As a wood, oak is known for its hardness and strength. Being resistant to insect and fungal issues, it has been employed in some of the most important DIY projects throughout history, including shipbuilding, medical preparations, drum making and of course, wine ageing.
In terms of interior design, it’s a timeless classic. There’s no danger of thinking you’ve made a style error in a year’s time: once you’ve found the right oak flooring, it can stay in place for a lifetime.
To the uninitiated, it might sound like oak is oak; but even small differences can have a huge impact on how an expanse of flooring looks in your newly refurbished room. When it’s French oak vs. American oak, the differences are much bigger than you might think – and so are the consequences.
Getting this decision right is crucial, so today we’re looking at the differences between French oak and American oak flooring.
Question 1: Where does it come from?
Where the oak comes from is one of the key factors to take into consideration when purchasing your new flooring. It affects not just the overall quality of your floor, but also the way it looks from above.
You’ll find oak flooring from around the world, but Europe, America, and China are the main exporters.
To put it simply, American oak is mainly sourced from North America. It comes in red oak or white oak. European oak tends to come from France, England or Germany – countries where oak trees flourish due to the relatively mild climates.
American oak demonstrates a much larger grain. As the trees are so large, the growth rings will be much wider than their European counterparts. That is something to consider when looking at the size of your room. If it’s a small space, the growth rings of American oak flooring might dominate.
At the same time, European oak is considered to be more durable than American. It’s hard, heavy and strong and lends itself well to finish, as it’s less likely to expand and contract to a noticeable extent. It’s sought after because of its balance of durability and good looks. Typically, European oak displays a light brown to dark brown color. And because the sapwood is quite thin, long lengths and wide widths are usually available.
If the width is a concern, though, take a look at American oak. You’ll often be faced with Quercus alba, the white oak that is found across North America. While it doesn’t typically grow as tall as its European counterpart, it is certainly broad. Wide, plank wood flooring, therefore, is easier to come across. We’ll look at the importance of width in a later section of this article.
A final note on color: if you’re particularly after red oak, you might find a better range in the American oak section.
Question 2: what is the moisture content?
It’s advisable to look at the moisture content of oak flooring before making your final decision. Although it might not be immediately obvious, it’s an important factor when it comes to the quality and durability of your floor.
Moisture content can vary wildly. If a board is dried down to lower than 8% moisture content, which can often be the case with vacuum kiln-dried American oak, you might run into problems. If you live in an area with damp air, there’s the danger that they may warp. To avoid this problem, look out for boards with an approximate 10% level of moisture content.
Question 3: how long, wide and thick are the boards?
When you’re shopping for oak flooring, take a look at the minimum lengths of the boards. Too short, and they’ll be unusable.
If you’ve decided on oak flooring (but haven’t arrived at which specific type), it’s likely that you’re looking for a quality, luxuriant vibe to your room. The best way to display the luxe tone of an oak floor is to have longboards. For the best finishing aesthetic, try to stick to 2 meters or longer.
You should also pay close attention to how wide the boards are. Often considered to be a case of personal preference, you’ll find a great range of widths available to you. Very slim boards, like 85mm, often don’t look like solid oak flooring at all. If you’re laying a new floor in a large room, it’s best to go for thick pieces of around 200mm. Smaller rooms can get away with having thinner boards of around 120mm. And if you’re not sure? Stick to a width of around 170mm.
For the best structural setup, we recommend sticking to a thickness of 20mm. However, if you’re laying your new flooring on a wooden sub-floor, you’ll be able to get away with 14mm.
Question 4: French oak vs. American oak: what’s the finish like?
In the French oak vs. American oak debate, another difference is the finish of the flooring.
Generally speaking, American oak is treated with a polyurethane finish. Over time, this will need to be touched up and refinished. You’ll need to arrange for the original layers of polyurethane to be sanded off and reapplied. It can be both times consuming and costly, so this is an important factor in your decision-making process.
Conversely, European oak is often treated with a natural oil finish. It penetrates the fibers of the wood, which hardens them without compromising the wood’s natural beauty. This makes them easier to care for, as you’ll never need to have it professionally sanded down. You will, however, need to regularly reapply a maintenance oil to bring the wood back to life.
When looking at wooden flooring for your rooms, oak is among the toughest options out there. This is partly down to the fact that oak trees are so old before being felled to make into timber. Living for hundreds of years, the trees have become weathered to nature; so there’s very little chance a quality oak flooring can’t handle the wear and tear of family life.
As a concept, its popularity never wanes; but as we’ve seen here, there are a number of considerations to be aware of before making your final decision.