Solid hardwood flooring is often regarded as the real deal, with laminate flooring occupying the next rung down as an inexpensive way to simulate the look of real hardwood flooring. Hardwood flooring—3/4-inch-thick boards of solid hardwood cut from a tree—is undoubtedly a quality material. But this does not mean that you should automatically discount laminate flooring. Solid hardwood floor and laminate flooring each have their own place, with their own unique set of values as well as challenges.
Solid Hardwood vs. Laminate Flooring: Major Differences
Solid hardwood flooring, as the name suggests, is comprised of flooring boards that are solid hardwood material through-and-through. The boards, usually 3/4-inch thick, are generally milled with a smooth top surface and tongue-and-groove edges that interlock to hold the boards together. They are usually installed by blind-nailing the boards to the subfloor through the tongues along the edges of the boards. If the boards are unfinished, the floor is stained and varnished once the installation is complete. However, prefinished solid hardwood flooring is increasingly preferred.
Laminate flooring is manufactured by starting with a core layer of fiberboard made of wood byproducts. Over this is a design layer that is printed to resemble wood or other material. The design layer is protected by a clear, hard wear layer that offers good resistance to scratching and stains. The flooring boards are relatively thin, 6 to 12 mm (1/4- to 1/2-inch) thick, and are manufactured with click-lock edges that snap together to secure the boards. This is a floating floor that requires no nailing or glue.
Solid hardwood flooring is a highly attractive, premium building material that has undeniable prestige. Even cheaper species of real hardwood (red or white oak) are usually more attractive than laminate's artificial premium species.
From a distance, quality laminate flooring can look much like real wood. But at close inspection, people can almost always tell that laminate flooring is not real hardwood. Newer, top-quality laminates now have a more random repeat pattern and they integrate a surface grain texture to make the flooring even more realistic, but the mimicry is far from perfect.
Best for Appearance: Solid Hardwood
No real debate here: Solid hardwood flooring is far more attractive than laminate flooring.
Water and Heat Resistance
Although popular in kitchens, solid hardwood is not recommended for wet areas, either. Solid hardwood flooring can be damaged by standing water and floods, and even installation against concrete slabs is frowned up (engineered hardwood flooring is a better choice in these situations). It's not recommended that you install hardwood flooring over radiant heating systems, as the boards can shrink and cause the joints to open up.
Laminate surfaces are highly water- and stain-resistant, but water getting into the joints between planks can cause the edges and the fiberboard core to swell and chip. It is not recommended in wet areas, such as bathrooms. Laminate flooring has enough heat resistance that it can be installed over radiant heating systems.
Best for Water and Heat Resistance: Laminate
Neither laminate nor solid hardwood flooring is ideal flooring materials for truly wet locations, but laminate is somewhat better for humid locations, such as installation against concrete slabs. Laminate flooring also has come advantage when it comes to heat resistance.
Care and Cleaning
Cleaning of a solid hardwood floor is simple: sweeping or vacuuming, and damp-mopping with a wood cleaner. Today's wood floors are sealed with polyurethane varnish, and they should never be polished or waxed.
Laminate floors are easily cleaned with a vacuum or broom. Mopping should be done with a damp mop moistened with a laminate floor cleaner. No waxing is ever necessary. Avoid excessive water and never clean with a steam cleaner.
Best for Care and Cleaning: Tie
Both flooring materials are easy to care for.
Durability and Maintenance
Hardwood flooring can last a lifetime—or even longer. Unusual circumstances, though, like flooding, can render a hardwood floor worthless if rescue attempts come too late. Hardwood likely will need to be recoated or refinished periodically, depending on wear and care. Periodic resealing is recommended, and when the damage becomes severe, the floor can be sanded down and refinished. This should be done by professionals since there are a limited number of times a hardwood floor can be resanded. Most floors wear down after three or four sandings, so use discretion when choosing this method.
Laminate flooring has moderately good resistance to damage from impact. If an object is heavy enough and hits laminate with sufficient force, the floor will be gouged or dented. Expect 10 years of use, maximum. Hazards that shorten the lifespan of laminate include water infiltration, scratches from chair legs, and even UV rays. Laminate flooring cannot be refinished or sanded. When it is ruined, replacement is the only cure.
