Ultimate Guide to Laminate Flooring

Laminate floor is a photographic image of a pattern on a suppo­rtive base.
Laminate floor is a photographic image of a pattern on a suppo­rtive base.
Steve Gorton/Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images

­In spite of their critics, laminate floors are quickly becoming one of the most popular flooring choices in the consumer market. They're are often less expensive than hardwood, stone or tile, but the popularly of laminates isn't all about cost. Laminate floors can replicate types of wood that would normally be too fragile for everyday use.

These floors have a wood-grain appearance and planks that are the same size and shape as wood floor planks, so they're a convincing substitute for hardwood. On top of that, they can last much longer than even sturdier woods can. Because laminate floors get their designs from photographic images rather than a physical layer of wood, people can choose the look of any wood they wa­nt without worrying about durability or price.

­Laminate flooring was developed in Sweden in the 1980s, and it­'s come a long way since then. High-end laminates offer a textured appearance, so the finish looks realistic from up close as well as from afar. Original laminates don't have these finishes and tend to look more realistic from a distance. Laminate floors can replicate many types of wood, including all colors of oak, Brazilian cherry, mahogany, walnut, chestnut, hickory, maple, ash and pine, just to name a few. For people who want the look of more than one surface in their home, laminates can also mimic stone.

All of these traits make laminate flooring an attractive choice for people who want exotic and authentic looks in their homes. In this article, we'll explore what goes into making laminate floors and why their designs are so realistic. We'll also give you some tips for cleaning and maintaining laminates.

About Laminate Flooring

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­There are four basic components, or layers, of laminate flooring, each of which plays a specific role in the look and durability of the floor. Here they are, from bottom to top:

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  • A plastic, paper or melamine backing layer, also known as the balancing layer, stabilizes the floor and resists moisture.
  • Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or high-density fiberboard (HDF) makes up the water-resistant substrate layer, or core layer. Both MDF and HDF are composed of wood fibers that are compressed together with adhesive and resin.
  • The photographic, decorative or pattern layer gives the floor its realistic appearance. This layer is essentially a photograph, typically constructed with multiple sheets of paper sandwiched with melamine resin. Realistic colors and pearl-sheen ink give the image depth and a realistic look. The pattern layer starts with one large photograph of wood grain, which is segmented into sections the size of the desired laminate plank. Because the same photograph is used for many planks, it is possible to have repeating patterns in a case of planks.
  • The protective top layer is the wear layer. It's typically constructed from an aluminum oxide clear coat. The coating can range from low to high gloss depending on the consumer's tastes. This layer prevents moisture penetration.

These layers are sandwiched together and fused using high heat and intense pressure. Some planks have a thick­er core than others, which affects the overall durability -- the thicker the product, the more rigid the floor will be. The core of the product is typically measured in millimeters and is dependant on the grade of the product and the manufacturer. There are four common thickness measurements for laminate flooring:

  • 6 millimeter (least cost, least durability)
  • 8 millimeter
  • 10 millimeter
  • 12 millimeter (highest cost, highest durability)

Other than thickness, what should you look for when shopping for laminate flooring? Find out on the next page.

How to Buy Laminate Flooring

Unlike this wood floor, laminate floors are resistant to stains and damage.
Unlike this wood floor, laminate floors are resistant to stains and damage.
© iStockphoto/Shawn Gearhart

­If you're looking for laminate flooring, the first step is to figure out whether laminates are right ­for you. Laminate floors are more durable and longer-lasting than many of the materials they imitate, and higher-end designs can be used anywhere in the home. Laminates also require less maintenance than hardwoods, which often need sanding and resurfacing after five or six years of use. Because laminates have a durable coating on top, they don't scratch or gouge as easily as hardwoods do.

However, if a laminate floor isn't properly maintained -- for example, if you let water collect between the planks -- edge swelling can result. This isn't typically covered under the warranty. Many budget-brand laminate floors can't be used in bathrooms or kitchens because of moisture issues. If you're installing laminate flooring in a high-traffic area, choosing a budget brand may mean that the wear layer will fade after a few years. This also isn't covered by the warranty.

After considering all this, if you decide a laminate floor is your best option, shop in brick-and-mortar stores so you can see for yourself what the product looks and feels like. Even though pictures online and in brochures can give you a good idea of what the product looks like, you can't get a true feel for it unless you take the time to shop in person. Conduct preliminary research using catalogs and online shopping guides as a time saver, but don't make a final decision unless you are in a store with samples of the flooring in front of you. Shop around in various big-box stores and their competition to compare prices, options, grades and durability. Ask about warranties offered by the various stores, including their costs. Be sure to do your homework on extended warranties before spending the money to buy one -- some are expensive and end too quickly to be useful.

