Concrete vs Hardwood Flooring

Concrete vs Hardwood Flooring

Concrete vs. hardwood floors brings us two durable flooring materials, both with a respectable track record. At first glance, you might say these are two completely different flooring options.

But today, concrete floors are far from that bland gray slab destined for an unfinished basement or factory floor, and hardwood is no longer banished to the dining room and in halls.

Both of these flooring materials are finding use in areas some might consider unusual, like the kitchen, because they stand up to the abuse in this high traffic space while looking great. And they are relatively easy to clean and care for.

For those looking for a durable, showstopper floor, concrete and hardwood both deserve a closer look. So, let’s dive in and discover a little more about these two interesting options for your floors.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

Side-by-Side Comparison

 ConcreteHardwood Flooring
Make-up/ConstructionSand, cement, aggregate (sometimes pigment)Solid wood
Installed Cost$2 - 15+$$$ More than laminate ($12-20)
Typical Locations/UseGood choice for high traffic or areas where the floor sees abuse. Weight makes it tricky to use in stick and frame upper levels.Most residential rooms (not a great choice in bathrooms, engineered wood is better choice), not recommended below grade.
DurabilityResistant to heavy traffic and moisture. Acids will attack and etch. Is susceptible to scratches from things like pets, but can be refinished a number of times, wear patterns may show in high traffic areas
CleaningSweep, wash and wax periodicallyNeed to minimize water
LimitationsWeight may exclude from upper levels in some structuresSlabs-on-ground w/ no vapor retarder, wet areas
FinishStain, acid stain, paint, clear coatStain, clear coat (can be applied on site or at the factory)
InstallationPoured in placeNailed, floating, glued - considered on the difficult side to install
ThicknessUsually 4" min, but overlays are thinner3/4 in. (5/16 in. is also available)
Edge ConnectionN/AButt, spline, shiplap, tongue in groove
Expansion JointsApprox. every 10 ft. and no panel length should exceed 2.5 times the widthSwells with high humidity and can cup, shrinks with low humidity, flutes often cut into back of plank (absorption strips) to help with cupping
On Site ConditioningMust cure for three to seven daysAcclimate for three days minimum
MUST DO MOISTURE TEST TO CONFIRM MOISTURE CONTENT OF SUBSTRATE TOO
SunlightSun may fade some stains or paints, but not usually a problemCan fade at different rates (e.g. carpet-covered section vs. bare floor)
ResaleA stained/stamped floor is becoming more desirable and many realtors feel it adds value to a homeConsidered to add value, also seen as higher-end floor material
Radient HeatYesNo
SafetyPolished surfaces can be slippery when wetRaised edges can be trip hazards, can be slippery when wet

Flooring Pedigree

1. Concrete

With both concrete and hardwood flooring, the “composition” is right in the name. Captain Obvious might note hardwood flooring is made from, well, wood and concrete flooring is made with concrete. But there is a little more to it than that – sorry, Captain Obvious.

Contractors pour and finish concrete in place. It is not a DIY job. It’s best to leave this one to the professionals.

Most concrete floor slabs are a minimum of four inches thick. But today it is possible to go thinner. There are cement based overlays that do not have aggregate. They can go over existing floors/slabs very thin (i.e. as thin as ¼”).

Concrete is a mixture of sand, Portland cement, and aggregate (a.k.a. small rocks) that hardens to a stone-like material when mixed with water. The Portland cement is made from mined limestone that is fired in kilns, while the sand and aggregate are dug from pits. These would not be considered sustainable materials, even though there is a lot of limestone, sand, and aggregate to be mined.

2. Hardwood

In contrast, hardwood is a “natural” product where planks are simply cut from a larger piece of wood then milled to final size and shape. The individual boards are a piece of solid wood and the thickness is frequently three-quarters of an inch, but a thinner five-sixteenth inch version is also available.

The finish can be applied at the factory (“prefinished”) or you can buy unfinished planks that can be sanded and finished on your work site. The finishes are discussed in more detail below.

Over the years, hardwood manufacturers accepted the responsibility to care for the forests and have done a good job replacing the trees they harvest. A number of reports/articles have stated that for every tree harvested, approximately two trees are planted. Hardwood flooring, cut from trees that can be replanted, is a prime example of a sustainable material.

