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Straight Talk About Hardwoods from Four Savvy Design Pros

The American Hardwood Information Center asked four top design professionals – a kitchen designer, an interior designer and two architects – to share their thoughts and preferences concerning hardwood as a materials choice.

As you will see, when it comes to recognizing the functionality, durability and sheer beauty of hardwoods, great minds think alike. For these savvy pros, hardwoods rank at the top of the list. Here are their hows and whys.

I learned about hardwoods as a kid – my dad had a woodshop,” explains Mick De Giulio of De Giulio Kitchen Design in Chicago and Wilmette, IL. “I came to love hardwood’s beautiful grain structure.”

“I became familiar with different woods early in my career because of the cabinetmaker I worked with,” says Charles Pavarini III, a New York-based interior designer. “I specify hardwoods according to what the outcome of my design projects is going to be.”

“I would say we use U.S. hardwood in every project,” says Jane Frederick, of Frederick + Frederick Architects in Beaufort and Charleston, SC. “We were introduced to it by lumber suppliers bringing us samples.”

“Years of doing taught me about hardwoods,” says Bernard Wharton, partner in the Norwalk, CT, firm Shop Reno Wharton Architecture. “It’s not about what’s trendy at the time, it’s about wood that not only looks good but is also really durable.”
Photo courtesy of Jon Miller, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

And from the twenty or so most recognized hardwood species, here are their favorites, plus insights on how each hardwood is used:

ASH – “I use it in cabinetry,” says Pavarini. “I like its natural tone, but I sometimes bleach it to make it look very creamy. Even if ash is sanded smooth, its surface appears to have texture.” “I like putting ash on floors,” says Wharton. “It accepts finishes well and, with its consistent grain, is incredibly handsome in its natural state.”

BUTTERNUT – “I love its structure,” De Giulio declares. “It’s beautiful because it has all those knots in it and it looks fantastic when you apply a dark stain.”

CHERRY – “We choose cherry for flooring because of the color-a dark tone with a reddish tint.” says Frederick. “For cabinetry, we’ve used it with insets-a mix of cherry and maple.” Wharton says, “I use it more in cabinetry, though it can also be used for floors. You don’t stain it; it has a beautiful natural hue.” Pavarini cautions that “cherry gets lighter with age, and can be damaged by sunlight. I’m careful not to put it directly in front of large sunlit windows.”

HICKORY – “Sometimes I use hickory on floors, instead of maple or oak, says Pavarini. “Its graining is special, giving a completely different look.”

MAPLE – “It creates a hardy surface as flooring and is also very good for cabinetry,” says Wharton. “It can be used in its natural state and, because of its smoothness and tight grain, can be painted.” “We’ve made great-looking cabinets out of birds-eye maple in a natural finish,” says Frederick. “It’s really durable, and its surface is so hard it won’t absorb dampness. I’ve often specified maple for the interior of kitchen cabinets,” says Pavarini.

OAK – “Oak is the greatest,” Wharton believes. “It has a pronounced grain and can be stained any color you want. And using oak is traditional, not trendy-like owning a pair of gray flannels.”

POPLAR – “Poplar is mainly for interior moldings and running trim and is usually painted,” says Frederick. For Wharton, poplar “takes paint better than almost anything.

SYCAMORE – Says Pavarini, “Because of its beautiful graining and the way the wood is cut, sycamore can have an almost iridescent quality. Because of its natural beauty, I only apply lacquer when I need a super-hard finish. ”

WALNUT – “When we have clients who want really dark floors, we always choose black walnut for its subtle grain and rich tone,” Frederick confides. For De Giulio, walnut works equally well for cabinets. “We often apply an opaque ebonized finish to cover the wood yet maintain the grain.”

Concerning bamboo as a design option, Pavarini says that “it grows fast but is not as versatile as hardwood.” Frederick’s take is that “the color you get is the color you better want. And yes, it’s renewable but you can’t get it locally, so you’re looking at a tradeoff.” And what about cork? “I think the jury is still out,” Wharton insists. For Pavarini, cork “connotes a very casual feeling. You wouldn’t put it in your foyer – you’d probably want to install walnut or some other beautiful hardwood.”

That’s the gist of it – straight talk from the professionals. For these designers, U.S. hardwoods are unmatched in function, flexibility and sheer beauty.


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American Hardwood Information Center
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