Laminate flooring is one of the most resilient and durable floor surfaces available. A relatively recent invention, it has gained in popularity due to its ease of installation, low maintenance requirements, and long life. This material can also be printed to simulate a wide variety of natural flooring materials include hardwood planks, and slate and ceramic tiles.
Laminate is a man made material that has been used in surfaces such as counters and back splashes since the early 1920’s. Originally it was not strong enough to be used in flooring, but over time innovations in the manufacturing process refined the finished product and made it increasingly durable. The first laminate flooring was invented in Sweden in 1977 by a company called Perstorp. In 1984 they began marketing this product in Europe under the name Pergo, and by the mid nineties it had spread to the United States. Today the word “Pergo” is almost synonymous with laminate flooring, although there are other manufacturers of this material.
What Is Laminate Flooring? Laminate is a type of synthetic flooring that is made by fusing several layers of different material together using heat, pressure, and adhesive, in a process known as lamination. While laminates are often manufactured to replicate the look of a variety of hardwood surfaces, they actually contain no wood materials. Rather, they are constructed from resins and fiberboard particles.
Structure of a Laminate Floor: Laminate flooring is a man made manufactured floor, that is comprised of a backing filler layer, a decorative print layer, and a wear layer which rests over the top. The wear layer is also known as a laminate layer, which is where the material gets its name. The result is a floor which is durable, easy to maintain, attractive, inexpensive, and good for the environment. Of course laminate flooring has its drawbacks as well. The major problem is its vulnerability to water damage, which makes it unsuitable for moist environments such as bathrooms and kitchens. It also does not have as long a lifespan as materials such as hardwood, stone, and tile, meaning it will have to be replaced more often.
- Top Wear Layer: The top layer of a laminate floor is known as the wear layer, an invisible surface that rests over the material, protecting it from scratches and other damage. This is generally made from an aluminum oxide chemical treatment.
- Photograph Layer or Decorative Layer: This is the surface that gives the laminate its actual appearance. It is created when an image or pattern is printed on paper like materials that are embedded in resin. The actual image can be almost anything, but typically laminate floors are manufactured to simulate the look of hardwood, cork, bamboo, natural stone, ceramic, or even brick pavers.
- Fiberboard Core: This is the heart of the material and it provides the depth, structure, and stability of the actual surface covering. It is generally comprised of wood chips or sawdust ground into a very fine powder, then coated with resin, and pressed into flat sheets.
- Back Layer: Many laminates will have a moisture barrier back layer. This works with the water resistant wear layer on top to sandwich the fiberboard and picture layers of the laminate, creating a water tight seal around the core material. The back layer also provides additional stability for the installation.
- Underlayment: Laminate flooring must be installed over underlayment. This is most often cork or foam rolls. An appropriate underlayment can also reduce the hollow noise that occurs when walking on some laminate floors.
Types of Laminate Flooring Construction:
- Direct Pressure: The surface wear layer and the core of the material are fused around the decorative picture layer using pressure measuring 300 – 500 psi.
- High Pressure: Several layers are bonded together using heat and pressure measuring 1400 psi. This material generally has more layers, including a water barrier bottom layer, making it a tougher, more durable choice.
Applications of Laminate Flooring:
Laminate flooring is durable, stain resistant, and mold resistant, which means that it can be used in high traffic areas.
- Living Rooms
- Dining Rooms
It can also be made water resistant during the manufacturing process, making certain laminates appropriate for kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, and other water heavy environments.
You can divide laminate into three installation categories and you might want to select your laminate this way, ensuring you pick a floor with the kind of installation you prefer.
- Glueless-Click. Over two-thirds of today’s laminates fall under this easy-to-install, glueless click-lock category.
- Note: some laminate floors come with a pre-attached underpad, making installation even quicker and easier. Laminate floors without a pre-attached underpad often require that an underpad be laid down prior to installation of the laminate floor to provide a level of cushion and sound absorption. Additionally, if the laminate floor is being installed on or below grade, or in an area subject to moisture, a separate thin plastic underlayment will need to be laid down prior to installation of the laminate floor to provide a moisture barrier (aka vapor barrier). This needs to be done whether the laminate floor has a pre-attached underpad or not.
- Glued Laminate. The joints will need to be glued together. While this makes for a very strong floor once installed, installation cost and time is higher than with a glueless-click.
- Pre-Glued. Here, the joints have a glue already applied to them, but may need to be moistened to activate the glue before joined together.
You might want to pick your floor simply based on what the surface will look like. As we’ve said before, laminates are always evolving. Where there once was one basic surface to choose from, now there are many.
- Smooth. A plain finish just like a layer of varnish you’d associate with hardwood. Sometimes you can choose between high, medium and low gloss finishes.
- Embossed and/or Textured. Some laminates come with a textured finish. Regular embossing isn’t an exact match up with the grooves of the printed grain but does fool the eye into seeing a surface grain.
- Distressed/Hand scraped. Hand scraped laminate flooring is now available—a process that up until recently was reserved only for engineered or solid hardwood floors. This process adds an antiqued look to your laminate floor.
- Embossed in Registration. This type of embossing matches the grain of the wood exactly for the most authentic embossed look.
- Keep an eye out for new laminate innovations, they’re happening all the time.
AC Ratings Overview: For those who look for durability as a way to decide on a laminate product, the AC rating is an ideal guide. Use it to check your expected usage, or foot traffic, against what the floor was built to withstand. AC stands for Abrasion Class and an impartial 3rd party has set the standard for 5 different categories of use and durability.
