WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Good, better, best
Engineered flooring runs the gamut from the low end, starting at $3 per square foot, to the high, at $14 and more. To judge quality, check the thickness of the "wear layer," or top skin of wood; the number of veneers in the core; and the number of finish coats—all of which affect price and warranty. Typically, the more layers, the better. Below, see how the three common classes of engineered boards stack up.

Good: 3-ply construction; 1-2 mm wear layer; 5 finish coats; 10- to 15-year warranty; ¼ inch thick; About $3-$5 per sq. ft.; Options limited to common species, such as oak or ash, and just a few stains.

Better: 5 plys; 2-3 mm wear layer; 7 finish coats; 15- to 25-year warranty; ¼ inch thick; About $6-$9 per sq. ft.; More species, such as cherry, beech, and some exotics; all stains and a few surface effects, such as distressing.

Best: 7-9 plys or more; 3 mm-plus wear layer, which can be sanded two or more times; 9 finish coats; 25-year-plus warranty; 5/8 to ¾ inch thick; About $10-$14 per sq. ft.; Widest selection of species; reclaimed options; and more surface treatments, such as hand scraped and wire brushed.

Why Hardness Matters

The harder the top layer, the more resilient it is to dents and the longer it'll keep its like-new looks. But hardness isn't the only factor to consider. Dense woods with less grain, like maple, show dings more readily than a slightly softer wood with a bold grain, like red oak. And floors with little or no gloss are better at hiding scratches and wear. The chart below compares the hardness of popular wood species.

The Competition

We sort the difference between engineered, laminate, and solid boards

Laminate: It may look real, but that's actually a photo of wood you're standing on. A paper image is embedded in resin, glued to fiberboard, and coated with a protective finish. A surface embossing mimics wood's texture. Laminate flooring is about as thick as engineered, so you can lay it over existing floors, but once a laminate's top coat wears away, it's toast; it can't be refinished.

Solid Wood: Sawn boards interlock with a tongue on one edge and a groove on the other. Because the boards expand and contract so much, they must be fastened to a subfloor and can't be laid directly over concrete, like engineered and laminate. A ¾-inch-thick wood strip can be refinished up to 10 times, compared with three for the best engineered and none for laminate.

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