So, one of the most obvious differences between hardwood and concrete floors: those who desire a sustainable material, then hardwood flooring is a superior choice versus concrete.

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Finish and Color

1. Concrete

Concrete floors used to be poured, and the finish selection consisted of either a broomed or a smooth power troweled surface, and your color option was gray or gray.

But today, you can get concrete that has pigment added to the mixture when wet and many colors are possible. Or you can stain, acid stain, dye, or even paint the concrete floor after it has cured to achieve a rainbow of different colors. For unusual or vibrant colors, concrete color technology has evolved to the point that your color selections with concrete may be more diverse compared to hardwood.

For a finished look, the concrete is often troweled smooth and “polished,” but texture can be created if desired. In addition, you can stamp the concrete during installation to give it texture and patterns to make it look like pavers, slate, flagstone, or even wood. Some texture does help to make the floor less slippery when wet.

Also, you can place expansion or control joints in the concrete floor to create “blocks,” patterns or designs. Combining a paneled pattern with an interesting stain can give the concrete floor a marble or leather vibe. Designers have recognized that and are incorporating it on a more frequent basis.

There are also a number of clear coatings like acrylic, polyurethane, epoxy, or epoxy-acrylic that you can apply as a finish to provide gloss and seal the surface of the concrete. Keep in mind, coatings do wear. They will likely tucker out after a certain number of years. You will need to reinstall them at some point (consult the manufacturer’s instructions for life expectancy).

In some cases, people finish a concrete floor with a wax or finish. You will need to maintain the wax. You can do that by reapplying it no more than once every six months, and no less than once every three years. The time between applications will depend on the amount of traffic in the area.

2. Hardwood

You can finish hardwood as is. A clear finish will highlight the natural beauty of the grain and color. Manufacturers often stain it first to produce a color and/or highlight the wood grain.

Color selection was previously somewhat limited. But today the color selection is more diverse. You may even find a few vibrant colors.

When you obtain the color you want, then you can finish hardwood. Pros use various coatings and sealers similar to concrete.

But a major difference between hardwood flooring and concrete is that the first choice you must make is between prefinished hardwood or a naked (“raw”) hardwood that is sanded and finished on site. Both prefinished and raw have advantages and disadvantages.

Prefinished hardwood is convenient and the floor can be put into use immediately after installation. The manufacturer pre-installs the stain color and finish coating at the factory. That eliminates sanding, staining, and coating at the job site.

However, with a prefinished hardwood floor, the joints are simply butted together and they are open to moisture if there is a spill or tracked rain or snow. Plus, the subfloor must be very flat since you will not be sanding the installed boards smooth. You do not want any misaligned plank edges to cause a visible lip, or maybe even a trip hazard.

If you have a custom interior design, you may like the freedom to select any stain color you desire or need to fit into a custom interior design. Plus, the sanding step will make your floor nice and flat. So there will be no need to worry about misaligned board edges.

But, remember you will have dust from sanding, potential odors from the stain and coating, and the additional steps to sand and coat will extend the time needed to install the floor.

In general, for those using hardwood in a “moist” area like a kitchen, you are better off installing raw hardwood and finishing on site with a coating like a polyurethane. This helps to slightly seal the board joints, and in the kitchen, you want to take every precaution to keep moisture from getting into and under the floor.

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Installation

1. Concrete

Concrete can be mixed on site, but for a floor slab, the amount of concrete needed is large. So, ready-mixed concrete is often ordered from a concrete plant, and it is delivered to the site in those large, rotating drums we have all seen.

Once mixed with water, you start a race with time since concrete waits for no person and you must get it off the truck, placed, leveled, floated and power troweled (or stamped) before it starts to harden. This is not a process for a DIYer. The knowledge and tools needed are highly specialized and a good concrete floor installer earns their money.

Concrete also requires a knowledge of control and expansion joints. When, where, and how to place them is tricky and sometimes even designed by an engineer to prevent cracking of the slab. Interior designers may also require control joints to create the desired pattern.

