Hardwood Grades 101: 4 Oak Natural Grades Explained

Cut lumber next to stacked wood, next to graded hardwood flooring

In the wood flooring business, the goal that every manufacturer seeks is lumber clean enough to make their Select floors. Unfortunately, only about 60% of the tree will become the high-graded material. What does the manufacturer do with the rest? We work very closely with a couple of major manufacturers to develop products that use these lower wood grades, and move them into the market (and out of their warehouses!) quickly.

Keep in mind that the grades for hardwood lumber are quite different from unfinished hardwood flooring grades, and unfinished hardwood flooring grades have very little in common with the prefinished hardwood flooring grades as set by the National Wood Flooring Association, NWFA. Confused? Yeah, me too. And that is the reason for this blog. We are setting expectations for every box of prefinished solid hardwood flooring that we sell right now.

Hardwood Grades Smell Like Beef?

If you have read many of my other blogs (or seen my pictures), you know I like food, and make a lot of food analogies. The hardwood flooring is a lot like the beef business. Everyone wants steak, but what do you do with the rest of the cow? A mature steer will yield about 80 lbs of steak. Now you have another 250 lbs of other cuts. Ground beef, roasts, stew beef, etc. represent the majority of the beef, and must be sold at some price. Although one could say that the butcher that buys the whole cow has the same cost in the prime rib that he does in the ground beef, his future in the beef business depends on his being able to sell each cut of beef at the highest and best yield. It is the same way with wood.

Hardwood Grades 101: 4 Grades of  Solid Oak Natural Hardwood Examined


This grading video explanation has a better color representation for these oak natural floors than the pictures below. Maybe using cell phones for product photography isn’t a good idea?

If you have watched our Really Cheap Solid Hardwood Floors video shown above, you understand how our 4 different grades of flooring all come from the same tree.  If you haven’t watched it, you should. Not only is it a great visual of how wood is graded, but it also features the most handsome guy in all of ReallyCheapFloors. Just sayin!

However, if you prefer the words of this struggling bard, I will attempt to portray the grading process that is used by our largest partner.

Red Label Hardwood Grading

First, all of the incoming lumber is graded twice before the finish is applied. In the first grade out, our Red Label flooring is pulled out. Anything that the graders know will not make a #1 Common or Select grade will be pulled from the line at this point, and put into bundles. The reasons for its removal can include color variation such as sapwood or mineral streak,  wormholes, knots exceeding 3/8”, or maybe just a short board. Any of these natural defects will preclude these boards from being included in the Select floor, so out they go!

Red Label Prefinished Solid Product Image

Notice the shorter boards, more color variation, and nature’s touch like wormholes and mineral streaks. Red label is for the customer who likes more color in a hardwood grade.

The Red Label offers our customers a price point that is lower than any other solid prefinished product on the market, as well as offering a high, 95% yield. Why? Because there are very few unusable boards in the Red Label. While it does offer a very low price, the natural defects will make a floor with a unique look that is popular in many applications. None of the red label should be culled except for a few odd boards that received a defect in the finishing process.

The Rustic Look is a Choice

If you do not want a rustic-appearing floor with knots, shorts, and possibly worm-holes, do not buy our Red Label. It is what it is, and tossing 10-20% will change nothing, other than the total cost of the floor. Keep in mind that while the Red Label will contain a large portion of shorts, the finished product is like a mosaic. While pulling the board out of the box, you may be dismayed by all so many shorts, but when it is installed, the shorter boards will team up to make a floor with a great deal of contrast and character, delivering a unique floor at an amazing price!

The exception will be the darker stained floors, like our Metro Brown. As you stain a floor, much of the contrast is removed as the lighter boards catch up to the darker ones. Some people love the darker colors because of this, while others prefer the randomness of the Natural Oak or Gunstock. You choose!

Lastly, because we only offer 4 colors of each width in the Red Label, we will almost always have inventory available, even for large truckload orders. We can also offer semi-custom stains on orders of 15,000 sq ft or more. The second grading will yield our newest product, the Chateau Oak. 

Chateau Oak Hardwood Grading

Many years ago, there were 2 grades of wood Select, and Cabin. Any board that was not good enough for Select automatically went into Cabin. Because the popular finish then was Natural floors, any board that had color in it fell out to Cabin.

In the last 15 years, the darker colors like Saddle and Coffee Bean became very popular, often representing 75% or more of the market. The manufacturers loved this, as it allowed them to use that board that previously went into Cabin due to slight discoloration, but when stained became a Select board. It was during this time that the overall yield of Cabin solid fell to around 5% while becoming a lower graded product due to the long colored boards being used elsewhere.

