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The Rise and Fall of Solid Hardwood Flooring

Hardwood Floors | 31 January 2020

The rise and fall of solid hardwood flooring is an interesting story. Hardwood floors first officially came on the scene in the 1600s in the form of the beautiful French parquetry of the Baroque Era. It was as gorgeous as it was time extensive and costly, only the most elite and royal could afford such a luxury. This all changed when the colonists settled in North America and they capitalized on using the vast expanse of forest to create rustic plank flooring in all of their homes. This remained the flooring choice of most home owners until the invention of other engineered products such as linoleum and laminate.

Technical advancements in the early 1900’s led to the invention of the tongue and groove system which provided the more polished and uniformed look that we are used to seeing today. However, the biggest change to hardwood flooring has been the invention of the engineered plank in the 1960’s. Using a plywood or composite base, companies glue a veneer of the hardwood to the top creating what we call “Engineered Hardwood”.

So why, after hundreds of years, have we seen such a decline in the sales of solid hardwood flooring? Although solid hardwood floors can be sanded and refinished multiple times, the list of advantages pretty much stops there, especially since a lot of engineered woods with a thick enough veneer can also be refinished one or two times. The main reason is that on a technical level, engineered hardwood is substantially more stable than solid hardwood.

The plywood that makes up the core of engineered hardwood consists of layers of wood bonded together with adhesives under intense heat and pressure. The layers are run in different directions so that all the wood fibres are running crisscross to each other, this means the fibres flex less when they come in contact with moisture. A piece of solid hardwood on a molecular level is a bunch of parallel fibres that become very unstable with water and humidity.

In the summer months the humidity in the air can cause solid hardwood to swell so much that the floor cups and buckles. In the winter, the floor can shrink to the point of having large, noticeable gaps between the planks in your flooring. Because of this instability, solid hardwood is not normally manufactured wider than 5” wide. With the majority of consumers wanting a 7” – 9 “ wide product, it cuts out a lot of the market. The biggest advantage is that, given the instability of solid hardwood, it cannot be installed over concrete. This eliminates installing solid hardwood in any basement or condo building, giving that entire market over to its engineered brother which can be installed over concrete with a vapour barrier.

Besides how it is made, what it is made from is another big contributor to the shift in the hardwood industry. Solid hardwood is just that, a solid piece of the hardwood. Some of the local hardwoods, such as oak or maple, are sustainably farmed. But a lot, especially exotic hardwoods, are not. Although wood is a renewable resource, hardwood takes a lot longer to grow than softwood trees like pine or cedar. Engineered hardwood flooring consists of sustainable softwood layers, with a hardwood backing for strength and the aesthetic hardwood veneer on top all sandwiched together. A majority of the product is made up of eco-friendly, fast growing, sustainable trees. An added bonus, the use of these raw ingredients also results in the final product being generally less expensive than its solid brother.

Will solid hardwood floors ever make a comeback? It’s hard to know for sure. There are still people out there who love it and will only put that in their homes. The evidence though seems to add up to it being phased out completely. Already lots of suppliers in Canada have stopped selling it with the demand so low. It is, of course, still available and will still be a beautiful lifetime product in your home if you make that choice (as long as your home fits the list of strict requirements). If you have any questions about hardwood or flooring in general, you can always come talk to one of our flooring experts here, at Atmosphere Flooring, or give us a call at 604-795-5577.