Best for Durability and Maintenance: Solid Hardwood
Hardwood floors come out well on top when it comes to durability. Hardwood and laminate are roughly equal when it comes to maintenance.
Solid hardwood is difficult for non-professionals to install. Rental of special tools such as a floor nailer or stapler is required. Unfinished flooring must be sanded and finished after the planks are installed; the sanding and finishing is a job for professionals. Prefinished hardwood flooring does not need to be finished after it is installed.
Laminate flooring is very easy to install, making it a favorite for DIYers. The planks click together at the edges, and there is no need for fasteners or glue since this is a flooring that floats over a thin layer of foam underlayment. While laminate flooring can be installed below-grade, it is still not the best flooring for basements.
Best for Installation: Laminate
Here is where laminate has a clear advantage—this is a far, far easier flooring for DIYers to install.
The range for solid hardwood flooring is $4 to $12 per square foot, with an average cost of about $8 per square foot. Common hardwoods like oak, maple, and ash go for $4 to $5 per square foot, with more unique species commanding higher prices. Wider-format plank flooring of the same species and narrower flooring of unique species go for at least $5 per square foot, with prices steeply escalating after that.
Laminate flooring typically costs $1 to $3 per square foot. Designer flooring selling for as much as $10 to $12 per square foot is also available. Thicker wear layers are what distinguish the better, more expensive products.
Best for Cost: Laminate
Laminate flooring can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of solid hardwood flooring. The savings become even greater if you install the flooring yourself.
Solid hardwood floors can routinely last 100 years with proper care and refinishing.
Laminate floors average about 10 years of life, with 20 years a possibility in low-use applications.
Best for Lifespan: Solid Hardwood
Laminate floors have a considerably shorter life than solid hardwood flooring.
Solid hardwood flooring is typically sold in 1 1/2-inch or 2 1/4-inch-wide boards that are 48 inches long, though wide-plank forms up to 6 inches wide or more are also available. The boards are almost always 3/4 inch thick.
Laminate flooring generally comes in planks 4 inches wide or more and about 48 inches long. The thickness of the planks ranges from 6 to 12 mm, depending on the quality of the product.
Best for Sizes: Tie
There is no advantage to the sizing standards of one flooring over the other.
Hardwood flooring nearly always adds real good estate value if it is in decent shape. It ranks with high-quality porcelain or natural stone tile as a premium flooring material.
Laminate flooring rarely adds real estate value to a home, although it is certainly better than a shabby carpet or vinyl floor.
Best for Resale Value: Solid Hardwood
Hardwood floors will always impress real estate professionals and potential buyers, provided the floor is well cared for.
Comfort and Sound
Hardwood floors tend to be hard underfoot, and they can be a bit noisy under heels and pet toenails. These are very solid floors, though they normally do not adapt to radiant heating systems.
Laminate flooring is generally somewhat soft underfoot since it is installed over a foam underlayment. But as a floating floor, it can sometimes flex underfoot unless the subfloor is perfectly flat. And the hard plastic surface can telegraph the clicks of shoe heels and pet toenails. Laminate flooring can be installed over radiant heating systems to create a warmer, cozier floor.
Best for Comfort and Sound: Laminate
Both flooring materials have roughly the same characteristics, but some people find that laminate flooring is somewhat more comfortable.
If authenticity, resale value, and durability are what is most important, then choose solid hardwood flooring. But laminate flooring can be a viable option where your budget is limited, or where you want to install the flooring yourself. Laminate flooring will never pass for real hardwood to the discerning eye, but it can be a serviceable flooring for many situations.
Several national brands offer both laminate flooring and solid hardwood:
- Bruce, once owned by Armstrong, is now owned by AIP (American Industrial Partners). The company offers laminate flooring as well as solid and engineered hardwood. Its products are widely available at home improvement centers.
- Shaw Flooring Shaw Flooring offers many flooring projects, ranging from bargain laminates selling for $2 per square foot to quite expensive solid hardwoods. Its products are sold mostly at specialty flooring stores. Its laminate flooring is sold principally at big-box home improvement centers, where it sells for around $3 per square foot.
- Mohawk: This company offers both solid hardwood and engineered hardwood (called TecWood), as well as a broad selection of wood-look laminates, which is marketed as RevWood.