Engineered Options

The thinnest engineered wood flooring, just 3/8-inch thick, has little inherent stability and must be nailed in place; 1/2-inch engineered planks can be glued. Floating floors require 5/8-inch-thick planks, according to Dickel. The topmost veneer gets a factory finish, which is typically more durable than painted-on polyurethane. Just two years ago, aluminum oxide coatings were introduced. This super-hard powder, which is also used in dental implants, ceramic faucet valves, and sandpaper, is added to the urethane coating. "It's difficult, if not impossible, to wear through it," says Thomas Brahler of Boa-Franc, an engineered-wood-flooring manufacturer. At Boa-Franc, seven coats of aluminum oxide finish are applied in less than five minutes, thanks to a speed-curing ultraviolet-light process developed in the 1980s. "The light creates a chemical reaction within the finish that dries it in seconds," says Brahler. Manufacturers guarantee aluminum oxide finishes for 25 years (versus a likely life of 10 years for three coats of polyurethane). But Hosking has read the fine print: "It means that in 25 years there will still be something there protecting the wood from water," he says. "But no finish protects against scratches and dents." The best approach to maximizing floor life is to treat it as if it cannot be sanded, says Silva. That means keeping it clean, so dirt doesn't grind at the surface. "And keep your eye on it," he says. "If the finish seems to be wearing, give it a light sanding to scuff up the surface, and then add a fresh coat of polyurethane. I always recommend servicing the finish, not the floor." Selecting the best engineered wood flooring means paying the high end of the material's price range of $6 to $11 per square foot. Add in installation, about $2 to $4 per square foot, and the total price might exceed the installed price of a solid wood floor of the same species. So engineered flooring is probably best only under circumstances that make it more practical than wood. "If it's your current dining room and you've got cats, go with prefinished engineered," says Dickel. "If no one's living there during the project, though, I'd choose traditional wood, finished in place."

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