- AC1 – floors with this rating are suitable for low traffic areas, such as bedrooms.
- AC2 – floors suitable to low to medium traffic, such as living rooms or dining rooms
- AC3 – floors suitable for most areas in homes, including hallways and light commercial
- AC4 – anywhere in the home as well as commercial buildings. For example: an office or store
- AC5 – can be used in heavy traffic commercial areas.
The Benefits of Laminate Flooring: Laminate flooring is a relatively new invention which has taken the world of floor surface covering by storm. Versatile, easy to maintain, and reasonably priced, some people consider this a “super material.” However there are a number of drawbacks when it comes to laminate flooring. It is important to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly, before making a final decision about whether to use this material in your home, or commercial properties.
- Convenient Packaging: Natural hardwood flooring comes in planks that are 8 or 10 feet in length, and sometimes even longer. By contrast laminate planks that simulate hardwood are sold in convenient 4 foot strips. They are also available in tile form in varying sizes.
- Versatility: Today laminate flooring can simulate the look of dozens of different natural hardwood materials. The printing process can also reproduce the appearance of a variety of natural stone, and ceramic flooring materials. With EIR embossed in register texturing they are even able to somewhat reproduce the surface texture of these natural materials.
- Consistency: Unlike real hardwood, which comes with many imperfect pieces that need to be thrown out or re-engineered, there are no defects in laminate flooring.
- Durability: Unlike wood, which can dent, laminate flooring is almost impervious to dents and scratches. Laminate flooring has what’s called in the industry a “wear layer” that protects the photographic layer underneath. Some manufacturers, DuPont in particular, give very generous 10+ year warranties on this wear layer.
- Cleaning: The wear layer of a laminate floor protects the material from stains and some spills making cleaning and maintenance relatively easy. Typically the only regular requirement is sweeping or vacuuming of the floor to remove grit and dirt which can slowly erode the floors wear layer over time.
- Installation: The installation of a laminate click together floor is one of the easiest to undertake, which saves money in installation. New innovations in the manufacture of this material have made it so you do not even need to use adhesive. You just roll down a sheet of underlayment material, and then snap the planks or tiles of the floor into one another. An entire room can usually be finished in just a day or two.
- Goes Anywhere: With the exception of carpet, laminate flooring can be installed over almost any existing floor in the home. As long as a moisture barrier is in place and water prevention measures are taken it can also be installed at any grade. This removes the hassle and expense of having to remove old flooring installations before installing new laminate materials.
- The Elements: Laminate flooring is resistant to many of the outdoor agents that can discolor other flooring materials. The wear layer protects it from stains and smudges due to dirt and mud making it a great material for hallways and entryways. It also resists fading from UV light exposure making it popular in sun rooms.
- Health: Laminate flooring is naturally resistant to the growth of mold and bacteria. It can also be treated with special allergen resistant and anti-bacterial coatings to make them even safer.
- Expansion: The nature of the installation process means that the flooring material is not adhered directly to the subfloor. Rather all of the pieces of the floor are interlocked, or adhered one to another. That means that the material can expand, or contract, due to changes in pressure and temperature, without buckling and snapping against the subfloor.
- Acclimation: Hardwood needs to sit in an environment for 3-6 weeks so that it can acclimate to the temperature and pressure of the area. Laminates can be installed in as little as 36 hours.
The Drawbacks of Laminate Flooring: Laminate flooring faithfully reproduces wood, stone, and other natural materials. Plus, laminate is easy to install. But there are a few negative aspects about laminate flooring.
- Refinishing: Laminate floors cannot be refinished. They have a single wear layer, and when that is damaged the individual piece needs to be replaced. Over time the wear layer on the entire floor will degrade and scratches will appear in the surface of laminate materials. When this occurs the entire floor will need to be replaced.
- Sound: When you walk on a laminate floor it produces a hollow sound, that makes the material feel fake and manufactured. This can be offset to some extent through the use of dampening underlayment materials, which can help to simulate the sound of natural hardwood flooring.
- Unnatural Feel: While laminate can simulate the look of hardwood, stone, or brick perfectly, the illusion fades as soon as you feel the material with your bare hands. While embossing can provide a textural surface for laminates, the material itself has a man-made feel that makes it obvious that this is not a natural floor surface.
- Hard: Laminate flooring is quite hard and unyielding under foot. Even cork or foam padding on the back will generally not alleviate this characteristic.
- Environmental Concerns: Some environmental experts have expressed concerns over laminate materials that are made with compounds derived from formaldehyde. They claim that floors made with these materials can release volatile organic chemicals over time, which can have harmful effects on the air quality of the surrounding room.
- Lifespan: The life span of a laminate floor is going to be based on the quality of the material and the thickness of the wear layer. Most laminate floors will come with a warranty; however it is important to check the terms and conditions of that warranty before you buy. In some cases you will need to take certain precautions during the installation process or risk voiding the warranty and losing its protection.
Laminate flooring offers great looks at affordable prices. It’s also durable. Kids? Pets? Relax. With a laminate floor, you won’t have to worry. Laminate floors are made to stand up to high traffic and high impact. And laminate is versatile too; it can be installed in any room in your home, wherever you want the beauty of hardwood, stone or tile without the cost and maintenance.
Selected Laminate Flooring Samples
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