Updated November 07, 2017
Wood floors offer a beautiful base for any home design. Along with their good looks they also have many advantages over other types of flooring. They do not hold allergens and dust like a carpets and are recommended for those with allergies or asthma. In the same vein, they are also easier to clean and more stain resistant than carpets making them very family friendly. Wood flooring can also be considered a more sustainable choice. A well-cared for wood floor has a very long life expectancy, lasting generations. Occasionally wood floors even outlive the home, making reclaimed wood flooring a very earth-friendly choice and character rich choice, albeit an expensive one. However, there are many sustainably grown and harvested floors that are also an excellent choices for those on a budget (ie most everyone!) and all wood floors can be considered a renewable, natural source.
Most of the confusion I find when clients are selecting wood floors is the difference between laminate, engineered and solid wood floors. Each floor is as unique as the tree that helped make it, and each application calls for different qualities. Here is a basic run down of each type, their qualities, disadvantages and what to look for.
Solid Wood Floors
Solid wood floors have the longest lifespan. Generally cut to ¾” planks, they can be sanded and refinished many times, lasting many years. The way the wood is milled can change the stability and look of the wood, so be sure to ask. One of the problems with solid wood flooring is that will expand and contract with humidity, causing the seams in the floor to gap, or if the wood was very green when installed even warp. Ensuring wood has been probably dried after milling and allowing the wood to acclimatize on-site before installations can help avoid issues. Climates that have extreme weather changes are most susceptible, often causing noticeable cracks and gaps in the floor as the wood dries out and shrinks. Besides ensuring that wood has been acclimated as much as possible, another option is random width wood floors or smaller plank size. The smaller the board width, the less shrinking and twisting that is possible. Though they can be refinished many times and have romantic notion of quality about them, solid wood floors are also not possible with radiant floor heat nor are they recommended in wet areas, due to their ability to contract and swell with moisture.
Engineered Wood Floors
Engineered wood floors have the largest cloud of confusion. That is mostly due to marketing, as there is a broad range of products that fall into this category. It is important to look at the specs and know what you are getting. A quality engineered floor has the best of all worlds.
First, it is important to know it is real wood. Generally they are 3/8” to ½” thick. The core of the product is made up of layers of plywood, with the grains glued in alternating directions giving strength and structure to the product. The top layer is real wood varying in thickness from a thin sheet to 4mm, the latter being thick enough for multiple sanding and refinishings. An engineered wood floor with a thin veneer on top will still have the structural integrity of real wood ply, but could easily be scratched and not able to be repaired. It is important to do your homework, and generally look for at least 2mm wear layer, which can still be sanded and refinished if needed.
Most wonderful about engineered wood floors is that they can be installed over radiant heat, they do not shrink or swell with climate, and they can even used in semi-wet areas and often hold up well even in bathrooms. They come in every type of species and finish, the possibilities are endless. Engineered wood floors can also be a very sustainable choice and with care could last just as long as solid wood options. If you are looking for green options, it is also important to note how they are made, look for formaldehyde free glues.
Laminate Wood Floors
They are making more beautiful laminate floors these days, I have often been fooled by them when walking through a flooring showroom, and their inexpensive price tag makes them very desirable to those on a tight budget.
As the name suggests, they are made of a very thin veneer of wood, or most often just a printed image that looks like wood. The core layer is usually fiber board, which can swell if used in a moist area, or even with a serious spill or regular exposure to soaking wet boots. While they often have a very tough top coat that will not scratch as easily as real wood, it also is not repairable if it is scratched. And while they are getting better and better at the aesthetics of these floors, they often have a repetitive pattern that gives away their faux identity. It is important to read the specs, warranty information and reviews.
There are many great laminate floors out there and on a budget they can have a longer lifespan and offer many of these same clean-air and maintenance benefits over carpet. Unlike solid wood floors, they can be installed over radiant floor heat systems.
Each type of flooring has benefits and disadvantages. It is important to research beyond the price tag and look at what you are getting. Consider your application and location and what challenges they present. Different species of wood will also offer different advantages as well as the type of finish that is applied, and when it is applied; so once you decide the type of flooring that will work best for you, be sure to do your homework on the different options it presents.