Solid Versus Engineered Wood Floors

A brief discussion about the difference between the two.

I consider myself to still be young, but my general preferences toward solid wood over engineered products tend to align with more “old school” beliefs.

I’m going to discuss some pros and cons of solid verses engineered floors, but in order to stay relatively brief here, I’m going to focus on residential applications that are at or above grade over wood/plywood/OSB subfloors.  With that said though, when we talk about installing wood over concrete or below grade in future articles, I do recommend engineered or solid sawn floors (re: Vintage Solid Sawn and Northern Solid Sawn), and I feel that over concrete is the best time to use these types of products.  That is the application for which those products were originally developed.

Engineered wood floors are not necessarily good or bad in general, but they are definitely not all created equal.  A typical engineered wood product has a veneer of real wood mounted over a plywood or fiberboard core.  Typically your less expensive/lower end engineered floors are going to have a rotary peeled veneer.  This is your weakest and cheapest cut of the tree (it is how they cut for plywood).  Rotary peeled veneers are highly prone to face checking (small looking “splits” in the wood) and are typically not refinish-able, but some are thick enough that you may get one sanding out of the floor if you are careful.  Many of these products begin the starting price of wood flooring (generally in the low $3 range) for people that want to make the conversion from a plastic laminate price-point to a real wood price-point.  Sawn veneers are cut out of the log like the solid lumber.  There are floors with sawn veneers that are not sand-able, and there are products with sawn veneers that are sand-able the same amount of times as a regular ¾” solid wood.  However, these higher quality engineered floors are typically the same or more expensive than most solid wood floors.  So if you are on a wood subfloor, and you want a quality sand-able product, why wouldn’t you just use a solid wood floor?  A solid wood floor is made to last a lifetime.  There are 100+ year old homes and structures in St Louis city that have their original hardwood that still looks great today.

It is true that engineered floors are made to be more stable than solid wood, but that does not mean that they are not moving at all.  Stability is basically relating to expansion and contraction.  Wood still has its cell structure from when it was a living tree that is affected by moisture/humidity changes (it’s hygroscopic in technical terms).  Here in the St Louis area we have very dry winters and very humid summers, so stability is a valid concern.  Most solid woods are stable from about 40%-55% humidity levels, but many engineered wood products are warranted to be stable from only 40%-60% humidity levels.  With our dry winters, ESPECIALLY with homes that do not run a humidifier, it can easily get below 40% humidity if not below 30% when temperatures get very cold.  If your engineered floor gets extremely dry it has the potential to fail (delaminate), and if this occurs when it is below the manufacturers recommended humidity levels this will not be covered under warranty.

These are more extreme cases, but just for example 100% of the time I will recommend solid wood when someone comes to me for hardwood floors in a lake-house or cabin that is not climate controlled year round (again, over wood/plywood/OSB subfloor).  I will tell them that they will probably get gaps (and maybe some splits) in the winter when the wood is contracted, and they may get some cupping or crowning in the summer when the wood is expanded, but the solid wood is not going to fail.  The solid wood will move, but it is not going to fall apart.  Also for these extreme situations, I would recommend looking for wood species that are more stable (for example oak and ash are more stable than maple and hickory) and sticking with smaller width planks.  The wider the board the more wood there is per piece, so the more it can show expansion and contraction.

Engineered wood products definitely have a place in the market, but I think some companies and their salespeople exaggerate the facts.  I’ve had numerous people come to me and say “so and so said I need an engineered wood because I want a wider plank” or “because I’m doing my kitchen in case my refrigerator or dishwasher leaks” or “because it’s completely stable”.  For me, those are not strong enough (or accurate) reasons to tell someone that they need/require an engineered wood product, especially if their budget is in an average range.  If you are really concerned about movement with your wood floor (whether it is solid or engineered!), the best thing to do is control your humidity levels by running air conditioning/dehumidifiers in the summer and running humidifiers in the winter.

Amanda Rieffer – Architectural/Design Representative