Laminate flooring has remained one of the fastest growing home improvement trends for the last two decades. In fact, sometime in the next year, laminate flooring is projected to outsell wood flooring. Laminate flooring has also been showing up on many TV home improvement shows from “Flip That House,” “Designed To Sell,” “Sell This House,” and “Trading Spaces,” just to name a few. Even Bob Villa installed laminate flooring in his home. So what does everyone else know that you don’t?
The laminate flooring boom has been driven by several compelling factors including; its outstanding performance, low (relative) cost and ease of installation. In fact, most homeowners install it themselves. Even someone without laminate flooring experience can often install a room full of laminate in a day. The cost per-square-foot is generally much cheaper than hardwood (even if sweat equity isn’t a factor). And, a laminate floor will last many years without needing waxes, sealers, or refinishing of any kind. Usually just a dust mop will do the trick.
Since the laminate flooring market has grown so quickly, a lot of people don’t know how to shop for laminate flooring or what features they should look for. Additionally, manufacturers have been quick to expand their product lines to fill almost every taste and budget. Unfortunately, most sales people have not kept pace with the new features and developments in the laminate flooring industry and, worse still, some manufacturers have learned to market and pass off their “budget” lines as “first grade.”
If you’re considering buying laminate flooring, you should take a few moments to find out about the features and components that make up a laminate floor. Then decide which features are best for you and your situation. Much like the 5 “C’s” when shopping for a diamond, there are several key components that you need to look for when shopping for your laminate floor to ensure that you get the quality and value you’re looking for.
Here are the basic features and the difference they will make in your floor.
The Center of the Laminate Flooring—The Core
Just as you wouldn’t build your home on a weak foundation, you wouldn’t want to build features on a weak board. The core density is the single most important component in your laminate flooring. You want a core made with the highest density material possible. Not only does this make your locking mechanism stronger, since it is an extension of the core, it also makes it more difficult for water to penetrate the flooring. Softer boards are more porous like a sponge and will sustain more damage more quickly than a harder board.
The denser or harder the board, the better it will be able to resist dents and deep scratches. Most people seem to prefer the sound of a denser board, and claim that it sounds more like hardwood.
Since almost all laminate floors are made from a high density fiberboard (HDF) you’ll need to determine where on that spectrum of HDFs your board lands. Some manufacturers will list the density with a kilogram (kg) measure, with the low landing measuring in the high 700 kg range and the high landing measuring in the 900 kg range. You will see more manufacturers listing their board density when it is above the 850 kg range and those manufacturers with boards softer than that are less eager to publish their densities. If the manufacturer or salesperson is not forthcoming with that information, you may have to find your own method of testing the board density, or choose to work with a more forthcoming company. I recommend that you take samples of all the boards you are considering, and hit them all with a hammer, smack the corners or throw them into a bucket of water for an hour or two. You’ll be surprised at the difference in the way the board handles these tests. And if a board is not going to stand up to your abuse, you probably don’t want it on your floor.
The Surface Wear Layer and Texture
One of the key features of laminate floors is its extremely durable, clear, wear layer. Made with aluminum oxide and applied in the factory, this wear layer will last many years having shoes and other objects drug across it countless times. Better still, it can even take on pet claws and come out the winner. The wear layer can come with a number of finishes from a very glossy flat “piano finish” to the more popular “embossed” finishes, where you can see the outline of a wood grain in the reflection. Some manufacturers have products with the embossing lines matching the colored grain lines underneath exactly, which is called a “registered embossed” finish. Other manufacturers have brought out specialty finishes, like the hand-scraped finish, that has the wear layer applied over an irregular board that gives it a more earthy or rustic look. Manufacturers have also found great success cutting a bevel on the edges of the board setting apart the individual boards. This “V-Groove” as it is called, also has the benefit of helping to disguise the swelling of an ill used floor. Since a floor that has been subjected to too much moisture will usually swell at the joints, it is always more visible with a flat-seam floor than a “V-Groove” floor. If you do buy a floor with a “V-Groove”, check to see if the small angle is painted or “banded.” A painted edge is sometimes more porous and will hold stains.
The most important feature of the wear layer is its longevity. Here again there is a range of possibilities. Lab techs have come up with a measure for how long the floors will last before being worn down by the abrasion of countless footsteps and other wear on your floor. This measure is called the Abrasion Coefficient, or AC Wear Rating. As impressive as the name sounds the test is fairly simple. A sanding machine with a specific grit of paper is placed on the wear layer with a specific weight on top. Then they time how long it takes to wear through the wear layer and give it a rating number. The lowest AC rating you’ll probably find is an “AC-2.” If another wear layer tested lasts 60% longer than the AC-2, it gets a rating of “AC-3,” and if another lasts 60% longer than the AC-3 it gets the rating of “AC-4.” Most people wouldn’t recommend you use an AC-2 wear layer in any room but a guest room, or an area with very little traffic, while an AC-3 is rated for the whole house. An AC-4 is rated for light commercial applications and is better suited for high traffic homes, or homes with large families or pets.
