What Are Laminate Floors?

Hardwood floor
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Once installed mainly as a type of economy flooring, laminate floors still firmly hold their place as an inexpensive, functional flooring. But they have even moved into higher-end homes that once would have installed nothing but solid hardwood or engineered wood flooring. Laminate floors look better, perform better, and feel better underfoot than ever before. All of this popularity may beg the question: What are laminate floors in the first place?

Basics of Laminate Floors

Laminate floors are a hybrid floor covering consisting of a particleboard wood base topped by an image layer and a transparent wear layer. Laminate floors are a popular type of floor covering for homes' living areas, kitchens, dining areas, bedrooms, hallways, and other areas that are not subject to excessive moisture.

Laminate floors were invented in 1977 by the Swedish company Perstorp. This firm landed on the idea of using up waste wood projects by subjecting those products to intensely high pressure, heat, and binding chemicals, then turning the result into usable floor coverings. Since that time, many other manufacturers such as Dupont, Mannington, Armstrong, and Shaw now make laminate floors.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Easy to clean
  • Scratch-resistant
  • Good for homes with pets and children
  • Inexpensive relative to other types of floor coverings

Cons

  • Moisture can swell the laminate floor base
  • Chips easily
  • Not suitable for bathrooms or laundry rooms
Laminate Floors Compared to Other Floor Coverings
  Different From Laminate Similar to Laminate
Vinyl Floor Vinyl flooring is flexible, contains only vinyl product, and is 100-percent impervious to water. Vinyl flooring does not need to acclimate to a room prior to installation. Vinyl is a close cousin of laminate. It is competitively priced, equally easy for do-it-yourselfers to install, and has a similar look.
Solid Hardwood Hardwood is 100-percent solid wood. Laminate has no solid wood. Solid hardwood is thick and can be sanded and re-sanded many times. Laminate is thin and can never be sanded. Solid hardwood and laminate flooring can look remarkably alike, especially from a distance. High-definition imaging techniques make some laminate flooring a dead-ringer for real hardwood.
Engineered Wood Engineered wood has a plywood base topped with a veneer of 100-percent real wood. Laminate has no plywood and no natural real wood veneer top. Both engineered wood and laminate have a base that made of manufactured wood. Both products can look remarkably similar, especially with the premium laminates.
Natural Stone Laminate flooring contains no stone product. Stone is hard, solid, and thick. Laminate is flexible, breakable, and thin. As with the hardwood-to-laminate comparison, higher-end laminate flooring can look very much like stone.

Laminate Floor Materials

Laminate floors are sometimes called laminate wood floors, though they are wood only in two respects. First, the laminate floor base consists of pressed chipped wood particles. Second, the top has the appearance of real wood due to the accurate image layer—essentially a well-rendered photograph of wood encased in a clear, durable wear layer.

Aggregated wood particles are subjected to high pressure to form sheets. These sheets have a photorealistic image of wood or stone added to the top, and this image is covered with a wear layer. The wear layer, a durable, thin, clear plastic sheet, is the linchpin between the delicate lower layers and exterior elements such as moisture, UV rays, and scratching.

  • Wear Layer: Laminate flooring is a surface layer of two thin sheets of paper impregnated with melamine. This top-most surface layer is a hard transparent type of plastic sheet that is impervious to dogs, chairs, high heels, and other common damaging elements.
  • Image Layer: Even when viewed close-up laminate flooring can look realistic. This is due to laminate's photographic-quality image of real wood underneath the wear layer.
  • Base Layer (Core): Under the wood-grain photograph is about a half-inch of wood-chip composite. Any type of wood chip product is inherently susceptible to water damage. Laminate flooring's base is considered to be dimensionally stable, but only to a certain degree. It will stand up against some water, but only if this water is quickly removed.

Installation Method

Laminate floors are always installed as floating floors. With this method, floor boards connect to each other but not to the subfloor. Laminate floors install much like solid hardwood flooring since they have a modified tongue-and-groove style of joining boards. Yet unlike hardwood flooring, which typically requires professional installation, laminate floors are very easy for the do-it-yourselfer to install with only basic tools.

Laminate is always installed as a floating floor. This means that 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 from one piece to the next piece and form a seriously heavy single unit, it cannot slide around. 

Laminate flooring planks, depending on the type you buy, are either snapped together or glued together. The snap-together method most commonly used goes under various names such as fold-and-lay or fold-and-lock. Unlike the tongue and groove joinery used with solid hardwood, in which one board slides laterally into the adjoining board, fold-and-lay starts with the two boards attached by outer grooves and angled to each other. Next, one board is folded down until it is as flat as its companion board. This folding mechanism serves to bring the two boards imperceptibly closer, tightening the bond, and preventing water migration.

Subfloor and Underlayment

Like all floor coverings, laminate floors need a good, solid subfloor. Foam or felt underlayment resides between the subfloor and laminate, detaching the two surfaces and providing for a softer footfall. In some instances, when the subfloor is not adequate, an intervening underlayment of thin plywood may be installed above the subfloor and below the foam underlayment.