Engineered Wood Floors: What to Know Before You Buy

Room with engineered wood flooring

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Wood is an undeniably gorgeous, flexible, adaptable, and desirable material for flooring. Wood has been used for centuries in homes and public buildings, and its use continues today. Yet, for all of its benefits, wood flooring does come with its own unique set of challenges that make it a difficult purchase for many homeowners. Fortunately, there is an alternative to solid hardwood: engineered wood flooring.

Engineered Wood Flooring: Alternative to Solid Wood

Solid hardwood floor covering provides a classic touch, a warm feeling that is difficult to match with wood-substitute materials like laminate flooring and luxury vinyl flooring. Solid hardwood flooring returns a high resale value, feels warm underfoot during the cold months, and can easily be refinished.

The "solid" in solid hardwood flooring's name gives a clue as to some of its issues. Solid hardwood means that it is a homogeneous material: What you see on top continues all the way through to the bottom. With larger trees increasingly more difficult to source, it's harder for manufacturers to find the big logs needed to mill solid hardwood boards.

Solid—an attribute in many respects, especially when it comes time to sand down the floor—is a serious disadvantage when water meets the solid hardwood. Even a minor amount of flooding will cause the flooring to swell up. Returning to its original shape is nearly impossible. Flood-ruined floorboards are often left buckled and cupped.

Solid hardwood flooring is difficult to install on a do-it-yourself basis. For best results, you almost always need to ​hire hardwood floor installers.

Is there a product that counters all of solid hardwood's issues? One popular alternative is engineered wood flooring. On top, engineered wood looks exactly like solid hardwood because that's what it is: real hardwood, though very thin. Below, where it matters in the event of flooding, the solid wood has been replaced by a hardier wood, a type of high-quality plywood. This makes engineered wood flooring a bit like the best of all worlds.

Engineered wood floor detail
The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Engineered Flooring: Hardwood and Plywood Hybrid

On its top, engineered wood flooring is real hardwood. This part is a thin layer of 1/16-inch to 1/8-inch veneer wood. The veneer is peeled or cut directly from hardwood logs; it is not composite wood. Wood veneer is a legitimate building material and has been used for centuries for furniture. Lower-grade wood is used as the base, with the veneer glued to the top for appearance.

This top finish layer is almost always pre-finished. This means that the floor has already been sanded, stained, and sealed. As soon as the floor has been laid, you can walk on it. By contrast, unfinished solid hardwood must be sealed, and this requires waiting time before use. It is important to note that solid hardwood is increasingly becoming pre-finished, as well.

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Watch Now: 7 Things to Know About Hardwood Vs Engineered Wood

Engineered Wood Flooring's Veneer

Whatever type of solid hardwood flooring you like, there will likely be an equivalent form of engineered wood flooring.

  • Hickory: Rich, hand-scraped hickory gives your house a timeless feeling.
  • Oak: Traditional red oak is inexpensive and always looks great. Red oak is usually the least expensive hardwood you can buy.
  • Bamboo: Bamboo is a grass that provides immense strength when cross-hatched with other strands of bamboo. By definition, all bamboo flooring can be considered an engineered product since so many additives are required for its manufacture.
  • Maple: Maple is an elegant finish, appropriate for dining, living, and family rooms.

Tip

The emphasis that hardwood floor sands better than engineered wood floor is not to say that engineered wood cannot be sanded. It can be sanded, but it needs to be sanded lightly and with abundant caution, preferably with professional help.

Engineered Wood Flooring's Plywood Base

Everything below the veneer top is high-quality plywood. This plywood usually ranges from 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch thick.

Plywood provides stability and dimensional strength that solid hardwood does not have. Plywood's cross-laid layers are superb at maintaining size after major water events like flooding. Solid hardwood flooring will eventually dry and either bow or cup. Once this has happened, the only cure is to vigorously sand down the bows or cups until the floor is once again flat. Thin solid hardwood flooring usually cannot be sanded that far down. By contrast, engineered wood flooring's base demonstrates a greater resilience to water.

Engineered Wood Flooring Pros and Cons

What We Like
  • To a minimal degree, engineered wood can be sanded after scratches and dings develop.

  • High resale value

  • Well-regarded by homebuyers

  • Some engineered wood floorboards can fit together as a floating floor, without the aid of glue, staples, or nails

  • A good choice for radiant heating because of its stability against heat

What We Don't Like
  • Cannot be deeply sanded down or frequently sanded down

  • Expensive

  • Because it is difficult to sand safely, professional sanding is recommended

  • Not be a good choice for dogs because dog claws can gouge into the thin veneer layer

Engineered Wood Flooring and Moisture

Engineered wood flooring is definitely better at standing up against moisture than solid hardwood. But this does not mean that engineered wood is the best choice for high or even moderately moist areas.

Engineered wood flooring works best in areas that stay dry, such as bedrooms, living rooms, and hallways. This type of flooring also works moderately well in kitchens, basements, and bathrooms where light moisture might be present.

Engineered wood flooring is not designed to hold up in excessively wet areas such as basements or laundry rooms that flood frequently.

If you are motivated to install engineered wood in a full bathroom, potential damage can be mitigated with waterproof mats and solid shower doors.