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Hardwood Floors: A Complete Guide

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jan 11, 2021

Did you know that 65 percent of all flooring installed in new homes is hardwood flooring? In comparison, just 51 percent of floors in US homes are carpeted, which is a significant reduction from past years. As hardwood flooring continues to gain in popularity, there are hundreds of different products available. How do you choose between engineered and solid hardwood floors? Where can you find the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly hardwood floors? Might there be formaldehyde or some other type of health-damaging volatile organic compound (VOC) lurking in certain kinds of hardwood flooring? In this complete guide to hardwood flooring, we do our best to help you answer these questions (and more), so you can find the best hardwood flooring option for your home.

Table of Contents

  1. What Is Hardwood Flooring?
  2. How Is Hardwood Flooring Made?
  3. Is Hardwood Flooring Environmentally Friendly?
  4. Is Hardwood Flooring Healthy?
  5. How Long Does Hardwood Flooring Last?
  6. How to Clean and Care for Hardwood Flooring?
  7. How to Install Hardwood Flooring?
  8. How to Cut Hardwood Flooring?
  9. How to Remove Hardwood Flooring?
  10. How to Repair Hardwood Flooring?
  11. What Are the Benefits of Hardwood Flooring?
  12. What Are the Downsides of Hardwood Flooring?
  13. Where to Buy Hardwood Flooring?
Modern Hardwood

What Is Hardwood Flooring?

In defining hardwood flooring properly, it is essential to mention the main difference between hardwood and softwood species. Softwoods, such as pine, fir, and cedar, grow very quickly. Though this characteristic makes them a favorite of the lumber industry, their rapid growth leads to less dense wood fiber. Hardwood species such as oak, ash, walnut, and others grow much slower, leading to more dense wood fibers. Hardwood lumber is thus much more durable than its softwood counterparts.

Hardwood flooring, then, is any wooden plank or board made from - you guessed it - a hardwood species. Engineered hardwood flooring has a thin, top-layer veneer of real hardwood. This top layer is subsequently "backed" by engineered wood held together by glues or other types of adhesives.

How Is Hardwood Flooring Made?

Solid hardwood floors are made from planks or boards of wood sourced from a single piece of wood. These planks are puzzled together with tongue and groove edges. Most commercially available hardwood floors are pre-finished with sealants and varnish. However, homeowners can also opt for unfinished flooring that can be finished after installation. Custom-made hardwood flooring allows homeowners to prioritize hardwood species that offer natural beauty with tight grain and few knots for a higher price tag. For example, cherry wood and red oak hardwood flooring provide a unique pink hue and a beautiful, natural grain.

Engineered hardwood flooring is manufactured by essentially gluing together several wood plies as the core board. On top of this core board, a thin veneer of natural hardwood is glued on top.

Is Hardwood Flooring Environmentally Friendly?

Unlike carpetingvinyl, and other synthetic flooring alternatives, solid hardwood flooring is made from natural materials that can be locally sourced. Trees are not only a renewable resource (when properly managed), but they also are carbon neutral. Solid hardwood flooring can last for hundreds of years if properly cared for, thus capturing and storing carbon. Unfortunately, not all solid hardwood flooring is ethically sourced. Tropical hardwoods such as mahogany and others might emanate from illegal logging operations in ecologically vulnerable areas. When sourcing solid hardwood flooring, make sure to find a manufacturer that has some wood certification or sustainable forestry certification.

Shaw Wood Flooring
Hardwood Flooring: Photo Credit: Shaw Wood Flooring

Is Hardwood Flooring Healthy?

Solid hardwood flooring will not have any glues or resins to worry you or affect your indoor air quality. However, many types of synthetic paints and varnishes can release harmful VOCs into your home. Check out this Rise guide to healthy wood finishes to explore healthier and more beneficial ways to finish your hardwood flooring.

Some people claim that engineered hardwood flooring is better for the environment because the core board (essentially plywood, sawdust, or MDF) uses less lumber. While this is generally true, engineered flooring will tend not to be as durable as real hardwood. In contrast to hardwood, composite wood flooring products might be a source of VOC emissions for your home. According to the  Environmental Working Group (EWG), engineered hardwood products often fuse wood layers with glues and resins made with formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen and serious home air pollutant.

Reclaimed Antique Grey Barn Wood Flooring Elmwood Reclaimed Timber
Reclaimed Antique Grey Barn Wood Flooring. Photo Credit: Elmwood Reclaimed Timber

How Long Does Hardwood Flooring Last?

