Hardwood vs. Engineered Wood Flooring—What Are The Pros & Cons Of Each? Let An Expert Builder Explain
Hardwood floors signify ultimate luxury to us non-building science types. But is it really your best option?
Let’s quickly put things into perspective — there is no other surface area in your home that you will have such frequent, intimate contact with than flooring. It greets the soles of your feet when you roll out of bed in the morning. It’s there when the new puppy prances in from the yard, covered with mud up to its belly. It catches the crumbs and drippings of your culinary experiments. It supports your children or grandchildren learning to walk.
And of course, flooring has tremendous aesthetic value. A shiny hardwood floor or marble tile foyer makes a much more dramatic impression than carpeting. Flooring has qualities— temperature, strength, shine, color, size, quality, pattern. Your home’s architecture, interior design and style has to harmonize with your flooring, particularly when the flooring spans the home or multiple rooms. This isn’t necessarily the case for furnishings and paint colors, which have less responsibility and can be changed out more easily.
As Bluestone owner, Kevin Reed, puts it, “Flooring is a big deal. You don’t want it to detract from the value of the home.” If you’ve ever watched a home building reality television show, you’ve seen misguided and panicked individuals building multimillion-dollar homes, realizing all too late that their budget is off, and they need to skimp on things like flooring and lighting fixtures. It’s a bit soul-crushing. It’s also an unfortunate decision from a reselling point of view.
Which Is Better, Engineered Wood or Hardwood Floors?
A common conundrum we help clients navigate is engineered wood versus hardwood flooring. Both come in unfinished (i.e. finish on-site) and prefinished varieties. Most everyone knows what hardwood flooring is. Woods used include oak, walnut, hickory, maple, cherry and ash. Engineered wood flooring has a plywood sublayer, with a “real” hardwood wear layer on top. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between hardwood and engineered wood flooring. But which one looks better? Wears better? Which is easier to clean? Which is more cost-effective? Do weather and humidity matter? What about environmental considerations?
Here’s our perspective.
The Benefits To Solid Hardwood Floors
1. They’re classic. Bluestone owner Kevin Reed says hardwood flooring “can absolutely take on a seamless, uniform look that is hard to beat…When done properly, it can be a beautiful, long-lasting floor.”
Traditionally, all hardwood flooring was solid wood strip flooring in narrow widths (typically 2 ¼ inches), installed by a flooring mechanic and finished on-site. There are a lot of companies that still install flooring like this. For some time, oil-based polyurethane products were used for finishing, whereas today, water-based polyurethanes tend to be the most popular, along with combination, one-coat/finish products. Buyers tend to react positively to homes that feature hardwood floors, as well.
2. They’re durable. It’s not uncommon to find hundred-year-old homes with the original hardwood floors still intact. When it comes time, hardwood floors can accommodate sanding and refinishing — and can do so more times on average than engineered wood floors.
The key to long-lasting solid hardwood floors? Proper installation. The most important factor in a successful floor installation is acclimating the wood to the house and the subfloor, according to specific guidelines prescribed by the National Wood Flooring Association. Bluestone has managed many hardwood floor installations and ensures the appropriate steps are taken, each time.
3. They offer options. Hardwood flooring is available in colors ranging from dark espresso to whitewashed. Go with traditional, smooth and seamless, or get modern textures like hand scraped, wire-brushed and distressed. Finishes are offered in satin, matte, shiny and oil. Add a degree of customization and sophistication by installing unique patterns, mixed width boards, laying floors diagonally, etc. For those who are concerned about sustainability, there’s always reclaimed wood, bamboo or specific suppliers that specialize in sustainable wood flooring.
The Downside To Solid Hardwood Floors
1. They can be more expensive. Of course, this depends on factors such as where you purchase materials, who performs the installation, which materials you use, what types of personalization or texture you might want to add, and more. Generally, though, expect higher installation costs for hardwood floors versus engineered hardwood floors because they are more labor-intensive.
2. They show wear. Each type of wood has a different hardness. An Austrian wood researcher named Gabriel Janka designed a system of classifying the hardness of wood that is known as the Janka hardness test. These figures are good baselines to understand how hardwood floors might perform over time. Protecting your floors is easily accomplished through simple care practices, like placing carpets in high-traffic areas and using adhesive felt pads on the bottoms of chair and furniture legs.
The Benefits To Engineered Wood Floors
1. They also offer options. Engineered wood floors are available in the same colors, textures, and finishes as hardwood floors. In some cases, the manufacturer finishes on engineered wood floors will last many years longer than any finish that could be applied on-site. The biggest advantage of engineered wood floors is that they can be manufactured in much wider widths than solid wood products. With hardwood flooring, Bluestone won’t install a solid plank any wider than 5” because of the extremely high risk of cupping or shifting over time. But engineered wood floors can be installed in 10–12” widths with no concerns. Design-wise, this means more options; build-wise, it means faster installation.
2. They’re okay on concrete. Flooring for basement or other lower-level areas is no longer restricted to concrete sealing, laminate, tile or carpet. Engineered wood flooring can be installed on a concrete slab, “which is unthinkable with a solid wood,” says Reed. This is because engineered wood floors are more resistant to changes in moisture than hardwood floors, and therefore less likely to shrink or expand across the seasons.
3. They’re fast to install. From manufacturing to on-site, engineered wood floors save a lot of time. They are available in unfinished (which means we finish them on-site) and prefinished varieties. It’s best to work with your contractor to select the highest-quality options available.
The Downside To Engineered Wood Floors
1. Good quality isn’t cheap. Engineered floors are made of 3–12 ply layers of soft or hard woods that are cross layered, glued and pressed together, all topped with a hardwood wear layer. “The higher the quality, the thicker the wear layer,” says Reed.
What makes a thicker wear layer? The way the wood is cut. When it’s sliced/sawn, it can produce a thicker wear layer, shows a finer grain, and looks more like hardwood floors. When it’s rotary cut, the wear layer will be thinner, but it also offers wider graining and a unique look. And the details matter. Kevin Reed says, “I’m a big fan of engineered wood floors, but they have to be the more expensive ones, or else they look junky and collect dirt.”
And just like hardwood floors, engineered wood floors will wear with age and time. Resanding and refinishing can be done, but not as many times as hardwood floors, because eventually, you’d sand away the entire wear layer.
2. They can off-gas. Those sensitive to chemicals or seeking the most environmentally friendly flooring should do their homework when selecting engineered wood floors. Consumer Reports performed testing that showed a higher incidence of formaldehyde within samples of engineered wood and laminate plank. . If you work with Bluestone to design, build or preserve your custom home, we’re happy to discuss the most eco-friendly options.
The Final Word on Wood Floors?
There’s a lot to know when it comes to flooring. Working with a builder like Bluestone can make the decision easier. We’ve been in the home building business for decades and are proud to have a team that is extremely knowledgeable. Whether it’s engineered wood versus hardwood flooring or any other decision, we’re happy to share what we know to ensure our clients can make well-informed choices they feel good about for years to come.