Buying Guide for Engineered and Solid Hardwood Flooring

Informed homeowners make flooring decisions they’re thrilled with now and continue to enjoy as the years go by. This hardwood flooring guide provides wood flooring ideas for your home and a wealth of information.

Featured in this Buying Guide

Introduction to Hardwood Flooring

Hardwood is a timeless flooring material that is available in a wide range of wood species, styles and finishes to give you hundreds of choices.

Before we discuss those choices, let’s define both types of hardwood flooring and distinguish between solid and engineered floors.

Solid hardwood flooring: As the name says, this flooring is hardwood through and through. It is available in both domestic (e.g. white oak, red oak, maple, walnut and hickory) and imported species (e.g. Brazilian cherrywood, teak, tigerwood, ipe, and santos mahogany) almost too numerous to list. Many of the imported woods are known by more than one name.

Engineered hardwood flooring: Engineered flooring is available in fewer species than solid hardwood, but you still have plenty of choices. It has a wear layer of solid wood on top. You’ve got good/better/best choices with wear layers from 1.5mm to 4.5mm (.06 to .18 inches). Beneath it is a base comprised of multiple layers of softwood, hardwood, wood fiber and/or plywood. Each layer has grain running perpendicular to the one beneath and above it (cross-grain / cross-ply construction). This gives the base stability that prevents warping with changes in moisture and temperature.

Comparing Solid Hardwood and Engineered Hardwood Flooring

This chart gives an overview of the similarities and differences:

Solid hardwood vs. engineered hardwood
Solid Hardwood  Engineered Hardwood
Selection Excellent Good
Wear layer  Up to ¾” / 19mm  1.5mm to 4.5mm
Refinishing 3-6 times, possibly more 0-2 times
Longevity 50+ years    15-40 years
Widths  ¾” to 12” ¾” to 12”
Price $ to $$$$   $ to $$$
Installation At or above grade Anywhere
Bath/Laundry  Not recommended Not recommended
Subfloor Must be wood  Wood or concrete
Stability Good Excellent

Hardwood Flooring Wear and Durability

Some solid hardwood floors installed a century ago still look great because they’ve been refinished several times and well maintained and protected. Hardwood, both solid and engineered will wear well if properly installed and finished.

Taking some precautions with your floors will reduce wear and tear. Things to do include regularly sweeping up dirt and grit from the floor, putting pads under furniture feet and limiting the flooring’s exposure to heavy dogs and rowdy kids and their toys.

Things to avoid include excess water when cleaning, sliding heavy objects over the flooring, using a vacuum with a rotating brush and placing rubber mats on the floor because they can trap moisture. There’s more information in our Hardwood Flooring Maintenance and Care Guide.

Note too that some woods are harder than others. Hardwoods are rated on the Janka Hardness Scale that measures the force they can withstand. The higher the rating, the harder the wood. The harder the wood is, the less susceptible it will be to scratches and dents.

Here are a few examples of woods and their Janka ratings measured in lbf or pounds-force:

  • Ipe: 3,684
  • Golden teak: 2,330
  • Hard maple: 1,450
  • White oak: 1,360
  • Red oak: 1,290
  • Standard teak: 1,155
  • Cherry: 995
  • Southern yellow pine: 690
  • Eastern white pine: 380

The retailers you shop with online or in-store should have complete information including hardness for all the wood flooring they sell. The info might also include where the wood is from, thickness of the wear layer, grade of the wood and the commercial and residential warranties.

Hardwood Flooring Advantages and Disadvantages

Let’s explore the pros and cons of hardwood flooring, just as we’ve done with other popular flooring materials. It’s a great way to compare them head to head.

Solid and Engineered Hardwood Flooring Pros:

  • Hardwood is natural and gorgeous
  • The selection of species, finishes and widths is excellent and gets larger all the time
  • The variety of products means you’ll find many options suitable to your design and your style including classic, traditional, country, French country, Mediterranean, Old World, rustic, contemporary and modern
  • Most hardwoods have a softer feel underfoot than ceramic tile, natural stone and vinyl over concrete
  • Solid hardwood can be finished many times, so it is durable and that reduces the total lifetime cost of the flooring
  • Most solid hardwood is low-VOC rated (volatile organic compounds)
  • It is recommended for people with allergies
  • Engineered hardwood is manufactured for subgrade installation as well as at and above grade
  • Engineered flooring can be installed directly onto concrete
  • Affordable hardwood options are very cost-competitive
  • Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council ensures that it is harvested sustainably
  • Wood flooring can be reused, recycled and repurposed
  • Hardwood flooring has a high return on investment when selling a home

Solid and Engineered Hardwood Flooring Cons:

  • Caution must be taken to prevent scratches and dents
  • Water should be used sparingly in cleaning (no steam vacuums!) and dried quickly
  • Some engineered hardwood flooring products contain small amounts of VOCs, though not at the levels of carpet or sheet vinyl
  • Some hardwood refinishing products contain VOCs

Understanding Wood Flooring Grade

Wood flooring is categorized into five grades. Each grade goes by several names. This list provides the grades, the characteristics of each and the potential defects.

