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Engineered Wood

The visual beauty of engineered wood is skin deep -- it’s essentially a thin wood veneer over a plywood substrate. But its practical qualities make it a good choice in moist environs where solid wood can’t go, such as below grade (for finishing a basement), or directly over concrete (ideal for the slab construction that’s so common in California, Florida, and the Southwest). What’s more, the total thickness of an engineered floor is only 3/8 to 5/8 inch, so it can be installed over an existing floor -- say, during a kitchen renovation -- with a minimal increase in level.

Most engineered flooring is available in tongue-and-groove strips which must be stapled or glued to the subfloor. Others, such as the “long-plank” types, which come as panels, are designed for use in “floating” installations below grade or over concrete. A floating installation is one where the boards are glued to each other, and not fastened to the substrate at all, which allows the flooring to shift with moisture changes.

Variety of veneers There’s tremendous choice in species -- and prices -- among engineered floors, from common domestic oak (left) to South American lapacho (right).

Virtually all engineered flooring comes prefinished, often with the eased edges mentioned earlier. The quality of this finish (usually indicated by the length of the warranty) and the thickness of the wear layer are important considerations. The veneer on engineered floors ranges from about 1/12 inch (which generally cannot be sanded and refinished) to 1/4 inch (which can accommodate about three sandings). Standard solid strip flooring, in comparison, can take up to seven sandings, depending on the species and the expertise of the refinisher. Many engineered floors can be abraded and recoated if the finish is not completely worn.

Engineered Wood LayersWhen buying engineered flooring, choose a product with at least three layers of cross-stacked substrate (that is, with the grain going in opposing directions to lend structural stability). Five layers will be even stronger, even if the overall unit isn’t any thicker.

It’s the makeup of the top “wear layer,” though, that determines how good an engineered floor looks. Some are made from rotary-cut veneers, which are sawn just like layers of plywood, by spinning the log and slicing a continuous sheet from its circumference (photo above). Not surprisingly, the result is a floor that looks like it’s made from plywood. Flat-cut veneer is a better choice because it’s milled like a very thin version of normal flooring -- by slicing along the length of the log. It is, however, more expensive and harder to find.

Take a look at the grain
The grain of the rotary-cut veneer used on some engineered floors has a plywoodlike appearance when compared to flat-cut flooring.

In the end, choosing engineered flooring won’t save you money. While an entry-level product may be less expensive than solid wood, a high-quality product will cost as much if not more, and the cost of installation -- assuming both are prefinished -- is about the same.


How to Choose a Wood Floor Introduction  |  Solid Wood  |   Exotic Species