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Comparing Laminate vs. Wood Flooring

Comparing laminate vs wood flooring is a common exercise in the consideration of a new floor. What makes this a hard decision? To start with, laminate floors are generally cheaper while achieving a look similar to wood. They're also durable and install pretty easily compared to other floor types.

But laminate isn't for everyone, just as wood isn't the be-all and end-all for others. Are you on the fence? If you are, read on. This page will try and help sort out the differences and give you some information to help make the decision clearer, if not easier.

Sorting Out What You're Really Looking For

The first part of getting over this choice dilemma is to focus on what your needs and wants are as well as what your family lifestyle is like. Sorting that out will help you better identify with the attributes of laminate or wood, clarifying the way to a decision.

Consider the following points to help figure out what your needs/wants are:

  1. What's your family's lifestyle and status?
    Do you have children and/or any pets? The amount of activity the floor will see should factor into your choice. Pre-finished wood floors have made a lot of headway with very durable surface coatings, something that laminate products also share. From that standpoint it's almost a toss-up.

    However if you're choosing between a site-finished wood floor and laminate, the nod has to go with the latter on surface durability. The coating technology is just better (factory applied, high-tech materials) than a polyurethane finish you get with a wood floor that's finished on-site.

  2. What kind of maintenance and upkeep are you willing to expend?
    It'd be great if there was such a thing as a zero-maintenance floor but there isn't so some level of work will be required to keep both types of floors looking good.

    Wood floors (depending on species and finish) may be less tolerant of cleaning neglect (like sweeping and vacuuming) than laminate. This is primarily due to laminate's durable surface protection. That doesn't mean that you can forget about sweeping a laminate floor because the grit will still take it's toll. It just may take a little longer.

  3. Which room or rooms are you thinking about?
    The room has a role to play in making the right choice too. Some laminate floors can be used in wet areas like a bathroom (although pay close attention to the manufacturer's recommendations and warranty) whereas wood is not as durable in these rooms. That's because of problems that occur when wood naturally swells and shrinks with changes in humidity and moisture content.
  4. How finicky are you about how "real" it looks?
    Laminate floor technology has come a long way since its introduction, but it's still a picture that's laminated to a wood fiber core. There are laminate floors that do a very good job at looking like real wood and there are others that don't.

    Real wood on the other hand is just that -- real. It has a natural beauty and variation that even a good laminate picture can't capture. (Only a certain amount of a real wood floor is actually photographed when making a laminate floor. That results in some pattern repeatability. The more distinction in the grain pattern, the greater the likelihood of seeing the repetition.)

    It you can't bear the thought of anyone noticing that your floor isn't real wood (even with the great textured laminates today) then go with real stuff.

  5. Does the "green" environmental factor affect your decision?
    If you're looking for an environmentally-friendly flooring choice in your consideration, the decision depends on your definition of 'green'.

    Wood is a renewable resource but it doesn't mean that all species and forests are responsibly managed for sustainability. Some species like Ipil (sometimes referred to as merbau) are being harvested at a rate that threatens their continued existence. Wood floors originating from responsibly managed forests and manufacturing processes are environmentally friendly based on their sustainability.

    Laminate floors have a core made from wood manufacturing by-products (wood fibers fused together into a fiberboard). They also avoid the destruction of trees, particularly rarer exotic species, by virtue of the fact that they're just a picture and not real wood. On the other hand, some of the other ingredients like the resins and melamine are made from non-renewable resources so a laminate floor isn't a slam-dunk on the environmentally-responsible scale.

    Life cycle is another factor here. A wood floor can be refinished several times whereas laminate can't be refinished at all. That makes for a longer life cycle for wood floors, all other factors being equal.

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Looking At Laminate & Wood Side By Side

The table below lays out the various attributes of wood vs. laminate and shows how each floor type stacks up with respect to those characteristics.

Keep in mind that for some of these qualities, there's not a black-and-white answer, with one floor type winning hands down over the other. Rather, there are situations where both share similar qualities but one works better than the other, or it depends on the brand or wood species you choose. You'll see the word "variable" in the table below for these situations.

Also, the type of wood species you choose has a big impact on the comparison. Jatoba, often called Brazilian Cherry (though not really cherry) is very hard and will be much more resistant to dents than a Southern Pine floor. Comparing those to laminate, you'd find that the Jatoba is more dent resistant than laminate whereas the pine is probably less so.

Finally, there's the "looks" department. Some laminated products do a better job than others in looking like real wood. There's even some real, prefinished, engineered wood that makes you wonder if it's laminate because it's too perfect looking. It's all up to your own eyes.

The best way to decide is to get some samples of both types of flooring. Even though they're just samples, they'll give you a pretty good idea how they look when you compare them next to each other. You'll be able to see if the "grain" on the laminate floor looks convincing to your eye and see whether it's construction looks robust enough for you.

Publisher's Comments

I limited showing pictures of "laminate" vs "wood" because pictures really don't tell the whole story -- you've got to see the stuff in person. But, for what it's worth, here are two shots. One is laminate flooring the other is real wood. Can you tell the difference (again, if you were actually standing on these floors it might be easier)?

comparison of wood to laminate flooring

laminate vs wood floor comparison

The picture on top is real wood. The one below it is laminate. I must say however that this particular laminate floor was one of the most convincing and best looking laminate floors I've seen. The only problem: I don't know anything about the brand or make.

