(855) 321-7473

M-F 9am-4pm Eastern

Engineered Wood vs Solid Wood

Engineered Wood and How It Differs From Solid Wood

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jun 27, 2020

Engineered wood is one of the most common building materials used in modern-day construction, especially in residential homes. For example, commercial office buildings and high-rise apartment complexes might be built from steel and other structurally sound materials. In contrast, most single-family homes are traditionally stick-built with plywood and 2x4s as the main components of a home's structure. 

In terms of total use, in 2006, we collectively used an estimated 6.8 billion cubic feet of solid wood products in the United States. If that sounds like a lot of wood, that's because it is. The construction industry has found certain advantages associated with the widespread use of engineered wood. But, some drawbacks need to be taken into account as well.

Knowing the pros and cons of utilizing engineered wood in a structure will help homeowners make educated decisions that will affect their homes' overall sustainability.

solid vs engineered wood
Photo Credit: Armstrong Flooring

What is Engineered Wood?

Solid wood products are single pieces of kiln-dried timber cut from trees and subsequently milled into planks. We regularly find solid wood products in all kinds of home furniture, solid flooring, and exterior cladding. Engineered wood, on the other hand, consists of multiple layers of ply. These layers are then cross-laid for increased strength. Many engineered products for the home, such as laminate flooring, are then finished off with a top layer of veneer that adds a glossy exterior finish. In many cases, this veneer makes the engineered wood appear almost identical to its solid wood counterparts.

There is a wide range of engineered wood products and techniques, including composite woods and manufactured boards. However, all manufactured wood products rely on the binding, gluing, or fixing the layers using various adhesives.

While there are dozens of engineered products, some of the most commonly used in household construction include the following.


What is Plywood?

Plywood is made from cross-laminated veneer sheets, bonded under heat and pressure with adhesives known to be moisture resistant. Plywood is most commonly used for interior floors, walls, and roofs of homes.

What is Densified Wood?

Densified wood includes medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and high-density fiberboard, commonly used for baseboard, trim, molding, and some hardwood flooring. This product uses a mechanical hot press to compress wood fibers and increase the wood's overall density. This higher density, in theory, makes the finished engineered wood product stronger and stiffer. MDF is typically used for cabinetry and shelving.

What is Particleboard?

Particleboard is a low-density fiberboard. This engineered wood product is significantly weaker than other wood products. This is because it is manufactured from wood chips, sawmill shavings, or even sawdust. Synthetic resins are glues that bind these wood chips together. Particleboard is often used as a substitute for plywood because it costs less. But, because of its relative weakness, it's better for lightweight furniture and accent pieces.


What is Oriented Strand Board (OSB)?

OSB is made up of compressed and bound wood strands in cross-orientated layers. OSB is structurally quite strong and is used interchangeably with plywood (or at least treated as the same in many building codes referring to "wood structural panels") for structural panels such as walls and flooring.

(Construction professionals have differing opinions on which is better to use; see this article for more background.)

What Are the Advantages of Engineered Wood Flooring?

Low Cost of Engineered Wood

The low cost of engineered wood is the most immediate benefit and the reason that it is so widely used. Our grandparents might have been able to build log cabins from hand-sewn lumber of expensive and rare hardwood trees. But, the cost of that wood in today's economy would be exorbitantly high for most homeowners. In terms of flooring, engineered hardwood flooring generally costs between $8 to $12 per square foot. In contrast, solid wood flooring can cost upwards of $13 per square foot. Plywood sheathing for walls and roofs drastically reduces home construction cost compared to using planks of solid wood.

Wood at Particle Board Factory
Wood at Particle Board Factory

Fewer Trees Used For Engineered Wood

Engineered wood like plywood allows builders to reduce the number of trees needed for building a home. For example, a standard, 2,600 square foot home requires an average of 16,380 board feet or 22 fully mature pine trees. While that is a lot of trees, that number would be much higher if people were building exclusively with solid wood for their walls, floors, ceilings, and everything in between. 

While some engineered wood products such as plywood or MDF usually require whole logs, other products such as particleboard can be made from sawmill scraps, wood chips, and even sawdust, thus reutilizing wood waste that would otherwise be thrown away. Engineered wood technology can also be utilized to make engineered bamboo or engineered hemp products. These are two plant species that are deemed "rapidly renewable" and are thus more sustainable.

Ease of use of Engineered Wood

Engineered wood is also helpful in that it helps to speed up the process of construction. Sheets of plywood, to name one example, come in standard 4x8 size and are easy to use for everyday building operations. In addition, for modular and factory-built homes, engineered wood can be ordered to size to reduce the total volume of construction debris radically. 

What Are the Disadvantages of Engineered Wood Flooring?

Despite the advantages outlined above, there are many problems associated with engineered wood products that homeowners should consider. 

Potentially Unhealthy Adhesives and Glues in Engineered Wood

Because engineered wood relies on composite pieces of wood, these products contain large amounts of adhesives and binding agents. Formaldehyde is one of the most common adhesives used in a wide range of engineered wood products. Recent research has linked formaldehyde to several serious health concerns, including breathing problems and even cancer. Formaldehyde levels tend to be higher in lower-priced engineered wood products and will off-gas more significantly in the first one to three weeks after installation. This common chemical can be found in some engineered wood products, including plywood, wood flooring, baseboard, trim, molding, cabinetry, and wood furniture. 

Concerning formaldehyde, the good news is that the EPA has enacted legislation limiting its use in wood products. As of March 22, 2019, composite wood products must be labeled as TSCA Title VI compliant and meet the standards below.

Rise Formaldehyde Chart
Rise Formaldehyde Chart

Engineered wood products manufactured before 2003 might also include chromated copper arsenate (CCA). CCA was widely used as a wood preservative and had a series of severe health issues.

Engineered Wood Is Not As Durable

Engineered wood products are not as durable as other types of building materials. For example, plywood has a general life expectancy of between 10 and 60 years, depending on how it is manufactured and treated. It is also highly susceptible to water and moisture damage. This lack of durability is one reason that 6.7 percent of the total volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the US was wood. Much of that was discarded plywood and other engineered wood products.

Engineered Wood Requires Energy To Produce

Another drawback to using engineered wood products is that it requires a significant amount of energy to process engineered wood products. However, it is worth noting that engineered wood manufacturing uses significantly less energy than producing steel or mined products.

Engineered Wood Being Glued

What to Look for When Choosing Engineered Wood for Your Home

As noted, there are environmental and health problems associated with opting for engineered wood products. But, there are steps consumers and homeowners can take to limit those adverse effects.

First, make sure to search for engineered wood products labeled as zero-VOC or low-VOC and that they are TSCA Title VI compliant. While this might slightly increase the price tag, it is a small price to pay to improve your home's interior air quality. 

Second, make it a priority to find engineered wood products with a sustainable forestry certification, such as FSC certification. Certification ensures that your wood products are sourced from sustainably managed forests around the world.

Last, consider opting for engineered wood products made from fast-growing trees such as bamboo. Alternatively, you might be able to find engineered products made from rice straw, hemp, or other biomass. While not technically "wood," these products are all sourced from fast-growing plant species that reduce overall global forest pressure.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-25T00:57:46+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.