Engineered wood flooring is an alternative to solid hardwood flooring made entirely out of real wood. It's currently the most popular type of flooring in the world. North America is the only area left where traditional, solid wood floors still outnumber engineered floors, but engineered wood flooring is quickly catching up, with its popularity for new builds, as well as remodels, increasing steadily every year for the past few decades. Homeowners may be interested in how this product is manufactured and installed, and what its advantages are compared to older, more traditional forms of flooring.
The beginnings of mass-produced wood flooring can be dated as far back as 1903 when it was referred to as “wood carpeting” in a mail order catalog. This flooring consisted of 1½ x 5/16-inch wooden strips that were glued to heavy canvas that was then installed by tacking it down with small nails. The wood was then sanded and finished. The varnishes used were not too durable, so the floors were hot-waxed and buffed to a shine with a floor brush.
Early examples of the “wood carpet” eventually evolved into what is today known as laminate flooring, which consists of melamine-infused paper as its upper layer, and wood-chip composite beneath. Laminate flooring typically features a printed or embossed top layer meant to approximate the look of real hardwood.
The current style of engineered wood flooring has been available since the 1960s, and has steadily increased in quality, leading to improved advantages over traditional hardwood flooring.
Engineered wood flooring is most commonly made with a plywood-core substrate and a real hardwood veneer or skin, which comes pre-finished from the factory. The top veneer, which looks just like the top of a traditional solid wood plank, is called the lamella.
Some engineered flooring utilizes a finger-core construction, with a substrate comprised of small pieces of milled timber running perpendicular to the lamella. This can be made with an additional layer of plywood running parallel to the lamella, which gives it added stability. Fiberboard-core flooring is also available, but it's generally considered to be an inferior option.
Engineered wood flooring is meant to be indistinguishable from traditional hardwood floor once it's installed, and only the lamella is visible. The lamella veneers available are made from nearly every type of common wood, as well as many more exotic ones, in order to provide the same variety of aesthetics typical of quality hardwood floors. The substrate that the veneer is attached to is just as strong and durable as hardwood -- if not stronger -- and the finish applied at the factory often outlasts one applied on-site to solid wood flooring. Even surface effects are available that can be applied to the finish to give the flooring a time-worn look, such as light distressing.
Engineered flooring starts around $3 per square foot on the low end, and over $14 per square foot on the high end.
To judge quality, check the thickness of the lamella, the number of layers in the substrate, and the number of finish coats. Typically, the more layers, the better. Listed below are descriptions of the advantages of adding layers to the construction in the common classes of engineered boards:
The cost of engineered flooring can be around 20% more than that of traditional flooring, but the difference can be offset or recouped by saving on installation, staining and sealing.
Installation of engineered wood flooring is generally quite simple compared to the installation of traditional hardwood, and can often be accomplished by a homeowner without the help of a professional flooring contractor. If the services of a professional are enlisted, the job can be done more quickly and cost-effectively than if solid hardwood were to be installed. Engineered flooring can be fastened in place with screws or nails, glued down, or left to "float," relying on its mass to hold it in place. Listed below are several installation methods:
Advantages of Engineered Flooring
While solid hardwood is a great traditional building material that provides aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound flooring, it does have its limitations. For example, it cannot be installed directly on concrete or below grade, such as in basements. It is generally limited in plank width and is more prone to gapping, which is excessive space between planks, and cupping, which is a concave or "dished" appearance of the plank, with the height of the plank along its longer edges being higher than the center with increased plank size. Solid hardwood also cannot be used where radiant-floor heating is in place.
Engineered wood flooring, on the other hand, can actually provide some distinct advantages over traditional hardwood in many instances and applications. Some of these include:
Engineered wood flooring is increasingly becoming the first choice for floor installations, and its advantages, in many circumstances, can be exceptional.