Everything You Need to Know About Laminate Flooring
If you are considering replacing your old floor with laminate flooring this article will help you understand everything you need to know.
In the Ultimate Guide To Laminate Flooring I’ll discuss the pro’s and cons of laminate flooring, why some laminates cost more than others, how to shop for laminate flooring, how to measure your home and what tools you will need should you decide to install it yourself.
What is Laminate Flooring?
Laminate flooring offers an excellent and affordable solution to your flooring needs. In most cases it can be installed in all areas of your home including areas that hardwood and tile could not be due to various sub-floor conditions.
You can find laminates that simulate hardwood, ceramic tile, marble or granite and for the do-it-yourselfer they offer a faster and easier installation.
In general laminate flooring is more durable and more easily maintained than its authentic counterparts. The wear layer is often over 10 times harder. They resist uv rays from the sun and as a result are much more resistant to fading. Because they are non-porous, they are much easier to keep clean, can be cleaned with a dry mop and most will have significant stain warranties.
Cheaper, easier and more durable. Sounds like a no brainer doesn’t it? Laminates however, are not fool proof and as a smart consumer you need to do some research. Read reviews and ask questions because..
– most laminate floors look great the day you install them. It’s what they look like after a few years of foot traffic that matters.
When the average person only shops and buys flooring a couple times in their life and with so many different flooring products available, it’s hard to know where to begin.
So where do you begin your search for laminate floors? Do you browse the isles of the nearest big box hardware store? Drive to the nearest flooring liquidator? Maybe you prefer to do the bulk of your shopping right here on the internet? Regardless of how you gather your information you’ll probably find…
Finding knowledgeable help in retail stores is next to impossible.
When you do find it, it’s biased and unconvincing.
You’ll probably never have a chance to meet and talk with anyone who actually owns the laminate flooring you’re interested in.
Working for a major flooring retailer has given me the opportunity to visit hundreds of homes with laminate flooring. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Or maybe I should say, the beautiful, the just okay and then the down right depressing. So what’s the difference anyway, aren’t all laminate floors basically the same?
No, all laminate floors are not the same! The laminate flooring industry is HUGE and just like any other industry with a demanding market base your options are mind boggling. Some laminates have stronger, denser core boards than others. Some have tighter and stronger locking systems than others. Some are thicker than others. Some have more moisture resistance than others. Some just simply look better and have a more realistic appearance than others.
Not convinced yet? Then imagine this… after some due diligence you find a retailer you trust, they have a nice laminate and most importantly they have a great price. Upon completion you’re happy because…
That old nasty carpet is finally gone!
Your new floor looks great!
With the big fancy warranty your new floor came with you’ll never have to worry about flooring again!
Then, just one year later, your floor is falling apart. The seams, where the boards lock together, are swelling, the boards are buckling and in some area’s where the tongue and groove locking system has failed the boards are separating. The installer doesn’t answer your calls, the flooring retailer passes the buck and refers you back to the manufacturer, the manufacturer, as luck would have it, filed for bankruptcy and now your iron clad manufacturer warranty is, well… useless.
Sound far fetched? I can’t tell you how people I’ve met in similar situations. Is it typical? No it’s not. The right laminate with a proper installation can look amazing, stand up to high traffic and maintain a new-like appearance years longer than other types of flooring. So how can you be sure your laminate doesn’t just end up being another horror story for me to write? How can you know for sure the laminate you choose will stand the test of time? How can you be sure that once installed your laminate floor will look realistic and not cheap or like plastic?
The purpose of this lens is to help you understand everything you will need to know about laminate flooring so you can be a laminate GURU just like me! Yay!
Laminate Flooring Vs Hardwood
Why spend over $3 a square foot for laminate flooring when you can find 3/4 inch hardwood for as little as $2 a square foot?
Good question and my answer is “durability and subfloor restrictions.”
3/4 inch hardwood can only be installed “above grade,” meaning, you shouldn’t install a 3/4 inch nail down hardwood, over a concrete slab. Why, you ask? Because, you can’t nail into concrete. Well, what if I just glue it down then? That’s not a good idea either and here’s why..
Hardwood is very porous, it breathes the air in your home and seasonally, as the climate changes, the hardwood, under stress, expands and contracts. Think about what happens when you leave a 2 x 4 on your lawn for a few days. Eventually, that 2 x 4 will start to bend.
