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Wood: Domestic species see resurgence in popularity

August 6/13, 2018: Volume 34, Issue 4

By Reginald Tucker

In recent years, much attention has been focused on the highly stylized, European-inspired oak hardwood flooring products that are popping up in retail showrooms around the country. At the same time, industry observers are seeing surging interest in various domestic varieties such as hickory, walnut, maple as well as red and white oak.

“Over the past couple of years, domestic species have been even more popular—specifically white oak, walnut and even hickory in some markets,” said Brett Miller, vice president of education and training at the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA). “Red oak is still popular, though not as much as white oak.”

Miller attributes this growing interest to the combination of consumer tastes moving away from tropical exotics along with the color/texture characteristics domestic species provide. “With hickory, for example, it’s the variation in color that generates interest and demand. Then there’s walnut, which has a very unique look and has always been regarded as a higher-end species. But white oak seems to be the most popular, most likely because of the color.”

Given this rising popularity, it should come as no surprise that many of these domestic species are increasingly factoring into recent introductions and/or best-selling products from some of the industry’s major manufacturers. “Over the past few years, we have focused our introductions on these species with tremendous results,” said Dan Natkin, vice president, hardwood and laminate, Mannington. In particular, he cited the company’s Carriage oak line, which he describes as “a runaway hit,” along with the Cider Mill collection, which combines the inherent graining of select North American white oak and hickory with a proprietary hand-staining and distressing process to further enhance the visuals. “There is something timeless about North American hardwoods,” he said. “Smooth, elegant graining, great character, and the way they accept stain and other visual effects make them the prime choice for consumers.”

Other major suppliers are capitalizing on the shift toward domestic species. Adam Ward, senior director of wood and laminate, Mohawk, said the company has been using domestic white oak for many of its products.

“There are slight differences between domestic oaks and European oak, but overall we are seeing more demand for hickory, walnut and other domestic species as there has gotten to be such a wide variety of every color, style and design of oak under the sun,” Ward explained. “Consumers who are trying to be more unique are trying hickory, walnut and some other visuals for greater variety.”

In illustration, Ward cited Mohawk’s Homestead Retreat line, which made its debut at Surfaces earlier this year to great acclaim.

“It’s a really great collection of sawn-faced hickory and walnut that has a nice sculpted visual to it that has been very positively received by the market. We’re seeing a lot of interest among consumers.”

Mohawk also launched five oak collections, and it plans to expand its offering of hickory products as well. This includes Canyon Lodge, a 6½-inch-wide scraped product. “We definitely plan on launching more of those products that feature species such as hickory and walnut along with some maple products as we round out our line of oaks,” Ward stated.

Other major suppliers are also tweaking their domestic offerings to keep up to date with trends. Mullican Flooring, which launched its oak-based Wexford collection last year, believes it can provide consumers with that popular “European oak” visual by tweaking the manufacturing process it uses to saw the veneers on its domestically sourced product. More recently, the company rolled out its new Astoria and Dumont lines, which entail a combination of white and red oak. It also offers the Nature Collection, which features wide-width hickory planks in a character grade.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of demand for these domestic species,” said Pat Oakley, vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s mostly white and red oak, but we’ve also seen pretty consistent demand for hickory and walnut. We’re also expecting to see maple come on a little bit as prices for white oak continue to rise.”

Some industry observers link the popularity of some of these domestic species to overall design trends. “The gray tones of walnut and white oak are really resonating with consumers,” said Clark Hodgkins, director of hardwood and laminate at Shaw Floors. In particular, Hodgkins cited growing sales of the company’s Epic Extreme Nature collection. “These visuals exemplify looks found outdoors and incorporate slight distressing techniques that showcase the wood’s natural variations and beauty.”

By that same token, the latest hardwood introductions from USFloors, which was acquired by Shaw last year, also address consumers’ affinity for domestic species. “We are definitely seeing a resurgence in demand for North American species such as white oak, maple and walnut,” said Philippe Erramuzpe, COO. These species, he notes, figure prominently in the company’s new Enclave collection as well as a solid wood line due to roll out this quarter. A new collection featuring an HDF core with oak and hickory veneers is also available.

Specialty, private-label suppliers are also getting in on the act. American OEM, which markets custom products to distributors in addition to promoting its own Hearthwood-branded line, is making sure it has all the bases covered. “We are still seeing most of the business being driven by white oak, but there are still great selling SKUs in hickory as well,” said Allie Finkell, executive vice president. “Walnut is gorgeous, but it’s still very niche.”

For some industry observers, the trend toward greater domestic wood flooring consumption is not so “new” after all. “At Armstrong Flooring, we have been saying for a while that ‘Domestic is the new exotic,’” said Sara Babinski, design manager. “Like local produce and handmade crafts, the trend is buying local and U.S. home-grown woods. White oak is still the most popular, followed by beautiful domestic exotic species such as maple, walnut and hickory.”

With red-toned woods and tropical exotics fading in popularity, Babinski sees the trend moving toward either dark or light color palettes. These are reflected in top-selling Armstrong collections such as Prime Harvest, which is crafted from select- and premium-grade Appalachian hardwood for a more consistent visual.

Even high-end, specialty manufacturers are capitalizing. Provenza Floors, for instance, is expanding its already deep portfolio of European oak-inspired floors to include domestic gems such as elm, ash, hickory and, of course, American maple. New lines include Artifact, an entry-level line, and Volterra, a long-board offering. “These products reflect the contemporary format that’s so popular today,” said Ron Sadri, principal owner.

Supply and demand

One unintended consequence of the increased consumption of select domestic wood species is the higher prices manufacturers are seeing in terms of raw materials. This is especially the case with select and better grade flooring in white oak.

“As demand rises, prices also increase,” NWFA’s Miller said, citing white oak and walnut in particular. “If you speak to any wood flooring manufacturer or any mill, they will tell you those are the logs for which they are paying the highest prices.”

Manufacturers can attest. “There has been such a demand for oak, especially the wide boards, that prices have increased,” Mohawk’s Ward explained. “There’s also competition for raw materials from the furniture industry as well.”