You might remember this scene from a horror movie of not too long ago: A rustic cabin in the misty woods of the Pacific Northwest. The main character knocks over a vase, spilling marbles onto the cabin’s old hardwood floor. The marbles all roll towards the center of the room. The character and her boyfriend crack open the floor to discover the cause of the warp in the boards: an old well. They discover a body in the well, chaos ensues … you get the picture!
So, what does this have to do with engineered vs. solid hardwood flooring? Well, it exposes one of the big, big problems with traditional hardwood flooring: warping and buckling caused by exposure to moisture. Now, hopefully you don’t have any bodies buried in a well underneath the house, but if you’re thinking about installing hardwood in a room with a moisture issue, you need to understand the difference between traditional and engineered.
Solid Hardwood: Traditional Yet Tricky
A solid hardwood floor is just as its name implies: Each plank of the floor is a solid piece of oak, maple, ash, etc. The entire plank is cut from a single tree and is about 3/4 inches thick. Until recently, almost no engineered type of flooring could match solid hardwood’s beauty, and no engineered floor can stand up to repeated sanding and refinishing.
However, there are some drawbacks to traditional flooring. It’s expensive, and the size of each plank is limited by the length and width of the original tree. It also uses up a lot of trees, which for some people is environmentally unacceptable. You need a professional to install your floor, and you must attach it to a sub-floor — it cannot go directly on top of a concrete slab, for example.
But the biggest problem is buckling, rippling and warping caused by moisture. If you live in a climate with high humidity, solid wood may not be a good choice. You would need to keep the ambient humidity between 45 and 65 percent. It’s also vulnerable in high-moisture areas such as basements, kitchens and bathrooms.
Engineered Hardwood: Gaining Popularity
Engineered hardwood is not the same as the faux-wood laminate flooring that you find at big-box home improvement stores. Instead, each plank’s top layer is about 1/4 inch of high-quality wood attached to a substrate of plywood, recycled wood fibers and/or stone dust.
Here’s what fans of engineered flooring rave about:
- It’s often less expensive than traditional solid wood and you can install it yourself.
- You don’t need sub-flooring, which uses up more wood product.
- You have a lot of plank sizes available — they’re not limited by the size of the tree!
- A thinner layer of expensive wood means more planks can be cut from the same tree, saving valuable hardwoods.
- The composite substrate layer can be made of recycled materials, which is better for the environment.
And unlike solid wood flooring, you’ll never have buckling or warping caused by moisture. You can enjoy the beauty of hardwood throughout your home, in any room.
Engineered Hardwood Winning in the Big Leagues
Designers and contractors used to shy away from engineered floors, complaining that they looked too plastic. But now, engineered floors are turning up in the poshest new buildings in places such as Manhattan.
And if you do need to build a cabin on top of a well where a body is, you should think about engineered flooring. The floor won’t warp, and they’re easy to clean if you have the best vacuum for hardwood floors at your disposal; and no one will be the wiser as to what lies below.