Hardwood Floor Buying Guide, Part 1: What’s the Difference Between Solid and Engineered Hardwood?

When choosing between solid hardwood vs. engineered hardwood, factor in where you plan to install it and how much you can spend. Learn how to make the best hardwood choice here.

By Tamara Gane

 

If you’re considering upgrading your home with the beauty and warmth of hardwood floors, chances are you’re deciding whether solid hardwoods or engineered hardwoods will be the best fit for your situation. They look virtually the same when installed since the top layer of both is finished wood. So which is the right choice? The first step to answering that question is simply understanding the differences between solid vs. engineered hardwoods.

 

What is Solid Hardwood?

Solid hardwood is exactly what it sounds like: a solid piece of wood. The boards are generally ¾ of an inch thick.

 

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Where Can Solid Hardwood Be Installed?

Solid Hardwoods are usually installed via a nail down or stapling method, although occasionally they can be glued. Solid hardwoods can’t be installed over concrete or below grade situations like basements because they are susceptible to moisture and likely to warp, cup, and expand in such conditions. For this reason, they are generally not recommended for full bathrooms, although powder rooms are fine. Many people with open floor plans choose to install them in kitchens, and they are a good fit there, so long as you’re careful to use mats in front of your sink and clean up spills.

 

Solid hardwoods are best installed over plywood or contractor grade OSB (oriented strand board) which is similar to plywood in most regards. Particle board isn’t recommended because the nails or staples can become loose and particle board is porous, which can create a problem with glue.

 

If you want to install solid hardwood and you’re not sure whether your home has plywood, particle board or concrete underneath your current flooring, the easiest way to check is to remove your heat vents so you can peek underneath.

 

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If you don’t have heat vents in your floors, you can try checking the corners of your closets. Sometimes you’ll find a place where the carpet or flooring is less secure and can be pulled back. If not, you can cut a small section and lift it up to reveal what’s underneath. The reason it’s best to do this in a closet is because if you decide to delay your project, this spot will hardly ever be seen and won’t interfere with the function or aesthetics of your home.

 

Another method is removing a transition, for instance between your hallway and bathroom. This will allow you to see what is underneath either floor from the side. This should be a last resort, however, because the transition will likely be warped when you remove it and may not lie as flat when you put it back.

 

What is the Advantage of Solid Hardwood vs. Engineered Hardwood?

Probably the biggest advantage of solid hardwood versus engineered hardwood is the ability to make repairs. If boards become damaged or worn in high traffic areas such as entryways, solid hardwood can be sanded and refinished many times. You may also be able to change the color of the stain when you refinish them if desired.

 

What is Engineered Hardwood?

Engineered hardwood is a thin veneer of real wood, adhered to a base. The most common type of base consists of perpendicular layers of plywood.

 

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You can also purchase engineered hardwood on an MDF (medium density fiberboard) or HDF (high-density fiberboard) base, which is the same core you would find on a laminate product. This option is generally the least expensive, but usually has the thinnest veneer layer, which means repairs and refinishing may be out of the question. (In general, you need at least a 2-millimeter layer of veneer or risk sanding through to the base).

 

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Make sure you ask about the thickness of the veneer layer. If you choose a product that can’t be refinished, it is wise to purchase extra boxes in case replacements and/or repairs are necessary in the future and the product has been discontinued.

 

Where Can Engineered Hardwood Be Installed?

One of the biggest advantages of engineered hardwood vs. solid hardwood is the fact that most engineered products are floated or glued. This means you can install engineered product over concrete or particle board. In many cases, you can even float it over existing flooring such as sheet vinyl or VCT (vinyl composition tiles) in older homes which may have asbestos. This will encapsulate old flooring in homes that may otherwise require abatement.

 

Engineered hardwood handles moisture better than solid hardwood, and you can install it in below-grade areas like basements. Still, keep in mind that this is a wood product. It will be ruined if exposed to too much moisture, so it’s important that any spills be promptly addressed.

 

If you like the wide plank look, you’re much more likely to find this in an engineered hardwood, in part due to the fact it’s more dimensionally stable than solid hardwood, but also because of the price. (Since you’re only using a thin veneer of wood, it’s generally less expensive to get this look in an engineered product than a solid one).

 

Something many people don’t consider about Engineered hardwood is floor height. Solid hardwood is almost always ¾ of an inch thick. Engineered hardwoods vary in thickness but are usually between ⅜ of an inch and a half-inch thick. This is an important factor if you’re removing carpet. By the time you factor in the thickness of carpet plus padding, it’s usually closer to the thickness of solid hardwood. This means there could potentially be a gap underneath your moldings and door jambs if you replace carpet with engineered hardwood because your new floors will not be as thick as your old ones. Some people have no problem with this, but if it bothers you, it can be remedied by replacing your moldings, adding a piece to the end to extend them, or elevating your floor with an extra layer of plywood before you install the floor. All of these options will, of course, increase the cost of your project and need to be factored into your decision.

 

What is the Advantage of Engineered Hardwood vs. Solid Hardwood?

The main advantage of engineered hardwood versus engineered hardwood is the flexibility to install it in a wider variety of situations, over a wider variety of subfloors and in below grade areas.

 

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In the end, choosing whether to install solid hardwood vs. engineered hardwood depends on a variety of factors unique to your own house, as each product has advantages. Whatever you decide, hardwood floors are a beautiful, lasting investment in your home and you’ll be sure to enjoy them for years to come!

 

Images used with permission, courtesy of Tamara Gane

Next: Hardwood Flooring 101