With the Final Four coming up this weekend, many people's eyes will be glued to the basketball courts. But have you ever thought about where those court floors come from? Most of the country’s wooden gym floors are made here in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan.
Here in the small town of Mercer, Wisconsin, a gym floor starts with unloading a pallet of maple planks delivered from a sawmill.
Karl Anderson is Plant Manager at Action Floors, a company that specializes in making sport floors for gyms all over the country. On a clear day when the blue sky matches the blue paint of the mill buildings, Anderson tells me that almost all wooden gym floors are made out of the same thing: maple.
"Because of the color," Anderson says. "It’s white, it’s bright, and that creates a great palate for the game lines and the logos that you see on the basketball courts – it makes it look real nice."
Beech or birch woods are equally white and bright, but they’re a little softer. Maple is prized for its hardness. To ensure a durable floor, industry standards say that maple must be grown north of the 35th parallel…in places where winters are cold and long.
“What that does to the tree," Anderson begins, "the actual growing season is so short that the annual rings become so tight, which adds to the density and adds to the hardness of the wood, and adds to the characteristics we need to create that sports floor.”
Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan pretty much fit the cold weather requirements, and there’s a lot of trees here. That’s the main reason all major wooden sport floor companies mill their floors in this region.
“We’re sitting in the middle of one of the largest hard maple stands," Anderson says. "Not only in the U.S. but in the world. You can get out into the east a little bit – Pennsylvania, New York State. But this is a centralized location, not only from the raw material resource, but also from the shipping standpoint."
Here at Action Floors, the manufacturing process continues with freshly cut boards being dried to perfection in a big kiln.
The boards then head a big warehouse where they zip down assembly lines. In the factory, Anderson explains, the boards get roughed up, smoothed out, and sliced into narrow strips. Those strips then go into the flooring machine, a relic that’s been churning out wood floors since 1929.
"That takes the raw material and really turns it into a flooring board," Anderson says. " It does the tongue and groove but it also takes it down to the tolerance on the thickness, and a tolerance on the face width.”
The end product is crates full of boards that are each different lengths, but nearly identical in width.
“We hold a plus or minus tolerance on the face width of within 5 thousandths [of an inch]. We're actually usually within a thousandth or two.”
Any more error and the floor won’t fit together properly, he says, when hundreds of boards are laid down side by side in a gym. I learn that details are important not only in making a sport floor, but also in making what’s underneath it.
“When you walk into a gymnasium, the normal person probably just sees the maple strip flooring," says RaeAnn Hrudkaj, Customer Service Manager at Action. "They have no idea what goes on underneath it."
She says in addition to manufacturing actual wooden floor boards, the company also engineers more than 30 different subfloor systems.
"And they’re kind of all over the board in terms of level of competition - you know a college level of competition subfloor is going to be different than an elementary school," Hrudkaj explains. "There's different variables that go into that – there’s ball rebound, there’s shock absorption for player comfort, and lessening injury to players. ”
She says every flooring company has its own systems. Which tends to be a topic of concern not just at the office, but also during game-watching hours.
"Any basketball game, whether it’s high school level," says Anderson, "if I walk into a high school gymnasium I’m looking at the floor right out of the gate, and I’m trying to feel how that floor reacts. "
And like most basketball fans, they’re keeping a close eye on the competition.