Laminate vs. Engineered vs. Solid Floors
Homeowners have lots of options to choose from when it comes to selecting a wood floor for their home. Not all of them are suitable for every homeowner or every home but with a little bit of helpful information, you can make a choice that fits you.
When you go shopping for wood floors you may see options such as Engineered, Prefinished, Laminate, Solid, Site Finished, Hand-Scraped, Aluminum Oxide, Glue Down, Floating Floor, Nail Down. What does all of that stuff mean and which one is right for you?
Don’t buy into the marketing hype… Use your head and consider these decision maker questions:
- Have you found a wood floor that you really like?
- What is your budget per square foot or budget for the desired project?
- How long do you plan on living in this home?
- What kind of traffic will your floor be subjected to?
If you’re considering the purchase of new wood floors, I encourage you to equip yourself with some basic knowledge about the differences in these general categories of wood floors: Laminate, Engineered, and Solid.
In this category you will find many identifying names such as “Pergo”, floating floor, and snap-together floor. Essentially what all laminate wood floors have in common is a composite material with a tough, durable finish and natural “looking” appearance. I say appearance because laminates typically don’t have any real wood in them that they are trying to mimic. Usually the floor that you see is only a picture of wood floors. The upside to a Laminate wood floor is that they are usually very economical to purchase and easy to install. For the household on a budget, these tend to be the choice. These floors aren’t glued or nailed to the floor but instead they are secured together using a tongue-and-groove locking system and gravity is the only thing holding them down. If a plank ever needs replacing, it’s not too hard to do. On the scale of difficulty, laminate wood floors are easy enough to install that a handy homeowner with only a few tools can probably tackle the living and dining room in a couple of days. The downside to this economy class of wood flooring is that it’s a simulated wood and lacks the depth and variation that real wood offers. Some comment that the wood feels cheap under the foot because it’s not secured to the floor.
Laminate Floor Summary: Low cost, imitation wood, durable but not a long-term value floor.
This category of wood floors is a bit more complicated and tend to have a few exceptions within the class (more on the exceptions later). Engineered wood floors are constructed of multiple layers of utility wood (similar in construction to plywood where the sheet of wood grain runs perpendicular to the sheet below it and above it) with a top layer of real veneer wood. The veneer ranges in thickness from 2mm to 4mm. Usually this veneer comes from the factory with a stain finish and protective clear coat, making it prefinished. The installer simply needs to trowel out the glue and install the wood flooring with no sanding, staining, or sealing necessary. The upside to engineered wood floors is that with the stain and sealer already on the floor planks, the project is completed quickly with little mess. The downside is that surface repairs or refinishing may not be possible if they are ever needed. If you have engineered wood floors in your home and they need some professional-grade TLC, a visit from an experienced wood flooring contractor will help you determine what options are available for you. Engineered wood floors are available in a very wide range of wood species, colors, widths, and offer the consumer a very consistent color and finish with very little surprises. Most engineered wood floor installations are prefinished but there is a category of unfinished, engineered wood floors which allow the homeowner to achieve the look, durability, maintainability, and character of a solid wood floor. More about this hybrid category later. These are great because they combine the best of both worlds between engineered and solid wood floors. A lot of marketing hype goes into the distribution of engineered wood floors with famous names like Bob Villa and ridiculous claims like 50 year warranties. These big name companies know that the average purchaser of their products only live in the home for about 5 years and will never see 50 years under foot so I usually don’t give a lot of credence to this intangible feature. When consulting with a homeowner, I emphasize the consistency and convenience as being the key factors when considering this category.
Engineered Wood Floor Summary: Many choices, convenient at a cost, difficult to surface repair, misleading hype, consistent finish
The traditional solid wood floor is an American Icon, the “real McCoy.” With its one of a kind feel under-foot, natural beauty, and almost limitless life expectancy; solid wood floors may offer the homeowner the most appealing long-term cost of ownership in any type of flooring. Just ask my client in Atchison Kansas who hired me and my crew to repair and refinish her 100+ year old oak wood floors. Solid floors can be refinished and stained almost any color (keeping in mind that the species of wood contributes something to the options). They can be smooth sanded finish, hand scraped across the grain or hand scraped with the grain. They can be sealed with any sheen finish you want. Gloss, semi-gloss, satin, and super-matte. They can be surface repaired but usually by an experienced technician.
Another big value feature is that the top layer of polyurethane sealer can be recoated on an as needed basis, extending the life of the finish out 10+ years if top-notch products are used and the floors are maintained properly. Species include oak, maple, birch, cherry, pine, hickory and much more.
The downside is that solid floors will need to be installed, acclimated, and finished in site. The typical project takes 2-3 weeks from start to finish with 7-14 days of resting in the middle. The downside is the mess, lack of convenience by comparison, longer project duration, and thickness of the floor. To some homeowners, these downsides seem a little too much to handle and to those folks, I typically point to the engineered wood floors. However the up-front sacrifice in convenience will yield a long-term flooring investment that lasts for decades or possibly centuries.
Solid wood floors are not the right choice for every homeowner but if it seems like I am defending this category a little more than others, it’s out of a sense of justice. Remember the marketing hype I mentioned about engineered wood floors? The hype has been an attempt by these big names brands to take market share away from solid wood floors. Typically solid wood floors aren’t a branded product because they’re sourced and installed locally. In the metropolitan area where I live and operate my business, the main street flooring stores have 500 samples of prefinished engineered products and maybe 4 samples of solid floors. This imbalance is largely a profit oriented one for the big stores because they would prefer to sell you a product with a simple transaction and avoid the complexities of a solid wood floor project. Just because it’s better for the salesman doesn’t mean that it’s better for the homeowner. The total cost of a wood flooring project when looking at engineered vs solid almost always turns out to be very close to each other.
Solid Wood Floor Summary: more complex installation and less convenient but certainly the best long-term flooring investment, beauty and character are unique. Often imitated but rarely equaled.
Like I said in the engineered section, most engineered wood floor installations are prefinished BUT there is a “hybrid” category of unfinished, engineered wood floors. What are the benefits? Stability of an engineered wood floor with the versatility and character of a solid wood floor. These wood floors can be finished with a hand-scrape or sand-and-finish, stained any color, and are sealed seamlessly. On a concrete subfloor, this product can be glued down; eliminating the need for a plywood subfloor and keeping down the overall thickness of the floor. These hybrid products are great because they combine the best of both worlds between engineered and solid wood floors.
What’s the downside? Price. These products are more costly than the total cost of a solid wood floor and plywood subfloor. How much more? Maybe $2-$4 per square foot more. That’s really not bad.We like this product but don’t sell it very often because of the increased cost.
Making the right choice means knowing what your options are and what features you want in your floors. An experienced consultant such as myself can help you narrow down the universe of options, features, and categories, and hopefully provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision about what floors are right for you.
This copyrighted content is provided courtesy of HSW Floors.