What Are The Grades Of Hardwood Flooring?

By Cezar

Hardwood has been a popular flooring choice for hundreds or thousands of years. You might be drawn to hardwood for its appearance, feel durability or longevity. However – did you know that not all hardwood flooring is created equal?

Besides the large differences observed between different types of wood, it’s important that consumers are aware of the different grades of hardwood flooring.

Hardwood flooring grades are a measure of the quality of the wood. It’s important to be clear at the outset that this is not a measure of the wood’s durability or structural integrity! All wood from a quality supplier should have the same longevity and performance, regardless of grade. Instead, the rating of the wood helps you distinguish its appearance.

High grades of wood have an incredibly regular, “picture-perfect” look. Planks of high grade hardwood are free of knots, streaking and any other irregularities. On the other end, low grade wood has a rugged, naturalistic appearance, with plenty of character. Whether you want high or low grade depends on your application – a cottage cabin would likely be fine with “cabin grade”, but a law firm seeking a svelte polished wood countertop for the lobby would likely opt for the highest grade.

The grading standards are over 100 years old and established by the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) in concert with the US and Canadian hardwood industries. Grades were originally designed for the furniture industry, but it’s become common to use them to describe hardwood flooring as well.

Variety Of Grade Options

To help you get a picture of what grade means in practice, here are some of the most common grades on the market – from high to low.

  • Clear Grade: Also called premium glade, a clear grade is the highest grade available. Planks of clear grade wood have an incredibly uniform, consistent appearance, free of markings or knots. Of course, this also makes clear grade the most expensive.
  • Select Grade: Select grade wood is almost as consistent as a clear grade, but with a few more variations in grain and marking being visible. More visible markings like knots are very rare, however. This offers a similar look to clear grade at a reduced price.
  • Common 1 & 2: Common grades 1 and 2 are middle of the road. Both of these grades begin to show colour transitions, shading and marking, with knots and other prominent features being visible on some boards. Common grade 1 is closer to clear and select, whereas common grade 2 is more rustic.
  • Rustic Grade: Also known as cabin grade, rustic grade lives up to its name. It offers the looks you might expect in an old-fashioned log cabin, with amble knots and swirls, variations in colour between and within boards, and other rough-hewn features. That being said, it is also the cheapest grade and can look great in the right applications.

One important thing to keep in mind when picking wood for your floor is your stain. A dark stain can help hide imperfections and minimize colour variation, allowing you to sometimes get away with a lower grade of wood. Your choice of floor stain is cheap, whereas higher grades are expensive!

Oak Grades

As an example, let’s take a look at the different grades of oak, one of the most popular hardwood choices for flooring.

Clear Oak: Clear oak planks are typically taken from the heart of the tree. Oak of this grade has an incredibly uniform, soft appearance, with no spots, streaks or knots. Each plank has a minimum of colour variation, and all of the planks look more or less the same. The rarest and most expensive grade of oak. Clear oak is a great choice if you have the budget and would like to use a very soft or light stain.

Select Oak: More common than clear oak, select oak comes from a combination of sapwood and heartwood. Select oak planks vary more in appearance, however, this is often barely noticeable on a hardwood floor. With the select grades, you might expect a knot or other defect to appear every couple of feet. Select oak with a dark stain will look very similar to clear oak for an untrained eye.

Common Oak: Common oak has several sub-grades, but they all have a roughly similar appearance. As you decrease the grade, you’ll find more and more streaks, knots, and other character marks. For many applications, common oak is a great choice.

Rustic Oak: The lowest grade, rustic oak abounds in markings, streaks, and knots big and small. The planks may have several colours, and many of the planks will look different from one another. This would have a unique character that can shine through in certain settings.


Don’t neglect to take hardwood grade into consideration when planning your hardwood floor. The grade of the floor does a lot to establish your floor’s final look and character. This doesn’t just mean always opting for the highest grade possible – the more rustic grades can be a great choice for some spaces and applications. Don’t make this mistake yourself – talk to one of our hardwood refinishing experts.