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The Ultimate Guide to Buying Hardwood and Engineered Wood Flooring

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Walking into a flooring showroom and you’ll see a myriad of hardwood flooring options…

Solid hardwood, pre-finished, unfinished, engineered…wait, did I just hear someone say pre-engineered?! What is that?

You quickly become lost in the rows of samples, and while it can be exciting to see all the options, your enthusiasm fades and you’re not sure what to choose. But you want to make sure you’re making the right choice because it is a big decision and investment in your home! have arrived at the right place.

I’m going to help you through the hardwood flooring process. In this ultimate hardwood flooring guide, I’ll be covering topics such as:

After reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what wood flooring options are out there and be able to make an educated decision on what type of wood flooring is best for you in your situation.

What is Hardwood Flooring?

At first, you’re probably thinking, “I know what hardwood floors are.” But it’s important to know the terminology used for hardwood flooring, because each type of flooring is drastically different.

It’s these nuances that can easily steer a hopeful shopping experience into an exhausting one. So, I’ll start with broader contextual terms and work down to detailed words you may come across in your wood flooring journey.

Unfinished vs Prefinished

First, there are two main types of hardwood flooring categories: unfinished and prefinished, which basically just tells you in what condition the material is arriving to be installed.

Unfinished floors arrive as raw wood planks, needing installation and staining on site. Whereas prefinished wood floors arrive already finished, only needing installation.

Unfinished wood floors are also known as sand and finish floors. Sand and finish wood floors are solid hardwood planks that get installed, then the installer will sand, stain, and apply a top coat or sealer to finish the floors on site.

Solid Hardwood

Solid hardwood is exactly as it sounds: the entire plank is one piece of wood, no other layers of any kind. The only type of unfinished hardwood is going to be solid hardwood flooring. Solid is typically the only type of hardwood that can be sanded and stained because you need a fair amount of material to sand down (and still have material above the tongue and groove connection that's holding all the planks together remain entact).

All other types of hardwood flooring are going to be prefinished.

Prefinished Hardwood Flooring

Prefinished hardwood is finished at the factory, not in your home. It doesn’t have anything to do with what wood species it's made from, what size it comes in, solid or engineered, or anything else, only that the flooring is ready for installation because the stain and top coats have already been done at the manufacturer.

Unless you’re specifically shopping for sand and finish floors, everything you’re going to see at a flooring showroom is going to be prefinished. If it’s stained, it’s prefinished.

That gets us into what can get a little confusing to some: prefinished floors can be both solid hardwood and engineered hardwood. Let me explain.

Prefinished and unfinished hardwood refer to manufacturing/installation details.

Solid and engineered are terms to describe the wood material itself.

Solid vs. Engineered

The debate whether solid or engineered hardwood is better, has been raging ever since engineered flooring came to the market. But before we can consider this, let’s take a look at what each flooring actually is.

We already covered that solid is one piece of wood, nothing else.

Engineered hardwood flooring is made up of layers that have been “engineered” together.

With an engineered wood plank, you have two basic components: a core that acts as a stabilizer and a veneer of wood on top.

I often get asked by clients, “Well engineered flooring isn’t real hardwood, right?” And honestly, that’s one of the biggest misconceptions.

The veneer on top of the core can range in thickness, but it is 100% hardwood. In fact, you could say it is a solid hardwood veneer, and that wouldn’t be a stretch of definitions.

But it’s piecemealed is that good?

For one, solid hardwood flooring isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Unless you are someone who wants to regularly (every 3-5 years) change the color of your wood flooring, you pay a lot of money to have solid wood, instead of engineered together.

Solid hardwood flooring also has its issues. It tends to warp, gap, and split more than engineered hardwood. Humidity can greatly affect your hardwood. And I mean that in the sense of high humidity, low humidity, and most importantly, the ever-present fluctuations of humidity in your home.

Engineered hardwood helps with all of this. Because engineered hardwood has a layer of wood mounted on a core, that core is a lot more stable than solid hardwood.

A stable core makes it so the shrinking and contracting are happening uniformly. In solid hardwood, you’ll have each plank reacting differently, and even within each plank, certain areas will shrink and expand at different rates. This can cause issues with planks buckling and warping.

That being said, not all cores are created equal. If you’re looking at samples of engineered flooring that are the same species of wood and similar aesthetic details, guaranteed if you flip that sample over, you’ll see a difference in what the core is.

The most common core is ply. Ply or plywood is concentrated wood chips and particles glued together in thin sheet, then multiple sheets are glued together in opposite directions. By being in opposite directions, it acts as a cross stabilizer, so that the entire piece of flooring shrinks and expands uniformly, rather than warping in odd ways.

The other option is an MDF core, or otherwise known as Medium Density Fiberboard. Every company has their own name for their specific cores.

For instance, Shaw Flooring has the Stabilitek Core. Shaw describes it on their website as “constructed from wood fibers bonded with proprietary chemistry, Stabilitek holds up to the challenges of climate fluctuation and sub floor moisture.”

Other manufacturers use other names with their own “proprietary chemistry,” but basically it is a densely filled core made of wood fibers and glue that provide stability to your floors.

Not all MDF and ply cores are created the same. Some ply layers that are really thin and splintering edges with only the minimum of three layers, and I’ve seen some really dense plywood with crisp edges and five layers. Some MDF is loosely packed and some are really solid and hold up better.

Because of this, I personally don’t have a preference between MDF vs plywood core, but instead I pay close attention to the details of each individually.