumer nationalism, which is one reason we began producing our engineered collections at our Tennessee plant instead of keeping it in Asia.”

Another reason for the rise in popularity, he said, is the floors provide consumers with the look of foreign exotics without the cost. “Domestic exotics achieve the designer look and feel but at a lower price point. Also, foreign exotics are less available due to enforcement of the Lacey Act.”

Harry Bogner, senior vice president of hardwood for Mohawk’s Unilin division, believes domestic exotics such as hickory, maple and walnut are currently strong sellers in part because they are the species of choice for those seeking “character” wood flooring products. “Character hardwood refers to texture, rusticity, or time-worn looks. A majority of today’s consumers are seeking these products. In fact, the character market is at least 30% of the entire wood category’s sales today.”

Bogner said these designs include wire-brushed, chattered, hand-sculpted, distressed, recovered, weathered and timeworn as well as those featuring hammer dents, nail holes, and splits. “Domestic exotics such as hickory, walnut, and maple enhance the depth and texture of a floor, so they complement these character surface textures nicely.

“Consumers also have a strong desire for authenticity,” he concluded, “and are gravitating to visuals in more of a natural state, including knots, sapwood, heartwood and rich mineral streaks. Consumers prefer domestic exotic styles that bear the uniqueness where no two planks are alike. Hickory and walnut especially are effective when wanting to achieve this look.”