Laminate flooring has earned a solid reputation as an affordable and practical alternative to hardwood flooring. Laminate has become one of the most popular flooring options on the market over the last decade though it has been available since the late 70s. Why did it take so long for laminate flooring to catch on? The main impediment to laminate flooring’s popularity with the masses was a rather persistent case of mistaken identity. For years the term ‘laminate flooring’ has been confused with the brand name “Linoleum,” a vinyl flooring that bears no resemblance to laminate. As Linoleum-style vinyl sheet flooring slowly became obsolete in residential settings, consumers began to take notice of laminate flooring for the first time.

The popularity of laminate flooring is well-deserved. As an economy flooring, laminate is light years beyond the vinyl sheet flooring or peel and stick vinyl tiles in both look and feel. That being said, we have yet to find a flooring product that performs perfectly in every setting. Laminate is no exception. Laminate’s durability and versatility make it well-suited for a wide range of applications but it does have limitations that must be considered before using it in certain situations. With this article, we will take an in-depth look at the applications where laminate flooring performs best as well as the specific scenarios where laminate flooring may not be the optimal choice.

What Laminate Flooring Is (and What It Is Not)

As mentioned earlier, there has been a great deal of consumer confusion surrounding laminate flooring for years. While most of the misinformation has been more or less cleaned up over the last several years, it can’t hurt to make sure we are all on the same page. The section below will discuss how laminate flooring is made and the innovative improvements that have been introduced since the first laminate flooring hit the market. Perhaps we should start by clearing up what it is not.

Laminate Flooring: Common Misconceptions

Laminate flooring was often confused with Linoleum vinyl sheet flooring when the first laminate flooring was introduced. As laminate has become popular, this mistaken identity has faded somewhat but still causes far too many consumers to dismiss laminate flooring out of hand based on the picture it conjures in the mind of large rolls of off-white vinyl flooring product liberally speckled with avocado green, mauve, or harvest gold and better suited for public schools and hospitals than the floor of their home. The recent introduction of vinyl planks as another alternative to wood floors has muddied the waters even further for consumers. We will discuss the differences between the new vinyl planks and laminate flooring in more detail below, but our intent here is solely to clear up any lingering confusion. Laminate flooring is not a vinyl flooring product, it was designed specifically for residential use and is not intended for industrial applications.

So, what exactly is laminate flooring then?

Laminate Flooring: History and Development Timeline

The art of lamination involves encasing a beautiful but delicate material in protective layers of a crystal clear epoxy or resin which renders it far more durable without detracting from the original beauty. The technique was first used in Sweden in the 1920s to craft beech wood radio cases. It was much later, in 1974, that the idea was scaled up and applied to the creation of beech wood windowsills and countertops. Technological improvements were implemented to enhance durability and by 1979 the world’s first laminate flooring hit the market under the brand name Perstorp. Consumers today know it by its modern name, Pergo. Take a look at the timeline below to get a quick view of how laminate flooring has evolved to become the quality flooring it is today.

  • 1881: Swedish company Stensmölla Kemiska Tekniska Industri, develops lamination technique to refine local beech wood
  • 1923: Swedish company Perstorp Industrial Group uses the material to craft beech wood cases for their radios
  • 1974: Perstorp AB acquires AB Tilafabriken and technological improvements are made to refine laminate for crafting countertops and windowsills
  • 1979: After further refinements, Perstorp AB produces the first HPL (High-Pressure Laminate) flooring product
  • 1985: Perstorp, under the new name Pergo, builds the first laminate flooring factory and mass production begins
  • 1989: Pergo develops a new DPL (Direct Pressure Laminate) product which simplifies production and makes laminate flooring affordable to the masses
  • 1990: Pergo is awarded a patent for their new DPL laminate flooring product
  • Early 1990s: Realistic stone look and texture is introduced
  • 1994: Pergo begins marketing and selling laminate flooring in the United States
  • 1996: The first Pergo factory is built in the United States in Garner, North Carolina
  • Late 1990s: Click-together tongue-and-groove joinery is introduced making it possible to achieve professional results with DIY installation
  • 2000: Pergo introduces new laminate flooring with built-in sound proofing
  • Early 2000s: Realistic wood look and texture is introduced

Laminate Flooring: How It Is Made

Laminate flooring is crafted by chopping up scrap woods into uniform bits and then compressing them together in thin layers, along with high-strength glues and resins, under intense heat and pressure to create a finished product known as composite wood. The composite wood at the core of laminate flooring has a high degree of both flexibility and strength. The composite wood core is then finished by laminating an extremely high-resolution photograph of the desired material to the composite wood surface using ultra-durable resins that create an invisible barrier that is resistant to damage from stains, scratches, and moderate water exposure.

The original laminate flooring, Pergo, featured a photo-realistic wood surface under a smooth semi-glossy resin top layer which gave the flooring a clean modern look but did not convey the true feeling of hardwood flooring. To Pergo’s credit, the product was never intended to be used as an alternative to hardwoods. In fact, the original Pergo flooring featured surfaces that looked like stone and tile. Photo-realistic wood surfaces were not introduced until the early 2000s. The wood look was an immediate sensation and despite the company’s intentions, Pergo soon became known as the affordable and practical alternative to hardwood flooring. Later innovations have reflected laminate flooring’s embrace of its new role as a hardwood flooring alternative with improvements aimed at increased realism like an expanded variety of photo-realistic wood surfaces which allows consumers to choose exotic species of wood for an edgier, modern alternative to the traditional American Oak, Maple, or Pine. Dramatic texture improvements like embossing, distressing, and sculpted top layers have resulted in laminate flooring that both looks and feels exactly like hardwoods and is often difficult for even flooring experts to differentiate from the real thing.

