What Makes a Good Floor?

Some lines of engineered flooring effectively mimic real wood; others are obvious fakeries. The key is whether the wear layer is rotary-cut or flat-cut. To make a rotary cut, the mill first soaks the log in water, then peels a thin layer off the circumference as it spins on a lathe. This generates the wide sheets of veneer used for plywood, and it gives engineered flooring the same distinctive wavy, repeating grain pattern that plywood has. Flat-cut veneer comes from a straight slice made directly along the log's length. This veneer looks more like solid wood because it follows the grain, but since this type of cut yields less material per log, the veneer costs more than rotary-cut products. Engineered flooring varies in its durability. Some kinds can be sanded and refinished when they become scratched and worn; others will need to be replaced. Cheap products may have just a 1/10-inch-thick surface veneer. Better products have one that's 5/32- to 1/6-inch thick, which can withstand two sandings, extending the likely life of the flooring. Solid wood flooring, by comparison, typically offers about 5/16 -inch of wear layer above the tongue, enough to endure as many as seven sandings. Consider, too, what's under that top veneer. The tongue-and-groove board should contain at least three plys in all; five is even better, says Jeff Hosking, a hardwood flooring consultant for This Old House. "The more plys, the more stable the floor will be," he says. That's because each layer is glued so that its grain runs at a right angle to the layer above. And since wood tends to expand and contract across its grain as humidity changes, the movement of each ply is restricted when they're glued in opposing directions. This alternating grain pattern makes an engineered floor more stable than a solid wood version; the joints in these floors won't open into dust-collecting gaps in dry winter weather. The center core should also be made of real wood such as poplar, rather than a cheaper composite material, to provide a more stable base and a slight spring underfoot like solid wood.

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