Hardwood Flooring Guide: Engineered vs Solid Wood Flooring
The market for flooring options today is broader than it has been at any time previously. There are so many great products from which to choose, it can be a confusing marketplace for the homeowner looking to replace or upgrade their current flooring. But among this variety of choices, one flooring option stands out for its timeless beauty, durability, and luxury: hardwood flooring.
Outside of dirt and stone, wood flooring is one of the original flooring materials. Still found in great condition in homes in the US going back literally hundreds of years, the market for hardwoods shows no signs of slowing down even in the 21st century.
But many people in the market for flooring may be intimidated by looking at wood floors as an option for their home, and technology advancements in the flooring industry add more layers to peel from the proverbial onion. Leaving them to ask the burning question of “What is the best hardwood flooring?”
Well, fret not, dear consumer, we’re here to help and arm you with the tools you need to make the flooring decision that’s right for you and your home. Remember though – the flooring pros at The Good Guys know all about the beautiful, luxurious and timeless option that is wood flooring. For a guided tour through available flooring options, reach out and our team would be glad to help walk you through the process!
Engineered vs Solid Hardwood?
Right off the top, you’re going to have to decide which type of wood floor is right for your space and your project. Yes, you have options on this too, which is great!
Simply put, you have your choice of two wood flooring construction types: Engineered and Solid.
Engineered wood floors get their name from the fact that they are a partially man-made product. That is, they are “engineered” rather than grown naturally like standard wood. Engineered flooring is a layered product, like many other great flooring choices, which helps give it strength. Engineered flooring is made up of a base or supporting layer, often of lesser grade wood or plywood, covered in a softwood plywood core (as “softwood” is cheaper than “hardwood”) topped with a hardwood veneer and a protective finish coat.
The magic in engineered wood is the veneer. The veneer is actual hardwood, just a thinner portion of it than would be found in solid wood floors. However, don’t mistakenly assume this fabrication and construction means engineered wood flooring less expensive than its hardwood counterpart. The cost of engineered wood can easily rival that of solid wood and is based on a few factors including the thickness of the veneer, width and length of the board, type of finish or wear-layer, species of wood, location of the manufacturer (United States, Canada, Vietnam, and China are common suppliers), and the type of wood used in the ply (typically oak, hickory or poplar).
Solid wood flooring, as you may have already guessed is solid. And made of wood. Okay, kidding aside, that’s probably the most literal name in flooring. Solid wood flooring is shaped and planed planks of solid wood. It’s just that simple.
Typically 3/4” or 5/8” thick, solid wood flooring is permanently affixed to the subfloor using nail or glue. Don’t look for “floating” or “click-lock” options for traditional solid wood floors; as it is wood, humidity and temperature changes will cause the boards to flex and move so the nailing or gluing is required.
Solid hardwood flooring can be screened and refinished more frequently than the thinner veneer of engineered wood flooring. Typically up to an average of 3-5 times, more times than you will probably need in a lifetime, though this depends on the depth and texture of the finishing treatments. Most homes will not require a deeper sanding for refinishing, and this harsh maintenance should be used sparingly on solid wood floors, and never used on engineered wood. For engineered wood flooring, a veneer should be a minimum of 2mill to be screened and refinished like solid wood floors, and extend the life of the flooring. This thin veneer means it can only be refinished a fraction of the times of solid wood flooring, if at all. However, if installed, finished and regularly maintained, the need for refinishing is diminished greatly, meaning your wood floors can last a lifetime.
Location is Important
Still not decided? How about factoring in where in your home you are putting your new floors? The location within the home can help you select the best wood flooring for your project. Simply put, water is the enemy of your flooring. So you want to be careful with where you are installing wood floors.
Think of your “wet rooms” as epicenters in your home: kitchen, bathroom, laundry room – each of these wet areas require flooring that can withstand high humidity and spills. While there are plenty of flooring products that perform well for bathrooms, traditional solid and engineered wood flooring aren’t the greatest choices for those waterlogged rooms. Moving further away from these rooms, your floors are much better suited for wood flooring.
A half-bath off another room, with no shower or bathtub, or kitchens, however, can work if spills are cleaned up quickly. However, the presence of moisture still makes engineered a better option due to its inherent stability from the layered construction. Basements are another great place for engineered flooring as most solid wood floors are not built or rated for use below grade (that’s underground to you and me).
Entryways, laundry rooms, and mudrooms can work with solid or engineered wood if spills and moisture from laundry and shoes are cleaned regularly.
Living rooms, dining rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, and dens are all great places for either solid or engineered wood floors.