You must also cure concrete. This may involve covering the slab or wetting it for a period of time. Cracking happens when you allow concrete to dry too fast, so curing is an important step, but it can be messy.

Overall, the installation is dirty, hard work. The materials and procedures demand a strong working knowledge of the materials and procedures for a successful installation, so make sure to hire a contractor with good recommendations. You should also remember to allow and prepare for the untidy, industrial nature of a concrete pour in areas like kitchens.

2. Hardwood

Like concrete, it is also best to leave hardwood to the pros. It requires a knowledge of wood’s moisture content. It also requires walk-behind sanding equipment and a number of other fussy details.

Plus, most homeowners will not own the fancy pneumatic staplers or nailers they need. However, you can rent them.

To start, there will need to be an underlayment to provide protection against moisture. Companies normally supply this as a rolled sheet that is spread out and stapled to the subfloor. Then they install the planks on top of the underlayment.

In general, hardwood uses a tongue and groove edge to engage the boards to one another. They normally staple or nail them in place through the tongue to hide the nails.

You must take care with details like controlling where your butt joints fall from row to row (they should not align). The installer must also know details like when and how to include “washer” or “dime” expansion joints to prevent buckling. That varies for different kinds of wood.

Hardwood flooring requires a gap at walls and other solid obstructions. That allows for the board movement that occurs due to seasonal moisture changes in the wood.

With most residential projects, normal room sizes preclude the use of additional expansion joints in the field of the floor. But in large rooms, you may need expansion joints in the middle of a floor. You will need to check the instructions for your specific flooring material to determine when and where you will need joints.

As already mentioned, installations using unfinished hardwood planks require sanding, stain, and coating steps. The cost and time for these steps when using raw hardwood must be allowed for in the schedule and budget. If the time is tight, then prefinished hardwood may be a better choice.

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General Durability

1. Concrete

When you think of concrete, the most widely used construction material on the globe, the image of an industrial, durable material often comes to mind. We even have the overused statement “cast in concrete” that has come to mean permanently established.

Yes, concrete is durable and it takes heavy traffic exquisitely. But the hard, solid surface that provides that resistance to heavy traffic comes at a cost as it can be hard on feet if you spend long hours standing on it. So, you might need anti-fatigue mats in those areas where you spend a lot of time.

Also, concrete is susceptible to acid. However, you can protect it by using some of the coatings as a finish.

To be safe, if you have a concrete floor avoid contact with acidic materials, and that includes cleansers and a surprising number of foods and drinks. Clean spills or dropped food immediately and use a neutral-pH cleaner.

If you used a high-build coating for gloss or protection, then you should expect some scratching and wear in the coating, especially if you have pets or drag things on the floor. You may even need to replace a clear concrete floor coating periodically.

You can use concrete for below grade floors. However, the finish or coatings must be breathable, so select your coatings/finish very carefully for below grade slabs.

Also, be sure to place a vapor retarder under the slab when you pour it. That will prevent migration of moisture in the soils below into your floor assembly.

2. Hardwood

Those who own old houses in New England understand that hardwood floors last. Some are over one hundred years old. And compared to concrete, the hardwood floor is a welcoming, warm surface for feet (especially bare feet!). But there are some issues regarding the durability of hardwood floors.

If you drop items, they will dent hardwood floors. But you can repair them with techniques like a Dutchman. That is a “patch” laid into to replace a small area of damage.

It is also possible to remove and replace entire planks, but this is not a DIY project. Another options, some like the character brought from minor dings and scratches, so they just live with them.

In high traffic areas, you may see more wear and tear on hardwood floors than you would on concrete. This will vary for different types of wood, and you can choose specific species to provide increased traffic resistance (e.g. hickory is harder than white pine).

When it comes to using it below grade, a major difference between concrete and hardwood is that solid wood is not a good choice. Moisture in basements or other below grade floors will cause a hardwood floor to buckle and lift.

Also, we should mention fading. Hardwood will fade at different rates depending on the amount and intensity of sunlight, and in some cases, this provides a desirable patina. But it can be a problem with hardwood flooring, like where a carpet or mat covers an area and it fades differently than the rest of the exposed floor, or a different colored spot or pattern created by a localized area of sunlight sneaking.

