Written by Byron Buchanan

For centuries mankind has used wood as a primary flooring surface.  It is available in many species, can be stained to enhance the variations of the grain or to minimize its effect.  It is a great insulator for both sound and temperature, and it has natural cushioning for ease of footfalls.  With wide varieties of visual effect, today it can be hard to know what kind of surface is underfoot upon a cursory inspection.  Unfortunately, today there is great confusion between two materials that are, in fact quite different from one another. While it is possible today to install hardwood plank floors like those that predominated 20th century home construction, it is more likely that the beautiful floor you seek may be engineered wood or laminate.

Engineered wood floors are, as the name indicates, real wood.  Typically these have a top layer of specialty or exotic wood with layers of other woods beneath, the grain of each layer set at perpendicular angles to those above and below it.   There are several advantages to this kind of construction. While considered a “premium” choice, the ability to use less beautiful and, therefore, less expensive species on the under layers makes this type of flooring an affordable choice.  In a high humidity climate such as ours this method of construction also stabilizes the natural tendency of wood to warp and eliminates cupping and peaking of the boards. Because they are natural, allow approximately 2-3 days for the materials to acclimate in the rooms where they are to be installed. They are installed flat, and remain flat.

Every species possesses a signature grain pattern that is recognizable due to the way sap is distributed throughout the tree.  A visual test for wood is to see whether the color appears to lighten or darken when walking around a plank.  Because of the moisture delivery system throughout the tree this shading effect is unique to real wood. Some woods, like maple, have a very tight and subtle pattern while others like hickory and acacia will have broad variation within the board.  Because each tree is a living, natural plant, no two pieces will be exactly the same – one of the signatures of a natural product.  Even though you may choose a floor where the color is relatively uniform the manner in which the surface is milled or planed can create dramatic variations, as found in the “hand scraped” planks that are popular today.

Engineered hardwoods are available in a wide selection of finishes.  These floors are factory finished so that there is no need to sand, stain or seal in your home.  With advanced sealers they will resist surface scratches and spills. They  represent the best of latest modern technology combined with the time tested elegance of natural hardwood.  Budget a little more for this option, and expect to both enjoy living on the surface and realize the best return when selling your home.

Laminate flooring offers a broad spectrum of styles and finishes.  They can be made to emulate every wood imaginable, as well as stone, brick,  and tile.  The surface patterns and colors are extremely stable from one lot to another as they are, essentially, a series of photographic reproductions.  They are composed of a man-made core with the pattern applied to the surface, the upper spectrum may have topographic effects that simulate the surface of natural products.  Although all are produced from man-made materials, some of these cores are manufactured from products that render them virtually impervious to moisture and can be installed with confidence in areas that are less suitable for hardwood such as baths and poolside cabanas. They, too, are finished with sealers that resist surface scratches and are easily cleaned and maintained.  They require no time to acclimate in the home, so can be installed without delay.  Unlike the woods that many visually replicate, they do not absorb sound in the same manner and may have a somewhat “hollow” sound when walking in hard soled shoes.

When in doubt as to the best choice for your home, speak to a reliable flooring professional who can assess your needs, application, and budget in order to achieve the maximum effect for your investment.