best laminate flooring

best laminate flooring

In recent years you may have had very few choices on what laminate flooring to purchase. Now however with the popularity of this flooring growing by the day, more and more companies have entered the laminate flooring market with great products to offer the consumer. But which ones are good, bad, ugly, or just an outright disaster?

Enter the salesperson: When you visit your local flooring store looking to purchase the right product for your job, you will be expecting the sales associate to sell you the most expensive be-all-and-ends-all laminate floor available. And in most cases, you will probably be right. We are trained to lead the customer from the most expensive to the least, depending on your budget. But in our defense, the most expensive laminate floors really are top quality with some of the best warranties available. So we really are selling you something that will last.

Enter the installer: To be honest, from the top-level laminate floors to the lowest end in price, the laminate flooring installation is basically the same in principle. They all have the click-lock tongue and groove interlocking system that connects each of the planks together. You can use the same installation tools. The layout would be the same. And you will probably spend the same amount of time installing them. However, you want to be on high-alert when considering the cheapest special-buy laminate floors, because the price may be great, but the entire installation could be a big nightmare!

Enter the contractor / house flipper: I get it, you want to be in and out as fast as possible, and spend as little money as you can. Besides, you are just flipping the house and are sure the new owners will just replace it anyway. So how would you install a nightmare special-buy laminate floor?

Buy an extra 20 to 30% of flooring for waste, and just take your time when clicking the flooring together. You want to treat that flooring like a new-born baby. Also, wrap your rubber hammer, pull bar, and tapping block in duct tape or painters tape where it comes into contact with the floor. Doing this will absorb the direct blows to the floor, and will greatly decrease the amount of finish that will get damaged.

Not every special-buy flooring is bad! And this is why it’s always a good idea to either take a sample home, or buy one full box that you can test out when you get out of the store. In most cases the store will allow you to return it for a full refund.

Sections covered in this guide are:

  • Brands
  • Style
  • Finish – Thickness
  • Finish – Laminate Layers
  • In-Stock or Special Order
  • Laminate Acclamation Time
  • Laminate Samples
  • Underlayment

Product Selection – Brands

Without doubt the most famous brand of laminate flooring is, Pergo. In fact, most customers think laminate flooring is called Pergo, and they just don’t realize that this is just a brand name in that market. It’s actually pretty hard to convince customers that other brands are available. But other brands do exist, and also produce a top quality product that is as good, if not better than Pergo. Here are some of the brands to start researching.

  • Du-Pont Flooring
  • Armstrong Flooring
  • Bruce Flooring
  • Hampton Bay Flooring
  • Home Legend Flooring
  • Allen Roth Flooring
  • Mohawk Flooring
  • Traffic Master Flooring

Another good tip is to ask friends or check laminate flooring forums for ideas on what the current top brands are. A lot of the time you can find reviews online at Amazon or Home Depot, which will give you an even better idea on quality and performance. But I always recommend people research online first before you hit the stores.

You can also buy laminate flooring online at many different outlets and websites. But most of the time people shy away from this because they just can’t see the product up-close. However, some websites will actually send you a few free samples to your home so you can get a detailed look at that specific flooring. And this is a great way to get a hands-on look at the selections. But if you don’t find free samples, then just be aware that the color on your computer monitor could be way off from what the color of the flooring will actually look like. But online shopping is a great way to find the deals that local stores do not offer. Just consider the shipping charges.

Also consider how long the brand has been around. Popular and established brands like Pergo have been around for years, and will be for many more to come. So you can be pretty safe in assuming any warranties will be honored, and that if you need to ever purchase more of the flooring in a few months down the road, the bigger companies will probably still stock it, or at least know where you can get it from.

Smaller and newer companies trying to make a name in the laminate flooring market may offer huge lifetime warranties, but who’s to say they will be around in 65 years, 30 years, or even 5? And it’s the smaller companies that usually turn over styles and designs much quicker than anyone else. Because they only survive on their next popular products sales. But please don’t think I’m going after the “small guys”, because you really can find some awesome deals with the smaller brands. And most of the time they are much more appreciative of your business. But just keep this in the back of your mind when you are researching what brand to buy from.

