Home Sweet Solutions

Guide to Buying Wood Flooring

Tips on choosing and buying the wood flooring that''s right for you.

There are plenty of reasons why people love wood floors. Not only do they add warmth and beauty to interior spaces and enhance the aesthetic appeal of a home, they also increase the home’s value. Since wood is a renewable resource that is natural, durable and recyclable, wood floors are also eco-friendly. If they’re properly maintained, they can last for many generations and often improve with age, too.

Types of Wood Flooring

Before purchasing wood floors for your home, be sure to consult a professional to help you choose a type that meshes with the style and conditions of your home. Wood floor planks come in a wide range of widths, thicknesses, stains and finishes. They can be made of solid wood or they can be engineered planks, which feature a thinner layer of natural hardwood bonded to an engineered substrate. Solid wood flooring must be applied over a plywood subfloor and is nailed or stapled in place. Engineered wood flooring can be applied atop a concrete slab, which is typical in apartment buildings, and is generally glued in place.

A low-cost, easy-to-maintain alternative to solid or engineered wood flooring is a wood-look laminate floor. Today’s laminate floors are often made with beveled edges or embossed with lines and textures that make them look almost identical to real wood. Yet, laminate floors are actually made up of several layers of different materials, and often include a moisture-resistant layer under a layer of HDF (high-density fiberboard), topped with a high-resolution photographic image of natural wood flooring. These layers are bonded together under high pressure and then finished with an extremely hard, clear coating to protect the surface. The inner core is usually infused with a plastic resin, such as melamine for strength and water resistance. The bottom layer is also saturated with resin, which further guards against warping.

Eco-Friendly Choices

Hardwood floors come in virtually any kind of wood imaginable -- from classic North American species, such as oak, cherry and walnut, to exotic woods, such as fruitwood, merbau and teak. The most environmentally-conscious options include flooring made from trees grown in sustainable forests, as well as reclaimed flooring, which displays imperfections that add patina.

To be sure your new hardwood floor is as green as possible, choose flooring that is certified as environmentally friendly by an accredited certifier, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) -- all trusted organizations that certify that the wood is grown and harvested from specially managed forests. Virgin hardwood flooring should be harvested from trees with long growth cycles, such as red and white oak, maple, ash or birch. Also, to be as eco-friendly as possible, avoid exotic hardwoods that are rare or endangered.

Makers of laminate flooring argue that it is environmentally friendly because it uses less wood in its construction than solid or engineered wood floors, and it makes more efficient use of the wood fiber, sawdust or wood chips that are used as its substrate. However, laminate flooring may also contain formaldehyde or other toxic substances.

Installation Basics

While hardwood floors are typically nailed or stapled to a subfloor and engineered wood floors often glued in place, some wood floors, known as floating floors, are manufactured with tongue-and-grooves that click in place and allow the floor to float above the subfloor.

Quick-install laminates allow you to easily upgrade the floors yourself. Planks are constructed with tongue-and-groove edges on all four sides so that they snap into place. For extra water resistance, some laminates have preglued edges or are designed to be installed with a specially formulated glue to lock planks together. In general, laminate floors can “float” above existing surfaces without being attached to the old floor.

Regardless of the installation method required for the floor, an underlayment is generally placed between the subfloor and the new flooring to smooth the subfloor surface, provide a moisture barrier, enhance comfort underfoot and absorb sound. Underlayments are made from foam, rosin- or felt-paper, cork or other materials, and should be chosen to complement the type of floor you’ve purchased as well as for the purpose you want them to serve. Some laminate floors have attached underlayments.

Stains and Finishes

You can buy wood flooring that’s been prestained and prefinished at the factory, where outgassing (when toxic volatile chemicals evaporate) can be handled in a controlled environment. Or, you can get it unfinished and have it stained and finished in place. Wood outgasses minimally and does not harbor dust mites or mold. All wood floors require sealing, so if you’re finishing in place, choose sealers that are low or have no VOC (volatile organic compounds).

Solid and engineered wood can be sanded and refinished, though because the wood layer of engineered wood floors is generally between 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch thick, it can only be sanded and refinished once or twice. Laminate floors cannot be refinished.

Cost
Since wood floors can put a substantial dent in your wallet, get quotes and referrals from several installers before proceeding. The starting price for solid and engineered wood floors is about $3.50 per square foot, and installation and removal of existing floors can triple or quadruple the cost of flooring.

The cost of laminate flooring varies with style and quality. In general, a laminate floor will be approximately a third to a half of the price of its natural-wood counterpart.