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Choosing Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring brings with it a host of benefits that keep it as a top contender when choosing new floors. It's come a long way since its early roots in Europe and subsequent introduction into the US.

Advancements in the technologies that render the image (wood, stone or tile) and combine it with realistic surface texturing have made it one of today's most popular flooring choices.

But despite its popularity it isn't for everyone. If you're the type that has to have "real", then laminate floors, despite their continued advances in the realism department, may still not cut it for you. Read on to find out whether laminate is right for you and the kinds of product choices you have available.

What Is It - How Is It Constructed?

In its simplest form, laminate flooring is a photographic reproduction of another type of real floor material, primarily wood, ceramic tile or stone. The benefit is that it offers durability, economy and convenience that the other 'real types' don't necessarily have.

Laminate floors are made by sandwiching the image of real wood or stone between a fiberboard core underneath and a durable clear wear layer on top. It's very similar to laminate countertops where a printed image is fused together with melamine resin to provide a durable yet easy to maintain surface. The only real difference between them is that the floor material is much more durable from a wear and abrasion standpoint.

Laminate Core

The core forms the backbone of the floor and supports whatever's going to be on top of it.

laminate flooring

It's made from high density fiberboard which is nothing more than wood fibers combined with an adhesive and sometimes with a melamine resin. These ingredients are compressed and fused together under high heat and pressure.

The thickness of the core is typically measured in millimeters (mm) though you may see it in fractions of an inch too. The thickness will vary dependent on manufacturer and the grade of flooring. Typical thicknesses are in the 7-10mm range.

Some of the heavier products are 12mm thick. The key here is that thickness plays a role in the floor's rigidity. Thicker floors will have less propensity to flex than thinner floors.


DPL & HPL

There are two methods of making the laminate floor sandwich. You'll see them referred to as HPL or High Pressure Laminate and DPL or Direct Pressure Laminate.

DPL uses a single-step process to fuse the various layers within a laminate floor together. It is not as hard as HPL and can therefore dent or crack more easily than HPL. On the flip side however DPL accepts texturing better than HPL because it's softer. That allows for more realistic wood graining and stone texturing.

HPL is a multiple-step manufacturing process that results in a harder end product. Pressures used to fuse the layers together are roughly 3 times that used on DPL. This provides a harder surface that's able to withstand more punishment than DPL.

Should this be a criterion for your decision? Probably not, as even DPL meets industry standards for impact resistance. HPL will probably cost more so unless you're planning on regularly dropping soup cans from a stepladder, make your decision on other factors.

AC Rating

AC rating is the term used by the Association of European Laminate Floor Producers (EPLF) to describe a product's durability with respect to abrasion resistance, staining and cigarette burns. The ratings range from AC1 (lowest rating) to AC5 which is the most durable. AC3 for residential applications provides a good level of durability. Higher levels like AC5 can sometimes provide a surface that's too coarse for residential applications.

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What Should I Know About Before Choosing It?

Before you decide to purchase or even shop for a laminate floor, it will help to understand the basic characteristics and terminology associated with this type of flooring. The bullet points below highlight the key features and things you should know.

  • Features and Innovations
    Advancements that make these floors more interesting now than they were 10 years ago include realistic texturing and the introduction of single planks.

    Most if not all laminate floor companies have a product line that incorporates embossing that mimics the real three dimensional textures of either the wood or stone they're imitating. What this does is give you a much more realistic looking floor than you'd get without it.

    One of the most realistic features is called embossed-in-register. This is a process whereby the embossing matches the printed image texture. For example, in wood laminates the embossing will follow the printed picture of the wood grain. While that might seem like the way it should be, that's not always the case. There are products that use a wood grain embossing but it's just applied over the picture with no correlation between the two. Embossed-in-register texturing looks more realistic because it follows the natural texture of the printed image.

    embossed in register laminate floor embossed in register laminate floor2
    Examples of Embossed-In-Register (click on image for larger view)


    The introduction of single planks also provides some help in the realism department. First off, you have more choices on how to arrange your floor planks in a more naturally random pattern. Laminate print patterns repeat themselves (click here for more info on this) and having more options for varying where the planks go gives you more freedom to make sure two boards with the same grain pattern aren't next to each other. Individual planks also look more like a natural wood floor because there's a seam between each plank rather than just a printed line.