Pros and Cons for Solid or Engineered Wood Floors
If you’re still weighing the decision between solid wood and engineered wood, it helps to look at the pros and cons of each.
Just as they are visually similar, the “pros” for engineered floors look very similar to the ones for solid wood. Hardwood floors are luxurious and timeless, a look that will never go out of style, despite changing fads and trends. They’re an investment and upgrade to your home, as installing hardwoods can actually increase the value of your home in many areas, and according to the 2019 Remodeling Impact Report from the National Association of Realtors, most homeowners recoup 100% of their investment on resale for both installation of new and refinishing existing floors. Most markets don’t differentiate between solid and engineered for value. Additionally, whether solid or engineered, wood floors are an eco-friendly option, when the wood is responsibly sourced and harvested, and give a great natural look to the home.
Hardwood flooring doesn’t retain mold and dust like a softer surface would (cough*CARPET*sneeze) so solid and engineered wood flooring is an allergy-friendly flooring option that is low maintenance and easy to clean. Solid wood can be refinished more times than engineered, so it can change to meet your changing taste while not losing its timeless beauty, and the cost of refinishing is minimal compared to installing new flooring. Engineered wood is less sensitive to moisture than solid wood, due to the layered construction, and it installs better over concrete subflooring than solid wood. Engineered wood layers and relative thickness also allows them to work with radiant floor heating systems, eliminating the coldness of solid woods.
Engineered woods, however, are more versatile as they can be installed in more ways than solid woods – staples, nails, glue, click, floating, some even “lock” together. And these installation varieties can make engineered wood flooring an easier DIY project than solid wood installation for those with a little experience. However engineered wood floors are more work than solid wood floors to maintain. Due to their construction, engineered wood often requires special cleaning products. Overuse or use of incorrect products can lead to stripping of the protective coating of the veneer. And lastly, all wood floors will scratch; some species are softer woods and therefore more prone to scratches than others. This should be considered if you have pets in the home or if you’re moving furniture.
Cons for engineered wood floors include some specific to the “grade” and manufacturing of the flooring you choose; be aware of cheap materials used in the construction of the core, or off-gassing of chemicals used to construct or finish the flooring. Though the wood veneer makes them a great option, thinner veneers can weaken the flooring quality and limit your ability to refinish over time.
Additionally, wood floors can fade when exposed to excessive UV light. Not only are they not scratch-proof, engineered wood floors can be more prone to dents than solid wood floors. Lastly, while they are less expensive than solid wood floors, the difference is not so great that it’s a huge savings, so the cost shouldn’t be considered a pro, but every dollar helps, so maybe it’s not a pure “con” either!
If you’re leaning toward solid wood flooring, there are a few considerations to make that are specific to solid wood flooring.
Wood Floors: Grade and Sizing
Grade is one consideration for solid wood floors that you should factor into your project budget. Grade is an industry measurement of the apparent quality of the wood, with higher grades generally costing more than lesser grades. Some manufacturers use different terms, but you should be familiar with them. The higher the grade, the fewer knots, color variations or other “defects” are visible in the flooring.
The highest grade is typically labeled as “Select”. Select grade flooring has the most consistent color and graining, along with minimal “defect” or “imperfections” such as knots. Following Select is “#1 Common” which will feature some visible color variations, smaller knots, and the occasional hole. The next grade, #2 Common” is often referred to as “rustic” and shows prominent knots and obvious variations in tone.
Be on the lookout for classifications like “Tavern grade” which will be the knottiest of the bunch, have holes, color imperfections and even rough edges, or “Builders grade” which will be inexpensive, unbundled, thinner, less color consistent planks. Often these two are slipped into #2 Common, depending on the manufacturer.
Regardless of grade, it’s a good idea to see physical samples to get a feel for how it will look in your home. You may find the more natural or rustic look appealing in the space, or you may decide Select is the only way for you.
With regards to plank sizing, longer planks (or strips) mean fewer joints visible. Longer planks can tie multiple or larger rooms together. For smaller rooms, use shorter planks as it will make the space appear larger.
Wider planks have a more rustic, traditional look. It’s not uncommon to see 4” or 6” wide planks in floors, however, these larger planks can flex and separate more in response to weather and the joints may open up wider than you’d like. Narrower planks look busier but minimize the appearance of normal wood movement. 2 to 3” wide planks are the most common and popular flooring options today.
Wood Flooring Species
Grade variations can exist across all wood, so it’s important to understand there are multiple species of wood you can choose for your flooring project. However, there are cost considerations and space considerations to factor into your decision.
