Types Of Hardwood Floors - The Complete Skinny
Need Help Choosing Wood Floors? Type Of Subfloor Plays A Role
Understanding how your home was built and the sub floor type will often dictate what type of hardwood floor you should be seeking. The illustration below gives an idea where some products can and cannot be used. The green area represents the soil line with basements below.
Considering most home construction in the United States uses plywood over floor joist systems, the preferred choice has always been a traditional ¾ inch solid hardwood. Providing they are taken care of properly, these products will provide the best longevity as they can be refinished many times over. Multiple color changes are possible, but requires very knowledgeable professionals for optimum results.
Engineered is often chosen with those that have a concrete sub floor system, or homes on slab with no basement below. By no means does this limit these products to concrete only. Others reasons they are chosen with wood subfloors include better performance with radiant floor heating systems, fewer problems associated with homes that aren't climate controlled and the need for lower vertical height flooring.
Wide Plank Popularity
In recent years and the popularity of much wider plank floors, or greater than five inches, engineered has become a godsend to applications that would not otherwise be possible. See more below.
Which Engineered Floor Is Best For Me?
Both solid and engineered flooring can be obtained prefinished or unfinished with the latter requiring sanding and finishing. Times have changed with styles as common strip flooring is no longer the only choice. Wider plank, hand scraped and distressed flooring have seen great demand the last ten to twelve years. For more I recommend visiting the page on trends and remodeling and what kind of species and colors are popular.
Related to styles we can include types designed for those wishing to do the work themselves. Lock and fold floating hardwoods, found at every home center these days have become extremely popular. However, you will find more variety and better quality with a full service hardwood flooring dealer.
Durable Appearances - Hides Stuff Better
For buyers with more to spend, upgraded styles can be chosen in the form of adding borders or medallions, both wood and stone. The options continue with custom floor designs, hand scraping, mild texturing or heavy distressed appearances. Even more are high end parquet patterns and herringbone.
Prefinished - Micro Bevels
If you're new to wood flooring you may be wondering "why can't I get a floor without all those ugly dirt catchers?" For the most part, many retailers don't offer prefinished square edge products with exceptions being longstrip floating type floors. The majority are square edge, but there's a preference among some not to have all those little pieces (fillets) that make up the floor, common in longstrip type construction.
One benefit to micro beveled floors many don't consider is their ability to trap dirt or grit that will scratch any floor. Some manufacturers produce micro bevels and others offer a larger version often called eased edges.
Another advantage of micro beveled or eased edge rarely discussed is they won't show seasonal movement with solid hardwoods compared to a sanded and finished floor. If you're seeking that flawless appearance year round and cannot afford to keep your home's interior relative humidity constant, these types are the answer, providing they're installed correctly or the product is milled with quality in mind.
You may find some manufacturers offering square edge solid 3/4" hardwoods. However I urge you to do a thorough investigation before making that purchase. Common complaints include overwood (raised edges) that become sock catchers. Micro beveled floors are abundant because prefinished manufacturers cannot produce a true square edge from a solid 3/4" product. Beveled styles are made to mask imperfections in milling. In other words, adjacent pieces after installation will have slight vertical height differences.
Our Little Secrets Many Don't Tell You. Random Length² or One Size Lengths?
All manufacturers are different. Some may offer random length or one set length products. Random length is defined as each piece being different in size between the shortest and longest. For example, one may say 12" - 60" random length. This means the shortest pieces will be 12" and the longest 60" with the others being different sized in between. Random lengths offer a more traditional look. Some products may be manufactured in one length only, but to an untrained eye will look similar to a random length floor if installed properly.
Some confuse one length hardwoods as being too uniform in appearance. One length products should be installed randomly. Creating the random look begins with using different sized boards at the starting area. They should be cut randomly with no particular measurement used. Once starter boards are cut and full length pieces are installed adjacent to them, a random look appears as shown below.
This pattern is especially noticeable with products that are very similar in color and grain. A dark stained oak rotary peeled hardwood is a great example.
Why Choose Solid Hardwood Flooring?
Most people recognize quality with solid hardwood. They are more inclined to go with what they perceive as a better quality building material. Installation calls for nailing and stapling with proper tools.
More traditional solid flooring is available in thickness of 3/4 of one inch. This has become more of a norm but thinner products are also chosen for a number of reasons; chiefly because of the cost. Thinner solid flooring starts at 5/16 of one inch with more selections at 3/8 to 1/2 inch. If you are seeking appearance and more of a traditional look, most 3/4" solids offer longer lengths with the exception being many imported Chinese products today. Some have specifications calling for 12 to 48 inch lengths only.
