Houses are funny things. On paper, it’s easy to look at two houses and think they’re identical. Same square footage, same number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. But, when you actually start looking at houses, you quickly discover nothing could be further from the truth. Every house is different. Some are new, some are old, some are bland, some are gaudy. You can look at twenty houses (or thirty, or forty) that share virtually identical attributes on paper, but eventually, if you’re lucky, you find the one that’s makes you forget all the others – the one that’s special.
Special houses are, in many ways, living, breathing entities. They have stories to tell. They have their own unique character. Simply put, a truly special house speaks to you. It’s difficult to say what makes a house special, just as it’s difficult to say what makes your husband or wife special. Why you choose, out of everyone else on the planet, to settle down with that particular person. But there’s just something about them – an unspoken, undefinable trait they possess – that draws you to them. Houses work the same way. When you step inside a house that’s special, it’s not the size or the number of bedrooms that make it special, it’s the feeling that overwhelms you when you step inside it. It’s like you’ve found your soul mate.
Personally, I don’t think special houses are born – I think they’re made. What I mean by that is I think the truly great houses aren’t spec houses built by a builder; they’re the ones that have owners that shape each and every facet of them. Owners that have gone to painstaking, obsessively compulsive lengths to make sure that every minute part of it is perfect. It’s not something that happens overnight, it’s something that happens over the course of months… years even… as these individuals breathe new life into what was once just an ordinary space.
A year ago, I bought a house, and it was this truth that, in many ways, motivated the purchase. It wasn’t the house in its then current form that attracted me, but rather the vision of what I could make it. A vision of how special the house could be, with the right owner. Fast forward a year, and I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent designing and laboring on my house, all to bring this vision to reality. I’ve scrutinized virtually every aspect of the house, taking it down to studs in many places, and building it back up. But looking at it now and seeing each piece that I hand selected being put into place, there truly is an indescribable character emanating from it – a specialness that I can’t describe. I walk into it, and it just feels like home.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s quite simple, really. Throughout my year-long renovation journey, I learned a great deal about a home’s character and about what elements play a substantial role in the overall feeling of a home. I also spent a tremendous of time researching which companies and products to work with, making numerous (sometimes costly) mistakes along the way. I’m here to share what I’ve learned, helping you avoid the pitfalls I encountered and telling you about some of the companies I’ve worked with that are really unequalled in their fields. Whether your building a new house, renovating an existing house or just want to update a select area of your home, I highly recommend you read on, as it will give you a great idea of what to do, what not to do, and most importantly, who to work with.
Talk to an interior designer, and they’ll tell you the easiest way to change the feel of a room is paint. They’re right. Painting is simple; it’s quick; and it’s relatively inexpensive. But here’s the real question: what’s the best way to change the feel of a room? Personally, I think it all starts with the floor. A beautiful floor sets the stage for a beautiful room. Take a plain white room, add a gorgeous floor, and when you enter it, the floor will immediately capture your attention. It defines the space. Take the same room, paint it the perfect shade of paint, and add some cheap flooring. While the room will feel different, it won’t feel better. The paint will be overshadowed by the flooring, and the character you wanted the room to have will be inexplicably absent. Before you do anything else to a room, pick flooring to define the space.
So what exactly is the perfect flooring? I’ll be blunt: the answer is wood. You didn’t think it would be that simple, but it is. There is absolutely nothing that can come close to the sheer beauty and character exuded by a wood floor. It’s an answer that applies irrespective of style. Classic, traditional, contemporary – it doesn’t matter what style of home you have or what style you’re seeking, a wood floor is the absolute perfect flooring material for any style you can imagine. Unfortunately, it was a fact unbeknownst to my home’s previous owners, who had carpeted the vast majority of the house. Needless to say, the carpet in my house was the first thing to go, and thus began my journey into the world of wood flooring.
To be honest, I had no idea how difficult selecting wood flooring would be. After meeting with designers and viewing hundreds of rooms for inspiration, I had a clear idea of what I wanted before I began the purchase process. Add in the fact I saw flooring sales from local big box stores every week and ads from local flooring stores almost every day, I figured it would be a case of walking into a store, picking what I wanted, and being done. If I was unlucky, I figured 2, maybe 3 stores at the most to find what I was looking for. Oh how wrong I was. I kid you not – I went to pretty much every flooring store in a 40 mile radius, and I quickly discovered that finding flooring is an incredibly difficult task.