Hardwood flooring is the same, however nailing it down to a strong subfloor will keep it from warping and bowing. Glue, on the other hand, is not a strong enough bond and when that hardwood starts to bend your new floor is going to be a big disaster. Try using a vacuum on a warped floor! Think I’m kidding, view more about hardwood floors vacuums and the hazards of using them on uneven flooring.
What about engineered wood? Yes, engineered wood was designed specifically to solve this problem and can be glued down over concrete. Engineered wood can be installed, on or above grade (on a concrete sub-floor or on a plywood sub-floor). Ok, what’s the catch? The drawback to using engineered wood is that the wear layer is typically very thin.
Unlike solid 3/4 inch hardwood, engineered wood is made up of several thin layers of wood. These “layers” are the key to stabilizing the wood, preventing it from warping and bowing. The downside however, is that the top layer, the one you walk on, is usually too thin to sand and when the day comes that it wears through, you’ll have to replace your floor. The two areas I see this the most in are foyers and kitchens, with a combination of high traffic and occasionally some dampness, engineered wood in these areas usually only last about 7 to 10 years.
Particle board “the plight of the homeowner.” Pull up your carpet and you will usually find one of four types of subfloor.
- Concrete is ideal for engineered hardwood, tile or slate
- Solid Plywood is ideal for naildown hardwood and engineered wood. It’s ok with tile or slate with the addition of a concrete backer board or ditra underlayment.
- OSB (oriented strand board) Most OSB is ok with nail-down hardwood and engineered wood. It’s also ok with tile or slate with the addition of a concrete backer board or ditra underlayment.
- Particle Board is not suitable for any hard surface flooring. (Except laminate)
What is particle board? Particle board, basically, is saw dust molded together with glue. The problem with it, is that it’s not very strong. The second problem with it, is that it’s not very moisture resistant. You should never install nail down hardwood over particle board because the particle board isn’t strong enough to stabilize wood. Nor should you install engineered wood over particle board for the same reason.
You shouldn’t install tile over particle board either because the first step to installing tile is spreading thin-set all over the subfloor and because particle board is like a big sponge, it will suck all the water out of the thin-set and eventually turn into mush.
“Is it safe to install a concrete backer board or ditra over particle board?” You could, but you really shouldn’t. When installing ditra, thin-set should be spread on both sides, the subfloor side and the tile side, again allowing the particle board to absorb the thin set. It would be better to install Ultra Flooring. When installing concrete backer board, remember, it also needs to be fastened to the sub-floor, usually with nails or with thin-set. Particle board just isn’t solid enough for hardwood and tile.
Your subfloor matters!
If you want hardwood or tile, and you have a particle board subfloor, you will first need to “rebuild” your subfloor. Which means, pulling up the particle board and installing real plywood.
If you have particle board and spending the extra money to rebuild you subfloor doesn’t excite you, then laminate is a great solution, because, unlike hardwood and tile, laminate is not glued or nailed to the subfloor and because of that..
Installing laminate flooring over particle board is perfectly fine.
How Durable Is Laminate Flooring?
A question I am frequently asked is.. “If my laminate wears or fades, can I sand and refinish it?”
The answer is “NO”. You can’t refinish laminate because the top layer isn’t real wood, it’s only a digital image of wood. However, you will never need to sand laminate because the top layer doesn’t wear or fade like hardwood can.
In-fact, it’s highly unlikely your laminate flooring will ever wear or fade at all!
Usually, the next question I’m asked is.. “What if someone drags a heavy piece of furniture and leaves a deep scratch in my floor? Because laminate can’t be sanded, I’ll be stuck with a scratched floor, right?”
Yes, it’s true, laminate is not scratch proof, but then again, either is hardwood, but it’s not true that you’ll be stuck with it. The great thing about laminate, is that the design layer is a computer generated image, if you damage a piece, you can just replace it, and because there are no dye lot restrictions with laminate and because laminate doesn’t fade, the new piece will always match the original piece exactly.
To help you understand how wear resistant laminate really is, I’ll need to explain what the Taber Abrasion Test is. The Taber Abrasion Test is a way to measure the wear resistance of various products, including tile, hardwood and laminate flooring. The process involves a small machine, made by Taber Industries, called an Abrader, also referred to as the Rotary Platform Dual Head Tester. This machine uses two revolving abrasive wheels that rotate on the products surface. The point is to find out how many rotations it takes to wear through the first layer. Harder products require more rotations. Test results show that..
