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Solid Hardwood Floors vs. Engineered Wood: How Do You Choose?

By Gabriel

By Cicely Wedgeworth of Realtor.com

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The choice between solid hardwood floors and engineered wood planks can surprise homeowners when they first sit down with a contractor. What's the difference? Aren't all hardwood floors made from wood? Is there a better pick to ensure you get "real" hardwood floors?

Technically, both of these options qualify as "real" hardwood flooring, but they’re surprisingly different from each other.

Solid hardwood flooring

Solid wood planks are milled from a single piece of hardwood and covered with a thin, clear protective layer that often consists of aluminum oxide, ceramic or an acrylic substance.

Typically three quarters of an inch, the thickness of solid wood planking enables it to be sanded and refinished many times throughout the life of the floor.

Because the plank is a solid piece of wood, it will expand and contract in accordance with the home’s relative humidity. To prevent warping, the home’s interior relative humidity needs to remain between 45% and 65% all year round.

Solid hardwood flooring is available in a wide array of wood species—including oak, maple, and black walnut as well as regional-specific choices like pecan, mesquite and others. The market also sometimes offers exotic species of hardwood from Brazil, Africa and elsewhere.

A solid hardwood floor is permanently nailed to the subfloor. Because of the expansion and contraction issues, installers will normally leave a gap between the wall and the floor to accommodate swelling.This type of hardwood flooring should only be installed in parts of the home above grade and only over plywood, wood or oriented strand board (OSB) subfloors.

Engineered hardwood planks

Hardwood planks classified as “engineered” feature multiple layers (typically three to five) bonded together under extreme heat and pressure. You're still getting real hardwood floors; they're just made differently.

The layers typically include a top veneer of hardwood backed by less expensive layers of plywood—although some manufacturers use substrates made from recycled wood fibers mixed with stone dust for improved durability and stability.

Because of the way engineered hardwood is processed, it is not as affected by humidity as solid wood planks are. Therefore, the product is often the preferred choice for kitchens and bathrooms or in areas where the humidity level can vary—like in a basement or a part of the house below grade, as long as a moisture barrier is placed between the subfloor and the hardwood planks.

They are also better suited for installing over in-floor heating systems.

Engineered wood planks now are being created with a tongue and groove installation method, much like laminate flooring. This enables them to be installed in a floating floor format without nails or glue.

Engineered hardwood floors are suitable for installation on all levels of the home and over plywood, wood, OSB and concrete subfloors.

Which wood flooring should I choose?

Ultimately, your wood flooring choice is going to be determined by where you are planning to install the product and what you’re looking for in terms of design aesthetic.

If you’re installing hardwood flooring in a lower level of your home or in an area where moisture or high (or low) humidity might be an issue, then you’re going to want to stick with engineered hardwood.

On the other hand, if you are installing the new floor on an above-grade level and you want a traditional hardwood floor, then you can go ahead with solid hardwood.

Both types offer a beautiful finish and will increase the value of your home—as long as they are installed correctly and maintained properly over the duration of your ownership.