To me, it is absolutely imperative that wood flooring exhibits a sense of character in a room. Every wood species has an inherent beauty in it – a natural design that sets it apart from any other material on the planet. It has unique grain patterns; it has distinct color characteristics; it has individual flaws. But upon surveying wood flooring at local retailers, I quickly learned that wood flooring has been transformed into a soulless, mass produced product reminiscent of any other flooring material. Innocent trees have given up their lives to become engineered, pre-finished, perfectly uniform pieces of wood that lack the true traits a wood floor should possess. I wanted wood floors, but not like this. I decided to look elsewhere, so I took my search online, and that’s when I was introduced to a company by the name of Pioneer Millworks.
The Pioneer Millworks Story
Pioneer Millworks is, for all intents and purposes, the quintessential American company. In a day when monolithic corporations and global flooring conglomerates churn out remarkably lackluster products, Pioneer Millworks stands squarely against them, producing the most gorgeous, character-laden wood flooring I’ve ever seen.
It sounds a little like David and Goliath, but in truth, it’s more like the Spartans doing battle against the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. Huge flooring manufacturers flood the market with 18,000 inferior, truly uninspiring products, and Pioneer Millworks responds by delivering 50 products that overpower any of those offered by their competitors. Strength isn’t derived from numbers, it’s derived from strategy, and it’s Pioneer Millworks’ strategy in producing flooring that sets them apart from the sea of competitors it’s up against.
It’s a strategy that began a little more than 20 years ago, in the small town of Shortsville, NY. The idea was to salvage existing wood destined for a land fill and to grant it new life, transforming it into something beautiful that could be used again. The wood would come from a variety of sources – much of it from old barns and industrial buildings (like the barn pictured here), but some of it from diverse places such as wine vats and shipping containers. The defining trait was that none of the wood would come from new lumber or sources detrimental to the environment.
Once they had the wood, Pioneer Millworks would begin the transformation process, going through each piece of timber by hand and removing any metal or fasteners still present in the wood. The lumber would then be sent to the mill, where it would then be re-sawn into planks, sorted, and kiln-dried, before finally being given a tongue and groove for its new life as reclaimed flooring.
Needless to say, the strategy worked. Today, Pioneer Millworks has grown to become the country’s largest domestic resource of reclaimed wood products, with two locations (one in New York and one in Oregon), a little less than 100 employees, a 50,000 sq. foot shop, and a 9-acre lumber yard. Roughly 70 percent of their production consists of flooring products, while the other 30 percent includes reclaimed siding, millwork and timbers (see their sister company New Energy Works to see some examples of reclaimed timbers in use). But what may be most impressive is the fact that even with their growth, Pioneer Millworks has managed to create an operational model that exemplifies eco-friendliness. Their operations are sourced entirely in the U.S.; their complete product range is FSC certified; their power is derived entirely from wind; their heat is provided from boilers powered by their own wood scraps; even their sawdust is converted to pellets for use in home heating. Topping it all off, Pioneer Millworks produces wood flooring that has a beauty and character unmatched by any other flooring on the planet.
Why Choose Pioneer Millworks’ Reclaimed Flooring?
I’ll be honest – when selecting flooring, my first priority was its appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I love the planet, but that wasn’t the first thing that drew me to Pioneer Millworks. It was the beauty of the flooring. As I already noted, it was vital to me that the floor I selected had a sense of character unto itself. Whether it was going in a plain white room or a room that had more intricate millwork, it didn’t matter. I wanted a floor that had a distinct presence irrespective of what was around it, so that when you stepped into the room, it immediately captured your attention. I looked at hundreds of flooring options, and none had anywhere near the character of the flooring offered by Pioneer Millworks.
It’s a character that’s derived from a variety of things. Firstly, there’s the reclaimed element in and of itself. Because it was previously used in another structure or application, reclaimed flooring has a series of imperfections built into it. Nail holes, bolt holes, saw marks, insect tracks – all are possible, each of which provides a visible reminder that the wood had a previous life. The number of imperfections varies based on the wood flooring you select. For a more rugged look, Pioneer Millworks offers a range of mixed softwoods and mixed hardwoods, with defining characteristics including a wider color variation, saw marks, knots, nail holes – everything you want if you’re looking for a more casual, character-laden wood floor. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Pioneer Millworks offers reclaimed walnut flooring – a floor that’s beauty is nearly beyond belief – yet a floor that still notes a few nail holes and slight imperfections, demonstrating its heritage. It’s a floor whose richness would be at home in virtually any setting, from a sprawling $20 million estate to 800 sq. ft NYC apartment, and is the single most gorgeous flooring I’ve ever seen.
