When searching for attractive, durable, one-of-a-kind wood flooring to increase the value of your home, there are two great products to consider: hardwood vs. engineered hardwood.
But what’s the difference between the two? In the sections that follow, we’ll walk you through both products. We will also share advice and best practices from building experts, flooring manufacturers, and product reviews from real customers.
In this guide, we’ll explore:
- Comparison Table
- What’s the Difference?
- Moisture Resistance
- Standing Water Resistance
- Wear and Tear
- Good for Pets?
- Care & Maintenance
- In-Floor Heating System Compatibility
- Self-Installation Options
- The Verdict
|Looks||Beautiful, natural look, no two pieces are exactly alike. Wide variety of wood types and finishes||Beautiful, natural look, no two pieces are exactly alike. Wide variety of finishes. Especially great for wide plank floors|
|Materials||100% wood - solid||100% wood - composite|
|Durability||Varies by wood type, thickness, width, and finish||Varies by veneer type and thickness, board thickness, and finish|
|Good for pets?||Look for types that are recommended by the manufacturer for pets, take special precautions to protect floors||Look for types that are recommended by the manufacturer for pets, take special precautions to protect floors|
|Expansion and Contraction||Prone to expansion and contraction||Does not expand or contract|
|Moisture and Temperature Resistance||Sensitive to moisture and temperature fluxuation||Sensitive to moisture and temperature fluxuation, but less so than hardwood|
|Care and Cleaning||Frequently sweep or vacuum, occasionally mop with approved cleaner and damp mop||Frequently sweep or vacuum, occasionally mop with approved cleaner and damp mop|
|Refinishing/Sanding||Can be sanded and refinished multiple times||May be sanded and refinished once, twice, or not at all depending on veneer|
|Radient Heat Compatability||Compatible with a small subset of hardwood floors||Most are compatible, check with specific manufacturer|
|Installation Off Limits||Never below the table (basements). Avoid areas where moisture is present.||Use with caution in basements, bathrooms, kitchens (and consider better options like tile, vinyl, etc.)|
|Installation Methods||Nailed||Nailed, stapled, glued, floating|
|DIY?||Not recommended||Yes, especially floating method|
|Cost||Varies from approx $3-18||Varies from approx $3-18|
|Flooring Guide||Hardwood Flooring Guide||Engineered Hardwood Flooring Guide|
What’s the Difference?
Hardwood and engineered hardwood floors are both beautiful, natural options that add value to any home. It’s also impossible to tell them apart. In order to understand the differences between hardwood and engineered hardwood floors, you must look below the surface.
Traditional hardwood floorboards, the kind that have been used by builders for hundreds of years, are cut from logs of solid wood. They are a classic choice, long associated with quality and durability.
Manufacturers offer hardwood floors in every type of wood imaginable. That includes soft pine to the hardest mahogany.
These days it’s common for hardwood floorboards to come pre-finished from the factory. They will have oil, wax, or varnish. However, homeowners also have the option to install raw wood floors for on-site finishing.
Engineered hardwood floors are a relatively new option, compared to hardwood. These floorboards have a thin veneer of wood on the surface (1/12 – ⅙ inches thick). That is fused with crisscrossed layers of wood slices underneath (think plywood).
The bottom layer gives floorboards superior strength, helping them resist expansion and contraction. The veneers are usually made of hard wood and are pre-finished in the factory. They use pretty stains and protective coatings that enhance durability.
Before you begin the process of comparing wood floor products, determine if wood floors – either hardwood or engineered hardwood – will hold up to the environment in your home.
Start by evaluating the climate in the places where you hope to install your flooring. Is it excessively damp or humid? Do you live in a part of the world that is prone to fluctuation in humidity or temperature?
For both types of wood flooring, experts recommend maintaining humidity between 35% and 55%. Floors that are subjected to higher percentages of humidity or rapid temperature shifts are prone to expansion and contraction.
