Floors—we learn to crawl on them and then walk, we flow from room to room on them, and sometimes we even dance across them. Historically and currently, we’ve turned to wood flooring to bring warmth and character to our homes.
Thanks to the abundance of wood in the New World, the earliest American flooring was wood, usually old-growth pine that was denser than today’s trees. These floors were generally left unfinished and swept clean, burnished only by use. As varnishes and rugs were too expensive for the average homeowner, they were used only in wealthier homes.
Through much of the 19th century, wood floors were just backup singers to the stars of the show: carpeting, such as Brussels and Axminster, which had become easier to obtain thanks to manufacturing improvements, and also linoleum, which was invented in 1864.
But in the late 19th century, William Morris and Charles Eastlake pushed for simpler interiors, and wood floors became a focal point of the “hygienic” home because they were easy to keep clean. Wood grew to become a desirable flooring choice, and parquet borders and medallions gained traction in wealthier homes.
In the early 1900s, the widths and grades of wood flooring began to be standardized, and oak, maple, fir, and yellow pine were the favored choices for floors.
Wood flooring peaked in 1949 when plywood, synthetic fiber carpeting, and vinyl floors were ushered in. These dominated the market in the 1960s, along with another newcomer: engineered flooring. By the 1980s, solid wood flooring was back in demand, and its popularity continues to grow. But the demand for its cousin, the engineered floor, also has risen. So how do these two flooring options compare?
As the name implies, solid hardwood flooring is one solid piece of wood sawn from a log. The standard thickness is ¾”, but there are also options 5/16″ and ½” thick. Older homes often have even thicker boards—pre-1850 houses can have floors as thick as 11/8″. Solid hardwood comes in three types of cuts.
Plain-sawn is cut straight across the log, with rings 30 degrees or less to the face of the board, and has a flame pattern. It was often used in houses built from the early to mid-20th century, commonly in 2″ to 3″ red oak. Quarter-sawn, cut after the board is divided into fourths, shows off the growth rings of the wood at a 60- to 90-degree angle, as well as some flecks. It was the most common cut prior to the early 1900s, with white oak a favorite, as well as walnut, maple, and chestnut. Rift-sawn boards are cut perpendicular to the grain, with growth rings showing at a 45- (and up to 60-) degree angle. Its straight grain is often mixed in with quarter-sawn boards, and it came in all of the same species. When dealing with swelling and shrinkage due to moisture, rift-sawn and quarter-sawn boards are known for their stability; plain-sawn ones have more movement.
The boards can have either a square edge, which creates a smooth surface with no gaps from board to board, or a beveled edge, with a groove between boards, giving them a rustic look. A microplaned beveled edge has yet a smaller groove, but hides uneven planks better.
What It Looks Like
Hardwood flooring varies in width. Wide-plank flooring measures 8″ to 12″ wide and was mostly used in pre-1850 houses. It gives rooms a more rustic, homey look that’s suitable for colonial homes. Plank flooring, favored in houses after 1850, ranges from 3″ to 8″. The narrowest selection, strip flooring, can run from 1½” to 3″. This width came into vogue in the early 20th century and can make a room seem larger.
For flooring with character and an aged patina, look to reclaimed wood flooring. Made from old-growth timber that has been cleaned and resawn, reclaimed flooring comes from dismantled buildings. A reliable supplier will check that the wood is free of nails with a metal detector or hand, and also will kiln-dry the planks to rid them of pests like termites and to stabilize the wood and prevent warping. Reclaimed hardwoods are denser than new timber, sustainable, and often come in a choice of wood more difficult to find anywhere else, such as heart pine.
Where to Use It
Hardwood floors are recommended for almost all the rooms of a house—living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and hallways. They are often featured in kitchens, but be aware that moisture can cause warping over time. Use mats or throw rugs in areas where water might drip, such as by the sink, to maintain the floors. Solid wood floors usually aren’t recommended for bathrooms because the high moisture level makes it hard to keep them in good condition, but with proper care, they can work here. It’s best not to use hardwood floors in basements—the culprit, again, is moisture.
How It’s Installed
A tongue-and-groove plank has a groove cut on one side and a ridge—the “tongue”—on the other, which allows the boards to be snugly joined together. Unlike engineered floors, which are “floated” over a sublayer and require no nailing or glue, hardwood floors are attached to a subfloor, usually plywood or furring strips over a vapor barrier. The planks are nailed to the subfloor through the tongue so the nails don’t show when the floor is completed.
How Long It Will Last
Solid wood flooring can last 100 years or longer, and rarely needs to be replaced.
