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Wood Flooring Types: Everything You Need to Know

October 11, 2019

Luxurious. Warm. Timeless. Oh yes, my friend: we’re talking hardwood floors. And we’re gonna get into the nitty-gritty of all the wood flooring types you need to know about. Because everyone loves a wood floor. Everyone. 

But—we also know that everyone also has an opinion when it comes to wood floors (engineered! solid! oak! walnut!). And with more and more types of flooring appearing on the market all the time, it’s getting harder and harder to figure out what’s what.

That’s why we’ve put together this easy-to-understand guide to all your wood flooring options. We’ll talk engineered wood vs. solid wood; we’ll talk wood species; we’ll talk hardness levels (aka the Janka scale); we’ll talk finishes; we’ll even talk about saw cuts.

Basically, we’re going to walk you through everything you’ll need to choose the right wood flooring types for you. Don’t worry—you can thank us later.

Solid Wood vs. Engineered Wood Flooring 

When it comes to choosing hardwood floors, you’ve got two main categories to consider: solid wood and engineered wood. 

What’s the difference between solid wood and engineered wood?

While solid wood flooring is made from a single piece of wood throughout, engineered wood is composed of a thin strip of solid wood (called the veneer layer) glued over a rigid plywood or high-density fiberboard (HDF) core. 

Solid wood usually comes in ¾ inch-thick strips that measure between 1½ and 2½ inches wide, or in planks that measure between 4 and 8 inches wide. 

Engineered wood strips generally measure between ½ and ⅜ of an inch thick—and since it’s less susceptible to warping than solid wood is, you can find it in planks all the way up to 12 inches wide or more.

Is solid wood flooring better than engineered wood flooring?

Nope! Each product has its pros and cons. Engineered flooring is occasionally (and mistakenly) referred to as “fake wood flooring”. There’s nothing fake about engineered wood—it’s just a different type of wood flooring. 

Pros of solid wood floors

Because they’re made of solid wood all the way through, solid hardwood floors can be sanded and refinished over and over again. Seriously; if you take care of a solid wood floor properly, it can last a lifetime. Plus, solid wood just feels good underfoot, you know? Like Marvin Gaye said, there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.

Solid wood is extremely versatile, too. You have tons of options to choose from when you’re picking out a solid wood floor, from the species (aka the tree it comes from), to the cut pattern, even to the way it’s finished. We’ll talk about all that further down.

A stack of solid wood flooring planks with tongue-and-groove cuts

Cons of solid wood floors

Solid wood grains can be obnoxiously temperamental. Solid wood is prone to warping and swelling, so it should never be installed anywhere it’s going to come into contact with humidity, moisture, rising damp, or extreme changes in temperature. That includes:

  • Kitchens
  • Bathrooms
  • Basements
  • 3-season rooms
  • Above underfloor heating systems
  • Mudrooms
  • Anywhere below ground

And as anyone who’s seen what kids and/or dogs can do to hardwood floors will agree, solid wood is often not the best option for super-active homes (though it heavily depends on the wood and finish). Critters can scuff, scratch, and ding the ever-loving heck out of your innocent wood floors. 

And remember: before you put in a solid wood floor, leave the wood in its future home for at least a few days before installing it. Wood grains expand or shrink based on the room’s temperature and humidity fluctuations, so if you don’t acclimate the material beforehand, your floor may warp. And that is what we in the business call a “major bummer”. 

Installing solid wood floors

Solid wood flooring usually has to be nailed to a subfloor or glued to a specialized underlayment, which means it can’t be installed as a floating floor. And even though lots of hardwood floors come in tongue and groove cuts these days, this is not a project we’d recommend for the casual DIY-er. Unless you love frustration and anxiety. 

Pros of engineered wood floors

Like we said, engineered wood is made of a rigid HDF or plywood base covered with a thin veneer of natural wood. This construction makes it less susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity than solid wood, so it can be installed in places where solid hardwood can’t go (a real game-changer).

Want walnut floors in your kitchen? Engineered wood. Bamboo in your basement? Engineered wood. Rich mahogany in your master bath? You already know it—engineered is the way to go. Basically, anywhere you can’t put solid wood, you can put engineered. It’s also a great option if you want to put in exotic wood floors on a reasonable budget! 