Beyond the signs of its past life, the second reason to opt for reclaimed flooring is the wood itself. Reclaimed flooring was originally milled and used in a different era, at a time when old growth trees were used and more species of wood were available. In fact, Chestnut and Elm were decimated by blights in the early 20th century, meaning reclaimed is the only option for adding these two wood species to your home. As for the benefits of old growth wood, it offers intense grain patterns, rich patinas and a stability that is absolutely impossible to duplicate with any flooring produced today. And that’s really the key element to remember when looking at reclaimed flooring. While new flooring manufacturers try to emulate the look of historic flooring and old growth trees, reclaimed flooring is the authentic, genuine product that everyone else is aspiring to. It’s weathered storms, withstood generations of use, and has a unique history unlike anything new you can buy today. Reclaimed flooring has had a century’s worth of character infused directly into it, and it’s this singular fact that makes it impossible for any other flooring to surpass or even equal either its quality or character.
Lastly, the final reason to opt for reclaimed flooring is the environmental impact. Reclaimed flooring (and other reclaimed products) are derived from wood that otherwise is destined for a landfill or some other form of disposal. Wood that, as we’ve already discussed, is not only usable, it’s beautiful, old growth lumber that has its own defining character. By opting for reclaimed flooring, you’re getting the absolute best flooring available, you’re saving what would otherwise be waste, and and you’re eliminating the need to cut down new trees.
Eliminating the need for new lumber is especially important as of late, when exotic species are rising tremendously in popularity. Exotics under a vast array of names including Brazilian walnut, Brazilian cherry, African walnut, Acacia, etc. are derived to a large extent from environmentally detrimental means, including harvesting from the rain forest (both in South America and Southeast Asia) as well as illegal logging operations. If you’re considering an exotic, I can’t stress enough not to – it’s not worth the very strong possibility that it was taken in a way that’s devastating to its region’s habitat. And even if you’re considering a species that’s not endangered or an integral part of the earth’s ecosystem, there’s still nothing that’s anywhere near as environmentally friendly as Pioneer Millworks’ reclaimed flooring.
Selecting a Species of Reclaimed Flooring
Picking the perfect reclaimed flooring is really up to your individual tastes, but as a general rule, hardness, grain pattern, and to slightly less extent, color are the three key things to consider. For highly trafficked areas, most opt for a hardwood, such as ash, hickory, oak or beech/maple, all of which are capable of withstanding a relatively large amount of abuse without denting or gouging. On the other end of the spectrum, pine is a very soft wood, and as such, it will develop dents and marks typical of softwood floors as it ages. In between, Walnut, Cherry and Chestnut offer a descending degree of hardness. Of course, part of the beauty of reclaimed flooring lies in its imperfections, so while most choose hardwood for highly trafficked areas, softer woods, while showing wear, are still a fantastic option anywhere, as they’ll develop a unique sense of character over their lifetime.
Once you’ve selected a hardness, the next thing to consider is the grain pattern. Ash, for example, is very similar to oak; however it’s grain pattern is lighter, and it has no discernible ray fleck. Hickory, on the other hand, has beautifully contrasting light tans with darker brown swirls, offering a lighter floor with gorgeously contrasting grains. And then there’s walnut, a species that has a simply mesmerizing array of swirls, patterns and colors throughout. The key is to decide what’s the perfect hardness, pattern and amount of grain for your use, and then move on to color.
You may be wondering why you don’t choose color first, and the reason is simple: you can choose to finish different woods in various shades of color. Oak, for example, is a medium-toned wood, but for those that love the grain and hardness associated with oak but want a darker wood, you can opt to stain it a deeper shade during installation. The same is true for the majority of other lighter woods. In Pioneer Millworks’ lineup, all of their American Gothic range can be finished in varying colors, with species available including Ash, Cherry, Chestnut, Elm, Hickory, Beech/Maple, Oak and Walnut, among others.
Because it’s reclaimed flooring, there are some exceptions to the color rule, however. Pioneer Millworks’ Settlers’ Plank lineup (available in Chestnut, mixed hardwoods and oak), offers a more relaxed look with greater color variations, so the finished look will offer a higher color contrast, regardless of the final surface finish. The same is true for black & tan oak, which has portions of the original black paint already applied to it. And of course, should you opt for one of Pioneer Millworks’ pre-finished reclaimed options, then the color is finished before it’s installed. As I came to find out, if you have any questions regarding floor color, Pioneer Millworks is fantastic at helping you understand the coloring and giving you a clear idea of what to expect from the finished product.