There are more than 50 domestic and exotic species available to choose from for solid hardwood—from historic favorites like maple, red and white oak, and pine to more modern options like bamboo (not technically a wood, but listed as one), jarrah, and purpleheart.
Solid hardwood is available prefinished and unfinished. Flooring that is unfinished is best for matching existing flooring because it can be stained to the right hue. Finishes include wax, oil, and urethanes, which come in a range from matte to high gloss. Hardwood also can be distressed or hand-scraped to create an aged patina.
Parquet, which is both a technique and a type of flooring, creates geometric patterns with small pieces of wood. By the late 1800s, machine-cutting wood made parquet more affordable. Borders and medallions also were introduced. In Victorian homes, a border could be as simple as a single contrasting band of wood or as elaborate as a Greek key design of two or three contrasting woods. Herringbone became a popular parquet design in the early 20th century.
Hardwood floors can be sanded five to seven times (if not more) over the span of their lifetime. Avoid sanding to the point where the nails securing the flooring are exposed. For instance, if a plank is ¾”, it shouldn’t be sanded beyond the wear layer, which has approximately a 5/16″ thickness. Keep in mind that the finish on a hardwood floor can be lightly sanded and recoated numerous times without affecting the hardwood itself. Plus, not every issue or stain on a hardwood floor requires sanding.
Engineered flooring is a sandwich of layers, called “plies,” of hardwood and plywood bonded together via a heating and pressing process. The top layer, the one you see, is a veneer of hardwood 1/16″ to 1/8″ thick. Beneath that veneer is a core of plywood, with each ply lying perpendicular to the other to give the flooring strength and stability, and make it less susceptible to expansion and contraction. Engineered flooring can have as few as three plies or as many as 12—the more layers, the better the quality of the floor. On average, most boards have five layers.
What It Looks Like
Because of the veneer, it’s visually difficult to tell the difference between a solid wood floor and an engineered one once they have been laid. (The wood flooring industry considers engineered and solid wood floors to be interchangeable.) The plies are visible from the side before engineered flooring is installed, however.
Where to Use It
Engineered flooring holds up in spaces that get light moisture, such as bathrooms, kitchens, basements, and over concrete floors, but it isn’t going to last in a high-moisture situation—a basement that tends to flood, for instance. When using engineered flooring, the moisture content in an adjacent concrete slab cannot exceed 4 percent (the space must be tested first to pinpoint exact levels of moisture), and a vapor barrier underlayer is recommended in moisture-prone areas.
How It’s Installed
Engineered flooring favors the Click Loc system, tongue-and-groove boards that lock together to create a tight seam. The system requires no glue, so the floor is floated over a foam or cork sublayer, and it can be used over any secured subfloor—plywood, concrete, old hardwood, tile, etc.
How Long It Will Last
The lifespan of engineered flooring depends on the thickness of the plank: Thinner types last 20 to 30 years, and thicker ones have a lifespan of 40 to 80 years. These projected lifespans may hold true for high-quality engineered flooring, but not so for the many cheaply made engineered flooring products out there. It’s hard for a consumer to know the difference visually between quality engineered flooring and cheaper versions. Price point can be one indicator, but the number of layers is a better one. The higher, the better: Don’t choose an engineered floor with fewer than five layers.
Engineered floors come in many species, and are prefinished with seven to 10 coats of aluminum oxide, which is stronger than most applied finishes. Engineered planks range from 2¼” to 7″ wide, in thicknesses from 3/8″ to ¾”. Thinner engineered flooring—3/8″—is nailed to the floor for stability. Thicker ½” types can either be nailed to a wood subfloor or glued to dry concrete slabs. The thickest planks (5/8″ and up) can be used as a floating floor.
Like a solid wood floor, engineered flooring can be scratched and dinged. Unlike solid wood floors, however, not all engineered flooring can be sanded. The thickness of the veneer impacts how many times an engineered floor can be sanded. Some claim that thickest ones can be sanded up to five times, but a more conservative view is probably best when dealing with veneers: one to two times. And the thinnest veneers, 1/16″, can only be coated with finish. They also are not very forgiving when being sanded, so professional refinishing is recommended. Deep scratches and dents can’t be sanded out.
In the right circumstances, an engineered floor can bring all the best qualities of solid wood floors to a space in the house where you might not have been able to use wood. Although engineered flooring can be a good choice for basements or over concrete slabs, solid wood is the more durable, long-lasting, and historically appropriate option for any old-house space.
See resources for this story here.