Product Selection – Style

Many different styles and colors are on offer in todays ever-growing laminate flooring market. Gone are the days of just one or two oak looking laminate floors that were just light, or dark. Now currently in 2013, you have more choices than ever before, which can sometimes make you feel overwhelmed at the thought of what one to buy. So let me break it down to make it as easy and less intimidating as possible for you.

As a sales associate I’m always helping people with the same dilemma you may currently find yourself in? Which style do you want? Obviously budget plays a big role in this decision, so that’s always my first question to the customer to narrow down the selection a bit more. Now the next questions would be to find out it they are looking for a laminate that looks like wood, or tile? If you have not been out shopping the laminate flooring aisle yet, they now offer laminate flooring that looks just like ceramic, porcelain, travertine, and even marble tile. Shocking! 😉

Let’s take a look at both the wooden looking laminate flooring, and then tile options below.

Wooden Looking Laminate Flooring:

It may not be real wood of course, but the wooden looking laminate flooring is the next best thing to a real hardwood floor. They look just the same, some of them sound the same when you walk on them, and now most manufacturers even emboss the grain of wood right into the finish of the floor. They even feel the same when you run your hands over them. I’ve installed laminate flooring for people that I’m convinced still think that it’s a real hardwood floor.

Most of the time the customer will select a nice looking, fair priced, natural wood style laminate floor. And I don’t blame them, because some of those floors look amazing. But let’s not forget about the tile looking laminate flooring.

Tile Laminate Flooring:

Some wise laminate boffins somewhere decided to create a laminate flooring that looks just like a real tile floor! Who in the world would want to install that on their floors? A LOT OF PEOPLE!

Tile laminate floors were a big joke when they first came out into the laminate flooring market. Let’s just say they left a little to the imagination to fully pull-off that authentic tile look. They began very plain-looking, no great detail, and super expensive. Now, things have changed in a big way and tile laminate has become a huge seller, and is starting to catch up to the sales of its wooden rival. This is because the manufacturers have simply done an amazing job recreating the look of real tile on a laminated board.

So many different styles and colors of tile laminate can be found in the aisles of  your local flooring stores. They are attractive, warm to walk on(unlike real tile in the winter), and they even have embossed grout lines that perfectly resemble a real tile floor.

If you are looking for a real tile floor, but have issues with the high maintenance installation, and do not fancy frozen feet when you walk over it. Then laminate tile planks is probably going to blow you away when you finally get to see it. It’s only when you see it first-hand that you really appreciate the detail of this kind of product.

The only caveat of picking a tile laminate flooring, is that with some styles you may have to take extra time on the installation matching up grout lines between planks, and then maybe playing around with pattern repeats on some of the more intricate stone looking laminates. But this is no where near as time-consuming as a real tile floor install. So do not fuss a little extra time being taken to install these amazing looking floors.

Style Conclusion:

You know what I always say to people? If you love the look of a particular laminate flooring style, and if it fits within your budget, please don’t fret over a 15 year, 20 year, or lifetime warranty. Because if you think about it, who really keeps the same floor for 15 or 20 years in today’s world? So don’t lose sleep over one or the other just because of a warranty. They will both perform the same regardless of if they look like wood, or tile. Remember that the style of the flooring is just a picture under a protective coating, so it really makes no sense to think of durability as a decider between the two different styles. Just think about what you want, what would look good in your home, and what will make you happy to see every-time you enter that room.

Product Selection – Finish Thickness

Finish Thickness – (Ranges – 5mm to 15+mm):

The thickness of the plank in most laminate flooring is measured in Millimeters(MM). This measurement is taken from the bottom of the entire plank to the very top. But the thickness is not always a sign of its durability, because that more depends on the protective wear coating that is applied to the top of the laminate during production. But thickness still plays an important role in the final quality of the laminate flooring.

