This is probably the toughest conversation I have with clients who are looking for wood flooring for their home. Should they get the “real hardwood” or “engineered” wood floors?
I’m not sure about the hang-up here. I’ve been a proponent of engineered hardwood floors for a while now. Admittedly, I haven’t always felt this way, but some experience through the years has helped me determine that for the overall performance of a hardwood in a home, engineered hardwood will beat a solid floor almost every time. Here’s what I’ve learned.
What are we talking about? What’s the difference between the two types of hardwood?
One of the biggest objections people have to hardwood is that Engineered Wood isn’t “real”. They are worried that it will sound fake. Most people, if given the choice want the real deal and they don’t want “fake.” There is a perceived value there, also, which makes solid wood more attractive.
I get it. The real stuff is unique. It has character that you don’t find in man-made materials. Also… the real stuff is a maintenance nightmare most of the times, too. My thought is that the real stuff has to be maintained, and put into an environment where it can succeed. Therein lies the problem.
Solid Hardwood is real wood. It’s… Solid. It’s ¾” of pure tree. It has character. It has depth and beauty. Solid hardwood is made the way God wanted that tree to be made and it is as unique as a snowflake. No one has a hardwood that looks like yours if it is a solid. That’s all true.
It is also true that trees are made and grown outdoors. This means that they naturally expand and contract with weather and humidity changes. Where do you think all that character comes from? It comes from being out in the weather. Growing through wet seasons and dry ones. Hardwood was once a living thing that had to adapt to its environment. This means that it will expand and contract once it gets into your house.
Solid hardwood is cut from kiln-dried logs. It goes through a process of being sanded, milled with grooves, it gets finished with a stain and urethane, then put into a box. Sometimes that box gets wrapped in plastic to keep moisture out. In every case, however, that solid wood gets stacked in a warehouse and waits for you to buy it. It lives in a moisture deprived environment until you come along and buy it. What’s one of the key ingredients that trees need to grow? Water. Dried wood, deprived of moisture, acts similar to a sponge when water gets near it.
Once that hardwood gets installed in your house the fun begins. Depending on where you live in the world, humidity levels are different. Coastal regions, for example, are more humid than desert regions. No surprise there. Each region of the world has its own unique weather patterns and humidty changes, depending on the time of year. Winter is normally dry in a house because of the heat being turned on. Spring and Fall can be wet because we have windows open. Summer gets dry again because of the air-conditioning. This wreaks havoc on hardwood floors. Wet. Dry. Wet. Dry. Expansion. Contraction.
When solid hardwood floors dry out and rehydrate through several cycles, it creates shrinkage and growth in the width of the planks. When the floor is dry you can see gaps begin to appear in the floor. When it’s humid the planks will squeeze together, sometimes creating a ridge where they meet. Over time, this repeated movement will cause the nails holding the floor down to come loose and create a “popping” noise when you walk across it. Floors begin to squeak and crack. Solid floors can even split down the plank if the movement is excessive.
Engineered floors don’t suffer the same problem. The Birch plywood backing that the hardwood is laminated to is built in opposing directions. When humidity causes expansion, the floors grow in multiple directions, not just in the width. Same with shrinkage. More importantly, this creates a forgiving floor, better able to withstand these humidty and temperature changes. The end-result is that your floor looks better longer. What about those squeaks and popping noises, you ask? Those, too, aren’t nearly as bad in an Engineered floor. Even more true if you glue the floor down instead of stapling it.
The next argument I get from clients is that they want to be able to sand their floor if they want to in the future, to make it look new again. I like that argument. Instead of cutting down more trees later, we just save the ones we’ve already used and refinish your floor. Makes sense to me. That, too, is a reason to look at engineered floors instead of solids. Solid floors do NOT give you ¾” of wood to sand and finish. You have about ¼” before the wear-layer of the floor gives way to nails being used to hold the floor down. These nails rest in a pocket cut into the groove so the plank next to the first plank conceals the nail. You can only sand your floor until you see those nails. And they are only about a ¼” below the surface.
Higher-quality, engineered, hardwood floors have a “sliced” wearlayer that is normally about a ¼” thick, also. This means a couple of things; You CAN sand and finish the floor multiple times. It is also a stronger wearlayer than the birch plywood it is built upon, AND you still have the character of the solid hardwood floors.
So what did you accomplish? You have a floor that is as beautiful as a solid floor but has none of the reoccurring maintenance concerns of a solid. You still need to maintain the engineered floor the same way as you do a solid, but you can feel free to open the windows of your home in the Springtime without fear of seeing your new flooring investment buckle because of humidty changes. That’s a great compromise and solution.
If you’re in the market for a new hardwood floor you should consider engineered hardwood as a possible solution. We sell all types of wood in our store, and after explaining these things to you, I will still sell you a solid hardwood if you want it. Just be aware of what the possible issues will be once you have it in your home and make sure you do research on the right floors for you. Hardwood, whether solid or engineered, is still one of the most beautiful investments you can make in your home. There is nothing that can compare to the warmth and beauty of hardwood.