If you’re thinking of remodeling your home, it’s important to understand the differences between solid wood flooring and engineered wood flooring. For site finished floors, solid wood flooring is still by far the most prevalent choice due to its wear layer and cost. However, there are some great benefits to using engineered flooring and, in some circumstances, is a must for a proper hardwood flooring install that will last generations.
Solid Wood Flooring: Solid wood flooring is milled flooring that comes straight from the tree. A tree is milled into planks, and the planks are milled into flooring. Because there are relatively few processes that go into milling solid wood flooring, it is less expensive than engineered flooring. Since there is no veneer you can sand through, the only thing limiting the life of the floor is the groove. Once the flooring is sanded down to around 1/8″ or less of the groove, the top of the groove can break and the life of the floor is at its end. There is also the likelihood that on the tongue side of the flooring, the blind nails (the fasteners used to hold the wood flooring to the sub floor) will start to show. The number of sandings a 3/4″ solid wood floor can have is greatly dependent on the quality of the milling, the quality of the install, the species of the wood, the quality of the sanding jobs and how well the hardwood flooring is taken care of. A well installed red oak hardwood floor that has been well taken care of and sanded by a professional could be sanded 4-5 times. Combine this with quality finishes and you have a floor that will last 150 years or more.
The down side of solid wood flooring is it tends to be more susceptible to swings in moisture. Wood loves to take on moisture, and if the wood is allowed to hold this moisture for a long enough period of time, it will bond with the cells of the wood causing the wood to swell. And, conversely, in the absence of moisture, the cells will dry out and the wood will shrink. Wood will always acclimate to the conditions its in and find equilibrium. This is what causes hardwood floors to “cup” or have “gaps”. Most houses have means to control moisture enough to not have severe cupping or gapping in their hardwood flooring, but, in some cases, such as lake homes and cabins, high moisture swings are inevitable. This is especially the case when hardwood flooring is being installed over a concrete slab. This is where engineered hardwood flooring can shine.
Engineered Wood Flooring: Engineered hardwood flooring is fabricated by laminating several thin layers of wood together where the grain of each layer is at a 90 degree orientation to layer above and below it. Wood tends to be relatively dimensionally stable along its length (along the grain), but is not so stable across the width. (It is slightly more stable across its thickness, ie. quarter-sawn). When you have multiple thin layers of wood laminated together, the 90 degree rotation of each layer holds the adjacent layers in check. If this sounds like a description of plywood, it’s because it is. Engineered hardwood flooring is essentially plywood made into flooring.
Because manufacturers have much more leeway in the fabrication process, there is a much wider range of quality with engineered products. Let me address two important qualities that make the difference between a great engineered hardwood flooring product and lousy one.
Thickness: A good engineered product that will last generations will be at least 1/2″ thick or, preferably, 5/8″ thick. Any thinner and there will not be enough wood for a re-sanding when the time comes. Conversely, a good 5/8″ product will have an equal wear layer to that of a 3/4″ solid wood product.
Wear layer: A quality product has a equal wear layer to that of a 3/4″ solid product, whereas a poor quality product has little to no wear layer. This is due to 5/8″ products having a thick enough top veneer (the top layer of wood) to be sanded several times. Low quality products have paper thin veneers (1/8″ to 1/32″ or less), which will never allow for a sanding and wear out very quickly. Typically, products with thin wear layers only come prefinished since they can’t be sanded.