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Overview of All Solid Hardwood Grades

Grade is definitely something you'll need to consider when choosing hardwood for your home.

6 min read
Published on June 15, 2022

If you're shopping for hardwood, you'll likely be at least somewhat familiar with the differences between wood species. Grain patterns and color are quite noticeable, and we also know that some wood species are harder than others. But what about grades? You may have seen the terms “Select Grade” or “Rustic Grade” in a description for a hardwood product and wondered what they meant. Grade is definitely something you'll need to consider when choosing hardwood for your home.

Bellawood Artisan Solid Hardwood Flooring

Bellawood Artisan
3/4 in. Hunters Creek Hickory Solid Hardwood Flooring 5 in. Wide


In short, solid hardwood grades relate to the appearance of the wood in terms of marks, color variation between planks, finishing defects, and other characteristics viewed as imperfections. Higher grades generally command a higher price and vice versa. You might choose a certain grade because it better fits your budget, suits your décor and aesthetic preferences, or both.

Hardwood Basics

To fully understand solid hardwood grades, it’s helpful to know how hardwood planks are produced. In the U.S., hardwood species such as oak, maple, and hickory are harvested from professionally managed forests, mainly in the eastern portion of the country. Although technically a softwood, pine has also been a popular tree choice for flooring in the U.S., appealing to many for its character and affordability. Exotic hardwood species harvested outside of the U.S.—such as acacia, Brazilian cherry, and teak—have been prized the world over for their rich colors and striking contrasts. It should be noted that the character of wood comes from the fact that it’s a natural product; when it comes to solid hardwood, each plank is unique. Hardwood planks can come from a tree's heartwood—the older, harder central part of the tree—or sapwood, the softer and younger portion that's often lighter in color. This accounts for the variation you’ll find within any collection of wood planks and is part of what gives the wood its character. After the trees are harvested, the logs are transported to a mill where they’re cut and planed into straight boards that are suitable to be installed as flooring. Before going to market, they’re sorted by appearance and length, then graded.

Hardwood Grading

It’s important to note that the grades solid hardwood planks receive have nothing to do with the quality and performance of the wood itself. For instance, hardness may be a consideration when you’re looking for flooring that may take a beating in an active household. For that, the Janka hardness scale would be your guide. The grade of solid hardwood pertains solely to the character marks and imperfections in the appearance of the wood. Knots—the familiar brown spots we see in wood—are one type of character mark. They form at the base of branches and twigs and can vary in size. Streaks are another type of mark. These result from the minerals the tree absorbed from its environment during its lifetime. Hardwood grading rules can be rather complicated, and the terminology can vary depending on the source.

There can be different grading scales per species, too. For instance, pine is graded slightly differently than species such as oak and maple and is allowed to have larger knots. At LL Flooring, you’ll typically find hardwood flooring categorized as Select, Natural, Mill-run, Character, or Rustic. Other hardwood grading levels include Prime and Utility.


Also referred to as Clear, Prime is the very top of the line when it comes to grading. These planks are almost exclusively heartwood and feature the highest uniformity in color and grain pattern, lacking any marks that could be considered imperfections. It is also the highest priced grade since each tree will have only a limited amount of wood that could be considered Prime.


Select grade hardwood will also have a more uniform look in terms of the grain pattern and color variation from plank to plank. But at this grade, you’ll begin to see some character marks such as small knotholes. There will also be slightly more color variability. In pre-finished Select grade planks, defects such as scratches, streaks, skips, or chipping will be virtually non-existent. Select grade planks tend to be longer in size, on average, than the grades below it. They will also cost more. You may want to use Select grade solid hardwood in areas of your home where you desire a more consistent look in your flooring. Lighter tones, such as those found in Bellawood Select Maple or Select White Oak, can give your space a contemporary feel. Rich, warm tones create a more traditional, formal atmosphere, especially when the planks are narrow. Bellawood Select Santos Mahogany is an example of this formal look.

Natural, or Character

Sometimes referred to as #1 Common, Natural grade wood will have more color differences within and between planks than Select grade, attributable to the mix of heartwood and sapwood. It will also have some small knots. You may find imperfections such as small splits and open checks that develop during the drying process, or variations that result from machining. Any of these open characters, including small knot holes, must be sound and easily fillable. Natural grade hardwood is a good choice if character marks are either not a concern or are actually a preferred look. Combined with distressing techniques such as wire brushing and hand scraping, these boards will create a casual, time-worn look, like the kind you’d find in Virginia Mill Works Pioneer Hickory.


Most mill-run flooring falls under the Select grade. Mill-run actually has a more high-end look given its true variety of the characteristics that people look for in a natural floor. You'll find longer lengths of mill-run than other grades, which makes it well suited to large or open-concept spaces.


Contrasts and character marks abound in Rustic grade (aka #2 Common) hardwood planks. A greater amount of flaws and blemishes are permitted, with the exception of defects that would impair the function of the product. But just as in Natural grade, any knot holes and other open characters must be easily fillable or repaired. As the name implies, this Rustic grade flooring is a good complement to rustic decors, with darker tones evoking a cozy cottage deep in the woods. The gray tones found in Bellawood Artisan Vineyard Haven Oak and Bellawood Artisan Pasque Island work well in a beach cottage or coastal-chic-style homes. For a farmhouse kitchen, Rustic grade flooring will add a casual, earthy atmosphere. The number and degree of character marks found in Rustic grade planks also makes them a creative choice for cabin wall paneling or for an eye-catching accent wall in your home.


Also known as #3 Common or Cabin grade, Utility grade has the lowest average board length and can have open knots, machine burns, missing tongues, and splits. Finishes can have irregularities such as skips, severe streaks, and stain-color variation. We recommend installing this type of flooring in areas like closets or your pantry.


Unfinished Hardwood

Regardless of the grade, unfinished hardwood will of course give you the most natural look. You'll need to finish your flooring either with a clear stain or the color stain of your preference. The more color variation and character marks in your wood, the more dramatic the staining effects will be.


As a rule of thumb, the lower the hardwood grade, the more waste percentage you should expect. This is because the greater variations in color between planks and the higher rate of natural imperfections mean you may not wish to use all of the wood. With Utility grade boards, for example, you might expect to figure in at least 20% waste.

Installation and Maintenance

In general, you would install and maintain all solid hardwood flooring the same way regardless of grade. In grades that include a greater amount of color variation, it would be important to examine all of your planks ahead of time so you can lay them in a manner that's visually balanced. You may have to look out for dirt collecting in any dents, scratches, or other imperfections that occur in lower-grade wood.

Grade is just one of the qualities to consider when purchasing solid hardwood. You’ll of course want a flooring product that complements your décor, and also one that's suitable for the activity in your household. At LL Flooring, you can narrow your search using additional parameters such as species, color, thickness, and width. Texture is another consideration. Whatever your flooring needs, you can turn to LL Flooring to find a suitable solution at the right price.