Publisher's Comments

Some of the best laminate flooring I've seen was at an assisted living facility in Florida. Unfortunately, I came upon it well after it was put in place so I have no idea what brand it is.

But the reason I point this out is because one of the key elements that made it look so real was that it utilized embossed-in-register detailing mentioned above. In other words, the physical "grain" (the thin crevasses and lines in the wood) was perfectly aligned with the "picture" of the wood grain and it was done very well.

How did I know it wasn't real wood? Well, I look at this stuff enough that I can usually perceive the difference between laminate and real wood (that's no self-compliment; it's just that I've seen enough to have trained my eyeballs). But it's getting harder to do with some of these good laminates. This stuff looked very good and highlights how some laminate flooring can really fool the eye into believing it's seeing real wood.

So if you're someone who likes the attributes that laminate floors possess but are afraid it'll look too fake, I think you might be pleasantly surprised at some of the better products that are out there. Shop around, do your homework and you might find a product that looks just right.

Rather than squinting at these small pictures, just click on them to bring up a larger version in a new browser window. (They might come up sized to fit into your browser window. If you click on them they'll enlarge to full size.)

laminate flooring laminate flooring

  • Glued and Glueless
    Laminate floors are broken down into two broad categories on how they're assembled: glued and glueless. The vast majority of today's products are glueless. The panels are simply snapped together by virtue of a notched design, similar to a tongue-and-groove, that mechanically holds the pieces together.

    laminate floor snap joint laminate floor snap joint
    Typical Examples Of Laminate Floor Glueless Joints

    Glued floors require a bead of glue to be used in the tongue-and-groove joint to help assist the mechanical grip of the joint. Although most laminates today are glueless, glues are still used and offer some sealing benefits. Some manufacturers recommend that adhesive be used when the floor is installed in a location that might see moisture and/or more frequent spills.

    The benefit of a glueless floor is primarily convenience and speed with the installation process. A floor can go together much faster if you simply have to snap the panels together versus having to apply glue as well. Additionally, there's no waiting period like you have with a glued floor after it's installed. You can walk on a glueless floor right after you install it rather than waiting for the adhesive to dry.

  • A Floating Floor
    This type of floor is called "floating floor" - in other words, it is not fastened or joined to the subfloor in any way. It's simply assembled on top of the subfloor.

    laminate floor installation

    The benefits of using a floating floor include convenience and the avoidance of problems that occur with non-floating floors. Floating floors like laminate can usually be installed over existing flooring like wood, tile or vinyl, provided the floor is level. This negates the need to rip out the existing floor.

    A floating floor also "moves" independently with respect to the subfloor, eliminating the chance for gaps between the panels. Gaps in a non-floating floor usually result from temperature and humidity changes when the floor and subfloor expand and contract at different rates.

    A drawback to a floating floor is that it can sometimes accentuate the sound of footsteps or result in a hollow sound. This is usually taken care of by the use of an underlayment that works as an insulator beneath the laminate floor. The underlayment is usually made from a rubber, foam or cork material that's rolled out in sheets and laid under the floor panels.

  • Acclimation Prior To Installation
    Some brands of laminate floor need to be acclimated to the area they're going to be installed in several days prior to installation. This is to avoid problems with expansion and contraction of the floor. However there are some brands that don't require this because the core has been treated with additional constituents like melamine.

