What Is Laminate Flooring?

Laminate Flooring Installation
Laminate flooring can easily be installed by a homeowner, using basic tools. Lee Haywood/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Once rarely installed except as a type of economy flooring, laminate flooring has gone big-time and is now a staple in so many homes. It looks better, performs better, and feels better underfoot than ever before. It's even being found as a type of premium flooring in high-end homes. All of this popularity and limelight then beg the question: What is laminate flooring? 

Laminate flooring is a hybrid floor covering made of particleboard wood. It is the best of many worlds. It installs much like real hardwood since it has a modernized tongue-and-groove style of joining boards. Yet unlike hardwood, which typically requires professional installation, laminate flooring is extremely easy for the do-it-yourselfer to install. Laminate's top behaves much like vinyl flooring, in that it is perfectly waterproof if tightly seamed. But the similarities end there. While routinely confused with vinyl flooring, laminate is not vinyl flooring even in the slightest because it is made of completely different materials.

Sometimes erroneously called laminate wood flooring, laminate is wood only in two minor respects. First, laminate floor is made of pressed wood. Second, the top only looks like wood (sometimes stone, though) because it is an accurate photograph covered in a clear, durable wear layer. 

Laminate Flooring Basics

  • Materials: 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.
  • Installation: Laminate is installed as a floating floor. Boards connect to each other but not to the subfloor.
  • Joinery: Fold and lock is a common style of joining laminate flooring boards.
  • Subfloor and Underlayment: Like all floor coverings, laminate flooring needs a good, solid subfloor. Foam 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.
  • Prices: Laminate flooring is inexpensive relative to solid hardwood, engineered wood, and stone floor coverings. In price, laminate is comparable to luxury vinyl flooring and some ceramic or porcelain tiles.  
  • Major Pros and Cons: One advantage of laminate flooring is that it is easy to clean and surprisingly scratch-resistant. For this alone, laminate can be a great floor for people who own pets. The main downside of laminate is that water 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.

Laminate Flooring vs. Other Floor Coverings

Competitor Material Different From Laminate Similar to Laminate
Vinyl flooring 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 the closest non-laminate 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 product. 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.
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 Flooring Installation Methods

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.

Laminate Flooring Materials: Base, Image Layer, and Wear Layer

Laminate flooring was invented in 1977 by the Swedish company Perstorp. This firm hit upon the brilliant idea of using up waste wood projects by subjecting those products to intensely high pressure, heat, and binding chemicals, and turning the result into usable floor coverings. Since that time, many other manufacturers such as Dupont, Mannington, Armstrong, and Shaw have begun making laminate flooring.

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.