Hardwood flooring consists of sawed planks from natural hardwood timbers, like oak and maple, and is sometimes called solid wood. Hardwood flooring is more expensive than engineered hardwood — a.k.a., engineered wood — flooring, which is constructed from thin, glued-together layers of derivative wood products, such as OSB, MDF, or plywood.
Flooring made with engineered wood can look identical to hardwood flooring, as engineered wood planks are topped with a veneer of actual hardwood. Engineered hardwood floors have the advantage of being more durable and easier to install and maintain. However, with good care, hardwood flooring can last for decades — much longer than engineered wood can — a fact that may offset its expense.
Appearance of Real Wood vs. "Fake" Wood
Contrary to popular belief, engineered wood is not "fake" wood. It just uses less hardwood than solid wood flooring does. Whereas hardwood flooring is made of a solid piece of wood, engineered planks employ only a veneer of real hardwood. (This sets engineered wood apart from laminate flooring, which only uses a photographic layer for its veneer, and bamboo flooring, which actually contains no hardwood.) The colors, grains, and textures of hardwood and engineered wood vary widely, from darker ebony and rosewood, to lighter oak and birch, and from dark stains to light stains. Furthermore, most solid hardwood floors can be sanded and refinished with a new wood stain multiple times throughout its use.
Differences between the two types of flooring are more apparent when handling the raw materials. Hardwood planks tend to be heavier and thicker as a single plank of wood. Engineered planks are made up of two or more bonded layers of derivative wood products and are usually lighter and thinner.
Both hardwood floors and engineered wood floors can look good for years, but just how long they will look good comes down to upkeep and even local climate.
Water damage is one of the biggest concerns with both solid hardwood and engineered wood floors. Although varnish and polyurethane finishes can help protect hardwood from water on its surface, humidity beneath hardwood planks is also a concern, as it can lead to gaps and buckling in the flooring. Areas prone to extreme humidity do not offer the best conditions for solid hardwood.
Engineered hardwood is a better option in humid climates, as engineered planks usually come finished with an aluminum oxide finish, which is very durable and water-resistant. Even so, engineered hardwood can only withstand so much moisture by itself. For frequently or extremely damp areas, such as a bathroom or laundry room, it may make more sense to go with a flooring option like porcelain tiles.
Choosing a hardwood (or hardwood veneer) that can withstand any high traffic areas is also wise. The strength and hardness of hardwood can be determined by a wood's density and by the Janka hardness test, which rates hardwood species according to how easily they become worn or dented. In the case of engineered hardwood, the underlying layers of the plank's construction also affect sturdiness. However, in general, engineered wood flooring is just as strong as, if not stronger than, most solid wood flooring options.
Ultimately, engineered hardwood can be expected to last 10-30 years in normal conditions, whereas solid hardwood floors can last for generations with appropriate and ongoing care.
Below, On, and Above Grade
Flooring durability depends greatly on where the flooring will be installed, and not just at the room level. Anything installed on the first floor is known as on grade, while anything installed in a basement or on a second story is known as below grade or above grade, respectively.
Solid hardwood is rarely, if ever, appropriate for below grade installation because humidity is a concern. Ideally, hardwood flooring should remain on grade or above grade only. Engineered wood, however, which can withstand a little more humidity than hardwood, can usually be installed on any grade in drier climates where basement flooding may be less of a concern.
Maintaining Hardwood vs. Engineered Wood
Both types of flooring should be kept dry. In addition, they should be swept or vacuumed regularly and cleaned with a cleaner made especially for wood flooring. Bleach, vinegar, oils, and wet mops should not be used.
Refinishing and Staining Hardwood
One of the biggest differences between solid and engineered hardwood is that solid hardwood can be sanded and refinished several times. This means owners have the option to change the look of their hardwood over time. Re-coating, sanding, staining, and/or painting solid hardwood floors can be done numerous times with little concern.
The thickest planks of engineered wood can also technically be sanded and refinished once and maybe twice, but not several times like with solid hardwood. Professionals should be hired in either case, as they will have the equipment and skill needed to avoid over-sanding.
Unlike hardwood, which needs to be installed in rather specific conditions (i.e., on or above grade, not on radiant heat systems, atop a subfloor), engineered hardwood is forgiving and can be installed directly onto concrete, over radiant heat systems, and sometimes even below grade. For step-by-step guides on how to install engineered wood floors, see DIY Network or This Old House.
There are multiple ways to install hardwood flooring, including nailing or stapling down the planks, but many hardwood flooring options are now cut into a tongue and groove configuration that is similar to how engineered hardwood is manufactured. While this makes DIY installation more feasible, a professional is still recommended.
Prefinished vs. Unfinished Hardwood
Solid wood flooring requires an additional decision be made: whether to buy prefinished or unfinished hardwood. Prefinished hardwood has already been sanded smooth, stained, and coated with a protectant in a factory; it comes in a wide range of stains and styles, and glossy or semiglossy coats. The upside to prefinished hardwood is that it is much easier to install. The downside is that the selection of prefinished flooring is smaller; finding a "match" for a specific home may be a little more difficult.
With unfinished hardwood, the possibilities are near-endless. Homeowners can sand, stain, and coat their flooring however they like. This takes more time, skill, and/or money, however.
All engineered hardwoods comes prefinished. Most are prefinished with an aluminum oxide finish, but other finishing options do exist.
Pricing often comes down to plank thickness, the type of derivative wood products used in an engineered plank, and the species of hardwood used throughout a plank or for an engineered plank's veneer. Hardwood planks are usually ¾" thick, while engineered wood planks tend to be thinner. Prefinished hardwood will also be more expensive than unfinished hardwood.
Hardwood flooring usually runs between $8 and $15 per square foot. Moreover, homeowners should purchase extra materials (5-10% more) to accommodate mistakes and cover future repairs. Installing a plywood subfloor and vapor barrier paper is also advisable.
Thin engineered hardwood is much cheaper, running about $3 to $5 per square foot, but with the very thin wear/veneer layer, it is not very durable. Medium-range engineered wood will go for around $6 to $9 per square foot. The thickest engineered wood, which can be just as thick and sturdy as solid wood, and usually has multiple hardwood layers, can be even more expensive than hardwood at $10 to $14 per square foot.
When calculating the cost of hardwood vs. engineered wood, it is worth remembering that engineered wood flooring can be installed by a novice, or at least with minimal professional oversight, whereas solid hardwood should probably be installed by a professional entirely. The removal of any current carpet or other flooring should also be factored into the cost.
Provided hardwood comes from a sustainable source with careful forest management practices, this type of flooring can be one of the "greenest." A good way to find responsibly sourced hardwood is to look certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Engineered wood is likely even more eco-friendly than solid wood because it uses what has traditionally been solid wood's "leftovers." In engineered wood manufacturing, not much goes to waste; moreover, the manufacturing process itself requires less energy than most other flooring, roofing, and siding manufacturing. When it comes to the hardwood veneer, however, homeowners should still seek out FSC certification.
When refinishing these floors, it is also important to be aware that many refinishing products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Varnish and lacquer are the most dangerous, while water-based finishes are less so.
- All About Engineered Wood Floors - This Old House
- Deconstructing Engineered Wood - Bob Vila
- FAQs About Hardwood Floors - The Master's Craft
- How Long Do VOCs Last From Hardwood Floor Refinishing - SF Gate
- How to Install a Hardwood Floor - DIY Network
- How to Install an Engineered Hardwood Floor - DIY Network
- How to Lay Engineered Wood Floors - This Old House
- Wikipedia: Engineered wood
- Wikipedia: Wood flooring