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 Intro: Engineered flooring

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Engineered wood floors are quicker to install - and often less expensive - than their solid wood counterparts.

My knees were sore and my fingertips were rather bruised. But the new oak floor in my kitchen was done except for some shoe moulding. And it looked great.

Fifty-something-year-old bodies, I concluded recently, aren't ideally suited for the up-and-down work of laying a wood floor. But I've spent my adult life as a do-it-yourselfer and sometimes contractor. I enjoy doing my own carpentry work.

And so I tackled the floor in the kitchen of my 1872 Victorian home in Maine as part of a top-to-bottom remodel of the room.

I installed glue down, engineered oak flooring. In the rest of this story, I'll go over why I chose this flooring and why you might (or more likely, might not) want to follow my precise path. And I'll look at other choices in engineered flooring.

THE OLD DAYS

A decade ago if I'd wanted a hardwood floor in my kitchen, I would have used unfinished tongue-and-groove strip flooring. I would have nailed the floor down, sanded it smooth, and then coated it with three or four layers of urethane.

But that was then. Today, prefinished, engineered hardwood flooring offers a far quicker -- and in many ways better -- path to a hardwood floor.

Engineered floors consist of a thin top layer of premium, factory-finished hardwood fused onto a backing of either plywood or high-density fiberboard. They're attractive, and they're priced right.

Some types of engineered floors snap together and then float over the subfloor below. Others fit together with traditional tongues and grooves and are nailed or glued to the subfloor. As for price, expect to pay $2 and up per square foot. Most brands sell for $5 to $6 a square foot, or more if you choose something more exotic for wood than oak or maple.

In short, there are lots of options.

What's right for you?

INSTALLATION OPTIONS

Glue down engineered flooring comes in strips that are 2 1/4" to 4" wide and several feet long. Visually, the effect of a glue down floor is nearly identical to that of a solid-wood strip floor. And these floors feel solid, like a traditional hardwood floor, because they're glued to the subfloor below them.

Alas, glue down floors are tricky to install. They probably aren't a good choice for most DIYers unless you have prior experience both with using flooring mastic and also with laying solid-wood flooring.

One reason I say this is that flooring glue is messy stuff. Further, it takes both a fair amount of force to slide the tongues into the grooves of this flooring -- and yet both the tongues and the grooves are delicate, because they're cut from the flooring's plywood substrate.

So it's easy to damage glue down flooring as you install it -- and easier still to make a mess.

Personally, I used glue down flooring in my own kitchen because I was able to buy it cheaply on closeout -- and because it was an exact match for full-priced flooring I'd already used in an adjoining sunroom.

Snap-and-lock floating floors are easier (though not easy) to install. The tongues and grooves in these floors snap together and stay together without glue. The floor then floats over its subfloor. In other words, it's not actually attached to the subfloor.

Installing a floating flooring is easy in a new room with a flat, level subfloor. In this case, you just snap the stuff together, leaving an expansion joint of about a half-inch around the perimeter of the room. You then cover up the expansion joint with a baseboard and other trimwork.

Installing a floating floor in an existing room is more difficult. If the existing subfloor isn't flat and smooth, a floating floor will let you know it: The floor will feel punky as it flexes up and down over air pockets below.

Also, keep in mind that because floating floors need an expansion joint around their edge, you'll need either to remove existing door trim, or undercut these trim boards using a backsaw. And you'll also need to install quarter-round shoe moulding where these floors meet existing baseboards -- again to hide the expansion joint.

OTHER BENEFITS & DRAWBACKS

Compared to their solid-wood cousins, engineered floors have other advantages and drawbacks.

On the plus side, these floors handle fluctuations in humidity much better than solid wood floors. This is because glue down engineered floors are made out of plywood, which is dimensionally stable because of its cross-grain construction. As for floating floors with a hardboard substrate, the snap-together joints stay tight and the entire floor shrinks or expands around the edge of the room, beneath a piece of moulding.

Another nice thing about these floors is their factory finish. Most manufacturers coat their floors with urethane mixed with aluminum oxide. The resulting finish is tougher and more scratch-resistant than anything you could easily apply yourself.

So what's not to like about engineered floors?

Their greatest weakness is their thin top layer. In some floors, the top layer is 1/16"or less. This makes it too thin to sand and recoat a decade or two down the road, when the factory finish wears out. The veneer layer on better floors is 1/8" or thicker, and can be sanded and recoated once or twice.

Another drawback is that engineered floors are relatively easy to dent -- and unlike solid wood floors, these dents can't be sanded out. This can pose challenges when you move heavy appliances or furniture or if you have a big dog with claws that need clipping.

NOT QUITE

A final drawback -- or maybe it's just a pet peeve -- is that some brands of floating floors don't really look quite like the real thing. Some manufacturers try to mimic the appearance of traditional 2 1/4" solid wood flooring by gluing three strips of flooring onto a single 7- or 8-inch-wide piece of backing, which is 5 to 8 feet long.

Such floors are quick to assemble, but the joint pattern looks odd. Every five to eight feet, you end up with what looks like three boards butting up against three more boards. This is something you'd never do if you were laying individual strips.

Equally questionable are the lengthwise joints. Every third joint -- the one formed by clicking two pieces together --inevitably looks a bit different than the other two. These oddities really call attention to themselves in direct sunlight.

But, if this bothers you, some newer lines of click-and-lock flooring come in individual, three- or four-inch-wide boards.

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