That may cause gaping between boards, curling, or warping. If you really want wood floors but live in a place that falls outside this range, all is not lost. Humidity may be controlled using humidifiers and/or dehumidifiers.
Unfortunately, if your space is excessively humid, prone to sudden temperature shifts, or below ground level (basements), wood floors may not be the best choice for your home. That is even the case for engineered hardwood, which beats hardwood at moisture resistance.
Luckily, there are plenty of options built to withstand moisture. Those include tile or vinyl plank flooring.
Standing Water Resistance
Standing water is the enemy of organic materials, including wood. Before investing in wood flooring for your home, first consider the day-to-day activities that occur in the space.
For rooms in your home where people may track in or spill liquids onto the floor – such as mud rooms, bathrooms, or kitchens – proceed with caution before purchasing wood floors.
When it comes to water protection, engineered hardwood has a slight advantage over hardwood floors. That is because its crisscrossed layers below the surface provide extra strength and resistance to buckling and warping.
Others believe that especially with so many attractive, water-resistant options out there, wood floors are a risky choice.
No matter which type of floor you choose, be sure to pick one that has a durable, water-resistant finish that’s covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.
Wear and Tear
There are two major factors that determine how well a floor’s surface will hold up to daily life. Those are the type of wood it is, and the durability of its finish.
For example, in high traffic areas, you may want to avoid floors made with softwood, like pine, which are more susceptible to dents and gouges. Instead, opt for floors made of harder wood varieties, such as oak or mahogany.
Likewise, the durability of treatments used to finish the floor (varnishes, waxes, oils) makes a big difference when it comes to protecting hardwood or engineered hardwood floors from daily scuffs and scrapes.
Hardwood flooring comes in all types of wood. Make sure to do your research and buy the hardest you can afford.
Engineered hardwood manufacturers tend to default to durable wood varieties for the veneer layer of their products. But pay attention to thickness.
A veneer on the thicker side (⅙ inch) is going to hold up better than a thin one (1/12 inch). Especially when it comes to resisting dents. In both cases, the harder/thicker the wood, the more expensive it will be.
No matter what kind of flooring you choose, be sure to pay attention to how the manufacturer (or your flooring installer) treats the boards. Look for finishes that can definitely withstand household abuse and UV light.
Choose manufacturers who back their products with a substantial warranty. A floor they guarantee for 25 years is likely to last much longer than one they only guarantee for 5 years.
Good for Pets?
Between claws, hard toys, water bowls, and the occasional potty accident, if you’re a pet owner you’ll want a floor that can stand up to Fluffy and Fido.
Pets amplify all of the wear, tear and potential hazards we’ve discussed in other sections for hardwood and engineered hardwood floors alike. Pets and wood floors can co-exist.
However, pet owners should take extra precautions to protect their wood floors. Those include using area rugs and putting the water dish on a tiled floor. In addition, trim your pets’ claws to prevent excessive scratching.
Even with these precautions in place, some pet owners are still unhappy to discover that their floors are no match for claws. To avoid problems, seek out flooring that specifically claims to stand up to pets, study customer reviews carefully, and make sure that having pets doesn’t void the product warranty.
Having the option to strip, sand, and refinish your floors makes wood an attractive choice for homeowners looking to invest in their home for the long term.
If refinishing your floors in the future matters to you, know that hardwood offers the flexibility to refinish multiple times, but engineered hardwood may only withstand one or two rounds of refinishing. You cannot refinish it at all in some cases.
Because hardwood floors are a single piece of wood, you can sand and refinish them repeatedly without losing strength or durability. With thinner veneers, there’s a risk of sanding down through to the plywood below.
If you’d like the ability to refinish your engineered hardwood floors in the future, look for one with a thick veneer (ideally ⅙ inch or more), and always confirm with the manufacturer that the product if, and how often, the floor will hold up to refinishing.
