What Is Laminate Flooring?

Installing Laminate Flooring in Kitchen
Installing Laminate Flooring in Kitchen. Getty / Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

Laminate floor is a floor covering made of pressed wood.  The top only looks like wood (sometimes stone, though) because it is a photograph covered in a clear "wear layer."  

While routinely confused with vinyl flooring, laminate is not vinyl flooring because it is made of completely different materials.

Basics

FeatureDetails
Installation"Fold and lock" style of tongue and groove flooring.  Some laminate glues together.
SubfloorLaminate flooring is unusual in that it does not attach to the subfloor.  Foam underlayment resides between the subfloor and laminate, detaching the two surfaces and providing for a softer footfall.  Floors that attach from board to board but not to the subfloor are called floating floors.
PriceInexpensive relative to solid wood, engineered wood, and stone floor covers.  Comparable to vinyl flooring.  
Wear LayerThe thin, clear plastic wear layer is the linchpin between the delicate lower layers and exterior elements such as moisture, UV rays, and scratching.
Best ThingLaminate is easy to clean and surprisingly scratch-resistant, one reason why it is a great floor for people who own pets.
Worst ThingWater can cause laminate flooring to swell if it gets between the seams.  Being made of pressed board, laminate can easily chip--especially the critical tongue and groove sections.

Clearing the Confusion

Laminate flooring is often confused with other floor covering types.  Here are the differences between other popular types of flooring.

Competitor MaterialDifferent From Laminate Because:Similar To Laminate Because:
Vinyl flooringVinyl flooring is flexible, contains only vinyl product, and is 100% impervious to water.Vinyl is the closest non-laminate cousin of laminate.  It is competitively priced, equally easy for DIYers to install, and has a similar look.
Solid hardwoodHardwood is 100% solid wood.  Laminate has no solid wood product.Other than the appearance from a distance, there is no similarity.
Engineered woodEngineered wood has a plywood base topped with a veneer of 100% real wood.  Laminate has no plywood and no natural real wood.Similar in that both laminate and engineered wood have a base that is a manmade wood.
StoneLaminate flooring contains no stone product.Other than the appearance from a distance, there is no similarity.

 

1.  It Is a Floating Floor

Laminate is always installed as a floating floor. This means it does not have the difficult nail-down installation issues of hardwood or engineered wood.

With the floating floor method, you first roll out inexpensive foam underlayment, tape the underlayment together, and then lay out the laminate planks.

  Because the planks are joined piece-to-piece and form a seriously heavy single unit, it cannot slide around. 

2.  Laminate Is Wood Composite, Not Natural Wood

Do you consider pressboard made of wood chip to be real wood?

Laminate flooring is often known by its brand name, Pergo. Yet there are plenty of other manufacturers: Dupont, Mannington, Armstrong.  Laminate flooring is mainly manufactured by companies that make synthetic floor coverings, rather than those that make solid hardwood or engineered wood.

Even when viewed close-up laminate flooring can look realistic.  This is due to laminate's photographic-quality image of real wood.

Put your face right up to laminate flooring--looks like real wood, doesn't it? Use a magnifying glass. Amazing! That's because laminate flooring is a surface layer of two thin sheets of paper impregnated with melamine. This surface layer is a photograph of wood grain, not real wood, and is usually covered by a hard transparent layer impervious to dogs, chairs, high heels, you name it.

3.  A Photo Makes It Look Like Wood

Under the wood-grain photograph is about a half-inch of wood-chip composite. So, sure--it's wood. In theory. And herein lie both the strong and weak points of laminate flooring.

The strong point is that you can replicate practically anything on this Earth through a photograph, even the most costly Italian marble. The weak point is that it is fake. Fake $500 per square foot marble is still fake.

4.  Available In Snap-On or Glue-On Options

Laminate flooring planks, depending on the type you buy, are either snapped together or glued together. The "snap-together" kind is easier to install but not as structurally sound as the "glue-together" type. Also, the "glue-together" type resists moisture better.