No wood floor is completely scratch resistant, but some handle pet claws and furniture scrapes better than others. It's not just differences between wood species that matter, but also the finish material. In general, the hardest flooring comes from the tropics as is prefinished at the factory with a baked-on polyurethane or aluminum-oxide finish. The least durable flooring materials are softwoods, and any flooring material is more scratch prone when finished on site with shellac, oil or less than three coats of polyurethane.
Lumber producers use the Janka hardness test to determine the compressibility and durability of a wood species. The test measures the amount of force necessary to press a 0.444-inch steel ball halfway into the surface of a board, and the result is usually expressed in pounds.
The hardest and most scratch-resistant species, such as ipe, cumaru and jatoba, come from the tropics, and they typically score 3,000 pounds or more. Domestic hardwoods and raw bamboo, on the other hand, are about half as hard. Softwoods, such as pine, fir and carbonized bamboo, rarely score more than 1,000 pounds, making them particularly vulnerable to scratching.
Even a softwood floor can resist scratches to some degree if the wood has a tough, durable finish. The hardest finishes, which come on top-grade prefinished flooring, must be applied by the manufacturer. Finishes applied on site after installing unfinished flooring or refinishing an existing floor aren't as durable, although oil-based ones are more scratch resistant than water-based ones. If you're going to apply a finish yourself, choose an acid- or moisture-cured product that contains nano-particles of aluminum oxide for maximum durability. There isn't any difference in durability between a satin and gloss finish, but a gloss finish will show scratches more easily.
Maximizing Scratch Resistance
Taking the hardness of both the finish and the wood itself into account, the most scratch-resistant flooring you can buy is made from a tropical hardwood with a high Janka rating and prefinished with a baked-on polyurethane finish. Hickory is the hardest domestic hardwood, almost 30 percent harder than maple, but its highly figured grain pattern isn't suitable for every purpose. Oak is the most common flooring material in North America; it is 6 percent softer than maple. Whether you opt for oak, maple, hickory or an exotic hardwood, choosing prefinished boards is the best way to ensure scratch resistance.
Mitigating Scratch Damage
If exotic flooring is outside your budget, or you have a big dog with substantial claws that will likely scratch whatever flooring you install, you can use a few strategies to minimize the impact of scratches. One is to choose a light, highly configured wood that doesn't show scratches well -- in this case, hickory would be a good choice, as would white oak. Another is to choose distressed flooring -- it's already scratched, so a few more marks will just add to the charm. If you're finishing the floor yourself, apply the maximum number of coats recommended by the manufacturer. Finally, choose solid wood over engineered flooring; engineered floors can be refinished only a limited number of times.