The most common type of engineered wood is a flooring with a real wood layer on top and an engineered wood layer as the base.
There are three types of construction and two main finishes to consider when choosing this type of non-toxic engineered wood floor.
When looking for a zero-VOC, healthy engineered wood floor, the most important part is the construction type. The lowest VOC types are those with a plywood base or solid slate base. The lowest offgasing finishes are the UV cured water-based finishes.
Certifications like GreenGuard Gold don’t matter to me here because the highest offgassing engineered wood can meet this level. The lowest offgassing options are zero-VOC.
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Three Types of Engineered Hardwood Flooring
1. Plywood Construction
This is one of the constructions types you should look for, as these floors can meet zero-VOC.
The most common type of engineered hardwood floor has a plywood base.
The core is made of plywood and a top layer of real wood is glued on. The real wood top layer can range in thickness from 1mm up to 6mm.
The plywood which is made with phenol-formaldehyde adhesive usually, is done offgassing by the time makes it way to the flooring company and then to you.
Though look out for brands that use a plywood with MDF (medium density fiberboard) in some of the layers as this offgasses more formaldehyde.
In general this type of engineered wood flooring is safe for almost everyone including most people with chemical sensitivities.
Some who are extremely sensitive may notice that this type of flooring can have a little bit higher odor than say a solid hardwood floor.
This is partly due to the odor of the pine/spruce/fir used to make the plywood, but it’s possible there are some slight remnants of the glues that those who are extremely sensitive can pick up. (Either the glue of the plywood or the glue used to attach the top layer of wood). Especially if the batch you get is very fresh.
While the vast majority of brands have a pine/spruce/fir plywood core, Cali Bamboo Meritage line uses layers of acacia and eucalyptus woods as the core for the ply. I do think this has a milder odor than spruce/pine/fir myself. I would encourage you to get samples of both types if you are sensitive to the natural odorants of wood.
This is usually the type to choose for those wanting a non-toxic hardwood floor and for most people with sensitivities. Those who are extremely sensitive might want to look at the second construction type which has less glue.
The brands can claim zero-VOC on this type of construction.
- Cali Bamboo Meritage – Oak $9.99 / sqft
- LL Flooring – Plywood core types
- Shaw Castlewood – Hickory $9.09 /sqft
- Johnson Hardwood Vineyard – Hickory $6.05 /sqft
- Anderson Imperial – Pecan $5.99 /sqft
- Johnson Hardwood Toscana – Hickory $5.95 /sqft
- Johnson Hardwood Toscana – Walnut $5.95 /sqft
- Western Skies European Oak $5.70 /sqft
- Mannington Park City – Oak $5.55 /sqft
- Smokey Mountain Engineered – Oak $5.29 /sqft
- Pioneer Engineered – Oak $5.29 /sqft
- Western Skies Engineered – Maple $5.09 /sqft
- Shoreline Engineered – Birch $3.60 /sqft
- Johnson Hardwood Wilderness – Birch $2.65 /sqft
This video shows the different types of engineered wood, and compares them to the other wood look options:
2. SPF Quarter Sawn Construction
Another great option for those sensitive to glues/VOCs, this option is slightly preferable to the plywood base.
A far less common construction type has a core of quarter-sawn spruce, pine and/or fir (SPF) softwood wood species.
The wood is cut and laid in “pickets” (i.e. it’s strips of solid wood) which run perpendicular to the solid hardwood top layer.
While the hardwood top layer is still of course glued on, and there might be a stabilizing layer below the quarter sawn layer, there are no glues within the main core layer.
This core can also be called “solid cross slat core” or “Lumber Core” at LL Flooring. Technically this is also a ply of three layers but it’s distinct from the usual plywoods which have thinner layers (and usually more layers).
For those extremely sensitive to the natural odorants of wood or the glues used in plywood, you might prefer this type.
For most people, it’s not necessary to track this type down and I would choose plywood construction in most cases (for availability and price and because it’s zero-VOC as well). But for those wanting to go the extra mile, this is definitely one to get a sample of.
These brands should not have any offgassing and this type of construction should be formaldehyde-free (or more accurately no added formaldehyde in any of the components, since wood naturally contains some formaldehyde).
Tesoro uses pine in the middle solid layer, and a thin layer of ash as the stabilizing layer below.
- Tesoro Coastal Lowlands – White Oak, Hickory, Maple, Walnut $9.31 / sq ft
- Tesoro Great Southern Woods starting at around $7 / sq ft
- Tesoro Great Northern Woods starting at around $7 / sq ft
- LL Flooring – Lumber core types
- Mirage Hardwood Trubalance $6 – $8.50 / sq ft for most species
3. HDF Core Construction
The last type of engineered wood flooring has the same top level of real hardwood but in this case, it’s glued to an HDF (high density fiberboard) core. (Or sometimes MDF, medium density fiberboard core, which is very similar).
