Engineered wood flooring is the hottest and fastest-growing segment of the wood flooring industry. Formerly called “prefinished,” this rapidly expanding selection is not only large, it can be confusing and intimidating to wade into if you don’t know what to look for. Let me highlight a few differences, point out some of the advantages and disadvantages, and give you a sense of direction before you head into a showroom.
Solid is just that: a solid piece that has all the stain and/or finish already applied to the surface.
Veneer is a thin layer (from 1/32 of an inch all the way to 1/4 inch) of wood over a plywood-like substrate called the “core,” consisting of layers in alternating direction that give the whole piece very good stability in terms of warping, shrinking or expanding.
Laminate products are typically a photographic reproduction of wood pattern mounted on a high density fiber (HDF) backing. It has the thinnest wear layer of the three categories.
Among the many advantages to engineered flooring, first and foremost is that most types only require installation. Since there is no sanding or finishing needed, the costs are minimal compared to the cost for a regular wood floor that involves sanding, finishing and coatings that must dry and cure. It also eliminates the collateral side effects, most notably the dust and vapors of the sanding and finish steps.
Another bonus is that products mounted on the plywood-like “core” have far more stability than a solid piece of flooring material. This enhanced stability means that the wood is far less likely to expand and contract resulting in warping, cracking, splitting, cupping or buckling of the product. This is a prime consideration where there are moisture or heat-related issues that might affect the wood. Basements, concrete slabs, kitchens and radiant heating are just a few instances where the directional stability of the wood will be critical over extended periods of time. You should also be mindful, with homes that are occupied seasonally (vacation homes, second homes, etc.), that the interior environment likely changes on a seasonal basis.
Another factor to consider is that engineered products offer a wide variety of stains, finishes and milling options to select from. Finishes and stains applied in the controlled environment of a factory are usually very color stable, tough and durable. This translates into very good quality control and often eliminates problems that would occur from onsite sanding and finishing.
A primary concern with engineered floors has to do with sanding or refurbishing them after extended use and wear. The number of times they can be sanded depends on the thickness of the wear layer. Industry experts suggest that you remove 1/32 inch of wood per sanding. With more than 35 years’ experience in this work, I strongly disagree. While it’s possible to remove 1/32 in. under lab conditions, that is rarely how it is done in real life situations. If you are looking at a wood floor as a permanent fixture of the house and anticipate it will need to be refinished, I recommend removing no less than 1/16 in. (or 1.5mm) in thickness. You cannot assume that the floor is going to be perfectly flat or that the super hard finishes will sand off easily – they don’t. And due to height variations and a much more aggressive sanding, you can rest assured your floor will be losing more surface than it would in a lab situation.
As for refurbishing the surface, the news is very good. And by refurbishing I mean restoring luster to the surface after years of wear. Recoating an engineered product is now easier because a couple of respected manufacturers produce bonding agents that can be used to prepare the floors for recoating. These bonding agents are an absolute must for the super hard finishes that are factory applied. Conventional screening of the floors is not enough to create a good bond between the old finish and the new finish being applied. What this means is that recoating an engineered product with a surface coating can be done but if it’s not done properly it will fail. Basic Coatings and BonaKemi are the only two manufacturers of cleaners and prepping materials that include a bonding agent. Basic Coating’s product is called TyKote and BonaKemi’s product is called Prep. You would be penny wise and pound foolish to try and skip one of these tried and tested recoating systems.
Anyone looking for guidance or advice to follow on selecting an engineered flooring product need only consider this: your wood floor is one of the most permanent and valuable surfaces in your house. Treat it like the investment it is and you will rarely make any mistakes. I have worked in houses more than 100 years old and the wood floors are often the only original surface still intact. That is a remarkable thing to consider. Don’t try and cut corners. Do your homework. There are remarkable investments out there and it is just a matter of doing the due diligence to get what you want.