An Angie’s List Guide: Hardwood Flooring

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. 

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 over floor joists. Flooring planks or strips can be harvested from a 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 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 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 bonde fide hardwood floor. 

Engineered wood flooring is significally 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.

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
  • 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:

  • 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 shows in the house and by installing protective pads on furniture.
  • Fading – a floor’s exposure to UV rays from sunlight can cause noticeable difference 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% 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 a 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 advise 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.

(Also see our Flooring Care & Cleaning Guide)

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 was more damaged than to begin with. Although a homeowner may choose a contractor based on a low price, this type of decision-making may lead to less-than-desirable results. 

Consider the following when making a hiring decision for a hardwood floor contractor:

  • Licensing, Bonding and Insurance – although it’s likely that many jurisdictions don’t mandate flooring contractors hold licenses, some municipalities may require it. 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 the fact that 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 to improve their skill sets. 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 their 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. And remember, don’t just ask for references, take the extra step to call recent customers to see if they were satisfied with the work and the contractor’s performance.
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