Warranty, Low Gloss, and Long Boards… Oh my!

chateau oak prefinished solid product picture

Chateau Oak is a 1st Quality Floor. Notice the long board length, less color variation, and no mineral steaks or wormholes. This is graded for someone who needs more consistency.

Now, in today’s market, we see the consumer choosing a more balanced spectrum of colors, resulting in excess of long, perfect boards that contain a little bit more color than is acceptable in Select, but nowhere near the Cabin specifications. What to do with it? Well, our supplier came to us looking for help, and together we came up with the Chateau Oak. Chateau is available in 4 colors.

  • White Oak Natural
  • Red Oak Natural
  • Metro Brown
  • Gunstock

The Chateau offers an extremely low 10% gloss, acceptable color variation, long boards, and no natural or manufacturing defects, at half the price of Select. Oh, and a 30-year warranty, for those of you that like a warranty. And, like the Red Label, the Chateau is always available in large quantities and can be semi-custom finished for large orders.

About now, you are wondering why we have so many weird grades. Grades that you have never heard of. Why is that? Sometimes I wonder the same thing! Selling nonstandard grades is a lot of work, not just for our salespeople that must be able to represent the contents of every box in a way that offers an honest picture to each potential customer, but also to our marketing and warehouse people. It is a lot of work being the best at what we do! Sure, we could mix 2 or 3 grades together and make our life easier. But, we would rather offer our customers the absolute highest values in the market today while doing our best to move our partner’s inventory quickly and efficiently.

Cabin Grade Hardwood

Our next grade is the Cabin grade. Cabin grade is pulled out after the finishing process is complete, and will be composed of any board that does not fit the grading standards of our Select products. While this definition is a bit vague, it is important that you remember how the first 2 products were chosen.

Due to the Red Label being pulled out early, our Cabin will represent possibly the cleanest sub-graded flooring on the market. Expect to see a shorter average board length than the Select. Our Cabin solid will show slight manufacturing defects such as chipping, nicks, partially broken tongue, and finish skips. These manufacturing defects will be a rare occurrence. We want you to know everything about our cabin and what you can expect from it. 

red oak natural cabin grade solid product image

Our prefinished red oak natural solid cabin grade has a very clean look in this picture. Notice a few short boards, mixed with some color variation. Cabin is one of our most popular hardwood floor options.

The 5% Waste Rule

Cabin grade is also allowed to contain any of the natural defects in the Red Label, due to being missed at the earlier stage, this is not a common occurrence. The allowance of 5% waste will produce a usable floor. If you are only installing flooring in the common area of your home, you might buy 10% for waste, but if you are including bedrooms, with closets, 5% is plenty. Keep in mind that a board you may not want to use in your living room might work great in the bedroom. Or even a kid’s closet. It’s not like that floor will ever be seen again after move-in day!

Because our Cabin is pulled after the finishing process is complete, we have a full range of colors, species, and widths available. Sadly, that also means that we will sometimes run out of products. We run out of cabin on days that end in –Y sadly. If you see a Cabin grade floor you want, you better buy it. When it is gone, it will not be available again. Cabin occurs when the Select inventory is depleted, and another production run goes on schedule.

Have you noticed our Red Label and Chateau have current listings only as Oak species? Do you see it comes in just the 2 ¼ and 3 ¼” widths? That is because there isn’t enough stock to validate separating the other widths and species. Maybe someday!

(1st) First Quality Hardwood Grading

Now you will see that we are left with the prime rib, er, the Select hardwood. We can offer Red Oak, White Oak, Hard Maple, and Hickory hardwood floors as a high-graded product in a multitude of colors and widths, all at a great price, not in spite of all of our other grades, but because of it.  When the butcher finds a great market for his ground beef, his steak prices will fall. That is what we have accomplished with our first quality Country, Appalachian, Antique, and Oak Plank offerings. By utilizing our manufacturer’s strengths, strategic logistics, and low overhead, we can offer more value on a warranted floor than anyone else. 

(1st) First Quality Select Grade Prefinished Oak Natural solid hardwood product image

1st Quality Solid Red Oak Natural from our Appalachian line. Notice the long average long, less color variation, and consistent look throughout.

Certainly, some customers prefer a full-service experience. Complete with installation, estimates, and the expertise that comes with hiring a local supplier.  We encourage our customers that need a full-service experience to visit their local, independent flooring professional. After all, that is what we did for over 35 years. Anyone can sell hardwood flooring online. Sometimes it takes the experience of a local professional to provide the peace of mind that some customers need. Please give your local independent store a chance to earn your business. If you are looking for more discount flooring check out our products page.