When properly cared for, solid hardwood flooring can last a lifetime. The fine grain and texture of many hardwood species are naturally resistant to rot and moisture. In some cases, hardwood flooring can even be made from reclaimed barn wood that is a century old. Solid hardwood flooring will rarely need to be replaced. On the other hand, engineered hardwood flooring might be able to last for 25-30 years if conditions are right. You will need to take extra care to protect engineered hardwood flooring from moisture damage.

Cleaning Hardwood

How to Clean and Care for Hardwood Flooring?

Both solid and engineered hardwood flooring is generally easy to clean and care for. Regularly sweeping, dusting, and gentle mopping with water is generally all you need to keep your floor clean. If you need a more powerful clean, be sure to choose a healthier, low VOC product that holds the GREENGUARD Gold Certification like BONA Hardwood Floor Cleaner. You should avoid using water and vinegar, soap-based cleaners, wax, or steam cleaners on your hardwood floors. These products can discolor your finish or leave unsightly residues. 

Every 3 to 5 years, your hardwood floor will most likely need to be resealed. This resealing requires a quick sanding and reapplication of the sealant or varnish over the wood. Regular maintenance of this type will help keep your hardwood flooring looking brand new.

Hardwood Floor Plank

How to Install Hardwood Flooring?

Both solid and engineered hardwood flooring is often sold as factory-finished floors that you can easily install by yourself straight out of the box. For most hardwood flooring, you will need to set down a vapor barrier over your subfloor. Start installation at one side of the room, ensuring that you line up the tongue and groove fittings correctly. Face nail each board at the joist and regular intervals before moving on to the next plank. Some engineered hardwood flooring products do not require nails but are instead secured together like puzzle pieces. For a complete, step-by-step instructional on installing a hardwood floor, check out this YouTube tutorial.

How to Cut Hardwood Flooring?

If you ever need to replace a solid hardwood floor plank, a basic circular saw should do the trick. Suppose you need to cut out a corner during installation. In that case, a reciprocating saw is a useful tool to have on hand as well. If you need to rip an entire plank, a table or miter saw is generally your best option. Because engineered wood flooring is significantly softer and thinner, a simple jigsaw will often give you enough power to make any needed cuts on this flooring type.

How to Remove Hardwood Flooring?

As we explained above, solid hardwood flooring should easily last a lifetime. In contrast, engineered flooring can last for 30 years or more. If you need to remove or replace hardwood flooring, products glued down will be much harder to remove. For this reason, many manufacturers do not recommend using glues for installation. If your floor isn't glued, use a circular saw to make a small cut where you can subsequently insert your hammer to pull out the boards. Make sure to set the blade's depth accordingly, so you do not cut into your subflooring. Once you have made that cut, a simple hammer should be enough to allow you to rip out the boards.

Refinishing Hardwood

How to Repair Hardwood Flooring?

Hardwood flooring is prone to scratches and scuffs. Fortunately, repairing these minor damages is relatively easy by simply sanding down the damaged area and reapplying sealant or varnish. Unfortunately, some engineered hardwood flooring has such a thin veneer of real hardwood that you might not be able to sand the top layer. If this is the case, you can use a technique called screen and recoat. This process will require you to scuff up the finish with a floor buffer before reapplying a refresher coat.

Mercier Wood Flooring
Hardwood Flooring. Photo Credit: Mercier Wood Flooring

What Are the Benefits of Hardwood Flooring?

Solid hardwood floors are 100 percent natural, durable, and a beautiful finish to any home. They are easy to clean and care for and generally require very little maintenance. When sourced from providers that practice responsible forestry, hardwood flooring is a renewable resource that stores carbon. Solid hardwood flooring can also be self-installed and, with the right finishes, won't bring any harmful VOCs into your home.

What Are the Downsides of Hardwood Flooring?

On the downside, solid hardwood flooring can be much more expensive than other types of flooring alternatives. Even the most durable hardwood flooring will also need to be regularly resealed to protect against moisture damage. Some types of engineered hardwood flooring might have formaldehyde resins that could leach into your home. Hardwood flooring is prone to scratches and scuffs that might require a bit of work to restore.

Greenbrier Solid Oak Hardwood Bruce
Greenbrier Solid Oak Hardwood. Photo Credit: Bruce Flooring

Where to Buy Hardwood Flooring?

Almost all major hardware and home improvement stores will have an enormous selection of factory-finished hardwood flooring alternatives. This wide range will allow you to choose between different colors and finishes to find the best flooring for your home. Custom contractors and home builders might be able to help you source more exotic hardwood species for your flooring, though you should expect to pay more. 

A national company of note, Bruce, has a massive inventory of solid hardwood flooring for you to choose from. They even have a floor visualizer tool to help you "imagine" how your new hardwood floor will look in your home.

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: 2023-07-24T15:11:31+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.