Laminate Flooring Installation Made Easy

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    One Room, One Day

    Laminate Flooring Prior to Installation
    Westend61 / Getty Images

    :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 porcelain or ceramic tile, plastic laminate flooring is a "dry" installation—no grout, no mortar, no adhesives to set up and dry. Laminate planks do not require any special tools or saws for cutting—ordinary saws work just fine. Unlike solid hardwood flooring that needs to be nailed down, laminate snaps together—it is a "floating" floor that isn't even unattached to the subfloor or underlayment. Laminate installation is much like putting together a large puzzle.

    There is no reason why you can't floor an entire room in one day.

    Materials and Tools You Will Need

    • Laminate flooring: Buy 10% more than the square footage of your room to account for wastage. You should be able to return any unopened boxes to the store.
    • Underlayment: These thin rolls of foam will even out the surface below the laminate.
    • Circular saw or table saw with fine-tooth panel blade.  A table saw is the best for ripping boards, but you can manage with a circular saw. The lighter the circular saw, the better.
    • Small hand saw: A hand miter saw is a perfect size.
    • Jigsaw (if needed)
    • Rubber mallet This isn't essential but is certainly helpful. 
    • Tape measure
    • Straightedge or T-square
    • Pencil
    • Vapor barrier (optional). Install a vapor barrier if you are laying flooring over a concrete slab or another moisture-prone surface. Most foam underlayments act as vapor barriers, as well. Check the package to verify this.

    Preparation

    For proper installation, your base floor needs to be flat, clean, and ready to accept the laminate flooring. Laminate flooring can usually be installed successfully right over old floor coverings, such as sheet vinyl, provided the surface is flat and smooth. 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. 

    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. 

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    Test the Flooring Layout

    Lay Laminate Floor - Preliminary Layout
    Lee Wallender

    Many guides to laminate floor installation advocate making all sorts of mathematical calculations and maps before even pulling out the first board. But for a small- to medium-sized room, an easier strategy is to simply open up a couple of boxes of flooring and make a preliminary layout on a well-swept floor prior to rolling out the underlayment.  

    The aim is not to lay out the entire floor. Instead, layout planks side by side across the room and snap the planks together. This helps you see how many rows it will take to cover the room, and it also helps you practice the action of joining plank together.

    Next, do a length of planks end-to-end. But at this stage, avoid snapping planks together both at the ends and sides. This will create a lock that is difficult to undo and may damage the interlocking tongue and groove system.

    Once you are satisfied with your ability to work with the planks and have a sense of the overall layout, pull up the planks and stack them in an adjacent room.

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    Cutting Tips

    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 hand saw. Fine-tooth saw blades will produce better cuts with less chipping of the laminate surface. 

    Use a long straightedge to mark the long cutting lines for rip cuts running the length of flooring planks, or a T-square to mark cross-cuts. Set your saw blade depth so it is just slightly deeper than the thickness of the flooring planks. Make sure to support the free end of the plank so the ends don't break off before the cut is complete.

    Should there be obstructions or unusual contours that need to be cut in flooring planks, such as for pipes extending up out of the floor, or around door case moldings, a jigsaw with fine-tooth woodcutting blade may be necessary. 

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    Roll Out the Underlayment

    Lay Laminate Floor - Install Underlayment
    Lee Wallender

    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.

    Roll out sheets of underlayment and butt the edges tightly together without overlapping them. 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. 

    Foam underlayment is always a default choice. However, if your subfloor is flat and will always remain as dry as a bone, underlayment is not absolutely necessary. 

     

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    Laying the First Row of Flooring

    Lay Laminate Flooring - Putting Down First Row
    Lee Wallender

    Start by cutting off the tongues from the boards that will edge the first wall, using a table saw or circular saw. Begin laying this first row on the longest wall, with the trimmed edges of the planks against the wall.

    Start on the right side and work leftward. Lay down a full-size plank against the wall, spacing it about 1/4 inch away from the wall. Spacers placing between the flooring and the wall can help maintain this gap. This expansion gap is critical for a floating laminate floor since it will expand and contract due to changes in weather. Consult flooring instructions for recommended expansion gap widths. Most guides tend to overstate the width needed; generally, no more than 1/4 inch is needed.

    Proceed with additional full-length planks, working toward the left to the end of the room. Use a rubber mallet to join the ends of the planks together, making sure the seams are tight. Done correctly, the end joints should be tight, with no gaps.

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    Finishing the First Row

    Lay Laminate Floor - Cut Piece Moves to Next Row
    Lee Wallender

    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-side of the plank is preserved to attach to the last full plank. There should be a 1/4-inch expansion gap at the side wall, as well, so this last plank is cut just slightly short.

    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, securing the tongue-and-groove end joint.

    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.

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    Layout Pattern

    Lay Laminate Floor- Layout
    Lee Wallender

    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. 

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    Stagger the Planks

    Lay Laminate Floor - Stagger the Joints
    Lee Wallender

    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 but it would also compromise the structural stability of the flooring.

     

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    Plank Joining Technique

    Lay Laminate Floor - How Locking Mechanism Works
    Lee Wallender

    Laminate planks, such as this Swiftlock brand, usually have a click-and-lock mechanism that requires you to first tilt the board up to about 45 degrees from horizontal. You'll feel the plank ever-so-minutely shift into place into the lower plank as you press them together. As you pivot the plank back down to horizontal, the seam should close up tightly. 

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    Watch for Gaps in Seams

    Lay Laminate Floor - Close Up of Gap in Planks
    Lee Wallender

    Laminate is one type of flooring where gaps between planks are anathema. Laminate flooring is very prone to water damage to the base fiberboard core if the planks are not tightly fitted. If you have a gap, the reason is almost always because you did not tilt the plank up high enough when pressing them together. 

    If you run into unacceptable gaps: 

    • For just a single plank, tilt the plank up higher and then bring it down again as you force the pieces tightly together.
    • For a row of planks already connected end-to-end, tilt the whole row up, press it into the previous row, and pivot it back down to horizontal. 
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    Technique for End Joints: Step 1

    Lay Laminate Floor - How Planks Should Butt Up
    Lee Wallender

    It can be quite difficult to get the side ends of the planks tight, yet not so tight that you end up chipping the fiberboard or top wear layer. 

    Begin as shown here, with the long edge of the board inserted into the groove on the previous row. Slowly pivot the plank down, but don't force it in place just yet. Test to make sure that there isn't too much friction between the two butt ends. 

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    Technique for End Joints: Step 2

    Lay Laminate Floor - Use Rubber Mallet for Butt Ends
    Lee Wallender

    Rap the end seam firmly and decisively with a rubber mallet—just two or three sharp raps. If it takes more than about three strikes, the plank ends are too tightly fitted—you may damage the planks if you rap more.

    If you find that the pieces don't want to fit together, check to make sure that the ends have a complementary alignment of tongue and groove. It is possible that you may be accidentally trying to fit incompatible pieces together. 

    Rather than forcing ends together that don't want to connect, It may be better to try a fresh plank. Using excess force may well ruin both pieces. 

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    Installing the Last Row

    Lay Laminate Flooring - Laying Last Row
    Lee Wallender

    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 table saw. 

    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.

    With the flooring installation complete, you can install baseboard moldings and trim. Ideally, the edges of the flooring will be entirely hidden by the moldings.