Laminate Flooring: What You Need to Know

If you like the way real hardwood flooring looks, but you don't have the time or budget to install solid or engineered wood, your floor may be a good candidate for new laminate flooring. This is a fairly broad category of flooring that includes high-end products with a real wood wear layer as well as budget products that are primarily fiberboard and plastic.

White oak laminate floor.
credit: Direct Wood Flooring
Laminate flooring looks like real wood, but it isn't.

All laminates have one thing in common: They come in snap-together planks and float above the subfloor, which is another way of saying that they aren't nailed or glued down. Besides simplifying installation, this feature allows you to install a laminate floor directly over many existing floor coverings—such as tile, vinyl flooring and hardwood—without having to remove them. That's another money saver.

Before you purchase laminate flooring or hire a contractor, it's important to make sure your floor is suitable for it. Laminate flooring is not recommended for high-moisture areas, such as basements or bathrooms, and it must be installed on a flat, level subfloor. It must be installed over an underlayment, and together the flooring and underlayment can raise the floor level by as much as 3/4 inch, which could be a problem when transitioning into other rooms with existing floors.

On Overview of Laminate Flooring

Not all laminate flooring looks like wood. You can buy products with patterns that resemble marble, slate, travertine and a host of other materials, but wood grain is the most common pattern. Laminates were originally marketed by Sweden's Perstorp Corporation, which became Pergo, and the earliest wood designs emulated oak, maple and other popular hardwoods. These are still popular, but the market has greatly diversified since Pergo flooring hit the shelves in the 1980s.

Pergo flooring sample.
credit: Pergo
A contemporary Pergo design evokes rough-sawn lumber.

Besides introducing laminates to the American market, Pergo also developed the locking mechanism that allows you to snap the planks together. This makes a Pergo flooring installation something that almost anyone can do. Some types of laminate flooring—primarily from other manufacturers—need to be glued together, which makes the floor more stable but complicates installation and makes it more difficult to remove the flooring when the time comes.

The concept of locking planks can be applied to some types of engineered flooring, which makes installing them similar to installing laminates. This is particularly true for cork flooring, which is a type of wide-plank flooring that often includes a water-resistant bottom layer, a fiberboard core and a burly wear layer than can make each plank as thick as 5/8 inch. Most laminates are thinner, however, and though they have the fiber board core, they have a very thin, plasticized wear layer.

Which Rooms Are Best for Laminate Flooring?

Laminate flooring is a good choice for:

  • Living rooms
  • Bedrooms
  • Recreation rooms
  • Hallways
  • Dens

It comes with a super-hard finish that resists foot traffic, pet claws and furniture legs, but its greatest weakness is moisture. When a laminate plank gets wet, the fiber board core swells and the edges push outward and raise up. This makes laminates a less-than-perfect choice for wet locations, including:

  • Bathrooms
  • Basements
  • Kitchens
  • Laundry rooms
  • Converted garages

This isn't to say you can't use laminates in these locations, but you have to take precautions to control moisture, including possibly sealing the subfloor and ventilating the crawl space underneath it. Laminate flooring is never recommended for below-grade installation, and installing it below grade usually voids the warranty.

An empty room.
credit: fotolism_thai/iStock/GettyImages
Laminate flooring is a great choice for bedrooms.

Tips

If you spill anything on a laminate floor, wipe it up immediately. Standing liquids can seep through the boards and cause swelling.

Laminate Planks Are Constructed in Layers

Pergo flooring consists of four separate layers laminated together. Most other products have the same four layers, and some even have an extra one. The thickness of Pergo flooring is measured in millimeters, since Pergo is a European product. It's typically around 6 mm (1/4 inch), which is the bare minimum for a stable, crack-free floor. Some competing brands are more robust, having thicknesses of 7 to 14 mm (9/32 to 9/16 inch.) The layers you'll find if you dissect any laminate plank include:

  • The core: This main part of the plank, made from high-density fiberboard or a similar material. This part of the plank includes the locking system.
  • The pattern: This very thin layer in the top of the core bears the design, be it wood grain, stone or travertine.
  • The wear layer: The pattern is coated with baked on clear finish, which is usually an acrylic or urethane plastic. It takes a lot of effort to scratch this finish, although you can do it.
  • The backing: This is also known as the balancing layer. Made from a water-resistant material, its purpose is to prevent bowing and warping.

In addition, high-end planks may also have a spongey coating on the back that give the floor spring while also guarding against moisture.

Tips for Installing Laminate Flooring

Many people choose laminate flooring because they want to do the installation themselves. Although the flooring planks are designed to fit together like puzzle pieces, you need to know a few things before you begin installing one. It isn't as easy as it sounds.

Hammer and Block with New Laminate Flooring
credit: Feverpitched/iStock/GettyImages
A tapping block is a must when installing laminate flooring.
  • Acclimate the planks: Before installing a laminate floor, you have to give the planks time to come into equilibrium with the environment. Most manufacturers recommend unpacking the planks and letting them sit in the installation area for 3 to 5 days before you lay them.
  • Have the right tools: Even though the boards snap together, you often have to coax them by tapping, and you should never hit the fiberboard tongues and grooves directly with a hammer or you'll risk breaking them. A complete installation kit includes a tapping block that fits over the edge of a plank without coming into contact with the tongue or groove. The kit also includes a tapping bar for joining planks near wall and cabinets.
  • Level the subfloor and install underlayment: The subfloor must be completely flat with no bumps, so you may have to sand it or spread leveling compound before installing the floor. Once the subfloor is level, staple down an underlayment designed for laminate flooring. The underlayment provides a moisture barrier as well as cushioning and is a must if you want the warranty to be valid.
  • Cut carefully: You can cut laminate planks with a circular saw or table saw, but if you do it haphazardly, you'll chip the wear layer and possibly the pattern layer. The best way to cut laminate planks is from the back. If you can't do this, lay masking tape along the cut line to prevent chip-out.

If you're doing the installation yourself, invest in a good pair of knee pads. You'll be glad you have them.

Keeping a Laminate Floor Clean

Housekeeping and cleaning concept. Vacuum cleaner nozzle on the floor.
credit: freelancer/iStock/GettyImages
Vacuum laminate flooring with a soft-brush attachment.

Laminate flooring needs the same care as hardwood flooring. That includes regular vacuuming with a soft-brush attachment to pick up small dirt particles that can scratch the finish, and periodic mopping with a damp—not wet—mop. Microfiber mops are preferred because they generate an electrostatic attraction to dirt and need very little water. If you do get water on the floor while cleaning it, wipe it up as soon as possible.

If you spill greasy, waxy or gummy substances on the floor, the best way to remove them is to freeze the spill with an ice pack, then chip it off with a plastic paint scraper. Remove ink spots and felt-tip pen marks using acetone and a rag. This is also a goo way to remove paint spots.

Avoid waxing a laminate floor. The surface is already slippery, and a coat of wax will just make it more so. Moreover, wax turns dull over time, and when that happens, you'll have to remove it. It's fine, however, to use wax sparingly to cover scratches and blend them into the finish. In fact, it's the recommended way to handle scratches.


Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.