Some people may tell you that the thickness of a laminate flooring will make a difference when heavy objects are dropped on them. But even if this may have a slight truth to it, it is not 100% correct. You may purchase a thick 12mm plank and think it is going to be indestructible. But if the core of the plank has been constructed from cheap materials, then that plank will crush just as easily as a 8mm or 10mm thickness.

Here are a few things that thicker planks can be good for:

  • Better sound reduction.
  • Some handle impact better.
  • Cover very minor subfloor issues.
  • Flex less, so overall wear is better.
  • Sometimes a little easier to install.

More Tips On Laminate Thickness:

Keep in mind that some laminate flooring styles come with an attached underlayment to the bottom of the plank, which is also included in the overall thickness measurement. You may think you’re getting a 12mm thick plank, but it’s only really 10mm thick with a 2mm thick underlayment(10mm(plank) + 2mm(padding) =12mm total). Something to keep in mind when you consider the thickness.

The thicker the floor usually means the more natural it will sound when walking on it, almost like you are walking on a real hardwood flooring. Thinner floors are usually more noisy because they tend to have more flexibility in them, which you may hear especially well in floors that have been installed over a less than level subfloor. But with this added thickness could come issues with floor height under cabinets, doorways, and of course you could be dealing with having to use different transition strips if meeting other floors at different heights.

Thickness Conclusion:

The thickness may be important to you, but the wear layer and build quality of that thickness should take precedence over everything else. If you want a durable floor you just can’t go on the thickness measurement alone. But if you get a thick laminate floor with a good wear layer, solid core, and a nice warranty to back it all up, then that will not hurt at all.

Product Selection – Laminate Layers Explained

I like the analogy that you should think of a laminate flooring as a layered sponge cake, with the finish on top being the frosting. But this is not entirely correct, because usually on a cake the frosting holds all the color and decoration. But on a laminate flooring product, the finish is just a clear coat of protection that covers the layer that holds all the colors and detail.

Layers Of Laminate Explained:

Most laminate floors are constructed of four layers that when formed together produce one entire plank. It’s the quality of each of these layers that can determine if your laminate flooring is going to be a winner, or a complete waste of time, and money.

Let’s cover each layer separately.

Bottom Layer #1 – Melamine Plastic:

The bottom layer is a thin melamine plastic that adds some durability to the bottom of the plank, as well as protect it against moisture from the subfloor. This is the layer you will never see, but that does not mean it is not an important part of the plank. This layer keeps anything under it away from the all-important core layer, so mild moisture, small debris, and anything else that you don’t really want coming into contact with the core of the plank would be protected by this bottom layer.

Second Layer Up #2 – HDF Core:

The next layer up is the core of the plank which is usually constructed of a high-density fiberboard(HDF), that adds even more durability and moisture resistance to the middle of the laminate flooring. This is the meat of each plank and if quality materials are used, it can make all the difference in the world to the final product.

Third Layer Up #3 – Decorative Layer / Image Layer:

One more layer up we have the image or decorative layer, which is basically a hi-resolution photo of either wood or tile, and it sits above the core layer. The decorative layer includes all the colors and style designs that may be included in that particular laminate flooring.

The good thing about this layer is actually one of the main benefits of buying a laminate floor. Because it’s basically a computer generated print that will not vary or change color between production runs, unlike its real wood counterpart. “So what?”, I hear you say? Well, if you installed real wood flooring and didn’t get added extras just incase, then six months down the line and you need to make a repair to a damaged section, when you go back to the store to purchase another box you may find a big difference in the shade/color of the finish. But with a computer generated laminate design you can be pretty sure it will match the flooring you previously purchased six months ago, almost exactly.

Forth Layer Up #4 – Top Of Plank – Wear Layer:

The finish or wear layer(top layer), is a very important part of the selection process when considering purchasing your laminate floor. Because it’s this wear layer that will take all the direct hits, so to speak. Most wear layers contain an aluminum oxide protective coating that is applied over the decorative layer to keep it protected. Many of the laminate manufacturers have now created their own finish formulas that they apply to the flooring, and then they usually give it a cool sounding name like, per-guard or protect-tech finish. But it’s pretty much the same thing to be honest.

