Laminate flooring has come a long way since its introduction to US markets in the 1980s. An engineered product, it’s designed to work with specific underlayment and trim components.
Sold in planks that are typically about 3 feet long, 5 to 7 inches or wider, and 7 to 12mm thick, laminate flooring’s dimensions are usually given in a mix of imperial and metric numbers that hark back to its European origins.
What is Laminate Flooring?
Composed of four or five layers joined under pressure, laminate flooring is one of the most popular DIY flooring choices. One way to be sure you’re buying a quality product is to verify that it meets the ANSI-LF-01-2008 standard.
Components of Laminate Flooring
- Wear layer: The top of laminate flooring is the transparent wear layer, which the North American Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA) claims is “highly resistant to dogs, cats, chairs, and even high heels.” This layer is also water-resistant and keeps the rest of the plank looking good. The upper layer is rated on an Abrasion Criteria scale that runs from 1 to 5. AC 1 works for low-traffic areas such as bedrooms, and AC 5 will withstand commercial traffic. Most residential laminate flooring is rated AC 3 or AC 4.
- Decorative layer: The next layer is essentially a high-tech, color-fast photocopy, usually of a natural material such as wood or stone.
- Fiberboard core: The decorative layer is bonded to the core of the product, a durable, high-density wood fiberboard.
- Melamine resin: Below the fiberboard core is a layer of melamine resin that provides moisture resistance and structural stability
- Underlayment: The fifth layer, underlayment sometimes comes bonded to the planks; otherwise it’s installed separately underneath them
Laminate Compared to Other Flooring Options
Laminate flooring can be installed in any room of the house; some manufacturers even allow their product to be used in bathrooms. Here, it’s critical to follow installation instructions to the letter, particularly regarding sealing the edges to prevent water intrusion. While much of laminate flooring has a smooth, high gloss surface, it’s also available with pressed-in textures.
Wood grain is common, and you can even buy planks that mimic a hand-scraped wood floor. There are several products on the market that installs in similar ways but differ from laminated otherwise.
Engineered wood flooring comes in various configurations sometimes the main difference between it and laminate is that a layer of wood veneer is used instead of a quality photocopy. Another product is luxury vinyl plank (LVP) flooring, which is softer underfoot than engineered wood and composed entirely of plastic. Like laminate, both are relatively thin and easily installed by DIYers.
Hardwood, Tile, and Stone
Also competing with laminate are flooring materials such as hardwood, tile, and stone. Traditional hardwood is 3/4 inch thick and nailed down one board at a time. It’s then sanded and finished in place, more of a job for pros.
Hardwood also comes pre-finished, making it much more DIY-friendly. However, that’s still usually 3/4 inch thick, which can be a problem transitioning to existing stairs or fitting below doors. One advantage of either type of hardwood is that it can be sanded and refinished once worn, offering a very long lifespan for the installation.
Ceramic Tile and Stone
Ceramic tile and stone install similarly, requiring proper underlayment to prevent cracking and special installation tools. While they can be a DIY project, most homeowners should leave them to the pros. Both stone and tile are extremely durable and moisture resistant. Depending on the type of grout used in the joints, staining can be an issue.
Vinyl and Linoleum
Finally, there are thin, synthetic products such as vinyl and linoleum. Both are glued down and available either in wide rolls or in individual tiles. The only special tool needed in most cases is a notched trowel. If you can find material wide enough to do a room without a seam, sheet vinyl or linoleum can be DIYed. Seaming is an involved process best left to pros. Vinyl and linoleum tile are definitely DIY-friendly.
Subfloor and Underlayment
Laminate flooring is engineered to perform as part of a system. The underlayment is as important to the success of an installation as is the flooring itself.
All laminate flooring requires an underlayment, which can range from ½-inch-thick sheets of cork to rolls of 6mm- or 8mm-thick felt or foam. According to one manufacturer, Swiss Krono, “Underlayment is not optional. If your laminate planks don’t have it already attached, we recommend that you buy rolls of underlayment on which to install your laminate floor.”
Underlayment serves several purposes. One of the most important is as a vapor retarder to keep excess moisture below from causing problems with the laminate, such as swelling. Many underlayments have an integral vapor retarder, but an additional layer of 6-mil- polyethylene as a vapor barrier below the underlayment is called for when installing laminate in a basement.
Underlayment also evens out minor surface imperfections in the subfloor, which is important to ensure that the flooring’s edge-locking joints are properly supported and to limit movement that can cause creaking. Laminate flooring is designed to work best with specific underlayments, so be sure to follow the manufacturer’s specs here.
Two other attributes of underlayment are thermal and sound insulation. Because it’s so thin, underlayment doesn’t deliver much insulation value, but it can be enough of a thermal break over concrete to make a basement floor feel warmer. Reducing sound transmission is a nice feature of underlayment, and it’s actually a big code issue in multi-family dwellings. Look for underlayment that helps the floor system deliver a Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating of 50 or more.
Underlayment also provides impact resistance and shock absorption. By giving a little bit under the impact, underlayment makes the floor more comfortable underfoot and helps to prevent it from being damaged if an object is dropped on it.
Is Installing Laminate Flooring a DIY Project?
Laminate flooring installation is an extremely popular DIY project because it’s reasonably easy to do and requires few tools. You could do an entire installation with a tape measure, a chalk line, a utility knife for the underlayment, and a jigsaw for the cuts. However, a miter saw and a table saw, or at least a circular saw, will greatly ease the work.
You can use a hammer and nailset for the trim, but a trim nailer is easier. All these tools can be rented. Laminate flooring generally comes with good installation instructions, and it’s important to take a few minutes to read them.
While early laminate flooring products relied on a combination of white glue and a machined joint, today’s products simply snap together. There is a slight learning curve to this, so it’s a good idea to practice joining a couple of pieces so you’re sure you have the hang of it before beginning the actual installation.
Laminate flooring’s wood fiber core expands with humidity and shrinks when it is drier. To allow for this expansion and contraction, it’s important to start and end the flooring with space, but not too big a space, between it and the wall.
The instructions will specify the amount of space needed. You’ll cover this with molding later.
Molding and Trim
Manufacturers provide a wide range of molding and trim pieces in finishes to match their flooring. Most important are the various transitions, saddles, and nosings that are used where the laminate meets other surfaces such as tile, carpet, or stairs. Shoe molding is also available to be nailed to your existing base molding and cover the gap at the edge of the floor.
However, you may want to use standard shoe molding from the lumberyard painted to match your base. You’ll want to buy these accessories with your flooring, so you have everything on hand to complete the job.