Does wood flooring really have to be wood?

Engineered hardwood has a veneer of hardwood but is composed of several thin layers of backing.
Engineered hardwood has a veneer of hardwood but is composed of several thin layers of backing. The layers are said to add stability to the material’s overall strength, avoiding the issue of expansion and contraction that can occur with hardwood.
(Jackson Design & Remodeling)

Wood-like materials are gaining in popularity among homeowners as a lower-maintenance alternative.


There’s little doubt that hardwood floors — whether light or dark, wide plank or herringbone pattern — add a specific feeling of nostalgia for how we think of home. Shag carpeting and linoleum may come and go, but hardwood is here for the duration.

Or is it?

Though a 2017 homeowner survey by the National Wood Flooring Association found that 66 percent of respondents said wood floors would be in their dream home and 79 percent think it would increase the value of their home, it would appear to be more aspirational than reality. Many more homeowners have carpet (75 percent) and tile flooring (58 percent) than wood (52 percent).

“Solid wood flooring is a thing of the past,” said Jen Pinto, senior interior designer for Jackson Design & Remodeling in San Diego. “They don’t sell it off the shelf anymore, and most vendors and installers will tell you to stay away from it. As beautiful as it is, it does not hold up well with moisture and over time can buckle with the natural expansion and contraction of the material. If necessary, it can be custom-made. The nice thing about it is that it is meant to be sanded down and refinished, so an old solid hardwood can be made to look like new.”

For all its beauty, hardwood is pretty high-maintenance, especially if you have a lot of foot traffic, not to mention young children and pets, who can scratch it up and leave hard-to-clean messes.

But if traditional hardwood is oh-so-20th century, the desire for its warmth and naturalness remains. So it’s no surprise that aspiration and practicality have merged in the flooring market for those who love the hardwood look but not the cost, maintenance or vulnerabilities of true hardwood floors.

Today, any homeowner looking to install new floors can get a hardwood look from several very different types of products, including engineered hardwood, laminate, porcelain tile, luxury vinyl tile and bamboo. Each has pros and cons based on your household.

Engineered hardwood

A kitchen in a newly designed home has engineered hardwood floors in a light tone.
Engineered hardwood floors come with a variety of finishes, such as urethane, which is optimal for heavy use, and an oil finish, which has a natural matte feel.
(Jackson Design & Remodeling)

Where traditional solid hardwood is just that — all wood — engineered hardwood has a veneer of hardwood but is composed of several thin layers of backing, mostly plywood, but it also could be fiberboard or unfinished hardwood. According to Pinto, the layers add stability to the overall strength of the material.

There can be issues with solid hardwood floors contracting and expanding, but engineered hardwood’s composition makes that a non-issue. It also comes with different finishes. Urethane and oil finishes are very popular, Pinto said.

“Urethane is great for heavy use and does hold up pretty well with moisture,” she said. “Oil finishes are beautiful and have a very natural matte feel to them. It is much more expensive, and it does require some maintenance because it will need to be re-oiled every few years. But if it scratches, it can be buffed out pretty well with the oil the next time it gets touched up.”

But there is a drawback to engineered hardwood: moisture exposure. You don’t want to get it wet. That makes it a bad candidate for bathrooms and for areas where moisture can be tracked in from outside.


Like engineered hardwood, laminate planks are layered materials, but instead of a wood top layer, it has a high-definition photographic wood-look layer, complete with graining, and sits above a moisture-resistant, stabilizing base layer topped by a core of high-density fiberboard, all finished in resin.

Laminate flooring comes in a variety of textures and finishes. It can be smooth to resemble polished woods, embossed with a pressed pattern to add a wood-grain texture or hand-scraped for an antique wood look. It also can have a shiny high gloss or matte-like low gloss, which gets higher marks for hiding small scratches.

But there’s no refinishing laminate. If any damage occurs, the plank needs to be replaced.

Porcelain tile

Porcelain tile is prized for its practicality and is scratch-resistant, stain-resistant and water-resistant.
Porcelain tile is prized for its practicality and is scratch-resistant, stain-resistant and water-resistant. Unlike engineered wood, though, it is cold and hard on bare feet.
(Jackson Design & Remodeling)

Porcelain tile planks can resemble wood, even with a textured grain. They come in a variety of styles, colors and designs — from sleek to rustic. They’re scratch-resistant, stain-resistant and water-resistant.

“They’re the most durable,” said George Larson, a sales associate at Santee-based Rayo Wholesale Floor Covering Supply. “You can put it in every room, including the bathroom, and not worry.”