Looking at “Classic” or domestic wood species, you’ll see familiar names. Red Oak is a classic and it is the most commonly used species for wood flooring in the United States. It’s a good mix of hardness and workability, as well as sustainability. Pine variants, such as “Heart Pine” are more common in the Southern U.S. and lean toward a more rustic appearance, with more knots. The pine species are also softer and less durable than the oaks. Ash, Maple, Hickory, Birch, Cherry, and Walnut, along with the color varieties, are other names to note in classic domestic species.
Outside of Classics, and generally above in price and hardness, are “Exotic” wood species, sometimes referred to as “Tropical”. Here you will find woods grown outside the United States, such as Australian Cypress, Acacia, and the most luxurious: the Brazilian woods. Brazilian redwood is a popular exotic choice; however, the hardest and most durable exotic is Brazilian Walnut. It is so hard it requires pre-drilling for nails and special tools to cut and install it! You will likely need a specially trained installer as well, so factor this in if you fall in love with this particular species.
Another consideration of solid wood flooring is finish. Not only the appearance, but the protective coating, and where it’s all applied, fall under the collective umbrella of finish.
Popular texture trends in flooring in recent years include “distressed”, “brushed” or “scraped”. These are aesthetic considerations that give the floor a unique, often rustic appearance while not compromising the grade. Distressed flooring is meant to look aged or worn, and the look is often achieved using some unique means. Some manufacturers hit and pull chains on the planks to distress their floors!
Brushed floors are given a generous working over with wire brushes, which helps to raise the grain, hide damage or wear and tear and adds some grip to the floor. Scraped floors can be done via machine or hand-scraped, which is a popular premium upgrade. Scraping creates unique textures, aging effects, helps hide wear and tear, and in the case of hand-scraping, highlights the individual work by the craftsman who scraped them. All uniquely yours.
The final touch is applying the finish; this includes stain and protective clear coat finishes. There are two main options here: prefinished or site finished. Prefinished floors are stained and have their protective coating applied by the manufacturer in a controlled factory environment. They are more uniform and more expensive. Site-finished floors are, as their name implies, finished onsite (in your home) following install, by an experienced contractor. This process can take several days and can result in some inconsistencies even by the best installers. Additionally, fumes from the stain and topcoat protection can irritate some allergy sufferers, people with breathing issues or who are sensitive to certain odors.
The topcoat protection is another literally named item in flooring. It refers to the application on top of any wood floor of a protective clear coat layer. These are applied either in the factory or on-site following the install. Water-Based Polyurethane is a water-cleanup clear coat that protects floors and offers different sheen levels from matte, satin, up to high-gloss. It is done in-factory or onsite and provides a true clear coat of protection for your floors.
Oil-based Polyurethane, Varnish, or Wax, available in any number of varieties with differing sheen options, are typically applied on-site and allowed to soak into the wood and protect the flooring. They prevent scratch and stain like the water-based product; however, they typically have to be reapplied more frequently, every 3-5 years on average. And if you are an allergy sufferer or have health considerations, these can be a concern with fumes and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) during and after install.
Aluminum Oxides are only applied in the factory and fill the tiny spaces in the grain of the wood with a hard layer of protection lasting up to 25 years in some cases. Due to their chemical components, however, you should check on their VOCs and there may be off-gassing that occurs following the installation of some products. This is the most expensive finish option available.
As we mentioned sheen or gloss levels, it’s important to note that you have choices. Satin or semi-gloss are the most popular, as they are easy to clean, durable and hide smudges and streaks from cleaning. Matte and high-gloss, the latter of which is often called “basketball court” finish, will show more prints, smudges and streaks every time you clean them or walk on them. All is a matter of personal preference and often the manufacturer takes the decision out of your hands by only offering one sheen level that best showcases their product.
A few words on cost. There are probably more pricing variables with wood flooring than any other flooring material on the market. Your cost can change for solid vs engineered wood, installed vs DIY, prefinished vs site finished. It can be confusing, for sure. Now would be a perfect time to remind you that your flooring pro partners at The Good Guys can help streamline all of this for you. From product selection to installation, they’ve got you covered.
Speaking generally, solid wood flooring can be installed on average, from $8 to $15 per square foot, depending on grade, finish, species, etc. Engineered wood is similarly priced at $6-16 per square foot installed.
This is where doing your research really pays, but remember, these are not floors that will require replacement in a few years; wood floors increase the value of your home and can last a lifetime.
Ok, you’ve read all of this. Are you a flooring expert yet?! If not, don’t worry. Remember your partners at The Good Guys. They can help. Either way, you’re ready to go make some decisions on your flooring project and beautifying your home.
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