There is a certain charm that wood flooring has that has the ability to add character to a home. It’s a popular choice among homeowners who are remodeling their home. But today’s wood floors aren’t the same as what you might remember from your grandparents home. You can still find solid hardwood, but advancements in flooring have given rise to alternatives that give solid wood a run for its money. The two most common alternatives being laminate and engineered hardwood flooring. You may already be familiar with these terms, but might be unaware of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences.
Laminate Wood Flooring
When you think of laminate wood, you might be thinking of furniture imported from Sweden’s IKEA. That’s because Sweden this is the birthplace of laminate wood. IKEA is also well known for its modularity, light weight packaging, and self-installation (it’s more a less a reflection of Swedish culture). This is exactly what makes laminate wood a popular choice. Over the last couple of decades, laminate flooring’s durability and easy installation methods have made it a popular choice for many homeowners.
Laminate flooring consists of four main layers:
- Wear Layer – A protective, clear layer that is resilient to staining.
- High Definition Photographic Layer – An extremely high resolution photograph of particular species of wood.
- Core Layer (Usually High Density Fiber) – This is the main component of the flooring and can come in various strengths and thickness.
- Stabilizing Layer/ Backing – A layer similar to the top layer to create equality on both sides of the board.
The assembly of the board can be done in either two ways:
Direct Pressure Method – All of the layers are assembled and pressed together at the same time to create a bond. This is the most typical form of assembly for laminate flooring.
High Pressure Method – The individual layers are prepared and fixed in separate stages using a combination of heat and pressure. The end result is a top layer that is usually thicker and thus more durable.
- Embossed – Heat and pressure create a raised and bumpy surface to create add grip.
- Smooth – A flat surface where no texture is applied.
- Wood Grain – Planks are embossed with the texture of a wood grain to imitate the feel of hardwood. It is important to note, different manufacturers will have different processes, so ask first.
- Distressed – Similar to distressed hardwood, except the process is done by machine.
- Patina – This is an affect to reproduce the characteristic of something antique. An embossed layer is painted, and wiped away. This will leave some paint in the embossed regions.
Laminate Characteristics Overview
- High Definition photographic layer applied on High Density Fiber (HDF).
- Resilient to dings and scratches.
- 3/8″ thick on floating install with tongue and groove glue-less locking system. This makes it easy to install several times if desired.
- Typically 30-40% less expensive than engineered wood.
- Light weight and installed as a floating floor – no need to nail down to a sub floor. The weight and ease of installation make it a great choice for weekend warriors.
Engineered Hardwood Flooring
Engineered hardwood floors are also constructed using a layer system, but in a much different approach than laminate. The main board of engineered wood is composed of layers of particle board that are glued together in alternating directions (usually perpendicular to each other) to create a durable bond. What really makes engineered wood different from laminate is the top veneer layer. Rather than using a photographic image to represent a specific wood species, the engineered wood’s veneer is an actual layer of solid wood that is applied on top of the plywood backing. This means that the characteristics of the engineered wood are the same as the selected wood species.
Engineered wood can come straight from the factory ready for installation (no sanding, staining, or sealing). This will usually be marked as “Factory Finished”. Of course it can be offered unfinished for professional on-site sanding and finishing.
Engineered Characteristics Overview
- Made with layers (3-4) of hardwood, plywood, or HDF and a top layer of hardwood veneer. Some manufactures engineer wood with as many as 6-7 layers.
- The stacks of plywood are laid perpendicular to each other, created a additional strength.
- The top veneer layer can typically be 0.6 mm to 4.5 mm in thickness. This gives it the ability to be sanded to buff out any scratches. Because it is so thin, it is recommended to hire a professional and only sand about 1-3 times during the life cycle of the floor.
- The finished result will typically resemble the natural characteristics of the selected wood species.
- Provides greater stability than solid woods, particularly where moisture and heat can be a problem.
- Multiple-ply plank system counteracts warping that is common among solid wood floors.
- Thinner floors can be nailed down, while thicker kinds can be installed as floating floors.
Laminate Vs. Engineered – Does It Matter?
The Feel of Wood – Laminate and engineered are both great imitations of solid hardwoods, and up close, most homeowner’s probably can’t tell the difference. Although visually the two may be indistinguishable, you may not be able to easily convince the bottom of your feet.
Many homeowners who have installed laminate flooring often complain the floor has a “hallow” feel. This is due to the characteristics of High Density Fiber (HDF). It is important to note that not all HDF is created equally. Laminate floors durability is rated on a simple scale of 1 – 5, the higher the number, the more resilient the laminate is to dings, scratches, impact, burns, water, etc. Anything lower than 2 or without a rating should probably be discarded for most homes.
A thicker, more durable piece of HDF will feel closer to solid hardwood than a lower rated HDF. The same can be said about engineered wood floors. Some manufactures use more layers in their core than others – but for the most part, engineered will resemble the feel of solid hardwood more than a high end laminate.
Chipping – Laminate flooring is said to be resilient and good if your floor plans on taking a beating from kids, dogs, or other unforeseen impacts. This is true, but the natural characteristics of wood wants to be chipped, dinged, and scratched. Overtime, the imperfections add charm and character to a home. That’s not to say embellish the fact and drop anvils and sledgehammers onto your floor – but it goes to say that it might be acceptable to have a few dings here and there.
Acoustics – Laminate flooring tends to have an echo affect due to its construction and installation process. Solid hardwoods tend to have a dull impact sound that often goes unnoticed. Engineered wood tends to mimic this acoustic characteristic. There are options to reduce impact noise for laminate flooring that usually include an acoustic underlay designed to reduce noise. Some manufacturers often an acoustical reduction series such as the Genva-Loc Acoustic Laminate Flooring. If you have dogs, you should definitely considered an acoustic underlay.
Choosing What’s Right For You?
When ultimately deciding whether to install laminate or engineered hardwood, only you can decide what’s best for your home. The above information is designed to educate you on the advantages of both flooring options to help make you an educated decision. I recommend narrowing your flooring options down to a few engineered, and a few engineered and let them sit on the floor in your house for a week. After that time you should be able to separate any biased opinions and choose the flooring option your eye catches the most. You may have friends that have already installed wood floors, which can make the best show rooms. Then again, you could always flip a coin…