So there you have it. These pictures might not show you much relative to the visual differences but perhaps it gives you some notion. Again, the best advice -- actually look at some real products to get the best visual comparison.

Considerations Of Laminate Vs Wood Flooring

The column titled "winner" is a bit tongue-in-cheek but it's included to give a general feel for which is the better option for any given category. A 'split' means it's a wash between the two, with no clear standout on a better choice.

Quality / Attribute Laminate Wood "Winner"
Resistance to scratches, wear & tear Yes Variable - depends on species and surface coating laminate
Resistant to dents and dings Yes - better on HPL than DPL1 Variable - depends on species (wood hardness) split
Moisture resistant Variable - some brands better than others (bathroom installation OK provided proper installation) Variable - moisture absorption rate and swell depends on species (stability characteristic) split
Renewable No Yes wood
Broad product range & many style choices Yes Yes split
Economical Yes - for initial investment2 Yes - but for long term2 wood
Easy installation Yes - most varieties are glueless 'click-together' Variable to No - some 'click-together' floating floors exist but traditional wood floor installation typically requires a professional laminate
Long life cycle Variable to No - not as long as a wood floor due to lack of renewability Yes wood
Can be 'floated' over existing floors Yes Variable to No - some 'click-together' floating wood floors exist but traditional wood (both solid and engrd.) require fastening to suitable subfloor laminate
Requires professional installation Variable to No - can be professionally installed (some manufacturers require it for valid warranty) but most are do-it-yourself (DIY) friendly Variable to Yes - most skills required for traditional wood floor (installation/nailing/finishing) are not considered avg. DIY skills) laminate
Easily removed/reusable Yes - though some warranties with regard to joint integrity are void after panels have been joined/taken apart several times Variable to No - only click-together floating wood floors can be considered easily removable laminate
Pattern (grain) repetition Yes No wood
Resistant to stains Yes Yes split
Can be used with radiant floor heat systems Yes Variable - only engineered wood floors can be used (not solid wood) laminate
Table Notes:
1 HPL = High Pressure Laminate / DPL = Direct Pressure Laminate (HPL is more dent resistant but less accepting of texture embossing)
2 Wood floors generally have a longer working life because they can be refurbished, sometimes several times. Any higher initial cost vs laminate is generally mitigated by virtue of the lower cost of ownership resulting from wood's longer lifespan.

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Cost Comparison Between Laminate And Wood Flooring

As the table comparing laminate vs wood flooring shows, there's no clear cut winner. Intuitively that makes sense because like any product type, there are variable conditions and circumstances that influence the suitability of one product over another.

However, if you had to pick an attribute that generally differentiates laminate vs wood floors, cost would probably be the answer.

So let's see how they compare:

Laminate flooring lies within a range of about $1.00 per square foot to approximately $5.00 per square foot, uninstalled. Premium products that include texture embossing and high-tech coatings will be more expensive than the cheaper products with fewer options.

Wood flooring costs anywhere from about $1.00 per square foot (for cheaper cabin-grade stock) to $20.00 per square foot for exotic species and possibly more for rare reclaimed woods. On average however the cost range is about $3.00 to $12.00 per square foot when you consider the more typical varieties like oak and maple. These are uninstalled prices.

If you disregard quality and grade you can get wood flooring products for a lower price than laminate but you'll find that for the most part, wood flooring costs more.

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Final Conclusions

So what's the best choice when it comes to wood or laminate? The answer depends on your specific situation. But if you're looking for generalities, consider these:

Laminate flooring works well for -

  • a lower initial investment for a reasonably durable floor
  • a DIY-friendly surface that can be ready for use right after installation
  • situations where you want an exotic or expensive wood look without the cost (or environmental impact) associated with the real thing

A real wood floor is suitable for -

  • people who want the look and feel of real wood
  • buyers who want the long term benefits like multiple refurbishment capability
  • those who want a distinctive product like a floor made from centuries-old barn timbers and who aren't satisfied with reproductions

If you're still on the fence and can't make up your mind, make sure you've gone out and seen some real examples of laminate and wood floors. Sometimes seeing and feeling them in an installed setting is enough to sway you one way or another.

If you've done that, then consider these final points.
While a wood floor may require professional installation, a higher initial cost outlay and some inconvenience with site-finished floors, they're typically a good investment and viewed as adding value to a home. So if you choose wood, you probably won't regret the decision long term.

Keep in mind too that there's a lot of pre-finished wood floors in the marketplace and they can be DIY-friendly. That removes the inconveniences of a site-finished floor and labor cost, if you install it yourself.

If you choose a laminate floor, you may find that it works just right for your situation. Or, if it doesn't, it's relatively easy to remove and replace with something else if you find you just can't live with it.

If things would be easier by having a local flooring professional help you out, fill out the form below. It's a way to make contact with several local sources for flooring that can contact you at your convenience for a free estimate.

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

Choosing Wood Flooring - Wood floors is a rather broad topic but this article breaks it down into the manageable chunks you need to make an informed decision.

Laminate Flooring - Want to know more about choosing laminate flooring? This article shows you what's available and what to look for.

Harmonics Laminate Flooring - The Harmonics brand is a popular and well-liked laminate floor. Get the Publisher's point of view on this particular type of flooring in this article.

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