My Take on “Engineered Hardwood” Flooring

Want to have real hardwood floors, yet avoid the high cost? You may want to consider using a prefinished, plywood-core hardwood. As always, you need to reckon with the drawbacks, but in this case there is actually a benefit of going the cheap route.

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First let me define what a hardwood floor has been made of in the past.

Around 1930, hardwood floors reached a state of standardization where nearly all were made of 3/4 inch thick sticks of hardwood joined together in a tongue-and-groove fitting method and nailed or stapled (via the tongue) into the subfloor. After the floor was placed, it would be sanded and receive a stain and 3+ coats of polyurethane.

After a generation or two, the polyurethane would have failed in some places and the dings and scrapes in the floor would begin to be unsightly, so that means it's time to refinish.

So you use a rented belt sander to take off about 1/32 of an inch (but in some places it will be more like 1/16), then re-stain and refinish.

An engineered floor is much different.

For starters, it's actually plywood. This means that there are thin layers of (probably) poplar and then a one-sixteenth inch layer of real hardwood on top. As you can see in the picture below, it is designed for a tongue-and-groove method of fitting, but unlike old-school hardwood, it is designed to be glued down rather than nailed/stapled. This makes it a good choice for covering a concrete slab.
It's about half the thickness of traditional hardwood, coming in at between 3/8 and 1/2 inch.

Be sure you don't confuse this floor with a “laminate” floor, which is really just plastic with a picture of wood on it. We're talking about something that actually puts (a very thin layer of) real wood under your feet.

If you know much about remodeling, the question that immediately comes to your mind when you see this picture is, “How can anyone refinish this floor?”

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They won't.

Now, if you ask the manufacturer of this stuff whether it can be sanded and refinished, they will say that it can be refinished “1-2 times”. But in reality you'd be taking a big chance by even trying to refinish it one time. This is because even a careful do-it-yourselfer is going to sand some areas more than others, and my guess is that — not having a hardwood core (and therefore being softer) — there will be deeper pits and you'll be tempted to sand more to get them out.

The only way I would attempt a refinish on this material is to use a professional hardwood installer and get something in writing about what happens if he sands through to the poplar material. Needless to say, that would be a major, major problem.

But now let's look at one big benefit about an engineered floor: factory finish.

Polyurethane is kid's stuff compared to some of the highly-engineered finishes which can be produced in a factory. These varnishes and lacquers utilize complex chemistry to create hard and consistent surfaces. It's not feasible to try to do such a finish in your home, though, so you're left with brush-on poly. You can get a factory finish on the old-style hardwood floor, but you have to get factory finish on this engineered hardwood.

So, it's possible that this hi-tech finish will make the floor look good for an extra fifty years, so finish-ability may be a moot point. But sometimes these wonder-products don't stand the test of time.

Okay, okay, so you're probably thinking, “I'm not worried about refinishing, because I'm going to be long gone in 20 years. Let the next owner of the house worry about that.” Well, that's just the kind of market trend/mentality for which this material is designed. But remember: resale value.

And in case you are the one buying the house, you'll definitely want to check out the specs of all hardwood floors in the house to be sure you're getting the real thing. You can do this by finding a ventilation vent, and gently lifting it out of the duct hole. This allows you to see a cut-away of the floor material. You will know the deal at that point.

Obviously, if the floor looks bad and it is “engineered hardwood”, then you are facing the prospect of:

Plan A: hoping to get lucky and trying to refinishing, but if you sand through to the core, then you're stuck with…

Plan B: removing that floor and replacing it with something else. You get one guess how easy it is to get up the super-adhesive that bonds this flooring to the sub-floor!

    Moral of the story: engineered hardwood probably has its place in smart remodeling, just make sure that you are comfortable with the risk profile and the time/wear horizon.