A stack of engineered wood flooring planks with tongue-and-groove cuts

Cons of engineered wood floors

Engineered wood flooring is not waterproof. Is it a better option than solid wood for kitchens and bathrooms? Yes. Is it the best type of flooring to put in your shower? Definitely not. 

More importantly, engineered wood is just as susceptible to scratches, gouges, and dents as solid wood flooring is—after all, the top layer is solid wood. And because engineered wood only has a thin veneer layer, it can’t be sanded and refinished as many times as solid wood can (and sometimes not at all, depending on the product). If you have kids and/or dogs and want your floor to last a lifetime, engineered might not be the best choice for you. 

Really, it’s all about finding the balance between look and utility. If you have questions about a specific flooring use and want to know if engineered wood is the right call, use this flooring stores near me search to find a local retailer—they’re the real experts.

Installing engineered wood floors

Engineered wood is super versatile when it comes to installation. You can nail or glue it to a subfloor, install it as a floating floor using click-lock planks, or even loose-lay it. Whatever makes you happy.

Wood Species (Types of Wood)

A wood’s species refers to the type of tree it comes from. The look and feel of a hardwood floor is largely determined by its species, and there are dozens of species to choose from—ranging from domestics like oak and walnut to exotic imports like mahogany and teak. But before we get into the specifics of your wood flooring options, we need to talk about the Janka scale.

The Janka scale: measuring the hardness of wood flooring types

We use the Janka scale to measure the hardness of different types of wood. Essentially, it’s the universal guide to a wood floor’s resistance to denting and wear.

Technically speaking, the Janka scale measures pounds of force needed to push a steel ball halfway through a piece of wood. The more pounds of force needed, the harder the wood. Example: balsa (a super soft wood) has a Janka rating of 70. That means it only takes 70 pounds of force to push a steel ball into it, making it a *horrible* flooring option. 

Maple, on the other hand, has a Janka rating of 1450. That means it takes 1,450 pounds of force to do the same thing, making maple an *excellent* flooring option. You can read the USDA’s guidelines to the Janka Scale yourself, but be warned: it’s not a page-turner. 

Either way, here are some of the most popular wood species for flooring and their Janka ratings:

Oak flooring

Oak is by far the most popular species for hardwood flooring in the US. Most domestic oak flooring is one of two types: red oak or white oak. 

  • Red Oak is the warmer of the two. It produces floors with pinkish, red, or rust undertones, and has a good amount of grain variation and character. 
  • White Oak tends to have cooler, gray-green undertones and a smoother, more uniform grain appearance—but with less character and variation than red oak. 

Both are great flooring options, with white oak (1360) scoring just slightly higher than red oak (1290) on the Janka hardness scale.

Walnut flooring

Although it’s one of the softer hardwood flooring options (with a Janka rating of 1010), walnut boasts a rich, chocolate-brown color and beautifully detailed graining. If you’re looking for something that feels luxurious, it’s a great option. Example: if we won the lottery, we’d install walnut floors throughout our massive private estate. 

Maple flooring

Maple flooring is second only to oak in terms of popularity. Ranging from pale, creamy white to light, reddish brown, maple floors are beloved for their fine, subdued grain. Just beware: maple can be difficult to stain (but it does take neutral finishes well). It’s also one of the harder domestic species, with a Janka rating of 1450—so it’s a good hardwood floor for dogs and kids.

Hickory flooring

If you’re looking for a hardwood floor with a ton of character—like, a Robin Williams amount of character (RIP)—hickory might be the right flooring choice for you. The grain is complex and varied, so it’s best displayed in long, wide planks. Like oak and maple, hickory scores high on the Janka scale with a rating of 1820.

Mahogany flooring

Because it has to be imported (mahogany doesn’t grow in the USA), mahogany is considered an “exotic” wood and can be a bit more pricey than its domestic counterparts. That said, it’s loved for its warmth, richness, and beautiful wavy grain. If you ask us, mahogany feels like old-fashioned wealth, and beautiful leather chairs, and grandfatherly advice, and… well, you get the idea.

Plus, genuine mahogany (not “Santos Mahogany”) has a ridiculously high Janka rating of 2697.

Teak flooring

Another exotic wood, teak is full of natural oils that make it shine like crazy—even with minimal finish. Again, it can be a bit on the pricey side, but its warmth and radiance makes it a perennial favorite. And it has a high Janka rating too (2330), so it’s another good choice for houses with kids or pets. 