The Locking Mechanism
Originally, laminate floors were glued together, which was a messy, time-consuming job. Soon manufacturers developed new mechanisms to hold the boards together. The first locking mechanisms were knocked together while laying flat. While installing these new floors was much quicker, some found that over time the boards could “slide” back apart. The latest and generally agreed as the best system for installing and holding the boards together uses a locking mechanism that pivots one board into the other. Once the new board is “rolled down” into the previous row, it will not come apart, allowing the easiest installation and the best holding power. If some years later, you need to replace a board, you can “roll up” however many rows of boards needed until you reach the board(s) you want to replace, and then reinstall the boards removed. (This is why it is always a good idea to keep some extra boards, since this type of laminate floor allows you to replace part of your floor without having to replace the whole floor.)
Some manufacturers are also using a wax sealer on the locking mechanisms. This new addition has two benefits. The most talked about benefit is that it makes it much harder for surface spills to penetrate into the board. Since surface moisture can, at times, work its way into the joints between the boards, having a wax seal provides another layer of protection. Another benefit to the wax seal is that it prevents the wear within the locking mechanism, from the tiny movement under countless footsteps.
Most of the floors available today have a backing material. Typically this will be a melamine layer (the same material that you’ll find in the interior of modern cabinets). This backing is an important feature that will help protect the underside of your floor from moisture, provide another sound barrier and “balance” the boards. Since changes in temperature and humidity make the laminate floor expand or contract a small amount and the tough wear layer is less likely to move, a floor without the backing will tend to “cup” in one direction or the other. Having the backing balances the bottom and the top so that the expansion and contraction happen more evenly across the board.
The Board Thickness
Early laminate floors were almost exclusively 8mm or thinner. Today you will find more floors in the 12mm range. As mentioned earlier, the thicker boards tend to “feel” and often “sound” more like hardwood floors, if they are made of a dense material. The thicker boards also allow the floor to have a bit more substantial locking mechanisms.
1-Strip (full plank), 2-Strip, 3-Strip
There are three standard strip designs that you will want to consider. When laminate first came out, it was mostly 3-strip. This means that each plank of wood had the “look” of 3 strips of wood. Today, there is a 2-strip pattern, which means each plank of wood has the “look” of 2 strips of wood. And, the most popular and most authentic looking laminate floor is a full plank or 1-strip (single plank). This means that each plank has its own grain pattern. Full plank flooring is usually synonymous with the best quality of laminate flooring. The problem with 2-or 3-strip laminate is that they typically have fat seams and over time those seams accumulate dirt, especially in lower quality wood floors. Also, those seams stand out, which makes the fake seams in between the 2 and 3 strip flooring look really different, most likely indicating that your floor is not authentic. With full-plank floors, your seams will wear more evenly, and therefore look consistent throughout your floor.
Flat Seam vs V-Groove
The difference between a flat seam and a v-groove or beveled edge, is that a flat seam feels and looks smooth and flat. The disadvantage is that often, flat seams are found in lower quality products and typically are not truly flat or even. They also tend to show more wear over time and swell more with moisture, making the seams even more obvious. V-Groove is where the seams have a small “V shape” between each seam. This V-groove can be on 2 sides or all 4 sides of each plank. The most realistic look is the 4-sided V-groove. Some people have expressed concern about dirt getting trapped in the V-grooves making it difficult to clean. Ironically the V-groove was introduced specifically to collect the dirt from the floor so that it isn’t rubbed into the floor causing damage. The debris that is collected is easily swept away with a broom, or removed with a solid surface flooring vacuum or attachment.
Price is not always a good determining factor when trying to buy a quality product. You have to consider your time in shopping for your floor, clearing the room, removing your old floor covering, installing the floor and replacing all the furniture in the room. Always shop for the best bargain, but be sure not to skimp on quality. And make sure that you select a floor that will endure the daily wear and tear that your family will surely put it through.
The internet is a huge growing resource for purchasing high quality laminate flooring at warehouse prices. Since warehouse space it relatively inexpensive compared to retail space, and most internet companies can run very lean, they are able to pass that savings on to their customers. This is why you can typically get laminate flooring products that are of far superior quality for less online, than you can buy the lower grade laminate at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s.
The only downside to purchasing online is the inability to see the product color and quality in person. Companies that are confident they are selling top quality products will typically send you samples of their products free of charge.
If you would like to speak with professional flooring installers and ask more detailed questions, call the professional Laminate Flooring Installers, free of charge at 800-603-0727.