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Hard Surfaces 101: Hardwood

Hardwood flooring can provide a sophisticated and inviting touch to any home or business. Characterized by warmth, style, and unmistakable natural beauty, solid or engineered hardwoods come in a variety of textures, grains, and natural tones that make them one of the most desirable materials used in flooring today.

Hardwood flooring is primarily offered in two ways: site finished or pre-finished from the manufacturer. Both can be good options for residential and light commercial applications depending on the look that is desired and the areas in which they are to be installed.

Site Finished Hardwood

Site finished hardwood flooring involves bringing in unstained and unfinished pre-milled boards, installing them in place, and then sanding and applying finishes on site. Hardwood has been installed this way as flooring for over a century and until fairly recently, with the emergence of high-quality pre-finished products, this was the most commonly used practice. Domestic species such as oak, hickory, walnut, and maple in varying grade options are the species most frequently used when wood is installed this way. Board sizes are typically limited to no larger than 5” in width (although wider unfinished engineered products are available, they are not as commonly used and are at times cost prohibitive). Site finished hardwood typically results in a more traditional look due to the way the floor is sanded and then finished with stain and/or polyurethane. Beveled edges, hand scraping, or distressing are not common characteristics of a hardwood floor installed via this method. Site finish allows for more detail and design options such as borders, patterns, inlays, etc. or the changing of species or stain in an area to create a unique feature. There are some drawbacks and inconveniences that come with site finished hardwood floors. Installation with this method can be slow and extremely messy while sanding inside a home, and the floors cannot be walked on while stains and finish layers are drying. Site finished hardwood is typically sealed with polyurethane that dries in place. This finish, while durable, does not have the ability to hold up in high traffic areas in the same way that many finishes applied in a manufacturer setting are able to. Over time a refinish will likely be necessary at an additional cost. The quality of the finish and installation of wood floors done this way is highly dependent on the skills and craftsmanship of the individual performing the installation.

Pre-Finished Hardwood

Pre-finished hardwood floors, both solid and engineered, are milled, sanded, and then completely stained and finished in a controlled manufacturing environment before being brought into the home or business for installation. Pre-finished hardwoods are offered in many species, both domestic and exotic, and in sizes varying from traditional 2 1/4″ solid planks up to 9″ wide plank engineered boards. Design styles range from smooth clean semi-gloss finishes (similar to that of a site finished floor) to hand scraped, distressed, wire brushed, mixed width, and varying grades depending on desired appearance and texture. Many styles of pre-finished hardwood have distinct edges on them such as a micro bevel or pillowed edge to emphasize the look and features of each individual board. Pre-finished hardwoods generally have a higher quality and more durable finish applied to them, as opposed to site finished floors, due to how they are finished and what they are finished with. These floors are stained and design features are applied, then they are sealed with high-performance polyurethanes, aluminum oxide, or oil-based coatings. Most products have anywhere from 6 to 10 layers of these finish coatings applied that are then baked on with ultraviolet light. The pre-finished method takes much of the human element and dependence on the installer for quality and performance out of the equation. Manufacturers of pre-finished hardwood floors have developed and are constantly improving sophisticated techniques to apply the most durable finishes available yielding wood products that can perform up to 50 years without requiring a refinish.

Solid hardwood and engineered hardwood are two different product types of wood flooring that have advantages and disadvantages to each. There is not a definitive answer to whether one is necessarily better than the other, more so the question that needs to be answered is which product type better suits the environment it is to be installed in and achieves the desired style, design, or price point of the end user. Both engineered and solid hardwood offer the same “value” when comes to the resale of a home.

Solid Hardwood

Solid hardwood flooring is milled from a solid piece of wood in a desired species, the actual hardwood itself is the only material used in the making of this type of flooring. The majority of solid hardwood floors are approximately ¾” in overall thickness and vary by width and length. The individual boards are nailed or cleated to a wood subfloor holding them in place. The dimensional stability (ability to lay flat, not cup or twist) of a solid wood plank decreases the wider it gets, so the majority of solid hardwoods offered in flooring are 5” in width or less to avoid these issues. Solid hardwood generally undergoes more expansion and contraction than its engineered counterpart as climate changes throughout the year (such as in the Midwest where winter months are dry and summer months are humid). Solid hardwood is not recommended for applications where high moisture or dampness is likely, such as a bathroom, laundry room, or below grade. Solid hardwoods have defined clear grain and accurately represent the natural beauty of each species of wood as they are all sawn in ways that do not distort grains, knots, or characteristics of the wood. All solid hardwoods can be refinished as they are constructed of the same species of wood all the way through. The number of times a solid hardwood floor can be refinished depends on the amount of usable wood removed with each sanding before reaching the fasteners that hold the boards in place.

Engineered Hardwood

Engineered hardwood is manufactured from multiple layers of fiberboard and a real hardwood veneer top layer that are then bonded together. Most Engineered hardwood floors are between 3/8” and 1/2” overall thickness and are offered in widths as thin as 2 ¼” up to 9” wide planks. Engineered hardwood is constructed to be more dimensionally stable through its multi-ply design so it allows for greater resistance to temperature changes in an environment or climate that undergoes significant change throughout the year. Engineered hardwood is an excellent choice when solid wood is not applicable due to an increased likelihood of moisture (such as a lower level) or if consistently higher temperatures may be present (such as a home with radiant heat). Engineered hardwood floors can be nailed/stapled down, glued down, or floated and glued along the tongue and groove. While all engineered floors offer more versatility in how and where they can be used, not all engineered hardwood floors are created equal. The construction of a multi-ply base layer of an engineered wood is what classifies it as such, but there are differences in the thickness and cut of the top hardwood veneer layer that make some engineered floors more durable, and more appealing, than others. Inexpensive engineered hardwood floors typically have a top veneer that is rotary peeled (See Below. Photo Courtesy of Mullican Flooring) rather than sawn (think how an apple peeler removes the skin from an apple). These type of floors are typically not able to be refinished as the veneer is not thick enough to be sanded down. This method has a tendency to distort the natural grain of wood due to the fashion in which it is “peeled” from a log. Rotary peeled engineered wood floors can have a higher frequency of issues with delamination or cracking due to the thin top veneer and the fact that it is something that was once round and has been forced to lay flat in the manufacturing process. Higher quality engineered floors have a veneer that is sawn in the same way that solid hardwood floors are. This thicker top veneer is then bonded to the multiple ply layers. These thick sawn top veneer layers are usually between 1/8” to ¼” thick and are capable of being refinished. A sawn veneer engineered hardwood floor offers the visual appeal and life expectancy of a solid hardwood, but with the versatility and added durability of an engineered product.

Photo Courtesy of Mullican Flooring

When deciding on a new wood floor, it’s a good idea to consider the conditions this floor will encounter during its lifetime. This will help inform you on the best type of hardwood floor for you and your space. Whether you install a solid, engineered, a prefinished, or a finished-in-place hardwood floor, you will be getting a beautiful, natural look that will add value and appeal to your space for years to come.

Have questions on hardwood flooring? Contact us, give us a call or stop by either Randy’s location in Cedar Rapids or Coralville. We are here to help with finding the right product for you and your home or business.

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