Stained Hardwood with no polyurethane can take about 40 rotations
Stained Hardwood with 3 coats polyurethane, around 400-600 rotations
Stained Hardwood with Aluminum Oxide, about 1500 -1800
Basic mid-grade laminate, about 4000
Top of the line laminate, 4500 +
It’s because of this superior wear resistance that most laminates have significant wear warranties ranging anywhere from 15 to 30 years and some even offer lifetime warranties.
In addition to the wear resistance some laminates have another advantage over hardwood; higher-grade laminates now offer moisture and topical water warranties. Water in any form, whether from spills, moisture or high humidity, can ruin your hardwood floor. If you would like a hardwood look in your basement but you’re concerned about the humidity levels, laminate is a great solution. If you would like a hardwood look in your kitchen but you’re worried about spills and cleaning, again, laminate is great solution.
The great thing about laminate flooring is that the design layer is a computer generated image, if you damage a piece, you can just replace it, and because there are no dye lot restrictions with laminate and because laminate doesn’t fade, the new piece will always match the original piece exactly.
Shopping For New Laminate Flooring
Before you begin shopping for laminate it’s important to know the old adage, “you get what you pay for” is true, even with laminate.
In fact, if you find your options are too overwhelming, you may find comfort knowing that laminates are by and large, priced accordingly.
So what makes one laminate better than another anyway?
1. Thickness; Laminate’s are made anywhere from 7MM to 12MM thick. A thicker board will be more durable and when walk on will feel more like real hardwood.
2. Texture; Some laminates, unlike real hardwood, are smooth. Other laminates, just for the sake of having texture, will be embossed with random bumps. The most realistic texture is called Embossed-In-Register. Embossed-In-Register is a technology that matches texture with the design layer, resulting in a much more realistic looking and feeling laminate.
3. Core; A core can be a medium density board (MDF) or a high density board (HDF). HDF is harder and more durable than MDF. HDF is highly resistant to moisture and is safer in kitchens and other high moisture areas where MDF is not. Any laminate stating a moisture warranty is usually HDF.
4. Manufacturing process; High Pressure Laminate (HPL) or Direct Pressure Laminate (DPL). HPL is manufactured at 1400 PSI of pressure while DPL is manufactured at only 300 to 500 PSI. HPL is superior however most industry professionals would argue that for residential use HPL is overkill. Most brand name laminates are made with DPL however, just know, if you’re looking into laminate made with HPL you can expect a higher price tag.
6. Locking system; Believe it or not, when a locking system is designed, it can also be patented and as a result most manufactures use their own designs. I say most because some manufacturers, under license, will use another manufacturers locking system. Some locking systems will perform better overtime, maintaining a seamless transition from one board to the next, while others will break, leaving open gaps in between boards.
7. Appearance; Some laminates, simply, look better and more realistic than others.
Here’s a good example using two different name brand laminates contrasting in both quality and price.
Pergo’s Everyday Collection is a 7MM, DPL board with a random embossed texture and a 15 year warranty. This is considered to be Pergo’s most basic and economical laminate. Last time I checked you could find it on the internet for about $1.24 per square foot at my local flooring supplier.
Now take a look at Bruce’s newest collection, Park Avenue. A 12MM board, made with Bruce’s exclusive Magnum Plus HDF Core, Hi-Definition Print Technology and a 30 year warranty. Additonally Park Avenue is made into individual boards with beveled edges resulting in a much more realistic appearance. Many would consider Park Avenue to be one of the most realistic looking laminate on the market. You should be able to find it for about $3.80 per square foot.
Where should I buy my laminate flooring?
I recommend staying away from flooring outlets that sell discontinued products, also known as flooring liquidators, specializing in flooring products that have been discontinued for one reason or another. I have two problems with kind of purchase;
1. Most of the time products are discontinued because the manufacturer went out of business. If the manufacturer doesn’t exist, you won’t have any recourse should a warranty issue occur.
2. If you miscalculate or need to buy more of the same laminate for whatever reason, there is a chance the next time you go back, it won’t be available. If you can’t find the same board you won’t be able to make repairs and if you decide to add another room you won’t be able to match the original design.
If you’re happy with a mid grade laminate then shopping at the local hardware store is fine, however, if you’re interested in a high end, very realistic board then you will need to do your shopping with a retailer that specializes in flooring. Online retailers can usually offer better prices so if you visit a local retailer, before you make your purchase, be sure to do a price comparison with on online flooring store.
