Why I Will Never Use Engineered Hardwood Again

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Four years ago when we bought our condo, we knew right away that the carpet had to go.  It was old, stained, and smelled of a charming blend of cat, hot dog water and a sickly sweet perfume that attempted to cover the combination up. We figured we had two real choices: real hardwood floors or go for the cheaper, easier-to-install engineered hardwood floors. Since my favorite words – “cheaper” and “easier” – accompany the description of engineered hardwood, we went with that.

For those who haven’t been introduced to this product, engineered hardwood are planks in which the top few layers are made of real wood (and available in nearly every type and color) that have been sealed onto cheaper wood – specifically, particle board. The HDF or MDF has been shaped so that the planks can “click” in place with each other, making installation fairly simple.

I had been warned that engineered hardwood could be problematic (“buckling” was the term I heard used), but as long as you weren’t installing it anywhere that water would likely get to it (like in a bathroom or kitchen), we should be fine.

As you can see from the picture, not all is “fine” – in fact, things are far from fine. Wanna know what happened?

I noticed a while ago that a couple of the boards looked as if they were separating from each other. It wasn’t major – just a little space – but seeing as we had dark hardwood, the separation exposed the pale particle board, which wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing. Friends of ours who also had engineered hardwood mentioned the same thing had happened to theirs, but that the boards snapped back together on their own shortly after. I was hopeful and so I didn’t do anything. Then, they started to lift.

When we walked over them, we could feel (and hear) a real bounce to the floor. The lift became more and more visual, to the point that the boards then started to tepee at their connecting seams. An entire area of our flooring felt incredibly under pressure to the point that other areas were starting to become affected.

I attempted to contact the manufacturer of the engineered flooring by phone and e-mail (and later through a contractor whom I knew and who had done business with them) to see if there was anything I could do to fix it or prevent it from doing more damage. I was completely ignored. I really should call their crap customer service out in this post, but as Marc likes to keep HomeFixated a “happy place”, I will restrain myself and not unleash the hellfire that burns within me.

I eventually lifted up the baseboard (and inadvertently removed some drywall – great!) to see if I could relieve pressure. This did nothing. The boards continued to warp and curve and we eventually took one out to get a good look at it (the rest of the affected boards heaved and buckled immediately).  From what we can tell and from what others who have looked at it could tell, the was no actual water damage in the area and the installation (of both the flooring the baseboards) was done correctly. However, the boards (specifically, the MDF) were curving badly.

We’ve deduced that the most likely culprit for the expansion of the MDF was steam coming from our bathroom. Our friends who also experienced board separation noted it happened to their floors on particularly humid days.

Pretty sure it's not supposed to curve like that.

In other words, it’s the sort of thing we have very little control over, lest we stop showering all together, something that would undoubtedly cause other problems in our lives.

I now have what friends have coined The Rage™. We have to rip up the engineered hardwood in that section (small mercy: the area impacted is in our entrance area only – we’re hoping we can keep the flooring everywhere else) and replace it with humidity-handling tile. Ugh.

So – thinking about getting engineered hardwood? Don’t. Pay the extra little bit and take the extra little time and get real, hardy hardwood (or tile).

I’ll let you know how the process of removing and replacing this flooring goes (including how much alcohol I consume during that time. Prediction: LOTS).

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About Jen

Jen (but never “Jenn”) Byck, aka the Fix'n Vixen, is a Toronto-based freelance writer and communication consultant who is undoubtedly home fixated (she is also TV fixated, really bad TV fixated and donut fixated). Her approach to home improvement has been rather trial and error, the latter of which is evidenced by the amount of spackle she buys on an annual basis.

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26 thoughts on “Why I Will Never Use Engineered Hardwood Again”

  1. Like most anything else, there are good versions and bad versions. Cheap engineered wood is bad. Well-made engineered wood is good.

    There are many variables to ‘engineered hardwood’ flooring. The three primary ones regarding the floors resistance to buckling is 1) How this is the flooring? 2) What is the engineered portion made from, and 3) How thick is the veneer.

    Wood flooring in a bathroom or kitchen is never are really good idea. All wood reacts poorly to moisture, whether its direct from spills, or humidity in the air.

    The thicker the floor, the more stable it is. While 3/8″ wood is usually much cheaper, its also more susceptible to instability due to moisture.

    Plywood is considered by many to be the best material for the engineered portion. However, it isn’t as hard as HDF, which is considered the second best material. If you bought MDF, then you went for the low-budget version, and the most susceptible to moisture damage.

    Finally, if the veneer is 3-4mm, then you will be less likely to have it de-laminate from the engineered portion, plus it will expand/contract less than the 1-2mm versions.

    I put down 5/8″ plywood engineered hardwood with a 4mm veneer. While it did show dents, I never had any issue with it…until the washing machine in another room overflowed.

  2. Are you using the ventilation in your bathroom? Also, you said this was an entrance area. It’s a good idea to have a good (and oversized) mat with a waterproof backing.