  • Moldings And Trim
    Along with the floor panels/planks you'll need to purchase matching trim and moldings. These items are used to transition laminate floors into adjoining floors and provide the finishing touches. Laminate manufacturers typically offer matching trim pieces in the same colors/patterns as the floor panels. There are even pieces to trim the edge of stair treads should you decide to use laminate flooring on your stairs.
  • A Durable Surface But Not Indestructible
    Laminate's durable wear surface is made with aluminum oxide, an extremely hard material (it rates a 9 on the Mohs Hardness scale with diamond being a 10). You'll be hard pressed to wear through the printed surface. However, that doesn't mean that it can't be scratched or gouged, especially if you don't follow some good laminate flooring care basics. Once the floor gets some scratches there are a few things you can do to minimize their appearance. For deep scratches you'll have to resort to some different repair techniques or outright replacement of the damaged panels.

    The edges and underlying core are other areas that can be prone to damage if not properly cared for. Moisture and wetness can cause 'edge swell' where the edges expand from the absorption of the liquid. Some products are treated with wax-impregnated edges to seal out water and are warranted against this type of damage.

    The point here is that laminate floors have lots of seams, albeit tight ones, but seams nonetheless. They can be damaged by long term exposure to water and moisture. Laminate floors can be installed in bathrooms but require special provisions like sealed edges and glued construction to provide a moisture barrier.

  • Repetitive Patterns
    What you see in a laminate floor is a picture of real wood or stone flooring material. The amount of pattern variability in a laminate floor is limited by how much of the original floor was photographed and reproduced into the laminate floor panels. Since there's a finite quantity, you'll ultimately end up with repeat planks or tiles that are identical copies of one another within a specific product line. You won't have the infinite variability of wood grain or color variation as you would with natural products.

    This may or may not be a big deal to you but be aware that it will occur (unless you have a very small room that you're covering). Distinctive grain patterns and coloration are more noticeable than patterns with less variation that are more uniform.

    The recent trend by manufacturers to offer individual laminate planks (instead of panels made up of several planks) helps this situation to some degree by allowing more control over where each plank can be installed. That helps avoid locating repeat planks too close to one another.

  • Non-Renewable
    A laminate floor is not renewable like a real wood floor. Once it's worn out it has to be removed and replaced. Wood floors on the other hand can be refinished multiple times.

  • Cost
    The cost of laminate flooring falls within a fairly limited range. Prices for uninstalled laminate at online flooring retailers ranges from about $1.00 to $4.00 per square foot with an average cost of about $2.50. The prices at retail home centers fall in a similar range of about $3.00 to $4.70 per square foot.

    Professional installation will add to the cost resulting in a total cost of about $5.00 per square foot for the economy products to about $7 or $8 for higher quality products.

    One thing to keep in mind when buying laminate floors is that the product is packaged in cartons and is sometimes priced per carton rather than per square foot. You may end up getting a few more square feet of flooring than you really need but that's OK. In fact, you should get some extra pieces so that you have some replacement planks available should repairs be necessary.

    Because of the glueless assembly feature of most laminate floors they're fairly easy to install. Laminate might offer you a very economical means of getting a new floor that offers durability that's hard to match.

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Understanding The Warranty

Understanding the manufacturer's warranty for a laminate floor is important but they're not all the same. It also provides some insight as to the product's quality based on how the company stands behind it.

Warranties are similar in the basics of what they cover and the various durations of coverage (which varies based on product line).

Not surprisingly the differences among manufacturer warranties lie in the details and the definitions of coverage terms.

Typical Basic Warranty Coverage

Most warranties on laminate flooring cover the following conditions. If a warranty doesn't cover these items you may want to look at other brands of laminate.

  • Fading
  • Wear-through of the printed layer (loss of gloss/sheen doesn't qualify)
  • Staining
  • Moisture damage (usually there are stipulations on this one regarding proper installation, location in the home, etc.)

Warranty Duration

The duration of the warranty period will vary based on the specific product line, with higher-end products receiving the longest warranty periods. Common lengths of warranty periods are 15yr, 20yr, 25yr, 30yr and lifetime coverage.

Bear in mind however that many of these warranties, particularly those of longer duration, are pro-rated. One example might be that you'll get 50% of the replacement product's cost if you invoke the warranty 15 years into a 30-year warranty. Manufacturers vary somewhat on the degree of proration.

