Engineered vs. Solid Hardwood: What is the right choice?

When shopping for new hardwood floors, the choices can seem very overwhelming.  From red to grey, handscraped to smooth and beyond, the many differences between each of the options is daunting.  But many homeowners need to start with the basics, right from the start: engineered versus solid hardwood.  What are the differences?  Which is better?  Why do I care?  All of these are great questions, and hopefully by the end of this article you’ll know exactly what you need.

Almost every conversation I have with a customer begins with the statement: “I only want REAL hardwood floors, none of that fake stuff in my house!”  In reaction, I always start with “ Ok, let’s talk about that!”  Most people have someone they know who has had hardwood floors in their home; grandma, Uncle Bob, neighbor Susie…some have even lived on hardwood floors themselves.  Most people have experience with ‘traditional’ solid hardwood floors. These are the floors that are 3/4” thick, solid wood from top to bottom.  They come in hundreds of species and widths, and are sanded and finished in the home after installation.  What tend to confuse people are ‘Engineered’ floors.  Engineered hardwood floors are a top wear layer of a wood species (could be Oak, Maple or anything), on top of ply-layers, usually 3-7 layers, cross-laminated together using high-pressure resins.  These products are technically superior, and designed to counter-act the natural expansion and contraction that happens to all hardwood flooring.  These floors are superior in the fact that they are more stable and can be installed in many different applications such as over concrete, below grade, or floated in areas in which a solid floor cannot be installed.

Example of Engineered Wood


Example of Solid Wood Floor

The confusion comes from the word “laminate” and “laminated”.  These two words, while similar, mean two very different things.  Laminated is the act of gluing layers together – and can be in reference to wood, plastic, metal, etc.  The word laminate is in reference to a plastic product found in both countertops and flooring products.  A laminate floor is not wood, but rather a plastic picture of wood, laminated to a mdf or hdf core.  Lamination, in engineered wood, on refers to the gluing together of the layers of ply to form the product.

When purchasing an engineered wood floor, there are a few things to consider.  One: what species are you looking at? Two: how wide is the product.  Certain hardwood species including Hickory, Domestic Cherry, and exotics like Acacia are highly unstable woods. They have a tendency to move (expand and contract) more often, and with more gusto that the average Oak or Maple.  In this case, an engineered hardwood would counteract that movement, and make it a much more stable floor to have in your home.  In addition, any hardwood product over 4 inches in width should be engineered for the same reasons.  Hardwood flooring will move with changes in humidity and temperature no matter what you put down.  However, the engineered products behave much better, and you will have less change for a flooring failure over time.

Stability is not the only thing to think about when wood floors are concerned.  While many newer projects are heading towards engineered flooring, there are certainly instances with a traditional hardwood floor can fit the bill.  The biggest factor is aesthetics.  Engineered floors usually come in a pre-finished form.  Pre-finished flooring is sanded and finished at a factory, under certain conditions using manufacturer specific finishes to their standards.  These products are milled, sanded and finished individually.  This is much different than all of the boards being installed, sanded and finished on-site, in your home, using site applied finishes.  The biggest difference is how they look.  Pre-finished floors have what is called a ‘micro-bevel’ in the industry.  This is a slight angle at each side and end joint.  This is because each board may have microscopic differences to the board it will be installed next to on the jobsite.  Therefore, a micro-bevel will give an overall uniform look to the floor.  This is in contradiction to the site finished floor, where the gaps between all boards are usually filled and the height is the same, as they are all sanded at the same time.  Some homeowners do not like the look or feel of the pre-finished micro-beveled floors.  Unfortunately, this an inherent characteristic of a pre-fnished floor that cannot be changed.  There are a few product in the market that may downplay this fact, and have a ‘square edge’, but in reality they still are pre-finished and have some kind of edge effect.  In this case, a smooth, uniform appearance from a site-finished floor is the way to go.

Example of Pre-finished floor and Sand and Finish

Ultimately, each product is a good choice for the right family in the right application.  Make sure you educate yourself, and seek out professionals that understand these characteristics, and understand your ultimate expectations with your floor.  They can then properly guide you to the right product for your home.

Kelly Ragalie is a NWFA Certified Sand and Finisher, Sales Adviser, and probationary Inspector; and a Certified Subfloor Moisture Tester with ICRI.  She and her husband have owned and operated a retail hardwood flooring company since 2006.