Luxury vinyl

Luxury vinyl flooring is considered a budget-friendly option that looks like real wood and is softer underfoot than tile.
Luxury vinyl plank flooring is considered a budget-friendly option that looks like real wood and is softer underfoot than tile.
(Jackson Design & Remodeling)

Vinyl wood-look planks have come a long way, like wood-look porcelain tile. Pinto said luxury vinyl looks and feels more like real wood than porcelain but has some of the same characteristics of tile in the sense that it is maintenance-free. It won’t stain, it’s moisture-resistant and it’s much softer to walk on than tile, but it could scratch given the right situation.

“If a pet digs at it or a sharp object is dragged against the floor with enough pressure, then the vinyl can scratch and ... that plank will need to be replaced,” she said.

Budgetwise, it’s a great alternative to wood, she added, and it holds up well with kids and pets.

Larson is a fan of luxury vinyl: “It’s less money to install. It’s more durable than others. Designers like it because, since it’s a waterproof floor, they don’t have to chop up the floor throughout the house with tile in the kitchen and bathrooms, wood floors in living rooms and carpet in bedrooms. You can put it in every room and not worry. Without a doubt we sell more luxury vinyl plank than anything else right now.”

But Pinto pointed out some drawbacks, including issues with it holding up without warping in extreme temperature fluctuations. And if a space gets sunlight for long periods without any window covering, the product could buckle and warp.


Think of bamboo as your eco-friendly option. It has a bit in common with engineered wood in that, as a grass, it’s also engineered, with strands of grass shredded, then pressed together using heat and glue to form floorboards.

According to HGTV, there are three types of bamboo floors: horizontal, in which strips are layered and pressed together with those quintessential bamboo knuckles in the graining; vertical, which offers a cleaner look thanks to the bamboo strips being turned sideways to be glued together; and woven or stranded, in which shredded strands of the grass are compressed with resin. They produce a hardwood-like surface and are the most durable variety of the three.

“It’s a hard material and generally more waterproof than hardwoods, but not waterproof like porcelain or luxury vinyl,” Pinto said. “It is pet-friendly and relatively easy to maintain since you don’t need to seal it. Like hardwood, you need to clean up spilled water or liquid since it’s not waterproof and is more susceptible to moisture.

“It’s an option to consider if someone wants something more natural or earth-friendly or wants to achieve a more modern/contemporary look in their space. But many clients want something more waterproof and versatile, so it’s not something we order as often as the other types of flooring we discussed.

“If a homeowner does want to purchase bamboo flooring, they should make sure they are purchasing it from a reputable store/manufacturer so they can ensure quality control and make sure they are purchasing true bamboo flooring.”

Factors to consider

Choosing among these different types of faux hardwood may seem overwhelming. A good designer or salesperson should ask you all the right questions about your lifestyle and budget to help guide you to the best decision for your household, Larson said.

But Pinto has some thoughts for homeowners to consider:

Luxury vinyl plank is the top seller right now at Rayo Wholesale Floor Covering Supply.
Luxury vinyl plank is the top seller right now at Rayo Wholesale Floor Covering Supply, according to sales associate George Larson. “You can put it in every room and not worry,” he says.
(Jackson Design & Remodeling)

  • Look at the sheen. Anything super-shiny will reveal any scratches or imperfections.
  • If you want your space to look bigger, consider wider planks when considering solid or engineered hardwood. Pinto says that look also makes a space more elegant.
  • Look at the core of an engineered hardwood plank to make sure it’s a nice-quality plywood, as opposed to MDF or particleboard. That will help reinforce the integrity and strength of the veneer on top.
  • Make sure you get a nice urethane finish on engineered hardwood. She prefers urethane to an oiled finish for maintenance reasons.
  • For porcelain tiles, stay between a 6- or 7-inch-wide plank and between 36 and 48 inches in length. Once they’re installed, those dimensions will make the planks look more realistic. Also, Pinto prefers a bit of texture on them, not just for the look but because it makes it nicer to walk on the floor and helps prevent slipping.
  • If you install luxury vinyl, be sure to keep the windows covered when the sun is shining into the room to avoid fading and warping. Also, when selecting a vendor, look at the back of the plank to be sure the underlayment is already attached to make installation easier and less expensive. Pinto also recommends finding a vinyl brand that incorporates a stone core, as opposed to a plastic or different kind of vinyl core. The stone helps make the product more structurally secure, especially when there are temperature fluctuations that could otherwise cause the vinyl to warp or buckle. ◆