Know the Difference Between Wood Flooring Types

photo of wood flooring

Before I became a Certified Flooring Inspector, I did not realize that there are two types of wood flooring: solid wood and engineered wood floors. (Laminate is a hard surface type of flooring, but is not considered wood.)

Both types of wood flooring have certain things in common. Both can only be installed in an enclosed, temperature controlled environment. While wood flooring is not a living thing, it is sensitive to the environment in which it is installed, just like people. Both solid and engineered wood flooring shrink and grow as the wood responds to changes in the temperature and relative humidity of your home. Solid floors are more sensitive to these changes than engineered floors.

Relative humidity requirements vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. In general, a safe humidity range for wood floors is somewhere between 30% and 60%. If you live in an area that experiences high humidity, you should consider a dehumidifier for your home. If your region is very dry, you’ll need a humidifier to keep your wood floors looking good.

Safe indoor temperatures for solid wood floors range from 60F- 80F.

You should avoid using liquids to clean your wood floor. Use a flat, dry mop or a clean broom to remove dust and grit on a regular basis. Use an approved spray cleaner to remove sticky spots. (Spray the cleaner on a rag and wipe the floor; do not apply the spray directly onto the wood.)

Any type of finish, whether urethane or aluminum oxide, will scratch. A darker finish shows more scratches. Consider this factor if direct light, like from a sliding door, will fall across the floor and highlight the scratches.

Solid wood and engineered wood floors also have several important distinctions. Knowing these differences will help you decide which type will work better for you.

All About Solid Wood Flooring

As its name implies, solid wood flooring is a wooden board typically 3/4” thick. The board width determines if it is called strip or plank. Strips are normally 2”-3” wide. Planks are 3” or wider. You can also buy parquet, small square or rectangular patterns that piece together to form a design.

Solid wood floors are sold by grade. The best grades have even graining and will finish beautifully. Lower grades have uneven graining, many knots, and mineral streaks.

Most solid wood floors come from the factory unfinished, although some manufacturers offer factory finished solid floors. Solid floors are nailed to a subfloor. Unfinished floors are sanded, stained, and sealed on site.

According to the National Wood Flooring Association, solid wood floors are only installed on grade or above grade. (Below grade is defined by the NWFA as: “the entire flooring level is considered to be BELOW grade, where soil is present along any perimeter wall and is more than 3” above the installed wood flooring.”)

In practical terms, this means that solid wood flooring cannot be installed below ground level. The reason is that solid wood floors are very sensitive to moisture changes. Installing below grade could expose the wood floors to potentially damaging moisture levels.

A solid wood floor can be refinished many times. It will last for generations.

All About Engineered Wood Flooring

Engineered wood floors generally cost less than solid wood floors. Engineered wood flooring is basically a wood veneer over a plywood base. They are sold in widths from 3” to 7” wide, in varying thicknesses. There are several factors that determine the quality of engineered wood floors.

Because wood floors are sensitive to humidity and temperature changes, the plywood base is what gives the floor its stability. The plies are glued together so that each layer is perpendicular to the one above and below it. More plies also means more stability. Seven plies are better than five plies, which are better than three plies. Also, species of wood respond differently to humidity and temperature changes. In a lower grade engineered wood floor, each ply could be a different wood species. They might expand and contract at different rates. This makes for a less stable floor.

Keep in mind that a lower grade floor will also have a thinner veneer. This may keep you from refinishing the floor even once because the sanding process might remove the veneer and expose the plywood base.

Most engineered wood comes factory finished. This saves the expense and mess of sanding and finishing the floor in your home.

Engineered floors give you more installation options. Because they are less sensitive to moisture, they can be installed below, on, or above grade. Most can be nailed or glued to the subfloor, or floated over (not attached to) the subfloor.

Both solid and engineered wood floors look beautiful and last a long time. However, the combination of lower cost materials and flexible, less expensive installation choices make an engineered wood floor more popular than a solid wood floor.

Who is Glenn Revere?

Glenn Revere has been a carpet expert since 1973. He’s a certified flooring inspector and the author of All About Carpets, the only book written to protect and inform you about your carpet choices, from carpet buying and carpet warranties to carpet care and maintenance. You can find him on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.


Photo: “Wood Floors” by Pat (Cletch) Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.o

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