Grades of Hardwood Flooring and What You Need to Know

Nick P. Cellucci
Written by Nick P. Cellucci
Updated February 16, 2022
Mother and son playing on the living room floor
Photo: Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Natural wood imperfections include knots, streaks, and wormholes.

  • Hardwood grading systems help you determine the look of a floor.

  • Grading refers to the wood’s appearance, not quality or durability.

  • Planks with the most uniform look are rare and tend to cost more.

  • Rustic-looking planks are more affordable and hide damage well.

Get quotes from up to 3 pros!
Enter a zip below and get matched to top-rated pros near you.

Known, loved, and often imitated for its aesthetic qualities, natural hardwood flooring varies in look depending on species and stain. Because they’re harvested from real trees, wood planks also feature unique patterns and imperfections. To give you more control over the final look of your floors, hardwood is held to certain grading standards. We’ll explain the system and the different grades you’ll encounter when comparing hardwood types.

What Are Hardwood Flooring Grades?

One of the most important things to know before selecting hardwood floors is that every piece of wood features natural irregularities called character marks. Hardwood grading scales define these marks and help homeowners and pros alike measure their number in different types of wood. Natural character marks include:

  • Knots: Dense, round spots formed at the base of a branch. Most grades only allow “sound” knots of smooth, solid wood.

  • Streaks: Caused by mineral deposits in a tree’s rings or by the tree’s sap. These are long, thin, dark areas in the wood.

  • Wormholes: Created by worms or grubs while the tree was still alive, these spots are generally no more than a quarter-inch wide.

Several different grading scales are used in the lumber industry, including unique scales that individual manufacturers have for their own products.  However, the system established by the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA), upheld by the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), is used for almost all hardwood flooring sold in the U.S..

This system provides a standard set of rules to grade hardwood by appearance and the presence of certain character marks—giving buyers an idea of what they can expect the face of each board to look like and helping them find the exact style they’re looking for. It doesn’t assess the wood's quality, durability, stability, structural integrity, or hardness.

Different Hardwood Flooring Grades

Refurbished kitchen with dining table
Photo: Westend61 / Westend61 / Getty Images

Before making a purchase or hiring a local hardwood installer, consider the look you want to achieve and choose one of the following wood flooring grades to match your vision.

Clear Grade

Sometimes called Firsts and Seconds (FAS), Clear Grade is premium wood from the heart of the tree. These boards are somewhat rare, so they’re often sliced thin for use in engineered hardwood planks. Clear Grade wood almost always costs more than character grades. Features include:

  • Consistent grain and color from board to board

  • A face all but free of character marks

  • Smooth, uniform look and classic, clean tone

Select Grade

Cut from both heartwood and sapwood, Select Grade hardwood accounts for no more than 15% of the tree. These boards are in the same cost range as Clear Grade wood, so the two grades are often bundled together. Features include:

  • ore color variation between and within boards

  • Subtle differences in grain pattern from board to board

  • Fairly consistent face, largely free of imperfections

#1 Common Grade

The common grades start to let the character marks shine through and show them off as a design feature. If you want to highlight the natural beauty of your hardwood flooring without making it the focal point of your room, you can opt for the more subtle character of #1 Common Grade wood. Features include:

  • More variation in color, with both light and dark boards

  • Small but visible swirls, knots, and streaks in most boards

  • More variation in board length

#2 Common Grade

Sometimes called “Rustic Grade,'' this grade moves even farther away from uniformity and puts the organic natural appearance of the wood on display. The heavy character markings can help hide scratches and dings in high-traffic rooms or homes with active pets or children—making your hardwood flooring care routine more manageable. Features include:

  • Stark color variations from board to board

  • Darker and more frequent streaks, knots, and wormholes

  • Highly inconsistent grain patterns and swirls

Cabin Grade

This grade offers a rough-hewn look that’s great if you’re designing a playroom, workshop, a literal cabin, or any room that might experience a lot of wear-and-tear thanks to its ability to hide damage. You’ll find bundles of Cabin Grade wood at substantially lower prices than other grades. Features include:

  • No consistency in color or grain pattern

  • Large streaks, deep knots, and other marks

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.