  3. I know your rage. I spent $2,750 on this crap, 5 years ago. It looks 35 years old. I cry over it sometimes, but I’ll never be able to afford replacing it. We have buckles, ruts, and chips everywhere. I do not invite people over.

  4. solid mohagany can be installed below grade. problem solved. you just have to be willing to pay for it. I think you would have saved money if you just went for the real deal mohagany solid 3/4″ thick T&G. Definitely. truly is a sad story.

  5. So what you’re saying is you floated this product (you mentioned it was a click product, not a nail or glue job). And from the picture it looks like you floated it over tile without a foam or plastic underlayment. This is a case of a bad installation. If a contractor did this, you should make him fix it. If you did it, you didn’t read up on how this is done.
    Note: Not a sales person or contractor, just a DIYer who has laid engineered flooring both floating and nail-down and never had a problem with any of it.

    • A crooked local flooring store substituted cheap hydrocore thinking we’d not notice the difference. Glued down with liquid nail. Flooring swelled and buckled. Our cost to tear out and replace plus his charges, $50,000. Also loss of memory serious due to Toxic exposure. Attorney costs too much. Store says we have mold and are deadbeats! Beware of Strait Floors in Sequim WA

      • We just had top of line engineered wood put down all throughout our townhome on two levels from Empire. We also had carpet placed on the steps and family room. It’s amazing. Roughly 7-8. Plus 8 flights of steps and hallways, 15,000. I couldn’t be happier!

    • Our local flooring company substituted a “hydrocore”(pressed cardboard) flooring for the hardwood we had ordered thinking we would not know the difference. (We are told that high end contractors do this same thing at times!) The outgassing odor was intense and never stopped. The flooring soon expanded 1/2” with the humidity and had a spongy feel. We found a similar product at Home Depot for 79 cents rather than the $6 (sale price for Mohawk solid acacia) we paid but the company denied the switch and blamed the odor on under-house mold (there was none). The flooring was so paper like that it had to be glued since nails frayed it. It cost about $6,000 to have the toxic wood and glue removed plus the replacement cost of real wood–Garrison solid Maple for 2400 sq. ft. All our furniture was in the garage months, where we slept for two months while the replacement work went on. All told, this crook (Strait Flooring) cost us close to $50,000 and compromised our immune systems. Retaining an attorney would have cost twice as much so this person (whose only response to his ruse was to slander us) got away with it. The upside is that our new Garrison hardwood floors are positively beautiful and totally odor free! I will add that Garrison complies with all CA requirements, green standards, and uses only legal age workers. Our hand-scraped maple is not done by machine as most are and the finishes are non-toxic.

  6. Our retailer surprised us by substituting a HDF flooring for the more expensive Mohawk brand with strong warranty. It took a while to discover this fact after the floor began out-gassing noxious fumes that made us sick. Six months later, with evasion by retailer and supplier, windows and doors are open 24/7 unless we are gone. The master bathroom serves as a bedroom since it has old vinyl and clear air. Super-heating and ozone generator were suggested and tried but to no avail. Retailer continues to seek ways to blame us, installer and distributer take no responsibility, and the manufacturer refers us to warranty disclaimers. In addition to the odor, this floor has bounce. The blinds had to be raised a inch to accommodate the swelling! Our health demands that these floors be removed. We waited too long believing the lies of the retailer, but now have double expense of removal and reinstalling. It might have been easier if this had not happened to us in our 70s.

  7. I’m getting bouncy boards in a few areas. My engineered floors were not cheap. They are glued down as I have a slab ( no basement). Why are they bouncy?

  8. Whenever I’ve installed this stuff, I run a little bead of blue Titebond (the waterproof stuff) down each tongue before I lock it in. Doesn’t take much longer and I’ve never had a callback. You’d be surprised what a little moisture + the pressure exerted by walking can do–especially at an open transition like you show in your picture up there.

  9. If you are willing to silicone every joint (including butt joints) you wont have this problem. This , however, adds to the cost and ease of installation.

  10. Jen, your experience — which is not unusual here in Southern Cali — is why I BEG my real estate clients not to use engineered wood in their remodels. I do not know of a happy owner.

  11. Jenn,
    Firstly, I would like to apologize from a manufacturing stand point for the customer service you have been given. It only makes the rest of us look bad.
    As for the “controlled environment”, you must remember that you have placed a natural product next to a room that gives off moisture. Because are dealing with a product of nature, moisture (whether it is in the form of steam, humidity, spills, etc…) will affect the shape of the wood by either expanding or contracting.
    Now, as for the locking system on this type plank… I’m unsure of. But I have never seen planks simply unlock due to moisture.
    I have also never dealt with MDF as a core product for engineered wood flooring. We only deal with HDF and Plywood. (MDF – Medium Density Fiberboard… HDF- High Density Fiberboard).
    I can tell you this… A manufacture will stick to their guns on the warranty. You have to realize that we can not oversee every customers install or home’s environment, so there are typically strict guidelines on how to install and where to install. There will also be exclusions on what the warranty covers. Read over these… I would bet there are a couple exclusions for moisture related issues.
    If I were in your shoes and did not manufacture flooring for a living… I would threaten the company that you were going to the Better Business Bureau. That always seems to get a reaction!

