Flooring: wood or laminate?

What kind of flooring should you go with? All about solid, prefinished, engineered, and laminate

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer

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For something that lies down on the job all day, cottage flooring does a lot of work. It has to be kind to our feet, yet absorb an amazing amount of wear and tear and look good in the process. The floor-covering market has dozens of lay-down options, including linoleum, sheet vinyl, ceramic tile, and natural stone, but in cottage country, wood and its look-alikes corner the market. It makes sense, given that trees are such a big part of the cottage experience. Not only does wood simply suit a cottage floor, but it can be tailored to any interior styling, from a sway-backed old fish camp to a zillion-dollar megaplex. While solid wood floors have been around ever since we figured out how to down trees, there are many newcomers to the floor show, including so-called engineered wood floors, laminates, and prefinished variants on the traditional. Herewith, the skinny on wood flooring, from the traditional tree slice to its chemical-age cousins.

Solid wood

Ah, solid wood, the old-time cottage favourite. Beautiful, long-lasting, and available in as many styles as there are trees in the forest and stains to tint them. Easy on the feet and easy on the eyes, solid wood floors haven’t changed much over the years. Or have they?

Traditionally, a solid wood floor meant 3⁄4″-thick pieces, planed flat, with a tongue-and-groove profile milled on the edges. In hardwood, you can get planks from 21⁄4″ to 14″ wide and in lengths of 16′ or more, although the longer and wider planks are usually only available as a custom order from a mill. Softwoods are even available in widths up to 20″. Quite a board. As for installation, each plank is nailed through the tongue at an angle, locking it to the subfloor and the preceding piece. Once installed, this raw flooring is sanded to get rid of any ridges, lumps, or bumps, then meticulously cleaned, stained (or left clear), and protected with three or more coats of finish, usually polyurethane. It’s a time-honoured and effective method that produces a flat, smooth floor with a very durable finish.

It also allows periodic refinishing if catastrophic damage or normal wear and tear cuts through the polyurethane surface; simply sand the floor and apply new finish.

Leonard Schamehorn has wood flooring in his blood. His grandfather worked at a flooring factory and his dad got into installing and refinishing around 1948. By 1950, young Leonard was running the sander (which he still uses today). Working in and around Huntsville, Ont., Schamehorn has installed and refinished almost every kind of wood flooring in the intervening years and he’s a big fan of solid flooring. “Solid wood is very durable and you can refinish it,” he says. “I’ve even been into places where they had a fire and as long as the fire wasn’t actually burning on the floor, I could bring it back.” While unfinished wood flooring has been with us for centuries, the new kid on the block and now the most popular player in the market is prefinished wood flooring. Though installed in pretty much the same way as an unfinished floor, prefinished products have their makeup applied right at the factory, where the tongue-and-groove boards receive five to eight coats of sprayed polyurethane, dried with ultraviolet light between coats. Most of these finishes also incorporate aluminum oxide — a crystalline industrial abrasive, not quite as hard as diamond, that adds durability — and are often backed by wear warranties of as long as 25 years. The appeal of prefinished products among builders and cottage reno artists is obvious: With the finish already applied, installers can skip the sanding, cleaning, and finishing process required with a traditional wood floor. “The old school is definitely unfinished,” says Robert Belisle, marketing and sales director with Tembec Forest Products in Huntsville, makers of the Muskoka Prefinished Flooring brand. “The new school wants to pull the carpet out in the morning and have the furniture back at the end of the day.” And as Dave Labelle of Georgian Flooring Centre in Collingwood, Ont., points out, contractors love a prefinished product because time is money. With solid wood, “when they have to sand and finish, you shut the whole building down during that time,” he explains. “You can’t have guys messing around with paint and you can’t have sawdust in the air.” With prefinished wood, contractors can be working in other parts of the house while the floor is going in.

So why would anyone in their right mind choose old-fashioned raw wood when prefinished products are available, waiting to spring, fully formed, from their shipping carton? The answer is width and length, and a little groove thing. To create a premium product, prefinished flooring manufacturers take rough boards, cut out the defects, then mill these pieces into flooring, usually 21⁄4″ or 31⁄4″ in width. Unfortunately, some high-tech finishing lines have length limitations, where the longest boards that can be accommodated are less than 7′. That means prefinished planks tend to be short — 60″ is a common maximum length — with each carton usually containing a random mix of long and short pieces. And while a traditional unfinished floor gets sanded perfectly flat, most prefinished products, to hide tiny inconsistencies in fit and sometimes as a requirement of the factory finishing line, have an edge bevel, which shows as a groove between the boards of the floor. The groove varies in size from a noticeable V-profile, like you might find in a pine ceiling, to an almost imperceptible micro- or nano-bevel. It’s a matter of aesthetics, really. Some people don’t even notice the bevelled look, while others can’t tolerate the grooves and find they tend to catch dirt and dust.