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Cleaning

1. Concrete

One of the advantages offered by a concrete floor is how simple they are to keep clean with regular sweeping and occasional wet mopping. But as with all things in life, the little details matter.

Use a neutral-pH cleaner, or a product made specifically for concrete, to keep your floors looking great. And avoid using excess water or anything acid-based.

For floors that need more aggressive cleaning to remove stains, try using a more concentrated soap solution or a mixture of soap and ammonia. In some cases, people also use trisodium phosphate (“TSP”) on concrete to remove stains like rust or oil/grease. But do a test spot out of sight place to make sure it will not harm your stain/finish before use.

If your concrete floor begins to lose its luster or shine, you may need to re-wax or re-finish to restore the glossy, new appearance. Depending on how you installed your concrete floor, you may need to reapply a sealer or coating periodically.

Details vary depending on the amount of traffic your floor receives and the coatings or sealers your contractor uses. So consult the sealer or coating manufacturer’s instructions on use and care (your contractor may be able to help, too).

2. Hardwood

Let’s start with an important warning, avoid using a steam or wet mop on a hardwood floor (lone exception: steam mops with a hardwood setting). Water driven down into the joints will stain and swell the wood. So, you must exercise care to keep water out of the joints and you should wash hardwood floors using only a damp, not wet, cloth or mop.

The general cleaning method follows a simple process. Sweep or vacuum (with a hardwood-friendly vac) regularly to remove all dust, dirt, and debris to prevent abrasion damage from fine dirt particles. Move the broom or vacuum in direction of the grain to remove debris between the planks and avoid scratching the wood. Then, wash with damp, not wet, cloth or mop.

A few of the finer details:

  • If needed, use a soap or cleaner recommended by the hardwood manufacturer.
  • Do not let the floor become wet when mopping.
  • Sweep, wash and buff with the grain.
  • Buff after cleaning with a microfiber towel or cloth diaper.

As with concrete, the coatings on your hardwood may become worn and tired after a number of years, and cleaning will not restore the shine. Sanding and reinstallation of the coating will be necessary at that point, and it will bring the gloss back to your hardwood floor.

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Cost

The budget for a project is almost always a concern, and people usually want to know how much hardwood and concrete flooring costs. That is harder to answer than you might think since the prices for both vary widely. Prices can seem like they are all over the place, but one rule of thumb is that hardwood flooring materials cost two to three times as much as a concrete floor.

But you can benefit by doing some legwork and shopping around. Keep in mind a price comparison depends on the type of hardwood or the concrete finish you choose. It is possible for a “fancy” concrete floor to be more expensive than an economical hardwood floor.

In general, a tight budget will find concrete floors more budget-friendly, but it depends on the design and finish of the concrete floor. For those who must have a hardwood floor, you can shop a little as prices vary greatly for different species. For example, you can install an oak floor for less money than a Brazilian cherry, maple, ash, or mahogany floor.

If your design calls for mahogany flooring, but your budget calls for a local oak, then install the oak and stain it to the color you want. Wood stains have come a long way and making a cheaper wood imitate the color of a more expensive species is a good way to control the budget.

If flooring does not easily fool you, and you must have the grain and color of Brazilian cherry, then you will need to increase the the budget to get what you want.

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The Verdict

If a durable, easy-to-care-for floor that looks great are your prime concerns, then a polished, stained concrete floor may be for you. The design possibilities are almost endless, and the floor will likely outlive you.

For those who want the longevity and natural, warm feeling of wood, a hardwood floor is the obvious choice. Wood is easier when standing for a period of time and warmer to a bare foot. Plus, hardwood is sustainable, and concrete is not.

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Ben Dolce

About Ben Dolce

Ben has been a freelance writer for the past eight years. But before becoming a writer, he worked as materials engineer and consultant for twenty-plus years developing, testing, and investigating failures of flooring materials.

1 thought on “Concrete vs Hardwood Flooring”

  1. Avatar

    Good to hear the positives of stained concrete floors! I’ve been a new construction stained concrete floors company for over 10 years and it’s popular here in Mississippi. We travel all over. 80% better priced than wood.

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