Pioneer Millworks’ Reclaimed Walnut Flooring
After finding Pioneer Millworks and reading about the company and their products, picking the specific flooring for me was the easy part. I love walnut – it’s just an incredibly gorgeous wood. It has intense grain patterns, varying shades of color and a few knots, all of which give it a remarkable sense of character. It’s also a wood that’s been highly prized in furniture making since the 1800’s, making it the rarest wood Pioneer Millworks reclaims.
I spoke with Pioneer Millworks, and I decided to finish a total of three rooms with their reclaimed walnut flooring, totaling a little more than 1,000 sq. feet. Depending on the wood you select, it’s possible you may have a few options to choose from when placing your order. In my case, I had the option of either 3/4″ solid wood flooring or 5/8″ engineered wood flooring; I had the option of a finished or unfinished surface; and I had the option of medium random width boards (3 – 7 inches) or wide random with boards (7+ inches). These choices will vary based on the specific flooring you select, but the Pioneer Millworks website details each of the available options for each of the specific flooring species, making it simple to see your choices online. I opted for unfinished engineered walnut flooring in 3.5 – 6.5 inch random widths.
To be honest, ordering over a 1,000 sq. feet of flooring even after a seeing a sample is a slightly nerve-racking experience. There are the questions of whether the sample is a true representation of what you’re ordering, whether it will look different when laid out in the room, and so on. On arrival day, it was packaged tightly on pallets and the sun was setting, so I still couldn’t gauge it’s appearance. It wasn’t until the next day, when I finally was able to start opening some of the flooring bundles, that I actually got to see it.
If I had to describe my reaction, it was probably one of stunned silence. The first piece of flooring looked substantially different than the sample. Whereas the sample pieces bordered more towards a consistent reddish brown color, the first piece from the bundle was more of a purplish hue with swirls of both lighter and coffee colors. The next piece was again different – this time, a more uniformly coffee color. Then the next piece came, and it was predominantly purple hued, with intense graining and several knots. This went on for quite some time – truthfully, I couldn’t help myself. It was like being on a hike and exploring a trail you’ve never been on before, wanting to go a little further, just to see what’s around the next bend. Every piece of the flooring was different and unique – I just kept opening more bundles, just to see what intricacies the next piece held.
Was the sample indicative of the flooring? Not anywhere close. The actual flooring was a million times more beautiful than I ever anticipated it being. Whereas the sample led me to expect a certain color and grain pattern, the actual flooring had the most gorgeous array of grain patterns and colors I’ve ever seen, in any flooring, anywhere. But as beautiful as the pieces were, it wasn’t until the flooring was actually laid that the true beauty of the walnut was revealed. While the flooring noted a gorgeous array of purplish hues, coffee colors, reddish browns and lighter swirls, once the floor was laid into place, they merge in a way that’s truly indescribable. The colors, while individually different, blend perfectly once installed, melding together into a surface that retains some color variation yet still is perfectly united.
Then there’s the depth of the wood. It’s truly difficult to describe, but certain pieces of the walnut flooring exhibit a holographic feel – an almost 3D effect where it feels like you can actually see into the wood. It’s an effect that has nothing to do with the finish, as it’s present on the unfinished pieces. Much the way you can see a beautiful piece of art and it feels like you can stare at it for hours, the walnut grain captures the light and creates a sense of depth that’s truly mesmerizing, to the point you just want to stare at it. Every time I see it, I’m still in awe of its beauty.
From a reclaimed, worn-in standpoint, Pioneer Millworks’ did an incredible job transforming the walnut into a flooring material perfectly at home in virtually any setting, in any style. Nail holes and slight imperfections remind you of its past, but the overall feel is one of sheer, unadulterated beauty. It’s elegant if you want it to be, but it’s also a look that would be equally at home in a less than formal setting. I’ve already said it once, but Pioneer Millworks’ reclaimed walnut has a character unmatched by any wood flooring I’ve ever seen, and in truth, there’s simply no instance where I wouldn’t use it, whether it’s in a traditional home, a sprawling Palm Beach mansion, a contemporary loft, or anything in between.