More traditional or mass produced prefinished and unfinished flooring in the 3/4" format are generally described as random 12 - 84 inch lengths. The numbers may vary slightly. Random in this case is defined as boards starting at 12 inches with maximum lengths of 84 inches, with those in between having no set measurement. This can be misleading because grade can also play a role. Exceptions today can include wider plank character grade hardwoods.
A lower grade will often bring in shorter overall lengths. On the other hand, some unfinished manufacturers have the capacity to custom mill if one desires longer set lengths, thus avoiding the smaller pieces.
Moving on to thinner solids, specifically prefinished, overall lengths generally run shorter. Some may still say 12 - 84 but I've found a considerable amount of shorter pieces can be mixed in. Other manufacturers may call for 12 -60" or only 12 - 48; prevalent with Indusparquet and other imported exotics. Much like the solid 3/4" product, thin domestic hardwoods can be specified with longer lengths if you can find the source. Imports are more unlikely unless you're seeking a large quantity.
For years the most common solid hardwood width was 2 ¼ inch. This has all but been replaced the last ten years or so with three inch width replacing it. 2 ¼ inch is still being used, but mostly with sand and finish floors. The more recognized prefinished manufacturers offer widths ranging from 2 1/4" up to five, and sometimes wider with a small showing of fused composites. Composites are wider plank floors with 1-2 inch strips fused or glued together.
On the specialty side, mills that saw unfinished flooring can provide 1 1/2 inch up to twenty, but will depend on the species and type of log cut, as most do not perform well over a certain width.
When shopping for prefinished solids, grade is rarely specified. For instance, looking in a flooring store and asking what grade a particular prefinished floor may be is likely to bring blank looks, unless it's the very trendy character grade we see today.
The salesman often has to call the manufacturer because he doesn't have the information in his pricing and spec sheet. Most all prefinished manufacturers do sell solid hardwoods that will be more uniform in color and appearance (occasional ugly or dark/light boards not included) unless otherwise specified.³ Exceptions being cabin or tavern grades that rarely carry warranties.
Other Solid Hardwoods
For the discriminating buyer, high end solid parquet and herringbone can also be chosen but most will require sanding and finishing on the jobsite. Thickness's vary from 5/16" up to 3/4 of one inch. Pattern styles are unlimited with custom orders.
What Are Engineered Floors?
Products are constructed similar to that of basic plywood in appearance with the top surface being the actual hardwood. Products come in two to eleven ply construction depending on the manufacturer. On the right, a cross layer view of our standard ¾ inch engineered.
But They All Look The Same!
Engineered hardwoods have been given a bad rap over the years because they all looked basically similar. Earlier versions had one boring looking appearance in that all were rotary peeled. Rotary peeled offers a plywood surface appearance. Some like it, others don't.
In recent years more manufacturers have been offering solid sawn formats. Solid sawn exhibits the appearance of traditional 3/4" solid hardwoods many of us are accustomed to. Our own engineered floors offer this benefit with one of the thickest wear layers in the industry.
Unlike solid floors, these products take on three different appearances depending in how they were manufactured. Other differences can be described best by throwing in the longevity (depends on care and other influences) factor which is calculated by the thickness of the wear layer. In order, solid sawn will last longer than rotary peeled and sliced cut (not shown).
My Builder Says It's Junk!
Ask any craftsman, builder, or installer from the old school what they think about engineered flooring and the answers will likely be the same. However since my original statement ten years ago, more and more are recognizing higher quality engineered because of fewer problems associated with them compared to solid.
Sure, there are many low priced products out there sold in places like Carpet One, Lowe's, and smaller retail stores. They have their place and people buy the stuff in droves.
Times Have Changed With Quality
Times have changed with engineered flooring. Many manufacturers have increased the wear layer that will result in some (heavy wear layer) lasting just as long as traditional solid 3/4 inch flooring. One of the most important factors contributing to the longevity of any wood floor is the amount of refinish able material.
Solid 3/4" hardwoods have approximately 1/4 of an inch above the tongue and groove construction. Once it is sanded to that level, nails or staples begin to appear and should be replaced. The better and thicker products have 1/8 (3mm) to 7/32" (6mm) of an inch above the tongue and groove.
How Many Times Can The Floor Be Refinished?