  12. I too work for a manufacture of this type product and agree with Jeff. The target market for this type of item is someone that is looking to save some money, or use it for only a couple of years. However; this flooring can last a long time if the environment is controlled and proper protection procedures are taken.

    I hate to disagree with you, but feel that the manufacture or the flooring is not at fault.

    • Thanks, Ken! Definitely appreciate your feedback!

      I guess my question is, what is a controlled environment, when the environment is a home? Before installing the flooring, it sat in our home for a few days to acclimatize – as recommended. From there, we’ve pretty much just been living normally. There haven’t been any spills or leaks and I wipe the floors as directed (no mopping!). If something as minor as steam from a nearby room can goof the floors up that badly (and steam was our best guess seeing as there wasn’t evidence of anything else) – why is this product (one that was a mid-high price point when it came to the engineered hardwood we looked at) being sold for homes?

      I guess I’m just not happy with the lack of accountability of the manufacturer to even just get back to me on my inquiries about the product, nor am I pleased with the fact that this was the one that was the most highly recommended to us when I described our home (condo, concrete flooring, provided a layout). What’s a homeowner to do?

  13. Wow. That’s awful. How thick is that flooring anyway? Honestly it looks thicker than the stuff my mom just had me, my sister and her husband install in her place. Which has me really worried because it’s in a basement (a very dry one with vapor barrier), but the space includes a kitchen and a bathroom. Sounds like I might be in for some tiling work in the next year or two…

    • I genuinely hope you have no problems with your floor, Ethan. The product in our home is roughly 0.5″ thick. The thing is, it’s fine everywhere else – but massively not fine in one area. Good luck!

    • Howdy Odd. As per the instructions (and I worked with a contractor during the install who was familiar with the product), we did leave a small gap near the wall when we installed it. I’m not 100% on this (it was a few years ago), but I think it was 1/4″. I do know that we did what was recommended by the manufacturer.

  14. “We’ve deduced that the most likely culprit for the expansion of the MDF was steam coming from our bathroom. Our friends who also experienced board separation noted it happened to their floors on particularly humid days.”

    While this whole scenario is unfortunate for you, this seems to be a case of an inferior product doing what it will do.

    I sell a product in the flooring industry, and our inexpensive products are not as good as our more expensive products. The inexpensive products are made for a reason – mostly for new home construction where the builder won’t allow a better product to be used or for rental situations where the flooring is expected to last only a short time. And there are people who are looking for “deals” – our inexpensive products really are not intended to be sold for retail replacement jobs, but they end up being used for that because some homeowners have a need for less expensive products.

    I suspect that the biggest problem with the product pictured is how thin it is. Something with more substance would resist cupping better, but if wood is exposed to high humidity, as we all know, it will cup – it’s wood (MDF should be pretty stable, but what you purchased was very thin).

    I am not a fan of the lock together installation systems, but unfortunately, that is the trend right now.

    You can get mad at the manufacturer if you want, but the product isn’t likely defective, it is just inexpensive.

    • Hi Jeff – thanks for the insight – appreciated!

      What I’m actually most annoyed with when it comes to the manufacturer is the lack of customer service. Believe me, I didn’t approach them screaming and yelling (after all, I’m Canadian. We only holler during hockey games. Ha.). I came to them looking for info and I’ve been completely ignored. This flooring supposedly comes with a warranty, too. Have I been able to get any info on that? Nope. Just a voicemail and unanswered e-mails. Fun.

      I’ll take your word on your assessment that the product I had wasn’t great quality to begin with, but it wasn’t really inexpensive. Of the engineered hardwood we looked at, this one was mid-high range in pricing, and one that a trusted contractor had worked with in homes before, so I wrongly presumed what we were getting was pretty decent.

      I’ve received a few e-mails from people with similar problems to mine, wanting to know if we shared the same manufacturer – and we haven’t. Seeing as *everyone* I know who have engineered hardwood in their homes (roughly six people, hardly a huge sample size, I’ll admit!) has encountered an issue (from the very minor board separation during humid times to my massive buckling situation), I’m frankly just not confident in engineered hardwood, regardless of price point. Would love to be proven wrong, but so far the anecdotal evidence isn’t looking great for this kind of product.

      • Here it is 2015 already so you might never see this but here goes. My “boards” are only about 1/4 inch thick and the seams are rising up in many areas along with portions of boards lifting causing tripping hazards. I did not know not to mop this product. What do you wipe it with is my biggest question and can it be repaired ? I cannot afford to replace it as it is a huge area of my home. Thank you very much !


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