Laminate flooring is not made from wood -- it’s actually a photograph of wood sandwiched between a clear plastic covering and a fiberboard backing. Like long-plank engineered wood, it can be floated over a concrete floor, but it comes at a fraction of the cost (the average is about $1.30 per square foot), and homeowners can install it themselves. That’s why the product, which was first imported from Sweden just 10 years ago, now accounts for about 10 percent of the entire residential flooring market.
Early laminate products were susceptible to scratching and moisture damage, but quality has improved dramatically. If you choose a high-quality laminate and install it right, many people won’t even realize that your floor isn’t the real McCoy. The grain looks real, the boards are almost as varied as those found in nature, and the real seams blend in among the simulated ones. About the biggest giveaway is the noise the floor makes when you walk on it. “It sounds hollow and flat,” says architect Ross Chapin. You can alleviate that problem with sound-dampening underlayments sold by the manufacturers, or look for one of several types that have sound-deadening materials already incorporated into the product itself.
Not all laminate is created equal. A seal from the National Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA) is one indication of quality. Another is the type: Manufactured under 1,400 pounds per square inch of pressure, high-pressure laminate (HPL) is more wear- and impact-resistant than direct-pressure (DPL) laminate. And a high-density fiberboard core provides more water resistance than lower-cost medium-density board does.
When it comes to looks, laminates that are “embossed in register” -- meaning the tiny lines imprinted on the surface follow the lines of the grainlook a bit more real than those that are not. And choose a product with at least six planks -- that is, six different grain photographs that repeat around the room -- and in random lengths, to help disguise repeats.
As for installation, pre-glued edges, which are activated with a swipe of water, are designed to provide a stronger and more waterproof seal between planks than snap-together products, without involving the mess of glue.
Quality laminates are generally guaranteed for 20 to 25 years, but that’s it—unlike wood floors, they cannot be refinished. In cases of spot damage, individual boards can sometimes be replaced. Repair kits are also available from some manufacturers.
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