Making the grade

Okay, here’s the confusing part. Whether their wood flooring is raw or prefinished, manufacturers will use terms like “premium,” “prime,” “rustic,” “classic,” and a whole raft of others to differentiate their product lines. These terms are visual descriptors that organize flooring according to the way they look. They do not reflect the quality or durability of the actual floor. As Jim Koudys of wideplankflooring.ca, a division of Kootur Lumber in Smithville, Ont., explains, while the National Hardwood Lumber Association sets the grading for rough lumber, “once it has been turned into flooring, that manufacturer can call it anything he wants. I have the right to call my wide-plank flooring ‘perfectly clear,’ even if it’s full of knots.”

There’s no conspiracy, it’s just that manufacturers need to catalogue a line of products by looks and cost. Often, totally clear, evenly coloured, knot-free boards will command a premium price, while other wood with tight knots and a mix of tones and colours will be offered as a mid-grade. At the bottom of the line, “rustic-,” “cottage-,” or “tavern-” labelled products will have more knots, defects, and colour variations, and they’ll usually come in shorter lengths. “We call our lower-grade maple ‘rustic,’” says Tembec’s Robert Belisle, “but it doesn’t mean the quality of that floor is any less than the upper grade. It’s an aesthetic visual reference to the amount of heartwood, sapwood, and colour variation in the wood.”

To further bamboozle the name game, many in-house grades change over time to reflect consumer tastes, according to John Himes, director of hardwood for Mannington Mills, a leading manufacturer of wood flooring based in Salem, New Jersey. “With the rustic trend that’s set upon North America in the last five years, the grades that used to be the lower end are now the higher end because people are looking for colour variation and they want to see some knots.” The moral? Ignore the names and go for the look that tickles your fancy. A less-expensive, lower-grade floor can last just as long as a more-expensive, top-grade floor from the same manufacturer.

Engineered wood

Along with the solid-wood selection at your flooring store you’ll find engineered hardwoods, usually three, five, or seven layers of plywood running at perpendicular angles bonded to a top veneer of hardwood, typically 1⁄16″ to 1⁄8″ thick. All these layers are glued and compressed together, then finished with multiple coats of UV-cured polyurethane and a sprinkling of aluminum oxide to give them better wear characteristics. Final thicknesses run from 3⁄8″ to 9⁄16″ and, much like prefinished hardwoods, they’re typically available in widths up to about 5″ and many have a bevelled edge. Each carton has a mix of lengths, so the final laid product has the random look of a typical wood floor.

What you get looks for all the world like a solid hardwood floor, but has the criss-cross plies below the surface that resist wood’s natural urge to expand and contract. “One of the biggest advantages of engineered wood floors is that they can go almost anywhere in a cottage,” says John Himes. “Above grade, on grade, or below grade, it all depends on how you want to install them.”

Engineered wood floors can be nailed or stapled through the tongue, just like solid wood, or edge-glued and floated over an underpad, or simply glued down tight to the subfloor. Dave Labelle puts a lot of engineered wood floors into cottages and thinks they’re perfect for the application. “The key is that you want to get a product that is made specifically to withstand the temperature and humidity changes that aren’t regulated when the people aren’t there,” he says. (See “Minding the Gaps,” p. 78.) And Labelle also likes the wide variety of veneers that have come on the market. “It used to be you could get oak, oak, or oak,” he notes. “Then they introduced maple into the scenario in very few colours. Now there’s lots of maple plus many other species, including exotics like Brazilian teak.” Himes finds engineered woods are popular for basement applications, which would be unsuitable for solid wood because of elevated humidity levels and moisture in the subfloor. As long as the concrete is “visually dry,” with no history of moisture problems, engineered woods can be glued onto it with moisture-cure urethane glues. “For most concrete installations, folks love to glue it down,” says Himes. “It really works well and you get a nice solid sound.”

Manufacturers lean heavily on those factory-applied aluminum oxide finishes, which are really tough, but damage from children, dogs, cats, fireplace embers, and falling pet rocks is inevitable, especially at the cottage. Light scratches might be fixed with a “screen and recoat” — a light abrasion followed by fresh polyurethane — but more serious abuses require sanding, which is problematic when you’re dealing with a very thin skin of wood on top of all that engineering. Leonard Schamehorn has installed a lot of engineered floors and refinished a good many more, and feels they just don’t have the longevity of a solid product. “Most of your engineered wood has at most 1⁄8″ of veneer on it, and once that 1⁄8″ is gone you have to start all over again,” he says. “I refinished one they said could be sanded at least twice. I’m very careful and take very little off, but I went through in one spot where there was a hump in the floor.”

This article was originally published on April 6, 2007


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David Zimmer