Angie's LIST Guide to
Hardwood flooring

There are few home improvement choices that add as much character and warmth – not to mention resale value – as hardwood flooring. But before you install or repair hardwood flooring it’s important to know both its advantages and disadvantages.
 

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The owner of this Colorado home chose to have red oak installed in several rooms in his house, including the living room. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Al A.)
The owner of this Colorado home chose to have red oak installed in several rooms in his house, including the living room. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Al A.)
 
 
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Defining 'hardwood'

With the advent of modern manufacturing techniques, it may be hard to determine what constitutes an actual hardwood floor. Flooring manufacturing techniques such as engineered hardwood flooring differ from actual hardwood floors, but can often replicate the look and feel of a hardwood floor at a reduced cost. Take a look at how the two wood flooring systems work:

Hardwood floors

Real hardwood floors are almost wholly comprised of wood planks shaved down to uniform or near-uniform planks that are then installed directly installed over floor joists. Flooring planks or strips can be harvested from huge variety of tree species, such as maple, cherry, oak and walnut, offering consumers a great range of wood color, grain and texture. Added to that variety is an almost equally large selection of stain and finish choices, making color and texture options nearly infinite.

Hardwood flooring is the most long-lasting of wood flooring types due to its ability to be refinished multiple times over its lifetime. If scratches from furniture, wear patterns from foot traffic or general wear-and-tear detract from the appearance of a hardwood floor or its finish, the floor can be stripped of its finish by sanding it down to the wood grain. A new stain or floor finish can be then be applied to give the floor an almost brand-new appearance.

Real hardwood flooring is the most expensive option in wood flooring choices, due to both the higher cost of materials and installation. Hardwood floor planks are typically screwed or nailed directly to the supporting floor joists, which means repairs to or replacement of a hardwood floor can also be more expensive.

Engineered wood floors

Engineered wood floors can offer the look and feel of traditionally manufactured wooden floors, but at a much reduced cost. Engineered wood flooring generally consists of a thin strip of actual wood mounted to a multiple layers of thinner, less expensive plywood.

This top-most piece of hardwood is referred to as the “wear layer” because it offers some of the same durability of real hardwood floors.

Like real hardwood flooring, the wear layer of an engineered floor can be stripped of its finish, sanded down and have a new layer of finish or stain applied to it. However, because the wear layer is much thinner than the all-hardwood plank of a real hardwood floor, the sanding and refinish process can only be performed a relatively few number of times compared to a bone fide hardwood floor.

Engineered wood flooring is significantly less expensive than hardwood flooring. Additionally, since the engineered wood planks are much thinner than hardwood planks, engineered wood flooring can be installed more easily over surfaces such as concrete or an existing wood floor. Another benefit of engineered wood floors is ease of repair or replacement. Since the planks are held together with a tongue-in-groove feature along the length of the planks, repairs can be completed by simply removing a plank and replacing it by locking a new one into place.

Wood floor care

A hardwood floor before after professional refinishing. (Photo courtesy of Nick Kotsopoulous)

One of the biggest keys to hardwood flooring’s longevity is ensuring that the floor is properly maintained. Following the installation of your hardwood floors, follow these tips by the Wood Floor Covering Association to keep it beautiful for years to come:

  • Since hardwood flooring is susceptible to dents, walk on it with care when wearing high heels.
  • Place flannel coasters under furniture legs to avoid scratching when moving the chairs away from the dining table or rearranging rooms.
  • Avoid direct sunlight.  Protect the wood with window treatments on windows.
  • Too much moisture can cause warping. If the kitchen floor is hardwood, place rugs in front of the sink and stove to protect the wood area.
  • Grit from foot traffic can scratch the wood. Place rugs at entrances and encourage visitors to remove their shoes. Move area rugs frequently so the floor doesn’t begin to wear in other areas.
  • Cleaning wood flooring is easy.  Sweep or vacuum once a week and use a damp mop with mild soap as needed, but your mop should not dripping wet.  Wood floors can be damaged if overly saturated.
  • If there’s a spill, clean it up immediately with a dry towel.
  • Use a damp towel to clean tougher stains.
Common problems

There are many great reasons to install hardwood flooring: It matches well with almost any décor; it can reduce dust and other allergens; and cleaning is relatively quick and simple.

But even with these benefits, hardwood flooring is not maintenance-free. Installation errors, wood's natural tendency to swell with changes in humidity and long-term wear and tear can all cause unsightly conditions that detract from a hardwood floor's appeal.

