Solid vs Engineered Hardwood Floors

Solid vs Engineered Hardwood Floors

Which is better? Solid vs Engineered Hardwood? Sadly, there is no definitive answer, so let’s take a different approach; how about I tell you what I know, and you decide for yourself?

Solid vs Engineered Hardwood Durability

First, let’s talk about durability. We see all kinds of warranties on floors, but the real target of a high durability floor is that it does not exhibit a change in appearance over time.
Does the floor look bad over here in a high traffic area of the room?

Are the dining room chairs leaving lots of dents? Maybe your floor has lost its gloss? Or it looks dirty all of the time?

Any of these can contribute to a floor losing its appeal, and almost all of these blemishes are avoidable if your solid or engineered floor is durable.

The most important aspect of durability is hardness. How big of a dent will a dropped bowling ball leave? Fortunately, the bowling ball/height dropped multiplied by π is not the formula typically used, but it is close!

The Janka Test – Solid & Engineered Species

In the wood business, we use a Janka hardness test to determine the hardness of a particular species of wood. The test tells us how much force is required to embed a .444 steel ball halfway into a piece of wood. Why would you be driving steel balls in your floor? You wouldn’t, but Mr. Janka gave us an excellent way to compare how some species of wood will perform compared to others.  Solid wood floors and engineered floors share the same species of wood. However, you wouldn’t make a conclusion on flooring hardness based off of a wood species alone when you’re looking at engineered flooring.

With a solid floor, the Janka score is the only barometer we have that forecasts durability.

3/4" Solid Hardwood Cross Section - Winchester

3/4″ Solid Hardwood Cross Section – Winchester

Engineered Flooring Hardness

Now things get a little murky, but as a general rule, the more plies that an engineered floor contains, the harder it will be. Certainly, the species of the surface layer, as well as the content of the core board determine the hardness of an engineered floor as well. What about overall thickness? And the thickness of the veneer on top? It is pretty easy to look at a cross cut section of an engineered board and determine if it is a quality piece. Look at the photo below:

8 Ply Engineered Hardwood Floor Cross Section Picture

1/2″ Thick – 8 Ply Engineered – Antique

Overall Thickness & Species

This happens to be a piece of our Antique Blue Label flooring that is made by Somerset. This is a great floor! The more quality that a manufacturer puts into a product, the higher the cost. This Blue Label product has 8 plies of hardwood core, a thick veneer, and an overall thickness of ½”.  With one of the harder species such as Hickory or Oak, this floor should be more resistant to denting than 90% of the floors on the market.

Do You Even Give a Ply?

In this second photo we see another ½” thick floor, but with only 5 plies. Why the difference? Because this core can reduce the price of the finished product by 10% or more, giving this manufacturer an advantage at retail. After all, who looks at the edge of a board?

5 Ply Engineered Hardwood Floor Cross Section Picture

1/2″ Thick – 5 Ply Engineered – Rural Living

In this third photo we see a commodity 3/8” floor. Still a 5 ply, this is the recipe many manufacturers will offer for the Builder market. And honestly, it is a good floor as well as a great value. While the thinner construction won’t help alleviate low spots in a subfloor like the ½” floors, it is usually a lot cheaper.

5 Ply Engineered Floor Cross Section Picture

3/8″ thick- 5 Ply Engineered – Rushmore

The next picture is somewhat of an anomaly. This is the HDF or High-Density Fiber floor. Or, as some like to say, that cardboard crap. As we discussed earlier, the hardness of a floor is determined by its components.

Shaw, with their Epic Plus HDF products, have managed to produce a floor that compares well with middle market engineered floors, but with the benefit of reduced costs and a more environmental-friendly product. After all, they are using 50% less newly harvested wood, utilizing recycled post-industrial wood fibers. Is it as good as our Blue Label? No, but Shaw does offer a wide variety of smooth and handscraped looks for Epic Plus HDF products at a great price.

Epic Plus HDF Care Cross Section Picture

3/8″ HDF Core – Pebble Hill


Now we move on to the big difference between solid and engineered…. stability! In times gone by, deciding whether to use solid or engineered was easy, as solid floors were installed on wood sub-floors using a nailer, while the presence of a concrete slab required an engineered floor glued down. Why? Because of moisture. We can more easily control the moisture in a house with a crawl space or basement than one built on a slab. I don’t want to get too technical here (look for my blog on the effects of water on wood), but moisture can have devastating effects on wood flooring. Not standing water, but just an increase of 30% relative humidity in your home can cause a solid wood floor to turn into a giant washboard! Look at the pic below.

water damage wood cupping

Wood cupping creates a washboard look

The cupping you see was caused by an increase in moisture. Will it lay down after it dries? Maybe. Maybe not. And it cannot be sanded down until it goes through a seasonal cycle. If we sand it before it stabilizes, we risk an inverted cup. How to avoid this? Make certain the moisture levels stay constant in your home, or……use a quality engineered floor!

As you know now, the difference between a solid and engineered floor is that the engineered product is made with plies of wood, but did you know that the direction of the plies is alternated as they are added? This multi-direction construction allows an engineered floor to withstand wider moisture ranges because of increased stability. That is why we can glue, or float, an engineered hardwood floor over concrete and not have cupping issues.

engineered hardwood diagram

Engineered hardwood’s construction prevents moisture defects

Additionally, in today’s market, we see many wide planks. Floors up to 12” in width are commonly available. And you can bet they are not solid wood floors! Maybe in a soft pine floor wouldn’t cup, but any other floor will certainly be an engineered floor, regardless of the sub-floor. That is why the majority of our engineered floors are nailed down to wooden subfloors.  No one wants a cupped floor!

I have to wrap this up soon, as lunchtime is quickly approaching, and I simply cannot maintain this look and skip meals. If you would like more information on the construction of engineered floors, including the difference in veneers, look for my blog on that subject.