­Passing on an extended warran­ty doesn't necessary leave you without protection, though. You'll want to be on the lookout for basic warranties offered by the manufacturers. The warranty should cover moisture damage -- typically­, it will stipulate that the floor must be installed properly in order for this to be in effect -- as well as staining, fading and wearing of the decorative or photographic layer. Be sure to read the fine print and note what is and is not covered by the warranty.

Prices of laminate flooring range from $1.00 per square foot for budget choices up to more than $11.00 per square foot for premium and high-end choices. The more exotic the material you are trying to mimic, the higher the price is likely to be be. Embossed finishes will also add to the price.

When purchasing your flooring products, you'll want to buy more than the exact square footage of your room. Contractors who install these floors typically buy an extra carton of flooring to ensure there's enough in case of mistakes or hard-to-fit areas. You'll also need to finish off edging and molding with matching products. These finishing touches, particularly where the flooring meets another flooring type, are important for the overall appearance of the room.

Installing Laminate Flooring

Laminate floors are installed over an underlayment using tongue-and-groove joints.
Laminate floors are installed over an underlayment using tongue-and-groove joints.
© ­iStockphoto/Edward Shaw

­There are two common types of laminate flooring installations: glue and glueless. While glueless is more common because of its ease of installation, glue creates a seal between the planks, making it a good choice for areas of the home where spills generally occur. Consumers tend to lean toward the glueless floors because they can install them themselves, and these floors can be walked on immediately. These types of floors are referred to as floating floors because they are not fastened to the subflooring. An underlayment, which is a layer of cork, foam or rubber, is placed under the laminate floor to act as a sound barrier.

Some brands of flooring need to acclimate to the room's environment prior to installation. This could take anywhere from one to three days, depending on the room's temperature and moisture level. Speak to a home improvement specialist or, if possible, the manufacturer of the product for guidelines if you're installing the flooring yourself. Otherwise, the contractor installing the product will know this information.

­Preparation of the ­original floor underneath the laminate flooring is relatively simple. Carpet and tack-board must be ripped out before installation. Laminate floors can be installed directly over concrete, plywood, OSB, parquet, vinyl and tile. The underlayment must be applied to the original flooring surface first, and then the floating floor can be installed. Check with a home improvement specialist to see which und­erlayment is best for the flooring you are installing.

If you want to install your laminate floor yourself, remember to stagger your seams, and avoid placing planks with identical wood grains next to each other. Avoid using too much force when you join the planks together. Parts of the tongue-and-groove joint can snap, especially in thinner or lower-quality styles.

Once you've installed your floor, how do you keep it looking good? Find out on the next page.

Laminate Floor Care

Regular care for a laminate floor starts with a dry mop.
Regular care for a laminate floor starts with a dry mop.
© ­iStockphoto/Slobo Mitic

­Even though laminate floors imitate the look of wood or stone, they aren't cleaned and maintained the way wood and stone are. Here are some basic supplies you will need to clean your new laminate floor:

  • Dry mop
  • Vacuum with brush attachment (the softer the better)
  • Sponge mop
  • Clean water
  • Homemade or store-bought laminate floor cleaner

You can make your own cleaner by mixing vinegar and water in equal parts. Another option is to mix equal parts of vinegar, rubbing alcohol and water. These methods dry spot-free quickly, but be sure to work in small areas of the floor at a time. Using cleaners made for linoleum, tile or hardwood may leave a dull, soapy finish on laminate.

First, dry mop the floor thoroughly. Follow it up with vacuuming the crevices and edges with a brush attachment. All loose materials should be off the floor before you wet mop mopping. Work the wet mop in 5-foot (1.5-meter) sections of the floor and dry immediately for best results. To dry the floor, wrap a dry towel around the end of a mop handle, or use safety pins to attach it to a floor duster.

Keep some laminate floor cleaner in a spray bottle for tough stains and for spot cleaning in between your regular cleaning schedule. You can also spot-clean using a window cleaner or your homemade preparation. Never use wood polish on your laminate floor because it will dull the finish and create a very slick walking surface.

Proper care for your floor will make a big difference in how satisfied you are with it, as well as how well it holds up. To learn more about other flooring options, you can follow the links on the next page.

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More Great Links:

Sources:

  • EBuild "Laminate, Plank and Tile."http://www.ebuild.com/flooring/laminate--plank--tile.hwx
  • Figueras, David. "Laminate Floor Basics." BobVila.com. 2001. http://www.bobvila.com/HowTo_Library/Laminate_Floor_Basics-Laminate_Floors-A1811.html
  • Wood Floor Covering Association. "Laminate: Before You Buy." http://www.wfca.org/laminate/beforeyoubuy.aspx
  • Wood Floor Covering Association. "Laminate: How It's Made." http://www.wfca.org/laminate/howmade.aspx
  • Wood Floor Covering Association. "Laminate Care." http://www.wfca.org/laminate/care.aspx