Installing laminate flooring is quite easy, and after you've done it once you will wonder why anyone ever pays professional installers to do this. Unlike ceramic tile, laminate flooring is a "dry" installation—no grout, no mortar, no adhesives that set up while you're working. And unlike solid hardwood flooring that needs to be nailed down, laminate simply snaps together and lies in place. It is a "floating" floor that isn't attached to the subfloor or underlayment. Laminate installation is much like putting together a large puzzle and should take no more than one day for almost any room.
Preparing the Floor
For proper installation, the subfloor or old flooring surface must be flat, smooth, and clean. Laminate flooring can usually be installed successfully right over old floor coverings, such as sheet vinyl, provided the surface is flat and smooth and not soft or cushiony. A simple underlayment of foam sheeting is usually sufficient as a base for laminate planks. If the floor surface has damage or unevenness, though, you may need to remove it and lay down a rigid underlayment of thin plywood before laying the foam sheets and installing the laminate flooring.
Flooring manufacturers always recommend putting down underlayment before laying the laminate. This thin, dense foam layer helps to absorb sound, provides a thermal barrier, makes it easier to walk on the laminate, and helps the flooring bridge minor gaps and bumps in the underlying floor.
In addition, if you are laying flooring over a concrete slab or another moisture-prone surface, the flooring manufacturer may recommend installing some type of moisture or vapor barrier to protect the flooring from moisture. Some types of underlayment are designed to serve as a moisture barrier. Otherwise, you can install thick plastic sheeting and seal the seams with tape to provide a moisture barrier. Typically, this goes below the underlayment.
Before beginning installation, remove all baseboards and trim around the perimeter of the room as well as any heating resisters or air return duct covers mounted in the floor. Thoroughly sweep and/or vacuum the entire floor.
Equipment / Tools
- Utility knife
- Tapping block or pull bar
- Rubber mallet (optional)
- Tape measure
- Speed square
- Circular saw, jigsaw, or handsaw
- Table saw (optional)
- Laminate flooring
- Underlayment and tape
- Scrap wood spacers
Test the Flooring Layout
Test-fit some laminate planks to see how they will lay out in the room. For a small- to medium-size room, it's easiest to use the flooring itself rather than measuring and calculating.
Arrange planks side by side across the room. You can lock the side joints together or simply butt the planks against one another; just be careful not to walk on the flooring if the joints are not locked together.
Next, arrange a length of planks end-to-end—without locking the planks together. This would create a lock that is difficult to undo and may damage the edges.
Once you have a sense of the overall layout, pull up the planks and stack them in a nearby area.
Roll Out the Underlayment
Roll out sheets of underlayment and butt the edges together so they are touching but not overlapping. Secure the seams with tape, as recommended by the manufacturer. Some underlayments come with peel-and-stick adhesive edges that are used to join the pieces. Trim the underlayment to fit against the walls and obstructions with a utility knife.
Begin the First Row of Planks
Trim off the tongues (not the grooves) from the boards that will edge the first wall. Often, this is easy enough to do with a sharp utility knife, or you can use a table saw or circular saw.
Begin laying the first row on the longest wall, with the trimmed edges of the planks against the wall. Start on the right side and work to the left. Lay down a full-size plank against the wall, spacing it about 1/4 to 3/8 inch (as directed by the manufacturer) away from the wall and making sure the groove edge faces out. Place spacers of scrap wood between the flooring and the wall to maintain this gap.
Proceed with additional full-length planks, working toward the left to the end of the room. As you work, lock each piece to its neighbor using a hammer and a tapping block or pull bar to snug up the joints. The end joints should be tight, with no gaps. Some manufacturers suggest tapping the planks with a rubber mallet to help close the end joints.
Finish the First Row
Once you reach the left end of the first row, the last plank will likely be too long. Measure the length needed and transfer that measurement to a full-size plank, measuring from the right to left side, so that the tongue-end of the plank is preserved to attach to the last full plank. Be sure to account for the expansion gap at the wall.
Cut the plank to length with a circular saw or jigsaw. Retain the cut-off end; this will form the first plank in the second row, beginning back at the right side of the room.
Fit the final cut piece into the first row of flooring, and secure the tongue-and-groove end joint, as before. A pull bar is particularly handy at the end of a row.
Plan the Next Rows
This diagram shows the best process for laying a laminate floor. Moving from right to left, the last piece in each row will always be cut off, with the cut-off piece from the left shifting down to begin the next row of flooring on the right.
The rows of laminate planks should have a staggered, sawtooth appearance so that seams never line up in adjacent rows. Not only would this be unsightly, it would also compromise the structural stability of the flooring.
It's best to keep cut pieces no less than 16 inches long, but with a good stable, flat subfloor, the cut lengths can go as short as 1 foot. If you find that your first row leaves you with a very short cut piece on the left end, it's best to reconfigure the row so that it begins with a partial board on the right end. This will ensure that the cut plank on the left is an acceptable length.
Continue Laying More Rows
Install the planks for the second and subsequent rows, using a similar but slightly different technique than you used for the first row. For these rows, hold each piece at a 45-degree angle and insert the long tongue edge into the groove of the planks in the preceding row, then lower the piece flat to the floor to lock the joint. Finally, tap the piece into its neighbor in the same row with the hammer and tapping block or pull bar (on all but first piece in each row).
Install the Last Row
Unless you are very lucky, you will need to rip your last row of planks to finish the room's flooring installation. Mark planks in this last row for ripping, making sure to allow for the 1/4-inch expansion gap between the flooring and the wall. Rip the final row of planks using a circular saw, table saw, or jigsaw.
Install the last row of ripped planks, using the same tongue-and-groove fitting technique. This can be a little tricky with the last row of planks since you are working tight against the wall. But even in tight spaces such as beneath a cabinet overhang, you should still have enough room to angle the board up to get it into locking position.
Complete the installation by removing all spacers, then installing baseboard molding along the room's perimeter. The gaps along the walls should be entirely hidden by the molding.
Use a long straightedge, a T-square, or a chalk line to mark the long cutting lines for rip cuts running the length of flooring planks. Use a speed square or try square to mark lines for crosscuts.
Tips for Cutting Laminate Flooring
Don't worry too much about your technique for cutting or ripping laminate planks. The planks are very thin, with a core of fiberboard that cuts very easily. The cut edges will be hidden when the baseboards and molding are installed, so perfect cuts aren't essential.
Table saws always produce the best cuts, but you can also use a circular saw, a jigsaw, or even a handsaw. Fine-tooth saw blades will produce better cuts with less chipping of the laminate surface. For notches, curves, and other custom cuts, a jigsaw is best.
Circular saws and jigsaws cut up through the material, so most chipping occurs on the top side of the workpiece. To minimize chipping on the flooring surface, cut from the backside of the plank. Table saws cut down, so in this case you cut the planks faceup.