How to measure your home for laminate flooring.
When estimating the approximate cost of materials needed for your flooring project the first thing you will need to do is calculate how many square feet your room is.
In case you forgot, area can be calculated by multiplying the width of a room by the length of the room.
Lengh X Width = Area
To keep things simple the first example I’ll use is a room that is 10 feet wide by 10 feet long.
Floor Plan 1
10 X 10 = 100 square feet
Unfortunately when you install flooring there will be some waste, which means there will be pieces you don’t use, usually end cuts and angle cuts that leave pieces of laminate left over that are too small to use. This is referred to as the waste factor and generally when calculating the material you need you will want to calculate a 10% waste factor.
So for this example
10 X 10 = 100 square feet
and then add 10% waste
which is 100 X 1.1 = 110 square feet
Because laminate is sold by the case and not by the square foot (meaning you can’t buy a single square foot of laminate) the next thing you need to figure out is how many cases of laminate you need. Laminate collections rarely have the same amount of laminate per box, some may have 15 square feet per box while others may have 25 square feet per box. So the first thing you will need to do is find out how many square feet per box the laminate you’re using has.
For this example I’ll be using Armstrong’s American Duet collection which has 18.82 square feet per box. Now all you need to do is divide the total square feet of your room by 18.82
110 / 18.82 = 5.84 cases
Obviously, you can’t buy 5.84 cases of laminate so you’ll have to round up to 6 cases.
Most of the time, however, floor plans are not so basic. The next example is a common L shaped room layout. In this example you’ll need to break the room up into two different areas.
Floor Plan 2
To calculate the area in floor plan #2 all you will need to do is multiply the length and the width of each area and then add the two together.
10 X 20 = 200
10 X 10 = 100
Total = 300 SF
Don’t forget to calculate a 10% waste factor!
300 X 1.1 = 330 SF
Next, you need to know how many boxes of laminate you will need for 330 square feet. Assuming you are using the same kind of laminate as in example #1, with 18.82 square feet per box, you will need to divide 330 square feet by 18.82.
330 / 18.82 = 17.53 Cases
This means that you will need 18 cases.
Now take a look at floor plan #3.
Floor Plan 3
At first calculating the area of this room may seem mind boggling. You can’t exactly multiply length X Width in this room can you? Well, actually you can but first you will need visually break down the room into smaller areas (see below for floor plan #4).
Floor Plan 4
Here you can see how I sectioned off the room into 5 smaller, more manageable areas.
Floor Plan 5
Now you can calculate the total area by multiplying the length and width of each separate area and then adding them all together.
5’5″ X 2 = 11
18 X 7 = 126
10 X 6 = 60
4’5″ X 5 = 23
10 X 8 = 80
Total = 300 SF
Remember to calculate 10% waste
300 X 1.1 = 330 square feet
Note: 5’5″ X 2 isn’t exactly 11, it’s actually 10’10” but when calculating area for materials needed I generally round up to the nearest 1/2 foot. It’s not enough of a variance to make a difference in the amount of cases needed, and just a quick tip.. having extra laminate left over to store away for any future repairs is a good idea anyway.
In the last example I have a common kitchen floor plan. What’s important to know when calculating the materials needed to do a kitchen floor is that the laminate flooring should never be installed under the kitchen cabinets. So when calculating a kitchen’s area, I generally find the total area and then subtract the area of the cabinets.
Floor Plan 6
The first thing I’ll do here is calculate the area.
12 X 20 = 240
8 X 2 = 16
Total = 256 SF
Next I will calculate the total area of all the kitchen cabinets.
Because the standard kitchen cabinet, from the back to the front, is 20 inches I generally just add together the total length of all the kitchen cabinets and then multiply that number by 1 foot, 8 inches, which for this formula will be, (length of cabinet X 1.66 = total area of cabinets.)
5 + 3 + 2.6 + 2 + 1.6 = (14.2 linear feet)
14.2 is the total length of all the kitchen cabinets
14.2 (length) X 1.66 (width) = 23.57 SF
Total = 23.57 square feet
Now that you have the area of the kitchen and the area of the cabinets, subtract the area of the cabinets for the area of the kitchen
256 – 23.57 = 232.43 SF
So in this last floor plan you will need to buy enough laminate to cover 232.43 square feet. Again, using the same laminate in the last two examples, (Armstrong’s American Duet collection which has 18.82 square feet per box), just divide 232.43 by 18.82 = 12.35 cases.
