Traditional Hardwoods vs. Engineered or Laminate Flooring

By Andy Ross

All Hardwood Floors LLC

Homeowners often want to know the differences between genuine hardwood and synthetic products like engineered or laminated flooring. In this guide, I offer some professional insight and answers to help you make an informed choice.

Natural Hardwood Flooring

Authentic hardwood is cut from actual pieces of hardwood harvested from the forest. The top of the flooring, which is the surface you see and walk across, is normally stained to accent the natural grain of the wood or to add decorative color. Then the flooring is coated with a sealant to help protect the wood from scratches, dents, stains, and moisture. Hardwoods can also be waxed. But most modern hardwood floors don’t require wax, which can be a labor-intensive process, because they are sealed with a polyurethane or similar finishing product. Installation of hardwoods is done with nails that permanently affix the flooring to a subfloor and the supporting joists beneath it. A solid hardwood floor can last 100 years or more, and since hardwoods like oak and maple are so dense, they don’t scratch or dent easily. When properly installed and maintained, a real hardwood floor will last for generations.

Laminate Wood Flooring

Laminate wood flooring is made from wood composites. These are usually comprised of sawdust, wood chips, or particle board that is pressed and glued together to create a synthetic wood product in the shape of a flooring plank or tile. Then a thin photographic layer, containing an image of real wood, is laminated across the top. From a short distance the flooring appears to be real wood. Depending on the photo image, laminate flooring can be virtually any color and mimic any kind of wood. Most laminates simply snap together tongue-and-groove style, without any nailing or gluing. Laminate flooring is relatively inexpensive, but it is also considerably less durable and more susceptible to damage than real hardwood flooring.

Engineered Hardwood Flooring

Engineered hardwood flooring is similar to a laminate. But instead of using a photographic layer on top, there is a thin veneer or slice of actual hardwood on the visible surface. Beneath it are usually layers of plywood instead of composite material, so it’s sturdier than a laminate. Since the veneer surface is made from actual hardwood, engineered flooring looks more convincing than laminate flooring, and costs more than a laminate. But compared to solid hardwood, it is also much less durable, since it is almost entirely made of plywood. In fact, if you sand or accidentally scratch off the top layer then the hardwood portion is destroyed and you wind up with just a plywood floor. Most engineered hardwood flooring is installed using staples or glue, although sometimes this flooring can be nailed or simply snapped into place like laminate flooring.