Sensitive folks may not be able to use most brands of this type of engineered wood flooring because of the formaldehyde binder in HDF/MDF.
HDF is wood fiber that is glued and pressed together with formaldehyde. It’s more commonly seen as the core of laminate flooring.
My post on laminate flooring goes much more into detail on the chemicals and offgassing of HDF. It’s possible that some floors are made with MDF which is very similar.
The main adhesive used here is formaldehyde – the odor is very noticeable to me, though it should be able to reach Greenguard Gold levels.
For this reason, this type is my least favorite type of engineered wood flooring and I don’t see any good reason to choose an engineered flooring that has some offgassing when we have better lower VOC options.
However, there is one brand that uses a HDF core that is not made with formaldehyde resins (no added formaldehyde. This is the Pergo engineered wood floors like Pergo Defense + Engineered Hardwood.
The difference between laminate floors and engineered wood with an HDF core is that laminate does not have a top layer of real solid hardwood, just a printed image, and a melamine protective coating.
You can see the difference between the two in this picture:
- Mirage Lock HDF floors from Mirage Hardwood
- Shaw has some lines with an HDF core
- LL Flooring, some lines
- Some Home Depot Malibu Planks have an HDF core
- Tesoro Longevity Collection
- Valinge Engineered wood (advertised as 100% real wood, when it has a HDF (or MDF) core. Also advertised as formaldehyde-free though the HDF core is made with lots of glue.)
Two Types of Finishes on Engineered Wood Flooring
1. UV-Cured Polyurethane
The vast majority of engineered hardwood floors have a water-based UV-cured polyurethane finish with aluminum oxide. This finish has no offgassing.
Sometimes it’s simply listed as “aluminum oxide” or just as “UV cured finish”.
Almost every brand, far too many to list!
Polyurethane without Aluminum Oxide
A similar finish is a water-based polyurethane (or polyurethane/acrylic mix) without aluminum oxide. These are not as durable as an aluminum oxide finished floor but they can be more natural-looking.
The aluminum oxide is not a health concern when in solid form embedded in the floor’s finishes. This finish is so durable it won’t usually show wear for decades. Though I do consider this a risk when (or rather if) the floors are re-sanded.
- Kahrs Water-Based Finish Engineered Floors
2. Oil Based Finish
Oil-based finishes usually have some offgassing of VOCs, and you have to make sure you are OK with the maintenance oils.
A few brands have an oil-based finish on the wood. They often don’t say which brand of oil-based finish they have used.
A few do say that it is WOCA, I have seen some list the finish as UV cured oil-based – which isn’t a specific brand, but the UV curing does speed up offgassing.
Kahrs and a few other brands list their oil finish as natural and/or zero-VOC.
I definitely can pick up the odor off of Kahrs oil-finished floors whereas I cannot pick up any odor off of polyurethane finishes.
Though keep in mind with the natural oil you do also smell more of the natural wood odor coming through (along with the oil itself), since the aluminum oxide blocks some of the wood odor. The Kahrs oil-finished planks have a very natural look and feel to them whereas Cali Bamboo Odyssey oil finish looked and felt like a UV cured polyurethane with aluminum oxide. They say it needs an oil refresher as well.
This is also another way to avoid aluminum oxide, if you wish to avoid that.
Kahrs maintenance oil which looks to be all paraffin (kerosene), may not be tolerated though, so you do need to test out all of the maintenance products.
Rubio Monocoat maintenance oil is linseed based so it should be used over linseed oil finishes or to transition to linseed oil.
- Kahrs Oil Finished Line
- Tesoro Brushed Patina Collection
- Cali Bamboo Odyssey Hardwood Flooring
- Pioneer Engineered Oak
Note! You can also find unfinished engineered wood flooring.
Other Additives to Consider in Engineered Flooring – Antimicrobials
At least one brand, Lauzon, uses titanium dioxide as opposed to aluminum oxide in the topcoat finish.
The idea here is that the titanium dioxide reacts with UV light and a PCO process occurs, which creates OH molecules that can break down germs, VOCs, mold ect.
Sometimes this topcoat is labeled as air cleaning and sometimes as an antimicrobial finish.
Possible antimicrobial additives in engineered wood floor coatings:
- Titanium dioxide (nano) (Nano-TiO2)
- Silver nanoparticle-loaded hydroxyl zirconium sodium phosphate (Ag-HZDP)
- Silver nanoparticle-loaded zeolite (Ag-Z)
- Far infrared ceramic nanoparticles (FICN)
- Zinc oxide nanoparticles (Nano-ZnO)
Companies using unspecified antimicrobial agents in the floor finish include:
- Breezewood floors
- Many more, I will add to the list when I come across them
Other Types of Engineered Wood Floor to Consider
1. Hybrid Flooring
A hybrid flooring is a relatively new type of click-together wood flooring.
