Monday, August 20, 2012

Hardwood Flooring vs. Engineered Hardwood vs. Laminate Flooring--How to Tell the Difference

Being able to spot the differences between flooring materials is not always as easy as it sounds. Just looking at a picture of a room is not enough and sometimes walking on the floor is not enough to tell the difference either. Now, this was not always true and there are some floors that you can tell immediately that they are inexpensive laminate floors, but not all laminate floors are inexpensive these days and not all hardwood floors are solid wood.

Let's start with the basics. Hardwood. A solid hardwood floor plank is made from a single piece of wood. It is cut to a size, sanded and a manufacturer's edge of some description is added to the edges so that pieces can fit together (this board has a tongue and grove edge). The edges may be unique to the manufacturer, but are not unique to solid hardwoods. What makes this material unique is the thickness of the solid wood section. Solid hardwood is thick and lends itself to being sanded and refinished multiple times--depending upon the thickness. This is a good thing, as many "hardwoods" are actually rather soft and can easily scratched under the paws of your 50 pound four legged house pet. Hardwood flooring material comes in a variety of colors, patterns, wood types and thicknesses. Installation normally involves nails or staples and/or dowels and it is generally the most costly of all the "wood" type floors. But be careful; you may think that the floor that you are standing on is a solid wood floor and discover that it is not. Sometimes the differences among materials are very subtle after installation. Solid hardwood floors can be found in older homes built before the 1970's and can be found in nicer luxury homes built today.

Engineered hardwood. It is right to call this a hardwood floor as well, as the genuine hardwood occupies the top surface, typically about 1/16" to 1/8" thick and this layer is identical to the solid hardwood flooring. Below the first layer of hardwood are layers of manufactured wood sub-strait similar to plywood. If you get your hands on a raw piece of the material, it is normally very easy to distinguish between the first layer of hardwood and the remaining layers of base material. Any type of look that a manufacturer can create with solid hardwoods can be created with engineered hardwood because they both start with hardwood--but engineered hardwoods are much more affordable. This is because the material used is mostly a strong manufactured plywood, not solid wood. Installation of engineered hardwoods can be nailed, stapled or glued to the floor--depending upon the type of surface under the flooring. The downside to an engineered hardwood is that it is very difficult to sand and refinish--due to the shallow depth of the hardwood surface. 

Now to laminate flooring. Laminate flooring has taken a beating in years past--probably with good reason. Like old kitchen laminate counter tops, the first couple of decades of these materials were not very robust and not very attractive. However, times are changing. While you can still find cheap and horribly dreadful laminate floors and DIY installations that remind buyers of bell bottom jeans and lime green kitchen appliances--manufacturers make some heavy grade laminate floors today that are both attractive and durable. And when these high quality laminate floors are professionally installed by contractors who know what they are doing--a laminate floor can be just as attractive and harder than many hardwood floors. In fact, this is the major advantage to a good quality laminate floor--it may hold up to harder wear and tear from Fido and Fido's two legged companions running through the house, sliding, scratching and dropping hard toys on the floors on a daily basis than hardwood floor. And some laminate floors are more expensive than hardwoods, too. Of course, not all laminates sold today look as good as this photograph nor are all laminate floors durable--especially to water spills in the seams in some laminate products. When water gets into the seams, it can quickly swell the composite materials and cause bowing and warping. This is a definite downside to many laminate materials and installations. It can be very vulnerable to water, but make no mistake about it, wood is not very tolerant to water either. Installation of laminate floors is typically accomplished by "floating" the floor. This is the most difficult of flooring installations because a poor float feels like the floor is moving or bouncing. A good float with a great padding underneath should be very similar to a hardwood floor in how it walks. But this takes experience.

So what is laminate and how is it different from hardwood flooring? Laminate is a photographic representation of wood, attached to the surface of a manufactured sub-strait similar to Masonite. The better the photo surface quality, locking edge design, sub-strait depth, padding and installation, the more robust and attractive the floor. (Translation: the more expensive the laminate and laminate installation--the better the quality). But there are so many inexpensive laminates available today and so many DIY installations that, in general, laminate floors seldom hold a candle to a good hardwood floor. But let's not generalize too much; I have seen some laminate installations that I have to bend down, tap the floor and figure out if it was laminate or a floating engineered hardwood. The floors were that good that I could not tell from just looking or walking on it.

So, the next time you get ready to buy a house and the Realtor's floor description says "Wood Floors", ask a few questions. Find out if they are solid wood floors, engineered hardwoods or actually a good laminate floor. Not all floors or flooring installations are created equally. 

(Disclaimer: I am not a builder, but I have built and remodeled more than a few homes. My dad was a builder, so I grew up on construction sites before I went to college and learned how to build a house from the foundation to the roof. If you would like to talk to my contractors or flooring suppliers about picking the right flooring materials for your application--let me know).


  1. It is always advisable to seek an expert opinion when it comes to home renovation for the best and satisfying output.. But it is also important that you also knew things to be done and some basic information like what has been mentioned above. Know what you want and try to gain some feedback from those experienced one..

    Flooring Winchester

  2. May i know the life of this type of floorings - Utah Flooring

  3. Great insight and comparison on solid wood flooring. You have thoroughly explained their differences, making it easier for homeowners to decide which of those types are ideal for their own properties.

  4. When you start renovating your home then it is important for you to choose a suitable flooring that is also durable and most household choose hardwood flooring because of its durability.

  5. How beautifully you have make the comparison of these hardwood, engineered and laminate and Wood flooring . After having a look on this post everyone gain the knowledge of the basic difference which these type of flooring have in it. Thanks for marvelous post

  6. Thanks for sharing this useful information, will be very helpful for people who want to get flooring for their place but are not aware about the different materials.

  7. This is a good example of knowing the qualities as a good carpentry project.

  8. Great article Tim! I work at a flooring company out of Pittsburgh and one of the most valued points I think you make in the article is talking about pets. When ever you are looking at any type of flooring materials you should let your flooring professional know about any pets you have and their weights. A dog may be mans best friend but rarely do they have the same relationship with your floor...haha.

  9. Engineered Hardwood are made of a few layers, or "handles" that are stuck together in a cross-grain development. This sort of development is far stronger than a solitary bit of strong wood; and its additionally all the more structurally sound – it won't clasp, hole, glass or wind. Engineered Hardwood might be introduced underneath evaluation and guide to cement -strong wood grounds can't. The top front side is created from the finest Northern lacquers (which is just an industry term for 'top layer') that give the most uniform shade and the most imperviousness to seasonal extension.

  10. A tip to all with wooden floors. Don't let women in high heels walk on it! First time I had a woman in high heels walk on my wood floor it was ruined! I've had laminate as well and it didn't get as dented but the scratches were pretty bad too.

  11. Many thanks for the exciting blog posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you are a brilliant writer. I actually added your blog to my favorites and will look forward for more updates. Great Job, Keep it up..

    Arrow Wood Engineered Wood Floors | Engineered Oak Wood Flooring


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