If you haven't yet had to specify a laminate flooring system
for one of your jobs, chances are you will. Just 10 years after
it was first introduced to the U.S. by way of Europe, this
material has managed to capture 17 percent of the residential
flooring market, according to the North American Laminate
Flooring Association (NALFA). Annual growth in recent years has
been in the double digits.
That growth isn't surprising, considering what the product has
going for it. Consisting of tongue-and-groove planks or tiles
installed as a "floating" floor system — that is, a floor
in which the pieces are joined to one another but not to the
subfloor — a laminate floor system can closely mimic
ceramic tile and wood, but costs less and is easier to install
and maintain (see Figure 1). Its stain-resistant surface is
easy to clean and resists dents and scratches better than solid
wood does. As a floating floor, it can be installed over
various substrates — whether a concrete slab or an old
wood or vinyl floor — and is well suited for use over
Laminate flooring can be made to mimic
wood or ceramic and stone tile, but it's more resilient, easier
to clean, and less expensive.
While early laminate flooring products had to be glued at the
edges, most of today's products require no gluing or clamping
to install, so the floor can be walked on immediately after
installation. When the time comes to remodel, removal of a
floating floor is easier than that of any other flooring type,
including stretched carpet. And the material's high
fade-resistance means that you can replace a damaged section of
flooring years after it was installed, and still have the patch
blend in with the surrounding floor.
Choosing the Right Product
Laminate flooring was originally developed to provide another
market for the high-pressure melamine used on countertop
surfaces. Because flooring takes a far greater beating than
most countertops, however, manufacturers fortify their flooring
to be 10 to 20 times harder than countertop laminate. But that
doesn't mean that all laminate flooring is created equal.
Understanding the types and grades of flooring, as well as the
various installation methods, will help keep you out of trouble
and within budget.
Commercial or residential?
There are two basic types of laminate flooring: direct-pressure
laminate (DPL) and high-pressure laminate (HPL). Both consist
of layers, or laminations, that are bonded together under heat
and pressure. The laminations include a transparent wear
surface, typically melamine resin; a decorative layer, usually
resin-saturated photographic paper; and an impact-resistant
core, typically high-density fiberboard (HDF).
HPL is a commercial-grade product that's more wear-resistant
and more expensive than DPL. While some installers have found
DPL more prone to edge-chipping, impact damage, and scratching
than HPL, it still performs better than wood or vinyl (see
"Standard Wear and Use Ratings").
One advantage DPL has, besides price, is that its
manufacturing process allows surface embossing, which can be
used to give the product a realistic wood, ceramic, or stone
texture. Embossing is done in the clear, topmost wear layer and
can be as simple as a linear grain pattern that breaks up
reflected light to give the surface a more "natural"
appearance. More expensive products might use a technique
called in-register technology, in which the embossing in the
clear layer follows the wood grain in the decorative layer to
give a convincing, real-wood appearance (Figure 2).
Figure 2.Basic embossing, imprinted in the clear
wear layer, imparts a wood texture to the product's surface,
but nonaligned patterns that don't follow the wood grain still
look fake close up (left). In-register embossing exactly
follows the photographic wood grain and achieves a more
convincing appearance (right).
Good, better, or best? As with most things, you get what you
pay for with laminate flooring. The higher the price, the
thicker and more durable the product. DPL comes in three
informal grades — actually thicknesses — which we
will call standard, midrange, and best:
Standard laminate is 7 millimeters (9/32 inch) thick
and costs in the range of $1.79 to $2.79 per square
Middle-quality products are 8 millimeters (5/16
inch) thick and cost between $1.99 and $3.59 per square
The best quality, which is really a commercial-grade
product, is 10 millimeters (13/32 inch) thick and costs
anywhere from $5.60 to $9 per square foot.
The middle price range makes for safe shopping. NALFA states
that retail prices of $3 to $4 per foot are typical, but expect
to pay more for thicker core material. Longer warranties will
also add to cost. Basic warranties run for 10 years, but for a
price you can extend that up to 30 years.