If you own a home with hardwood floors, look out for these common issues:

Gaps in flooring planks can indicate improper installation or warping. (Photo courtesy of Charles Pomeroy)

How to silence a squeaky floor

Over the decades, nails and screws loosen and wood begins to rub together making squeak. There are ways to fix it, perhaps without even removing the carpeting.

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  • Buckling and crowning. This is caused when the original installer did not provide enough space between the wood planks for expansion with humidity. Eventually, the planks may swell into each other and become raised. These raised areas not only look uneven compared to the rest of the floor, they also attract more wear and tear.
  • Scratches, dents and dings. These are some of the most common hardwood flooring issues and they generally occur over time as the floor is used and its protective finish wears off. This can be avoided by not wearing shoes in the house and by installing protective pads on furniture legs.
  • Fading. A floor's exposure to UV rays from sunlight can cause noticeable differences in the floor's color over time. Blocking sunlight by lowering the shades or closing shutters can help prevent this fading.
  • Warping. When exposed to or saturated in water, wood can swell and warp. Prevent water from coming in contact with wood floors by using area rugs below sinks and near entry doors, and by placing houseplant pots or containers on top of water-collecting dishes.
Professional maintenance

If your floors have begun to show wear patterns from foot traffic or appear dull, it’s probably a good indicator it’s time to hire a professional to improve their appearance. Most hardwood floors should be periodically maintained by adding an extra finish layer, known as recoating, every three to seven years. Recoating involves lightly scuffing the existing finish layer to promote adhesion, then adding a new layer of finish. If the floor’s finish is still intact, a maintenance coat will help it last another five years and may save you up to 60 percent versus the cost of sanding and refinishing the floor.

When floors become worn to the point that the top layer of finish no longer covers the wood grain or when deep scratches are present, hiring a professional to complete a more comprehensive – and expensive – sanding and recoating may be your best option.

During a sanding and recoat, a flooring contractor will use heavy-duty sanding machine to remove all the finish on a hardwood floor, exposing the wood grain. Once the grain has been exposed, deep scratches and other blemishes can be sanded down to give the bare wood a more uniform appearance. Before a new top coat of finish is applied, you also have the option of adding a different stain to the wood grain to change the overall appearance. Once the sanding or staining is complete, a flooring contractor can add a new layer of protective finish, which can add lasting beauty and durability to the hardwood floor for years to come.

A flooring contractor will also be able to provide advice or repairs for other hardwood flooring issues such as fading from UV exposure, stains from water, pets or other contaminates, and broken, chipped or damaged hardwood strips. Flooring specialists can often repair badly damaged wood floors even if some of the original boards are too far gone to be saved.

Hiring tips

When hiring a professional contractor to install, maintain or repair your hardwood floors, choosing the right contractor can be the difference between a perfect finish and a floor that ends up more damaged than before. Although a homeowner may choose a contractor based on a low price, this may lead to less-than-desirable results.

Consider the following when hiring  a hardwood floor contractor:

Gary Gilman works to refinish about 800 square feet of hardwood flooring in a Kansas home.
(Photo courtesy of Angie's List member William F.)

Licensing, bonding and insurance – Although it’s likely that many jurisdictions don’t require that flooring contractors hold licenses, some municipalities may. A valid license also means it’s more likely that your contractor is in good standing both legally and financially. Insurance and/or bonding are likely more important characteristics in a qualified flooring contractor. Because flooring can represent a significant investment and because maintenance requires heavy machinery that can easily damage a floor, it’s important to make sure your contractor holds the proper insurance policies.

Industry accreditation – Accreditations from trade organizations such as the National Wood Flooring Association can indicate that a flooring contractor is serious about his work and willing to take continuing education courses. Membership in trade organizations can often also indicate that a flooring professional is well versed in industry standards for workmanship and work site conditions, as well as trained in proper installation techniques.

Experience - Always ask a contractor about his or her background and experience in the field. The answer may surprise you.

References - A well-qualified contractor should be able to provide references for recent customers or a portfolio of recently completed work. Don't forget to actually call recent references to see if they were satisfied with the work and the contractor’s performance.

Check Angie's List -- If you're a member of Angie's List, you can find out which local hardwood flooring pros have received consistently high grades from past customers.

Comments

This article is easy to read, however as an experienced manufacturer of hardwood flooring, I would disagree with several points:

#1. "Hardwood floor planks are typically screwed or nailed directly to the supporting floor joists, which means repairs to or replacement of a hardwood floor can also be more expensive."

It is not typical for installers to use screws to install hardwood flooring planks. Most all are installed with a pneumatic flooring nail gun, which uses cleats (nails) or staples. They are driven into the side tongue of each plank at an angle pre-set in the nail gun itself. These cleats or staples adequately hold the plank in place when there is a good subfloor present of MDF or better yet, plywood. Nailing directly into the supporting floor joists is not typical and certainly not feasible for most random-length plank flooring applications.

