What’s the difference between solid hardwood and engineered hardwood flooring? Which is better?
Many of my customer ask whether solid hardwood or engineered hardwood flooring is better, and which is less expensive. Of course the answer is “it depends.”
It depends on many factors including your subfloor, condition of your sub-floor and what factors are important to you (e.g. ability to sand & refinish, height of floor (relative to other surfaces and/or cabinets and doors), cost, type of wood. There is no “one size fits all” answer.
That being said, when you have the option of installing either solid or engineered hardwood flooring, I generally recommend solid hardwood as it will ultimately last longer, often look better and can be sanded and refinished many many times.
For the record, this is where it really pays to have hardwood flooring professional come to your house so that they can better advise you and give you a proper recommendation and price for your particular circumstances. It is also important to look at the TOTAL cost for the project – not just the material.
There are many times when you may find that the cost for the material is lower for one option, but the cost of the labor is much higher (e.g. when you factor in installation method and/or prep work that may be needed). So be sure to look at the full cost with labor, materials and prep work before making a decision. I have seen many customers make mistakes here when they try to figure this out on their own.
Before I outline the pros and cons between engineered and solid hardwood, it’s important to define these terms.
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What is solid hardwood? What is engineered hardwood?
As the name implies, solid hardwood is solid wood, all the way through. It generally is 3/4″ in thickness. Engineered hardwood flooring is done in layers. The top layer is a hardwood veneer and then beneath that, there are layers (or plies) of wood. Generally, these plies are perpendicular in direction and laminated together (similar to plywood), and generally (but not always), these plies are made of wood (although they are not necessarily the same species as the top layer.
The thickness of the top veneer can vary, and generally higher quality engineered woods have a thicker top layer, and cheaper ones have a thin one.
And, one more clarification – this is a discussion about HARDWOOD not LAMINATE. Laminate is fake hardwood – it looks real, but it’s not. Engineered hardwood sounds fake, but it’s not. It’s real hardwood through and through just done in layers.
Advantages of solid hardwood (3/4″ thick)
1. Solid hardwood be sanded and refinished MANY times. So, when you get scratches in the floor, or if you want to change the color later, you can. This is an especially important consideration if you plan on living in your home for a while, have kids/busy household and/or if you have pets.
2. If you have other hardwood in the house, chances are it’s solid and this could be matched up to it from a height perspective and sometimes from a color perspective.
3. Solid hardwood is generally much easier to repair, especially if you have water damage (e.g. from a flood, broken pipe, broken appliance) or pet stains. When this happens (and it’s only on part of the floor), it’s often easy for a professional to match the wood (especially if it is oak) and then sand and refinish the whole room.
Engineered hardwood flooring is often hard to match as well as repair, and you may need to replace the whole floor, if you have damage. Also, solid hardwood is easier to work with if you are remodeling and/or expanding your area. Sometimes, customers remove walls (especially in kitchen area) and they will have small missing sections of hardwood. With solid hardwood, it’s easy to add more wood and/or weave it into the gap.
4. Often, solid hardwood is less expensive…this all depends on what you are comparing it to, but sometimes, solid is less expensive than a sandable engineered product. Sometimes, this is simply because the solids are more popular and sell more and hence are put on special more often.
Yes, it’s possible to find cheap engineered flooring, but if comparing mid to good engineered flooring, often the solid wood will cost a bit less (unless you are looking at very wide widths. (Many are surprised to learn this).
5. Comes in both pre-finished and unfinished forms. So, if you have hardwood in other areas and want to match the color exactly (or almost exactly), this can be a great option for you. You can get smoother edges and test/blend colors when it is site finished, or you have the option of installing pre-finished for a faster/easier installation.
Different customers have different preferences base on style preferences, lifestyle choices and timing. With solid, you just have more flexibility. Read here for more about pre-finished vs unfinished hardwood.
6. If you live in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, most of East Coast, generally solid hardwood is preferred by homeowners, home buyers and builders. Most prefer the looks of the solid hardwood as well as the longevity. Solid hardwood tends to have better resale value.
7. When solid hardwood is sand and refinished on-site, there is the potential for true smooth surfaces (i.e. a square edge vs. a beveled edge) and the stain as well as poly covers the entire surface for a more contemporary look. This also means that the edges of the wood are better protected (especially important for kitchens) and less dirt between the planks. Read more about hardwood flooring in kitchens here.
Disadvantages of solid hardwood flooring
1. Solid hardwood expands and contracts more, especially in wider widths. (Note: all hardwood expands/contracts based on humidity). With wider widths, especially 5 inches or wider, it’s important to both nail and glue the flooring for less movement.
2. Standard solid hardwood should not be installed on top of radiant heat. However, a simple solution is to use rifted and quarter-sawn wood above radiant heat. This costs more than plain-sawn wood, but provides a great solution (and generally looks better, too).