Which means you will need to buy 13 cases of laminate.
Laminate Flooring Cost
Estimating how much your laminate flooring will cost.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, determining how much your new floor is going to cost is simply a matter of knowing what materials you need and how much of them you will need to buy. Oh, and don’t forget, you may need to invest in some tools.
Here is a list of tools, commonly used to install laminate flooring. Most brand name laminate manufacturers provide installation instructions written specifically for their brand of laminate, however while most recommend the same tools, it’s smart to check before you start. Some of the more expensive tools you may be able to rent from your local hardware store.
Laminate Flooring Tool List
- 10″-12″ Sliding compound saw $400 to $500
- Table Saw $500 to $600
- Jigsaw $50 to $150
- Pull bar $10
- Combination or speed square $10
- Plastic putty knife $4
- Dust mask $5
- Disposable rubber gloves $3
- Masking Tape $5
- Hammer $10
- Tapping block $10
- Utility Knife $10
- Safety goggles $3
- Measuring tape $20
- Knee Pads $15
- Router (w/bits) $100
- Suction cups $20
- Channel lock pliers $12
- Wood chisel $15
- Foxtail brush $3
- 10′ straight edge $100
The first thing you will need to know is your total square feet. Once you know your square feet you can determine your greatest expense; the laminate itself, so first, you will need to know how many cases of laminate you will need. If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to go back and read the previous section titled “how to measure your home for laminate flooring.”
Other materials you will need are, underlayment (padding) quarter round and any transition pieces for doorways.
On the page titled “how to measure for laminate flooring,” in the last floor plan, we already know the total area is 256 square feet and that we will need 17 cases of laminate. Assume the price per case of laminate is $54.75
17 cases X $54.75 = $930.75
If the laminate your installing doesn’t have pre-attached underlayment, the next you will need to determine the cost of underlayment that you will need to buy separately. Generally, underlayment comes in rolls of 100 square feet at an average cost of $50 per roll. So in this example, with 256 square feet, you will need to buy 3 rolls of underlayment.
3 rolls X $50 = $150
The amount of 1/4 round (shoe molding) is simply a matter of calculating the total linear feet around the perimeter of the room where the laminate meets the wall or in this example, walls and cabinets. Which in this case is about 76 linear feet.
Plain white shoe molding sells for around ¢.50 per linear foot.
0.50 X 76 linear feet = $38
How easy is it to install laminate flooring?
That depends on a few factors. If the room you are installing laminate in is empty and the old flooring is already pulled out and the room is basically square in shape then installing laminate flooring can be somewhat simple for a person who is somewhat experienced with do-it-yourself projects.
What??? Yes, every situation is different and answering that question is not easy.
There are many factors to consider when installing laminate flooring.. or really any kind of flooring.
- How much furniture will you need to move?
- Will you need to remove the old flooring?
- Do you have all the tools necessary?
- Will you need to cut the flooring at difficult angles?
- Is you subfloor level? Will you need to make subfloor repairs?
I think one question most people never honestly ask themselves is..
” Do I have the commitment to see this project through to the end?”
It may seem silly but you would be surprised by how many do-it-yourself laminate projects I’ve seen that have only reached about 90% completion.
When most people think about installation laminate they just think, OK so I’ll click a few boards together.. no problem! Most people don’t really think about it and fail to appreciate the detail work..
- Cutting under the door jams.
- cutting and installing 1/4 round trim.
- Fitting the laminate boards around air vents.
- installing with proper expansion joints between the floor and the walls.
Yes anyone can install laminate but not everyone will have the patience and skills to make it look professional.
Now don’t get me wrong.. I’m not trying to discourage you.
I just hate to see people jump into a remodeling project, just to find themselves over-their-heads, which usually ends in sloppy work and a lot of frustration. Paying a little more to have your floors installed professionally is definitely worth it, especially if you’re not sure if you can do it professionally yourself. Remember.. this is your home were talking about!
If you’re thinking about installing laminate but your still not sure about it I urge you to check out all the laminate instructional videos on you tube. Go to you tube and search “install laminate flooring.” Most laminate manufacturers make their own videos which will help you decide if it’s right for you.
If you really have the desire and you do the proper research, you understand everything involved and you’re committed to doing a great job I think you can do it.. after all there are harder flooring products to install than laminate :- )
Below I’ve included a great “how-to” video…