Other Warranty Considerations To Look For

Beyond the more standard coverage there are other conditions that affect the product's warranty. Here are some additional points and nuances to be aware of that are found on various manufacturer warranties:

  • Moisture-prone areas - if you plan on using laminate in the bathroom or laundry room be sure you're clear on what the warranty covers and doesn't cover for this scenario. Some are specific in that they'll cover it (assuming adherence to proper installation procedures) whereas others won't or just don't say. If it's unclear or unstated, ask.
  • Proof of purchase - many warranties require that you show proof of purchase, such as the purchase receipt, for the warranty to remain valid. Keep this information in a place or file you'll remember. It may be a while before you'll need it.
  • Damage from water/moisture - although most warranties cover some form of moisture damage, some manufacturers get very particular about this issue. One laminate flooring maker's warranty states that it won't cover damage due to water that's been standing for over 30 minutes (how they'd actually determine that is another question). The point here is that you need to read the fine print to be aware of these details.
  • Staining from floor mats - despite the fact that virtually all laminate floor warranties cover staining, some do not cover stains caused by certain types of floormats that transfer dyes to the floor surface. Use mats that specify "non-staining" on the label to avoid this situation.
  • Installation labor coverage - warranties differ on coverage for the labor required to repair/replace laminate floors. Some will cover it, some won't and some will provide coverage only if the installation was done professionally. Keep this in mind if you plan on installing the floor yourself.
  • Moving the laminate floor to another room - laminate floors that are installed and then removed and reinstalled in another room will void some manufacturer warranties. For those situations only the original installation is covered (the first room the laminate is installed in).
  • Connecting/disconnecting the planks several times - floor planks/panels that have been connected and then disconnected more than 3 times will void some warranties that cover separation of seams. One possible scenario where this could occur involves trying to avoid repeating patterns. Not planning where planks should go ahead of time may cause you to assemble/disassemble planks to achieve the right look.
  • Do they actually stand behind their warranty - this may be a bit tougher to discern but it's no less important. Check the Better Business Bureau for any company you're considering buying from to determine if there's any record of problems. The warranty may make good promises but you don't want to find out too late that the company doesn't follow through on those commitments.

The bottom line on laminate floor warranties is that while they all cover basic expectations on product durability, the extent of the coverage and the exclusions will vary and are important details to understand.

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Choices Among Brands - Similarities And Differences

There are numerous manufacturers of laminate flooring which is testament to its popularity. Some of the obvious questions that result are 'what are the difference among them?', 'who's best?', etc.

There are differences of course, primarily in styles, colors and features that each brand offers. Some do a better job with the wood-grain texturing than others or offer features that other makers don't such as anti-static or antimicrobial treatments. But beyond that, there's not much more to distinguish one laminate floor maker from another (though they'd all probably disagree with that statement!).

Most brands will carry a range of products from the basic economy levels to higher end premium laminates. Economy products will have less warranty coverage, fewer features and cost less than the premium laminates.

Each brand has their own list of trademarked features that provide visual detail and durability but ultimately they're simply variations on common themes of making their product look good and stand up to daily use.

The benefit of having a large number of producers is the competition that spurs continued development and provides better features and ultimately a better product. When you look at today's laminate flooring compared to 10 years ago, the increase in realism and durability can only have come from healthy competition within the marketplace.

Big-box home centers usually carry a standard range of laminate product lines however it's helpful to see some of the other brands that they don't carry, for comparison purposes. Take a look at the list below to round out your shopping and then get out and take a look at some products.

Keep in mind that when it comes to laminate flooring, seeing the product has a large impact on your opinion as compared to just looking at pictures in brochures and on websites. This is particularly true with today's textured products. How they look under the light from different perspectives is something that's difficult to get from a printed brochure or web page.

Laminate flooring is made by a wide range of manufacturers, each with their own distinctions. The list below highlights the various laminate floor makers to get you familiar with who they are by name.