Just be aware: illegal teak harvesting is causing massive ongoing issues with deforestation, so make sure to only buy teak from a Forest Stewardship Council-certified source

Cork flooring

Cultivated from tree bark, cork flooring is one of the most sustainable flooring options around. Soft and comfortable underfoot, it also has great insulation and acoustic properties. That said, its softness makes it more susceptible to denting and scratches. It’s also susceptible to moisture and humidity, which can cause warping or curling in certain climates.

Bamboo flooring

Wood flooring types – Bamboo flooring species

If you’ve ever had bamboo in your yard, you’ll know that it can grow to maturity in as little as three to five years—and that it’s basically impossible to get rid of. And while those qualities make it gardener’s nightmare, they also make it an extremely eco-friendly building material

Additionally, depending on how it’s manufactured, bamboo can be as hard and durable as oak, with Janka ratings between 1600 and 1900. Plus, it’s even more moisture-resistant than some hardwoods. Win-win.

Hardwood Flooring Cut Patterns

The angle at which wood is cut from the tree is one of the biggest factors in determining its final grain pattern. So when you’re thinking about how a wood flooring type is going to look in your home, you should be thinking about both species and cut. Here’s a quick guide to the most popular hardwood flooring cut patterns:

  • Plain / Flat sawn: This cut is exactly what it sounds like—a plain, flat, straight cut perpendicular to the growth rings of the tree. Because it goes vertically through the tree’s rings, it produces a wavy, varied grain. It’s by far the most common type of cut.
  • Quarter sawn: Quarter sawn logs are first cut into quarters, then sliced across the grain. Hard to visualize, we know—the important thing to know is that this cut produces uniform graining, a flecked appearance, and a stable grain that’s less prone to warping.
  • Rift sawn: A rift sawn tree is cut like a pie before being sliced into strips or planks—which results in straight grains that look similar to quarter sawn, but without the flecks.
  • Live sawn: Live sawn planks are just perpendicular slices through a tree going bottom-to-top. That means live sawn boards are often the widest of the four, and have the most visible natural variation.

These cut patterns used to be most important when choosing solid hardwood flooring. However, it’s becoming more and more common to find different cut patterns in engineered hardwood as well. It depends entirely on the manufacturer.

Hardwood Flooring Finish Options

These days, most of the hardwood available at retail (especially engineered hardwood) comes prefinished. Of course, you can also buy unfinished hardwood and have your installer sand and finish it once it’s in place—but trust us, this is a massive pain (unless you like having wood dust on just about everything you own). 

Regardless of whether you choose prefinished or unfinished hardwood, though, you’ve got tons of options when it comes to the finish itself. Here are the most common.

  • Water-based polyurethane: This is one of the most commonly-used finishes these days—and for good reason. It’s available in a huge variety of gloss levels, it goes on clear, it dries quickly, and it has relatively little odor. 
  • Oil-based polyurethane: Oil-based poly finish is (predictably) a thicker product than its water-based cousin. That means it needs fewer coats and it gives wood a beautiful amber finish. However: it takes a long time to dry and it’s definitely not low-odor.
  • Aluminum oxide: Aluminum oxide is a naturally-occurring chemical that’s added to non-polyurethane finishes for protection against scratches, dents, and UV fading. It’s really common in prefinished flooring.
  • Natural oils: Always a popular option, natural oils like linseed and tung soak into wood and dry to a hard finish. These can make for a beautiful, rustic look—and they offer a surprising amount of protection, too. They do have to be refinished more often, though.
  • Hardwax: An increasingly popular product, hardwax is a mix of natural oils and waxes. Like natural oil, it dries to a hard finish.

So which finish should you go with? Totally up to you. If you have specific questions about finishes, though, your best bet is to find a local flooring expert in your area and ask them.

So What Are the Best Types of Hardwood Flooring?

At the end of the day, the best type of hardwood flooring is… entirely up to you. Anticlimactic, we know. But in all seriousness, everyone has unique needs when it comes to their floors. The best wood flooring types are simply the ones that work for your situation. 

If you want to know more about your options, check out our guide to different types of flooring or find to a local retailer to take care of everything for you. We won’t judge you either way.

About The Author

Samuel Greenberg

Content Marketing Manager at AdHawk/FloorForce, Samuel is an ex-English teacher, former travel writer, and semi-professional trivia host. When he’s not creating content, he can be found doing crosswords, drinking coffee, and stalking the office dogs.

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