As the final layer on a plank, it is this wear layer that will make a big difference on the longevity of your floor. If it’s constructed right, then you can be pretty safe in assuming that your flooring will stand up to some of the toughest use you can give it, within reason of course.

Pressing The Layers Together:

With all the layers ready to go, the manufacturer will then press them all together with huge hydraulic rams, and then basically bake them at high temperatures until done. It’s at this point that they would add any textures or embossings to the laminate using special plates in order to get that magical detail into the flooring. The last step is to test the result by sticking a toothpick into the middle to check if it’s done! Ok, a joke! But the manufacturing process can be a bit of a bore for some!;)

The Final Result:

The final quality of the laminate flooring will usually be reflected in how long of a warranty the manufacturer gives that flooring. So you can assume that a 5 year warranty on a laminate will not have a very thick wear protection on it, or have a very substantial core. But a product with a 25 year or even a lifetime warranty will have a pretty substantial protection on it, with extremely durable layers all the way through.

Gloss / Matte Finish?

What is better? Gloss? Or a Matte finish? This part of the product selection can sometimes confuse people because they usually see both finishes with the exact same warranty, and usually at the exact same price. For some reason many people think a gloss finish would be more durable than a matte looking floor. And this is probably because with a gloss style they can actually see the finish. But let me tell you that floors without the gloss still do have that same protection on it, which is just as durable as the gloss. So it basically comes down to what style you like, with just a couple of things to consider.

  • Gloss – Looks newer – Shows dents/scratches easier – Easier to clean, but higher maintenance.
  • Matte – Hides more imperfections – Less reflective – Dull finish.

Also remember that color makes a big difference as well.

Now you are educated in what the laminate layers are, and how they are made. You can now go to your local store and check them out for yourself.

In Stock Or Special Order?

If time is a factor when deciding what laminate flooring to buy, then you may want to select an in-stock product instead of something you have to special order. A downside of in-stock laminate flooring is the fact that you are usually only limited to the styles and colors the store decides to showcase in their showroom.

Special order laminate flooring can open a whole new world of color and style choices, sometimes too many to count. But if you have the time to wait, and in most cases do not mind paying a little more, then this might be the way to go for you?

Important tip:

Most stores will add a restocking fee of 15% or more if you have to return a floor you special ordered. You won’t have to deal with this if it was an in-stock product because they can usually resell the returned flooring. But with special order laminate, if you don’t want to get charged that 15% re-stocking fee, then it’s critical you get an accurate measurement of your room so you are not left with extra cases of flooring that you will lose money on.

Laminate Acclamation

While you browse the laminate flooring brands and styles you may need to keep something in mind. Some laminate flooring will require an acclamation period before you attempt to install it. What this means is that you have to place the boxes of flooring in the room you are going to install it, or in another room at a similar temperature for up to 48 to 72 hours. Now, this depends on what laminate you buy, and in some cases your flooring may not even need an acclamation time. But if it does, then this time allows the flooring to get acclimated to the temperature of the room, which can avoid excessive expansion and contraction that may cause issues with your flooring when it’s completed.

Make sure you read the directions in the boxes of the flooring, and take into account the extra time needed if you are on a tight time frame. However, as I said above, some brands of laminate do not need this acclamation time at all, which means you can take it home and get to work right away.

Product Selection – Laminate Flooring Samples

The last thing I want to cover in the product selection is about samples. As an installer I don’t really deal with samples because the customer has usually done this part of the process for themselves. But as a sales rep, I get to see this part of the process all the time.

So here are some tips about laminate flooring samples, and why they could be extremely useful!