3. Solid hardwood requires a 3/4″ plywood sub-floor. Most houses in the mid-Atlantic have this, so it’s generally not an issue. But, some condos, co-ops, townhouses and even some houses built on slabs do not have this. If you are on top of a concrete sub-floor, you can add plywood, but this adds to the cost and height.
4. Solid hardwood is not approved for below grade applications (e.g. basements that are below the level of the ground).
Advantages of engineered hardwood
(thickness varies from 5/16″ to 3/4″ but usu 3/8″ or 1/2″)
1. Engineered hardwood doesn’t require a plywood sub-floor. This means if you have concrete, you can install the hardwood directly over the concrete, and you don’t have to worry about installing plywood.
2. If you have a concrete sub-floor, generally, engineered flooring will be less expensive and involve fewer complications when it comes to height. If you need to install a plywood subfloor (3/4″ thick) and then solid hardwood (3/4″ thick), you have added 1 1/2″ inches in height. This can sometimes create issues with doors (especially exterior doors especially if they are metal) as there may not be enough clearance for the doors.
If there are interior wood doors, these are easier to deal with (if they are solid), but they still may need to be cut and then repainted (which adds to the cost). If this is going in a kitchen and cabinets are remaining in place, solid hardwood can lock the appliances in and create non-standard height with the cabinets. So, engineered flooring is often easier to use when heights may be an issue.
3. Engineered flooring can be installed below grade (e.g. in a basement that is below the ground). Note: if there is a moisture issue in the area, hardwood is probably a poor choice, but assuming moisture is not an issue, engineered hardwood is more flexible as to where it can be installed.
4. There are multiple ways to install engineered hardwood – nail down (if plywood), staple, glue or float.
5. Engineered hardwood is often (but not always) more stable. Because of its layers, it’s often stronger than solid hardwood. And, because the layers are perpendicular to each other, there is usually less expansion and contraction, so it allows for a tighter fit, especially during the winter when it’s more dry. In addition, because it’s more stable, you can often go wider in the planks (and can do so more cost effectively).
6. Often, engineered products can be less expensive. This is not always the case, but often the 5/16″ and 3/8″ are less expensive. But, the thicker ones, especially if they can be sanded & refinished multiple times can sometimes be more expensive. Of course, everything depends on what you are comparing (e.g. type of wood, width of planks, grade of wood, etc.
7. Some engineered hardwoods can be installed over radiant heat (but not all). Very few solid hardwoods can – only quarter sawn or rifted – usually this only comes in an unfinished format.
Disadvantages of engineered hardwood
1. Many engineered hardwoods can not be sanded and refinished. It all depends on the thickness of the top layer. Generally, cheap engineered hardwood can not be refinished, and more expensive ones can be.
Also, be aware that floating engineered hardwoods can NOT be sanded & refinished, even if the top wear layer is thick. If the flooring is not secured tightly to the floor (i.e. nailed are very securely glued), with the weight of the sanding machines, the floors will move and you will never get a clean and smooth finish. (I’ve seen many customers mislead by this and they learn this lesson too late).
2. Many engineered floors have lower grades or cuts of wood. You will often find that the very cheap engineered woods are rotary sawn (think about how you peel an apple) and as such, the graining looks different and cheaper than what you are accustomed to on solid hardwood flooring.
Also, some cheaper engineered flooring has a lot of “shorts” (i.e. pieces that are are only 1 ft – 1.5 ft in length. Some of them will have more knots, too. This is something that is not apparent in the samples.
3. Some engineered floors look and sound more fake, especially if they are floated. If you have a floating floor and your floor isn’t even/smooth, the floating floor will move as you walk on it. It will sound and look more artificial. If your house is on the market, it may cause some buyers to wonder if the floors are real or in good condition and they may feel this is a lower value.
If you properly level the floor, this can help alleviate this issue (but there is a cost associated with that).
Other engineered hardwood flooring questions:
- Can you install engineered wood on top of other flooring such as tile, vinyl or even hardwood?
Yes, as long as it’s a hard surface (and not carpet), it is secured well to the sub-floor and it is flat/level.
- Can you use engineered hardwood flooring in a basement?
Yes, as long as it’s not too humid there. Bear in mind that it is also important that the subfloor is level/flat or else the floor is smoothed out (which would cost extra).
Where can you buy engineered hardwood online?
If you’re looking for some engineered hardwood flooring that you can buy online, I’d check out FlooringInc.com. They are very affordable and shipping is free. Here’s a link to their engineered flooring section. In particular, I like Shaw Castlewood’s line for a wide plank, contemporary white wash and gray looks. It’s a rustic line that looks chic with a wire brushed effect. Warning: the picture this link will take you to on their site is not the most attractive picture…scan through the other colors below to see the breadth of this line. The picture here is Shaw Castlewood in Hearth.
Other useful flooring articles:
- Site finished vs pre-finished hardwood flooring
- 2016 Hardwood flooring trends
- Hardwood vs tile flooring for kitchens
- Ways to prevent scratches in hardwood floors
- Recommended cleaning products and accessories to maintain floors and reduce scratches.
If you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here.
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