Alloc® www.alloc.com
Armstrong® www.armstrong.com
Berry Floor www.berryfloor.com
Bruce® www.bruce.com
Columbia Flooring www.columbiaflooring.com
FausFloor www.fausfloor.com
Harmonics www.harmonics-flooring.com
Kaindl www.kaindl.com
Mannington® www.mannington.com/residential
Pergo® www.pergo.com
Quick-Step® www.quick-step.com
Shaw™ www.shawfloors/laminate-flooring
Tarkett® www.tarkett.com
Witex® www.witex.com
Mohawk® www.mohawkflooring.com

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Publisher's Choice - Is It Real Or Is It Laminate?

I have to preface these comments by stating that my preference in any faux product is "reality" -- how well it fools the eye into believing it's the real thing and not just an imitation. I'm fine knowing that it's an imitation; it's just that I don't want it to look like one.

So with that in mind I approach laminate flooring with the agenda of 'how real does it look'. In my opinion, I find that some brands come pretty darn close -- about an 8 or 9 out of 10 with 10 being indistinguishable from real wood. Then there are those that to me look like bad imitations.

Here are my observations on laminate flooring, again, coming from the angle of "does it look real enough for me or does it look like an imposter?"

  • I find that the premium laminates look the best and most realistic. They usually have most of the bells and whistles that the manufacturer provides within their features lineup. They're typically the most costly but despite that fact I found that they're not that much more expensive compared to the mid-range or economy level products.
  • ...And speaking of economy products, they didn't suit me on the realism front and therefore wouldn't make my short list, despite their lower cost.
  • What specific brands do I like? If pressed I'd have to say the Quick-Step® products with their Natural Authenticity™ embossing. The texturing follows the actual wood grain picture underneath it (embossed-in-register) and it wasn't overdone.

    The Fausfloor® Masterpieces® line had some convincing products as well although I found that some were better than others. Wood types that display knots or more prominent graining have a more 'heavy-handed' embossing which wasn't to my liking. Conversely however, some of their other wood types with less conspicuous graining had more realistic texturing.

  • Light, and how it plays off the surface of the laminate, plays a huge role in how it looks. Laminate color/pattern swatches that you see in brochures and product websites always look great because you're looking straight-on at a two-dimensional image. It's when you view laminate from an angle, as you normally look at a floor, that the light picks up the texture (or lack of it) and the sheen of the surface finish. In my view that's what makes or breaks the 'realness' of a laminate floor -- how it looks as the light angle varies.
  • Individual planks make the floor more realistic looking because of the more natural seams. A picture of the seam where two planks meet doesn't look the same as the real thing or the actual seams where the panels (the solid piece made up of a picture of several planks) join together. Laminate panels that include the image of several planks sometimes use a beveled groove to depict the seams where planks meet (even though it's still just a one-piece panel). I found these looked better than panels with just the image of the plank seams.

If you think I'm too focused on how laminate floors look and not enough with how well they perform you're probably right. But I think that a good mid-range to premium laminate floor with a solid warranty will more than adequately serve its purpose, regardless of brand. What sets them apart in my view is how convincing they look.

So are laminate floors right for you? If you're looking for the benefits that laminate provides (durability, ease of installation, variety and economy), and looks or 'realness' is secondary, then there's sure to be a product that will satisfy you.

If you'd like to go one step further and have flooring specialists in your local area contact you with more information including a free estimate, fill in your zip code in the box on the left and click 'GO'.

On the other hand, if you're really hung up on how real laminate's going to look, you should be thorough in your shopping to find a laminate that looks best to you. Get some free samples to help familiarize yourself with how specific laminate products look.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Laminate Vs Wood - Want to know how laminate compares to wood flooring? See this article to find out.

Laminate Flooring Care - Check out this article on how to care for laminate flooring before you decide on whether laminate's right for you.

Choosing Wood Flooring - Laminate strives to look like wood flooring but if you're still not sure, take a look at this article on how to choose a wood floor.




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