Lastly, as someone that loves getting his hands dirty (and thus opting to install the flooring myself), I thought I’d comment on the quality of the milling. Buying reclaimed flooring I wasn’t sure whether there would be more variation in the boards as opposed to traditional flooring, but I came to find the quality was impeccable. Because it lacks beveling like all of the traditional pre-finished flooring options, any variation in board thickness is more evident, as the pieces are completely flat and butt directly into one another. But after installing the floor, I can tell you the manufacturing was fantastic, as the floor required only a minute amount of sanding to be perfectly smooth. Honestly, I could have gotten away without sanding at all, but the flooring finish I applied recommended sanding to ensure proper adhesion. The finished floor is seamless, and offers a gorgeously smooth surface that’s simply unequalled by any of the pre-finished bevelled products flooding the market. There’s just no comparison in terms of how much better it looks.
Pioneer Millworks is, in no simpler terms, the company you wished existed for everything you bought. They’re masters of their craft, transforming something that some would consider useless into an absolutely stunning work of art, and they do it in the most environmentally responsible way possible. In seeking out wood flooring, I had a clear idea of what I wanted from the beginning, and when I was introduced to Pioneer Millworks, I thought I had found it. In retrospect, as beautiful as I thought the reclaimed walnut was going to be, the end product is beyond anything I imagined. There simply is no flooring on the planet that can comes close the beauty and character exuded by that of Pioneer Millworks. It adds a specialness to your home that I truly can’t describe, and it’s for this reason that I recommend Pioneer Millworks reclaimed flooring to anyone even remotely considering flooring for their home. It’s simply amazing.
You can learn more about Pioneer Millworks reclaimed walnut flooring along with their full lineup of reclaimed products at their website, PioneerMillworks.com. I’ve also included a gallery below showcasing my own personal Pioneer Millworks walnut wood flooring, along with some extra photos showing what goes into the flooring Pioneer Millworks creates.
Whether you’re considering installing Pioneer Millworks flooring yourself or having it installed by a professional, I highly recommend purchasing the book A Complete Guide to Layout, Installation & Finishing Wood Flooring by Charles Peterson. As an installation guide, it’s an invaluable resource, and for those having a pro do the installation, it allows you to ensure the installer is following proper installation procedures.
In my particular case, I initially planned on having a professional install the flooring, but they informed it would be fine to use particleboard as the subfloor. This is in stark contrast to what both the book and numerous other online installers stated, so I decided not to take any chances the installer would attempt to cut additional corners and instead chose to do it myself. Whoever you choose to install the flooring, here are some key things to keep in mind.
1) Have a solid, smooth and dry subfloor
If you get the book, you’ll read the same thing, but it’s vital to note again: when you’re installing Pioneer Millworks flooring, make sure you have a solid, smooth and dry subfloor beneath. In my case, I had to replace an existing layer of particleboard with a new layer of OSB to create a proper nailing surface. I then sanded any uneven joints smooth, and lastly, allowed time for the new subfloor to acclimate in the house. Hardwood flooring doesn’t hide imperfections in the subfloor, so make sure either you or your installer fixes any subfloor problems before installing the actual flooring.
2) Use a vapor retarder
Following the subfloor preparation, the next step is to install a vapor retarder to keep moisture from entering the flooring from below. While it’s common to use #15 builder’s felt, I used a product from Fortifiber called Aquabar B that’s designed specifically for use under wood flooring. It’s price is equal to the aforementioned felt, it’s thinner and easier to install, and it’s significantly more effective at keeping moisture out. While it’s not as readily available as felt, it’s a better, equally priced option that’s worth seeking out.
3) Acclimate the flooring in the room
While Pioneer Millworks flooring is kiln-dried before being shipped to you, it’s still important to allow the flooring to acclimate in the room where it’s going to be installed. To do so, open all the bundles being installed and stack the flooring in the room in rows perpendicular to one another. Then, allow the flooring to acclimate for at least 1 week, although 2 weeks is preferable. This allows the the flooring’s moisture levels to stabilize in your particular environment, minimizing the chances of it excessively expanding or shrinking once it’s been installed.
4) Layout the floor before installation
Once you’re ready to install the flooring, lay out the pieces before nailing them down (a process known as racking the floor), or have your installer do it. By doing so, it allows you to see the look of the room in a non-final way, meaning that you can move pieces that seem out of place before they’re nailed in. Racking the floor is especially important with reclaimed flooring that has varying colors, as it ensures you don’t end up with a patch (or patches) of colors in a particular area.
And that’s it. Whether you’re installing the flooring yourself or having someone else complete the installation, these tips should help ensure a smooth installation and gorgeous finished product.