The first thing about laminate flooring samples is that they are usually free to take, depending on where you go to look at the flooring. And although sometimes small, you can still get a good look at the color of the floor sample in your home. “Why is that important?”, because it’s all about the lights. In the local store you will probably be under some kind of a fluorescent lighting, which can make the flooring appear a slightly different color/shade from the light at your home.

I’ve had many customers actually bring back laminate flooring boxes, because when they got it home it just didn’t match the wall colors, or cabinet colors, or trim colors and so on. This is one of the biggest reasons paint stores offer small light boxes to place paint samples in, just so you can test them in different light configuration before you paint a wall. Yes, it may mean an extra trip back and forth to the store, but you will be doing that anyway if you have to return the flooring.

The second thing about laminate samples is the fact that you can take them home and really test out that durability! Try and see how good that finish really is. Scratch it, try to dent it, chip it, peel at it, and in general put it through its paces. Remember that you should only be looking to do things to it that would normally happen in a real home, so don’t go crazy and rent a jack-hammer or drive over it. But who knows, maybe it will survive? This is a great testing opportunity before you go ahead and buy a laminate floor. And of course, if you just put down a $25 deposit on a sample, please don’t try this step unless you want the store to keep your money. But no harm in asking them for a scrap piece.

Samples are important! So take as many as you can get!

Product Selection – Underlayment

Laminate flooring, unlike real hardwood flooring, requires an underlayment padding to absorb and cushion the foot traffic over the top of it. Because of the floating nature of laminate, and the fact that it is usually independent and not attached to the subfloor, it tends to move about much more than something that is attached to the subfloor with nails or glue. So an underlayment is used to protect this movement and flexing from stressing the tongue and groove joints between all the planks.

A visit to the local flooring store will probably involve you walking down the aisle to a few different types of laminate flooring underlayment, which can range from really cheap, to pretty expensive. It can all be pretty overwhelming trying to gauge what one would be the best-bet for your own project. So let me break it down for you.

Laminate Underlayment Selection

Basic Level Underlayment: Price Range – $

A basic cheap level underlayment would be a very thin layer of foam and that’s about it. This does its job for contractors or home owners that are looking to not invest a lot of money, because maybe they are selling the place after? Or they may only be looking for a temporary solution for a flooring that they will change in a few months down the road.

You have to be careful when purchasing a very basic bottom-of-the-line underlayment, because some laminate flooring manufacturers will void a warranty if the underlayment underneath their flooring is under the basic recommendations. But if you are flipping the house and do not care about the warranty, then by all means consider it as an option. But keep in mind the poor new owners!

One thing to note here for those of you flipping or selling a house, and are thinking of doing in on-the-cheap, think about this. In most cases the flooring manufacturers will actually honor a warranty even if it is passed on to the new owners. This can be a huge selling point for you, because you can basically tell the new owners that the flooring is brand-spanking new, and is also covered by a large warranty that they now own. But you have to use the recommended products to install the flooring in the first place. Sure, it might cost you a little more at first, but if it results in pleasing a possible new owner then it may well be money well spent.

2 in 1 Underlayment: Price Range – $$

When you see a 2 in 1 underlayment, what you are basically buying is an underlayment that has two different layers of protection rolled into one roll. One of the layers will be a moisture/vapor barrier that protects the underside of the laminate flooring from rising moisture. And the other layer will be a standard foam cushioning to protect the laminate seams during daily use.

The 2 in 1 underlayment is probably the most popular because of its price, which usually runs about $20-$30 for a 100sf roll. It’s also one of the paddings that the flooring manufacturers are ok with, meaning that you get to keep that all important warranty.

This kind of underlayment will usually be about 2mm thick, and will be fine for installations on-grade or below-grade(basements). But one thing to remember here if you plan on purchasing this underlayment in a basement with a concrete/cement subfloor, is that you must still use a poly film vapor barrier underneath it. Even though this underlayment comes with one already, manufacturers still want you to add the extra poly film below their products.

3 in 1 Underlayment: Price Range – $$$

This kind of underlayment as you may have guessed has three different layers rolled into one. And within this 3 in 1 product can be a couple of variations of the layers that are used. Below is a quick overview of the layers you may find in your local stores.