Some manufacturers put aluminum oxide in the clear wear layer
of their better and best products. It's a bragging point that
you should have no trouble locating on the packaging and
promotional literature. Aluminum oxide is an extremely hard
substance, also found in other factory-applied clear flooring
finishes, that significantly improves wear resistance.
location. But grade doesn't tell the whole story. You
also need to pay attention to the manufacturers' installation
guidelines for each particular product. The basic question
concerns where you plan to install the product. Will it be in a
bedroom, a kitchen, or a bath? Over a concrete slab or a
Specific wear ratings and information regarding bathroom or
basement suitability can usually be found in each product's
literature. For bedrooms, which usually have the lowest wear
exposure, you can use a product with a lower wear rating. But
for bathrooms and basements, you need a product specifically
treated for moisture resistance. Since you may or may not find
an icon or other obvious statement on product packaging that
sanctions water-exposure installation, this is an important
question to ask before buying.
One caution: While you can find products that cost less per
square foot than "standard" grades, professional installers
advise against them. "Once you get down around a dollar per
foot, you're going to have more problems with installation,"
warns Rick Jones, director of technical services at Columbia
Flooring in Danville, Va., and a longtime professional
installer. These products are likely to be thinner than
standard laminate (6 millimeters is typical) and have a softer
core material — medium-density fiberboard (MDF) rather
than HDF — making them vulnerable to both impact damage
and indentation from heavy furniture. They're also more fragile
than standard laminate, with edges that are more likely to
crumble when you try to force them together (Figure 3, previous
page). Unless you've stumbled on a great closeout deal for a
discontinued quality line, flooring in this price range isn't
going to do anyone proud.
Figure 3.One problem with cheap laminate flooring
products is fragile joints that can chip easily during
Click or glue? Ten years ago, all laminate flooring products
had to be glued together and clamped in place during
installation. Today, most products are glueless: The tongues
and grooves on individual planks are formed so that adjacent
pieces "click" together (Figure 4). While there's nothing
unprofessional about mechanical locking systems — the
better ones can beat a 1,000-pound pull test for joint
separation — they're still not as strong as a glued
joint, which is three times stronger, according to Oliver
Stansfield, head of technical installation services at Pergo
Strong, easily assembled mechanical
"click" joints (left) have all but eliminated gluing. But not
all manufacturers use them. For instance, Alloc has a unique
integral aluminum locking strip that it claims will allow
nearly unlimited reassembly (right).
Figure 5.Glued joints are three times stronger
than mechanical joints and can't be forced open by flooring
movement. Some glued products come with a preapplied adhesive
that is activated when moistened. This prevents messy
squeeze-out and ensures a continuous seal with just the right
amount of adhesive.
"All floors move with seasonal changes in temperature and
humidity," Stansfield says. "When you have heavy furniture
arrangements, there is a chance that a glueless floor will
develop gaps. A heavy bookcase at one end of the room, for
example, could prevent the floor from moving as a unit,
resulting in plank separation."
Certain flooring lines offer the option of gluing in addition
to click assembly. These tend to be the thicker, higher-quality
products, because with glue — or, specifically, too much
glue — comes a risk of swelling and joint distortion as
the material absorbs its moisture. Careful, sparing glue use
might lessen the risk on thinner material, but thicker flooring
is denser and less absorbent.
What To Watch Out For
Floating floors don't appeal to everyone. The fact that the
flooring isn't nailed or glued to the substrate troubles some
tradition-bound consumers — unless, of course, you don't
tell them. Some complain that the unified, floating surface of
a laminate floor creates a signature "drum sound" when walked
upon in shoes. Proponents argue that the sound is no more
apparent than that made walking on any other type of flooring.
Although the truth in this case seems to be relative, nearly
every manufacturer offers some kind of sound-deadening
underlayment foam or attached backing material (Figure
Figure 6.Rubberized foam underlayment puts a
cushion beneath the floor and helps absorb minor bumps and
deviations in the subfloor (below). It may be laid in sheet
form or it may already be attached to the back of the flooring
Laminate flooring's HDF core material isn't meant to span large
voids, so you will need to lay it over a flat subfloor. To
prevent cracking by deflection, most products specify a maximum
subfloor deviance — or variance in plane — of 1/4
inch in 4 feet, and a maximum depth of 3/16 inch for low spots
in the subfloor.