Like all engineered wood, it does have a real hardwood layer on top. In this case, it’s quite thin.
The core of the boards are not wood-based – they are a SPC – stone/PVC composite. This is the same SPC core that you find in luxury vinyl plank (LVP) floors.
I like this type of flooring if you want something waterproof, you want to cut down on plasticizers used in luxury vinyl by having a real wood top layer, and/or you want to cut down on the amount of wood in the floor.
Since plasticizers are semi-VOCs, they generally are not being released in gas form, but rather by leaching. Therefore, by having a physical layer of wood on top of the vinyl layer it could act like a block to the leaching.
(Here is a quick visual post showing how to identify engineered wood, versus laminates, vinyl, and hybrid planks).
- LL Flooring AquaSeal Bamboo, Oak (real wood top with SPC core) $3.99 / sq ft
- Geowood by Cali Bamboo – Starting at $5.79 / sq ft
- Tesoro Lakewood Composite – Starting at $7.60 / sq ft
- Shaw Floorté Waterproof Hardwood – around $9.59 / sq ft
- Opti-Wood from Home Depot – $3.39 – 4.09 / sq ft
- Raintree – $5.50 – 6.50 / sq ft
- AquaGuard from Floor&Decor – $4.69 / sq ft
- LifeProof from Home Depot (bamboo with SPC core) $4.15 / sq ft
- Acqua from Home Depot (bamboo with SPC core) $3.79 / sq ft
- Home Legend (bamboo with SPC core)
- Wellmade (bamboo with SPC core)
2. Engineered Bamboo Flooring
Solid bamboo or solid strand bamboo flooring is a type of engineered wood. Though bamboo is technically a grass, it’s similar enough to wood flooring.
A solid strand bamboo floor has various strands of bamboo glued together (pictured right). Sometimes it seems like it is a regular wood glue odor (similar to Titebond) and other times it seems like a different type of glue, maybe polyurethane.
Engineered bamboo (pictured left) is a flooring that has a top layer of bamboo over a SPC, plywood or HDF/MDF core. I would avoid HDF/MDF cores if you want to go for the lowest offgasing options out there.
The topcoat is a UV cured polyurethane or UV cured acrylic urethane.
- LL Flooring AquaSeal Bamboo (bamboo with SPC core)
- Floor and Decor AquaGuard Bamboo (bamboo with SPC core)
- LifeProof from Home Depot (bamboo with SPC core)
- Acqua from Home Depot (bamboo with SPC core)
- Home Depot’s OptiWood Bamboo (bamboo with SPC core)
- Home Legend (bamboo with SPC core)
- Wellmade (bamboo with SPC core)
- Home Legend has bamboo with a SPC core, HDF core, or solid strand
- Home Decorators Collection solid bamboo flooring
- Floor and Decor EcoForest solid strand bamboo
- Ecofusion solid strand
- Tesoro solid bamboo
- Tesoro engineered bamboo
3. Eucalyptus Flooring
Cali Bamboo Eucalyptus is strands of eucalyptus pressed together with a lot of pressure and heat in a wavy pattern. I pick up the regular wood glue smell but nothing that is different from all other engineered wood.
Tesoro also makes a solid strand eucalyptus floor.
A similar product is Tesoro densified poplar wood flooring.
4. Engineered Hemp Flooring
HempWood is a new type of flooring that uses hemp strands pressed and glued together as the top layer of the engineered floor. The base layer is the typical plywood construction.
The hemp layer is pressed together with a soy glue adhesive, similar to the soy adhesive used in PureBond plywood. It did have some glue odor to me which was very similar to Purebond (very mild, most people do OK with soy glue).
They claim that there are no added VOCs and no added formaldehyde.
One sample came finished with what looked like the typical water-based UV cured polyurethane (or polyacrylic) coating and the second sample was unfinished.
The way it was fraying at the edges made me wary about it’s durability.
Installation of Engineered Wood
There are four main ways to install engineered wood.
- Floating Floor – in this method the planks are clicked together and installed over an underlayment but not glued or nailed down. Tongue and groove glue is ofen used on the edges (Roberts is zero-VOC). This installation is good in that it is low toxicity, but the downside is that you usually can’t re-sand your floors.
- Nail Down – in a nail down installation an underlayment is used and the floor is not glued down. This is my preferred installation method over wood subfloors.
- Glue Assist – this installation involves gluing down and nailing the floor. This is often used for wide planks and/or when there are big fluctuations in humidity. If you want to avoid glue, don’t go for wide planks. Glues can be silane modified polyether or polyurethane. Silane modified is lower toxicity, but be sure to check the warranty for the floor.
- Glue Down – in this method, the glue is installed evenly on the floor. Many of the glues are polyuerethane. Some are 0-VOC like Bostik Greenforce. This method is often used over concrete. I would not use this method on concrete personally, since concrete is always trying to dry inward.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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