A Grade / Prime / Clear Grade (finished) // Clear grade / 1st Grade / Select & Better (unfinished):

  • Characteristics and defects: The best wood. It is cut from the center of the log. Appearance is consistent in color and variation. Long plank lengths. Should have only minor color variations and few, if any knots and wormholes.

B Grade / Standard / #1 Common & Better (Finished) // Select / 2nd Grade / #1 Common (Unfinished)

  • Characteristics and defects: Second-best grade. Cut from the center of the log with possibly some sapwood. Slightly heavier graining or other characteristic typical of the species. Good plank length. Slightly larger knots and wormholes plus minor machining marks.

C Grade / #2 Common / Builder / Natural / Rustic / Sapwood / Shorts (Finished and Unfinished)

  • Characteristics and defects: Primarily sapwood, more graining, larger knots and color variation. A larger number of irregularities including machining marks and finishing defects. Generally shorter plank lengths, though some manufacturers make longer planks but with more irregularities. True shorts are planks up to just 24”.

Cabin / Tavern (Finished and Unfinished)

  • Characteristics and defects: Longer planks, but poorer quality wood. Imperfections from machining and finishing. More color variation than allowable in A or B Grades. Defects might lead to more than the standard 8-10% waste factor usually included for trimming and defects. No structural warranty.

D Grade / #3 Common / Utility (Finished and Unfinished)

  • Characteristics and defects: Short board lengths, wood variation and imperfections. More than 10% waste. Machining marks. No structural warranty.

There is little structural distinction between A Grade and B Grade, and only minor differences with those and C Grade. All those grades make good flooring, but they have different looks. Therefore, it’s more about the appearance that you want in your flooring. Cleaner A Grade wood is better suited to modern designs. The more character the wood has, the more rustic appearance. It works well in rustic, country and French country design, for example.

The Cost of Hardwood Flooring

This is an overview. There is more detail in our Hardwood Flooring Price Guide.

Engineered flooring and solid flooring cost about the same for most grades. The base layers of engineered wood flooring are made from cheap wood products, so the material costs less. However, there is more labor involved in manufacturing engineered wood floors, so that pushes the cost back up. With that in mind, here are prices for good/better/best ranges of flooring.

The better the grade of the wood is and the thicker the wear layer (engineered flooring) is, the higher the cost will be. Prefinished flooring costs more than unfinished material.

Engineered hardwood flooring prices in price per square foot:

  • Good: $1.50-$3.50
  • Better: $3.00-$8.00
  • Best: $7.50-$12.00

Solid hardwood flooring prices in price per square foot:

  • Good: $1.00-$5.00
  • Better: $4.50-$8.00
  • Best: $7.50-$14.00

There are super-premium wood flooring products available that cost $15+ per square foot.

Having a professional finish your unfinished wood floor will cost $0.50 to $1.25 per square foot. Most homeowners opt for prefinished flooring. The advantage is that the finish is done in a factory-controlled environment and is usually very consistent. Unless you have a specific color in mind and can’t find it or want to save money by finishing the flooring yourself, choosing finished wood makes sense.

Hardwood Flooring FAQ

These wood flooring questions and answers cover additional important topics.

Is it safe to buy hardwood flooring online?

If you choose to buy online, get a sample first. Also, know the grade of the wood and read the company’s return policy. You will also have to factor in shipping charges, if they apply, to determine whether you’re saving money by buying online.

Does hardwood have to be sealed regularly like granite or marble?

No. Hardwood is typically sealed as part of applying the finish. In some cases, another coat of clear polyurethane is applied to brighten a floor’s finish without refinishing the floor or after just a light sanding.

I have a steam vacuum that works great on my ceramic tile floors. Can I use it on hardwood?

That’s not a good idea. Steam cleaners can force moisture into the wood, and that can cause swelling followed by shrinking, with results potentially including buckled or cracked floor planks.

Is installing hardwood flooring a DIY project?

It can be. Our Hardwood Flooring Removal & Installation Guide gives an overview of the process. You’ll know whether you want to tackle the work after reading the guide.

Is imported hardwood safe, or does it contain dangerous chemicals?

Most is safe, but some has been shown to include high levels of contaminates, VOCs and carcinogens. This is especially true of engineered hardwood, but can affect solid hardwood too.

To safeguard yourself against the dangers, consider domestic hardwoods first. If you don’t find a wood that appeals to you, consider imports only from retailers that can give you full information on the source of the wood and its contents.

We have a dog. Will his nails ruin the wood?

If the dog’s nails are trimmed regularly and if the dog doesn’t play/run on the hardwood floor, its nails shouldn’t cause damage.

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