Wood Basics for Kitchens & Baths

Branch out. Explore these wood products, tips, and design ideas for your kitchen and bath.


Enlarge Image From left to right: strips, planks, parquet

You needn't fear to tread on wood in your kitchen or bath. New sealants ensure many types of hardwood flooring can survive the rigors of cooking spills or shower drips as long as you diligently wipe up moisture.

Pictured here, left to right, are the three basic board and tile options available: strips, planks, and parquet.

  • Strips: Boards less than 2 1/4 inches wide are called strips. Strip flooring is usually less expensive than wider boards because more pieces can be milled from each tree. Strips tend to have a contemporary, graphic look.
  • Planks: Boards wider than 2 1/4 inches are called planks. Extra-wide planks, 7 inches or more, are especially popular in today's old-world or country-style kitchens. Wide profiles show off the wood grain, recall antique floors, and result in fewer seams.
  • Parquet: The pattern found on a parquet tile is formed by wood pieces in various species, sizes, shapes, and colors that have been glued together. The direction of the grain enhances the pattern play. These tiles are highly decorative and can look quite formal.
Vinyl Planks
Enlarge Image Flooring from Nafco; 800-248-5572; www.nafco.com

Distressed floor products add the look of instant age and character. The textural knot holes and rasp marks of these vinyl planks mimic old barn wood. The vinyl material ensures easy care. Medium Barnwood BW-35 vinyl planks ($3.60 to $4 per square foot) are 6 x 36 inches.

Engineered Wood
Enlarge Image Flooring from Harris-Tarkett, Inc.; 800-842-7816; www.harristarkett.com

A five-step process of distressing adds charm to these Southern yellow pine beveled planks made from engineered wood. Grand Vistas II planks in Fountain Hills Henna (about $13 per square foot) are 7 1/2 inches wide.

Laminate Planks
Enlarge Image Flooring from Alloc, Inc.; 877-362-5562; www.alloc.com

The surface of these laminate planks is embossed with realistic texture. The Historic Chestnut planks ($3.50 to $4 per square foot) have a no-glue aluminum locking system and an attached underlayment that muffles noise.

In the Groove
Enlarge Image From top: teak, maple, mahogany, cherry, walnut

Wood counters offer warmth and durability with color and texture. Properly sealed with an oil-base product, wood is a suitable countertop surface for even the wettest parts of the kitchen.

Enlarge Image Drain channels to a sink can be routed into the surface.

Safely sealed with mineral oil, wood resists water, heat, and stains, yet it is safe for food contact -- regular oiling maintains the finish. Wood counters wipe clean with a wet rag; sanding fixes minor damage. At $65 to $100 per square foot and up, the cost is comparable to granite.

Butcher Block
Enlarge Image John Boos & Co.; 888-431-2667, CCB24-R chop block ($245).

Rich, colorful species such as American cherry, mahogany, teak, walnut, and wenge make wood a coveted countertop surface for trend-forward kitchens.

Sources for custom wood and butcher-block countertops:

  • Brooks Woodworking, Inc.; 800-244-5432; www.brookswood.com
  • Craft-Art Wood Countertops; 404-352-5625; www.craft-art.com
  • John Boos & Co. (butcher block); 888-431-2667; www.johnboos.com

The beauty and durability of wood may inspire you to lavish the material on both cabinets and floors in your kitchen. For long-term harmony, be sure the two surfaces are visually compatible.

Kitchen designer Mickie Sweeney says people often assume that because "wood is wood," any kind of wood cabinetry and wood flooring will naturally look good together. Though some woods do make happy couples -- "Cherry works wonderfully with oak," Sweeney says, and hickory blends well with most other species -- other pairings just don't work. For example, she says, "I'd be hard-pressed to do an oak floor with maple cabinets." To head off an unhappy marriage of woods, consider this advice.

  • Beware the perils of matchmaking. Matching flooring to cabinetry -- oak with oak, maple with maple -- creates a consistent, unified look. Trouble is, it can be hard to make an exact match. There are subtle color and grain variations within a single wood type, and stains and finishes can give the same species different personalities. If you're incorporating new cabinets with an existing wood floor, aging and wear complicate matters.
  • Treat woods like paint colors. "You want to match them exactly or stay away at least three shades," Sweeney says. As with paint, when two wood surfaces vary slightly, they clash and look like a mistake. "If you can't match it, don't try to," Sweeney says. "Go a different way. Just because your floor is oak, it doesn't mean you have to have oak cabinets."
  • Let opposites attract. A degree of contrast between cabinetry and flooring -- lighter cabinets with a darker floor or vice versa -- lets each element have its own character, Sweeney says. However, as with paint colors, it helps if the two woods have similar sheen, texture, and color undertones. Grain patterns can also tie together contrasting woods.
  • Look before leaping. It's important to obtain samples of both your flooring and cabinet choices and examine them carefully in the kind of light that will illuminate your kitchen. Don't settle for meager swatches, however. Ask for -- and obtain larger samples before making final decisions.
  • Find more tips and information on wood from the Hardwood Manufacturers Association: http://www.hardwood.org/
Here's how to distinguish the top four stock species.
Enlarge Image Maple

Maple A naturally light color and smooth, open grain lends maple a fresh, contemporary air. This wood accepts a variety of finishes.

Enlarge Image Red Oak

Red Oak The pronounced, dense grain of this wood looks best on traditional cabinet styles. Midrange and golden finishes are most common.

Enlarge Image Cherry

Cherry Fluid grain and luminous color are hallmarks of cherry. Finishes range from light natural to deep red tones.

Enlarge Image Birch

Birch Although somewhat irregular in color, fine-grain birch can be finished to affordably mimic other species.

Enlarge Image Spotted gum from Boral Timber; 800-267-2560; www.boraltimber.com

Spotted Gum For fresh looks in wood, more manufacturers have begun to offer products milled from exotic hardwoods from other lands. These spotted gum planks ($6.30 to $6.75 per square foot) from Australia, for example, offer a change in pace from common maple or oak. The planks are 5 1/2 inches wide.

Here are two quick fixes for minor dents as well as cleaning tips for wood cabinets.

Color-Correct Cabinets

For shallow scratches on cabinets, many manufacturers offer putty sticks, felt-tip pens, or small cans of color coating for repairs. Follow instructions, and leave deep gouges to the experts.

Repairing Dents with Heat

Although not recommended for finished cabinets, heat and steam can help minimize dents in door trim and baseboards damaged when new appliances are delivered. First, remove the old finish. Wet the marred area and a clean white cotton cloth, which you should then wring out. Place the folded cloth over the dent, and iron on high. This should swell the dent. After the spot dries, sand and refinish the wood.

Cabinet Care

Any cleaning routine for wood should use water sparingly. Here are some helpful tips:

Enlarge Image Use water sparingly when cleaning wood.
  • For pristine cabinets, dust regularly with a solution-free cloth.
  • Wipe up spills and water marks as soon as possible. It's okay to use a dampened clean cloth (not your dishcloth) to wipe away grime, but be sure to dry the area.
  • For stubborn stains, use a mild solution of dishwashing liquid and water. Dry with a soft cloth and buff lightly in the direction of the grain.
  • Avoid scouring pads and abrasive cleaning solutions.

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