 – Vapor Barrier / Foam / Reflective Film: 3 in 1:

This 3 in 1 underlayment comes with a reflective film layer that enhances its radiant thermal properties. So it in theory should help with heat escape, and may keep the cold out a little better than the standard underlayment.

With a pretty impressive price range from, $40 to $55 for a 100 square foot roll, this is slightly more of an investment than most of the others. But you may get that cost reflected back in your heating bills?

 – Vapor Barrier / Polyshims / Plastic Sheets

An underlayment built for air-flow. This type of product is usually best where moisture could be a concern for you. The polyshim design allows air flow underneath the underlayment, and at the same time utilizes micro-ban antimicrobial technology that inhibits mold and mildew growth.

Some of the air-flow underlayment also come with sound suppression characteristics, which cut down on the foot traffic noise. So this type of roll would be a pretty good all-round choice.

Sound Blocking Underlayment:

Some sound-blocking underlayment may be included in a 2 in 1 or 3 in 1 product above. But you may also find that you come across one specifically for sound reduction. The deal with sound-reducing underlayment is to not only dampen the sound between floors, but to also make your laminate flooring sound like the real wood flooring when people walk on it. One big criticism I get with laminate flooring is that it sounds plastic when people walk on it. Well, this type of product is your answer.

If you are looking for a laminate flooring to not only look like real wood, but to also sound like it? Then this product would be your best choice.

Underlayment Wrap-up:

New underlayment arrives on the market every single week recently it seems. From moisture controlled, to sound reducing, to felt mufflers, and even air flowing kinds! It can at times be harder to pick an underlayment than it can the flooring! But take a breath and figure out what you want from your underlayment. And always remember what the flooring manufacturer recommends as a minimum.

Most flooring stores will have displays that you can actually touch or test out. This type of display can be very handy to give you a great idea on how each of the underlayment’s perform. And of course you can always ask someone that works in that store, or shoot me an email if you have any questions(email at the end of guide)!

Underlayment Attached, Or Not?

Some laminate flooring brands feature an attached underlayment on the bottom side of the plank. While others expect you to grab the padding separately at the same time you buy the floor, and then give you requirements on what underlayment to purchase with it.

So what’s the pro’s and cons of attached or un-attached underlayment?

First with the underlayment attached:

For obvious reasons this approach means you only need to buy the boxes of flooring, and not have to worry about choosing a separate manufacturer recommended underlayment to go under it. It’s also a step saved while installing the laminate, because you do not have to put it down on the subfloor before you start to install it. So It’s a time saver!

Another benefit of attached underlayment is that it is glued directly to the back of the planking, whereas separate planking and underlayment on a not so flat subfloor can cause a slight rise and separation between the two surfaces in areas, and although this is not going to ruin the floor, you may start to hear some noise when they move separately.

And finally, as the manufacturer chose the underlayment, you will always know it’s the right one for the job and not just some cheap thin piece of junk!

Unattached underlayment:

This adds another step to the installation process by making you lay some padding first before you start laying the planks. But it really is not that much of a burden to be honest, and takes very little time to do.

Unattached also means you get to choose your underlayment. Many stores now have more than one style to pick from, and you may not want to be limited to a generic padding chosen by the manufacturer. You may need a padding that has a noise reduction in it, or a vapor gap to allow air to circulate under the flooring. But at least with unattached underlayment, you have that option.

# Side-note: Because of the multiple underlayment choices on offer, you may still want to check with the manufacturer just to make sure that the one you purchase will still hold-up that warranty. Usually most laminate flooring cases will have a toll-free number on, so you can at least ask questions directly to the company that makes it.

What do I use? I usually just pick a laminate flooring that I like, and if it does not have the underlayment attached I’ll just pick up a mid-range type, or one specifically for a location like in a basement, and that’s always worked fine for me. But at the end of the day, now that you know all about the underlayment, your choice should be a little easier than it was before.