#2. "Engineered wood floors can offer the look and feel of traditionally manufactured wooden floors, but at a much reduced cost." And "Engineered wood flooring is significantly less expensive than hardwood flooring."

I suppose there are exceptions, but generally I would disagree. I've commonly seen engineered flooring costing more than solid flooring of the same wood species. There's a lot of species and sizes available in both, so its best to compare prices.

#3. "This top-most piece of hardwood is referred to as the “wear layer” because it offers some of the same durability of real hardwood floors."

"Like real hardwood flooring, the wear layer of an engineered floor can be stripped of its finish, sanded down and have a new layer of finish or stain applied to it. However, because the wear layer is much thinner than the all-hardwood plank of a real hardwood floor, the sanding and refinish process can only be performed a relatively few number of times compared to a bone fide hardwood floor."

There is a "wear layer" for solid hardwood flooring too. Wear layer is not an exclusive term for engineered flooring only. I would advise that customers whom are comparing solid to engineered flooring options ask what the wear layer of each are. In many cases, consumers will likely find that for good quality engineered planks, their wear layer may be the same or so close to the same for solid hardwood flooring of similar thickness that the difference is insignificant. In other words, good engineered product may have the same capability of multiple resandings and refinishes as solid in most cases.

#3. "Additionally, since the engineered wood planks are much thinner than hardwood planks, engineered wood flooring can be installed more easily over surfaces such as concrete or an existing wood floor."

Actually, engineered is a bit trickier to install over concrete. It isn't as simple as attaching solid hardwood flooring over a subfloor or over an existing wood floor. Many things need to be taken into account, such as the moisture level of the concrete (newer poured concrete takes a good many months to drop its inherent surface moisture). Two of the more common over-concrete installation procedures that we see in my area are "glue-down" and "floating subfloor." The special adhesive used is of significant cost, and the additional materials used in a floating subfloor add to the higher cost of the installation.

Overall, I get the impression from this article that the main reason for an engineered floor is reduced cost over solid. Again, I would disagree about the cost, but I'd also point out that engineered flooring is actually superior in change coefficiency, or in other words, the amount of natural movement that is inherent with all woods in different climatic conditions (moisture, temperature, etc).

Because it expands and contracts much less than solid planks, it is highly desirable for below-grade areas of the home, or perhaps for rooms that are not climate-controlled or or otherwise subjected to above average moisture or temperature, such as exposed earth crawl-spaces.

I am not following the thinking behind thinner planks being easier to install over existing hardwood either. Engineered hardwood flooring is usually just a bit thinner than standard 3/4" thick plank, but both are available in different thicknesses. If you compare the thinnest available engineered to the thickest available solid, then I suppose one can say the engineered is "much thinner".

Solid or engineered, I struggle to understand how a thinner product is easier to install over existing hardwood flooring.

#4. "Buckling and crowning. This is caused when the original installer did not provide enough space between the wood planks for expansion with humidity."

Reputable, knowledgeable Installers do not put ANY space between the wood planks for expansion. That would just look weird. The planks should show little to no gaps between them. An expansion gap is generally located only around the parameter of the room at the walls. For most hardwood flooring products, installers usually go with 3/4" of space from the wall.

#5. "Another benefit of engineered wood floors is ease of repair or replacement. Since the planks are held together with a tongue-in-groove feature along the length of the planks, repairs can be completed by simply removing a plank and replacing it by locking a new one into place."

So can solid. Solid is manufactured the same....both have the tongue-in-groove feature milled along the length of the planks. Quite the contrary, plank replacement is quite a bit more complicated for engineered floors that were installed by glue-down.

#6. "Scratches, dents and dings. These are some of the most common hardwood flooring issues and they generally occur over time as the floor is used and its protective finish wears off. This can be avoided by not wearing shoes in the house and by installing protective pads on furniture legs."

I hesitated to comment on this one because I really cannot disagree with one of the particular statements in there.

I would agree that avoiding the wearing of shoes in the house can certain prolong the flooring's lifespan. Avoiding having children and animals would help as well. Avoiding any entry into the room whatsoever is actually best. All kidding aside, these are all true statements, however they're not always practical or even appropriate. Keep on top of your floor cleaning by promptly cleaning up mishaps and routinely sweeping up. You'll get the most enjoyment and use out of your hardwood flooring investment.

My dish washer broke and flooded my kitchen floor. The ends of the planks touching each other are water stained. Can they be fixed? Can scratches?

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