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There is nothing quite like the look and feel of a hardwood floor. But what if you also like the look of ceramic, marble, or even stone? Why not combine the richness of hardwoods inlaid with other materials to give that favorite room – or your entire home – a true one-of-a-kind look, its own special personality?

In a trend inspired by the Renaissance Period, a growing number of floor designers are combining the artistry of old-world floor design with new laser-cutting techniques to produce intricate yet affordable designs. Hardwoods combined with other contrasting hardwoods, ceramic, stone, marble, or even leather and metals like brass and aluminum, offer an endless variety of choices for inlays and borders for any room in the house.

Endless Design Options

Whether as the room's focal point or as decorative accents, inlays and borders allow you to personalize your home with designs as intricate as a family crest or a map of a favorite vacation island, or as simple as a stripes, checkerboards and other geometric patterns. 

In addition to combining different materials, different species of hardwoods, like maple, birch, walnut, cherry, ash and others offer unique grain and color variations. Once the design is created, the individual components are laser-cut from hardwood flooring planks, usually 5/16-inch-thick then joined with glue or urethane adhesive. When the inlay is dry, edges are routed to match the tongue and groove joints for the rest of the hardwood floor, and the inlay is set in place.

You can also achieve a custom look with many off-the-shelf products that offer alternatives to more expensive custom-designed materials. For example, ready-to-lay prefabricated wood tiles with medallions, starbursts, and elaborate borders are available through wood flooring dealers and provide you with the option of creating your own patterns and designs.

Unfinished or finished hardwood inlays can be cut to the exact thickness of the hardwood floor they will be set into. 

A self-stick template is laid on the floor. Using a router, a professional hardwood floor installer will remove the entire thickness of the floor in that design. The pre-finished inlay is then glued into that space like a puzzle piece. Done properly, the fit is exact, and no further finishing is required.

Here are a few of the patterns, materials, and techniques available to you as you consider inlays:

  • Borders - A border of inlaid wood, stone or brass (or a combination of these) can help add definition to an entranceway or room. Elaborate or simple designs at each corner can add interest and tie in with a design in the center.
  • Medallions - Inlaid designs of a variety of materials provide a focal point such as a crest, or a geometric pattern.
  • Aluminum - This can be a choice for contemporary homes. Aluminum strips for borders are especially nice in kitchens that have aluminum accents like cabinet handles.
  • Brass - Thin strips can be inlaid along wood borders to add definition and contrast. Flowers or virtually any other design (a boat lover chose a compass) can be cut from sheets and incorporated into medallions.
  • Leather - Yes, that's right. Some designers have combined leather tiles in a variety of colors with hardwood floors for a striking effect.
  • Ceramic tile - Combine tile with hardwood in the kitchen, foyer or family room. Tile typically ties in with a more casual, rustic feel. One option is to create a foyer design by combining the tile used in the adjoining kitchen with the hardwood floor used in the family room.
  • Aging - Tumbled stone combined with distressed wood can create the look of European floors several hundred years old.
  • Marquetry - This technique, with origins dating back to the Roman Empire, is the in-laying of shaped wood forms into wood of another species or the in-laying of metals, mother of pearl or ivory into wood.

Careful Cleaning Required

Mixed material floors raise special cleaning concerns. For hardwood floors, follow the instructions of the manufacturer of your finish. Talk to your floor's installer about how to clean the other materials. Take care to keep any cleaning solutions used for other products off your wood floors.

Leave it to the professionals

Installing a mixed material floor can be tricky. The components have to be measured and cut so they fit precisely into the pattern. It's important to finish the wood and seal the edges before adding other materials. It's best to leave a small gap (about one-sixteenth of an inch) between the wood and the other elements to allow for natural expansion and contraction. Accommodating a variation in the thickness of the materials is also crucial so that the floor remains level. 

Because of these and other concerns, installing a mixed material floor typically is best left to professionals, especially for more complicated jobs. Many interior designers or architects work closely with floor installers to help homeowners get the look they want. You can choose an installer on your own, but make sure he or she has experience working with mixed material floors. Ask to see photo samples of previous jobs and contact references. Most hardwood floor installers work alongside stone masons or other craftsmen to create the design. 

Expect to pay more for a mixed material wood floor. A design encompassing a simple border around the edges of a room could run about 50 percent more than a regular hardwood floor. A more elaborate design could cost more than three times as much.

Article courtesy of the American Hardwood Information Center.