How many times these products can be refinished should be a thought for those that plan on living with their new floor more than 10-20 years, but will depend on what you perceive as needing refinishing. Minor scratches, dings and dents add to the character of wood flooring. Some are fine by the added character that comes along with age and use, others may not be.
If you're seeking near perfection and desire a flawless appearance, refinishing may be needed every five years. Choosing a product with the thickest wear layer should be considered. With the right professionals and a flat subfloor, 3 and 4 mm can be successfully refinished at least two and possibly as many as four times. Four is pushing it unless ideal conditions exist. Color changes may reduce this number. Finally, these unique products are more stable (minimal if any expansion and contraction) than solids due to the way they are constructed. They are often recommended⁴ for in floor radiant heating systems as well.
Beware of online sellers offering information on whether or not an engineered floor can be refinished. They simply do not offer unbiased and accurate information.
Choosing which thickness is often a confusing one for consumers. Overall thickness of engineered will vary from 1/4" to 3/4" depending on what brand or manufacturer. The most common thickness seems to be 3/8" or 1/2" and is used predominately with remodel or new construction concrete slab applications. It also becomes a price issue for some, so wood subfloors are not ruled out.
Which one to choose? As I've already mentioned the wear layer should be given priority in some situations.
Other factors that can come into play would include adjoining types of floor covering. Ceramic tile usually finishes at 3/8" in vertical height after thin set is applied under the tiles.⁵ For products over 1/2" in thickness, some prefinished trim moldings or thresholds rarely fit right without some adjustments.
More Stable Than Traditional Hardwood
Engineered products are the ideal solution for wood flooring on concrete, and there are other benefits. Most recognized is the dimensional stability of the way they are constructed. Each ply layer is pressure glued and set in the opposite direction. For those concerned with high humidity, expansion and contraction is nill to minimal, opposed to solid.
The Length Factor...Long or Short?
Unfortunately many who purchase engineered don't know what they're getting until the floor is being installed. The majority of manufactured prefinished products have limits on lengths at 42 to 48 inches, opposed to most solids at 72 to 84 inches. What's worse is some manufacturers may only produce a product with board lengths running as short as 8-15 inches and only up to 33 inches.
Longer lengths are preferred as they offer a more appealing or traditional look on completion. During the shopping process inquire about the specifics. Most online companies offer specifications but I've found some to be inaccurate or too generic. Asking a local dealer who specializes is likely to provide better results as they have access to more immediate and accurate information.
How Are They Installed?
Most engineered floors are installed by the glue down or floating floor method. It's important to note; not all products have the same type of installation specifications. For instance, some may be floating, glue direct, or staple only. Manufacturers specify installation applications for a reason, and I would suggest following them.
Nearly Perfect Engineered Wood Floor - Acrylic Impregnated
Acrylic impregnated products are highly resistant to excessive foot traffic and used predominantly in commercial settings. On another note, in the way they are constructed, they are also tolerant of moisture. Often found in shopping malls, restaurants, and bars these products do not require the meticulous care as other wood floors, but leaves no reason to skip regular maintenance intervals.
Tougher Wood Floors
The impregnation process, enabling the increased durability occurs when liquid acrylics are forced into the pores of the hardwood itself during manufacturing. Voids in the cells of the wood are filled and the cell structure becomes more protected from crushing and water intrusion. The procedure is not a fool proof method of complete protection. Excessive water for a prolonged period of time will affect the characteristics as will damage from falling objects, high heels, stones, and the like.
Colors & More Colors
Acrylic impregnated flooring also offers numerous color possibilities and is also not affected by exposure to light as other products; exceptions being imported exotics. Coloring is forced into the veneer of the product itself, meaning no re-staining is necessary should the floor need to be refinished at a later date. The color is permanent.
Unusually thick wear layers may sound attractive if presented to you. Engineered flooring too needs stability in that the underlying ply construction should be equal to or greater than the thickness of the wear layer. While these products expand minimally, a force exists between the top and bottom during changes in relative humidity within the environment. Thick wear layers accompanied with a thinner form of ply construction underneath have been known to cause cupping and or crowning issues.
¹ Floating floors excluded.
² Some manufacturers may indicate random. In recent years many imported manufacturers have been known to produce other varieties. For instance; 12 - 48 inches in length with 75% measuring at 48. Others may have only three set lengths but specify as random.
³ This has changed over the years as character and distressed type hardwoods have become popular.
⁴ Not all manufacturers warrant engineered flooring with radiant heat systems.
⁵ Those considering engineered on wood subfloors may run into different ceramic tile heights due to cement backer board installed under the tile.