Care and Maintenance
Wood shows all the dirt and debris that comes in the door, there’s nowhere for it to hide. Since both types of flooring have similar surfaces, it makes sense that manufacturers recommend nearly identical wood cleaning methods to minimize damage and keep floors looking beautiful.
With hardwood and engineered hardwood floors, prevention is key. Manufacturers advocate the use of doormats and rugs to collect debris, as well as shoe removal and trimming pets’ nails to minimize damage.
Frequent sweeping with a microfiber floor sweeper and/or vacuuming with a hardwood-friendly soft brush will eliminate dust and abrasive grit. And when it’s time for a deeper clean, a damp terrycloth mop paired with a manufacturer-approved cleanser will remove deeper dirt and gunk. Some manufacturers recommend proactively drying the floor with a rag immediately after washing, while others say it’s OK to air dry.
In-Floor Heating System Compatibility
Energy-efficient, luxurious heated floors are all the rage these days, but these systems are not compatible with all types of wood flooring materials. While it is possible to install hardwood floors over an in-floor heating system, there are many limitations and considerations for doing so. You’ll have more flexibility if you go with engineered hardwood.
If you’ve got your heart set on installing hardwood over a floor heating system, be sure to choose floorboards that consist of American hardwoods (cherry, oak, ash, for example), are 2 ¼ inches wide or less, quartersawn, and have a moisture content of 6% or less.
Engineered hardwood, by contrast, is built to withstand temperature fluctuation by design. It is usually compatible. Always double-check with the manufacturer. Most engineered hardwood floors do fine with in-floor heating systems as long as you observe installation guidelines and temperature limits (usually 80-85 degrees F).
If you enjoy building things yourself or are looking to save on installation costs, you probably have interest in flooring that you can install yourself. When it comes to DIY floor installation, there are some big advantages to choosing engineered hardwood over hardwood floors.
Hardwood floor installation is an art and a science. It is best for someone with experience with subfloor selection and prep, moisture monitoring, proper board spacing, and all of the other details that will prevent floor damage down the road do a proper installation.
Nailing is the only installation method for hardwood, and you must do it in a deliberate way. Mistakes may cause the floor to buckle or leave gaps with natural expansion and contraction.
Engineered hardwood is much more flexible, making it possible for homeowners to install a wood floor without hiring a professional. You may nail, staple, glue, or even install floorboards as a “floating” floor. That is the most DIY-friendly option. If you’re not a flooring professional and are looking to install wood floors yourself, engineered hardwood is absolutely your best bet.
As we’ve mentioned many times in this article, the options for wood floors vary widely, and so do the costs. Not all hardwood nor engineered hardwood floors are created equal, and when weighing a hardwood and an engineered hardwood floor of similar quality, the price will also be similar.
When shopping for hardwood floors, understand that the wood variety, width, thickness, and finish will determine the price – generally the harder, wider, thicker, and more durable the floor, the more you will need to pay.
With hardwood there are also labor costs to consider. You’ll need to pay a professional for installation, and unless you buy pre-finished boards (which cost more), be sure to account for the costs associated with finishing too.
Engineered hardwood also comes in a dizzying array of options with many variables and corresponding price points. As with hardwood, the width, thickness, and finish each impact the price tag, but veneer thickness and the type of materials used in the plywood core also matter – the thicker and stronger, the better and more expensive.
With both types of floors, it’s also worth considering the length and coverage of the warranty. If two different manufacturers sell two identical floors but one offers a 25-year warranty for $200 more while the other is cheaper but only offers 10 years, spending the extra cash may be totally worth it for peace of mind.
As you can see, hardwood and engineered hardwood flooring each have their own advantages and limitations. If you are looking for a DIY option with the flexibility to install it in a variety of rooms, engineered hardwood is probably for you.
If you want a floor that you can refinish repeatedly and have it last for generations to come, hardwood flooring might be more your speed. No matter your goals, ask yourself what is non-negotiable for your project, and always be sure to read the fine print so you know your floor’s exact limitations.