A layer by layer detailed breakdown of laminate flooring is provided below for those interested in the nitty-gritty specifics.

  • Layer #1: The bottom or backing layer is thin water-resistant material bonded to the composite wood core as a barrier against natural subfloor moisture
  • Layer #2: The core of laminate flooring is a composite wood product composed of 99% real wood compressed with glues and resins using intense pressure
  • Layer #3: The design layer features a high-resolution photo-realistic image of the desired wood species, stone type, or tile variety bonded atop the core
  • Layer #4: The wear layer encapsulates the surface in a crystal clear aluminum oxide resin material that is highly resistant to scratches, stains, and moisture

The construction process is completed by bonding all four layers together into one solid laminate floor board using one of the following lamination processes.

  • Direct Pressure Lamination (DPL): uses around 300 to 500 pounds of pressure to compress and bond the four layers into one solid laminate floor board
  • High Pressure Lamination (HPL): uses 1300 plus pounds of pressure to compress and bond the four layers into one solid laminate floor board

DPL laminate flooring is far more affordable and is therefore far more common. This is the most commonly used type of laminate flooring in residential applications. The comparatively higher cost of HPL flooring has resulted in this type of laminate flooring being used in predominantly commercial applications where the increased wear and tear justifies the additional expenditure of the higher-priced option.

Recent innovations have added the option of an additional fifth layer that serves as an attached underlayment that adds additional moisture resistance, soundproofing, and cushioning to both DPL and HPL laminate flooring products.

Now that we know exactly what laminate flooring is and is not, it is time to see how it performs in the areas that matter most.

How Laminate Flooring Compares to the Competition

To provide a more comprehensive view of the overall value of laminate flooring compared to the overall value of the other top flooring options available today, we have selected several key areas that appear most often in the comments and questions consumers post to flooring and home improvement forums. We will look at how well laminate flooring performs in each area and let you know the areas where laminate is your best option and the areas where another option may be the better choice. In the interest of conducting a fair “apples to apples” comparison, we chose to focus exclusively on wood and wood alternative flooring options. Armed with the information below, you, as the consumer, can decide which key areas are most important to you and make an informed decision to use laminate flooring or another wood flooring option for your flooring project.

Aesthetic Appeal

  • Top pick: Hardwood flooring
  • First runner-up: Engineered wood flooring
  • Second runner-up: Laminate flooring

The aesthetic appeal of a product is rooted in how much the individual feels that the look and feel of the product have enhanced or detracted from the overall aesthetic appeal of their home. This is a highly subjective area and therefore all but impossible to quantify accurately. We based our judgment of aesthetic appeal on the ability to mimic the natural beauty of real wood. With these criteria in mind, the obvious top choice in terms of aesthetic appeal is hardwood flooring since this is the only natural product and represents the optimal aesthetic the wood alternatives are judged against.

We had a tougher time deciding between the two runners up. Engineered wood flooring and laminate flooring are both remarkably similar in both look and feel to original hardwood flooring. However, we gave the slight edge to engineered wood flooring for its natural wood design layer versus laminate flooring’s photo-realistic image design layer, though in all honesty, it is nearly impossible to differentiate between the two.

Variety

  • Top pick: Laminate flooring
  • First runner-up: Hardwood flooring
  • Second runner-up: Engineered wood flooring

To determine which wood or wood alternative flooring offered the most variety, we looked at each type of flooring to determine how many unique varieties of wood were available to the average consumer. Laminate flooring was the hands-down winner in this category. Laminate flooring is readily available nationwide in any of a dizzying array of wood species from traditional favorites like American oak, maple, walnut, and pine to exotic species like teak, tigerwood, fruitwood, and eucalyptus. While it can be argued that hardwood should come in all these varieties as well, the fact is that hardwood flooring is limited to only the species of trees available to be harvested. Many of the more exotic species of woods have strict bans in place that forbid the trees from being harvested for any reason. Because Laminate flooring relies on a photo-realistic image rather than actual wood, it is able to offer a variety of wood looks far beyond its closest competitors.

Hardwood flooring and engineered wood flooring round out the top 3 wood or wood alternative flooring options with the widest variety of styles to choose from. Both hardwood and engineered wood flooring can be found in a wide array of choices but depending on the rarity of the tree species, not all varieties will be available to the average consumer.

Overall Cost

  • Top pick: Luxury vinyl plank flooring ($1 – $5 per square foot)
  • First runner-up: Laminate flooring ($1 – $10 per square foot)
  • Second runner-up: Bamboo flooring ($2 – $5 per square foot)

Luxury vinyl plank flooring and laminate flooring are nearly identical in terms of overall cost. We gave the slight edge to luxury vinyl plank flooring because its highest-priced option was priced significantly lower than laminate flooring’s highest-priced item. Though, to be fair, this difference may be due to the wider variety of styles available with laminate flooring. The lowest prices are the same for both products. Both products feature easy DIY installation which translates to no added labor costs for installation, and the flooring itself is readily available locally for most consumers, so there are no pricey shipping costs. Bamboo flooring comes in a distant third place due to its higher base cost and the possibility that professional installation may be needed, which could increase the overall cost considerably.

Ease of Installation

  • Top pick: Laminate flooring
  • First runner-up: Engineered wood flooring
  • Second runner-up: Luxury vinyl plank flooring

Laminate flooring is by far the easiest wood or wood alternative flooring type to install thanks to its click-in-place tongue-and-groove joinery and floating floor installation that requires no nailing or adhesives and allows the laminate flooring to be installed over the top of most existing hard flooring. Engineered wood flooring has many of these same principles but is a little harder to cut. Luxury vinyl plank flooring is also easy to install with the same tongue-and-groove simplicity as laminate flooring. However, it is not a floating floor and therefore requires removal of existing flooring and leveling of the sub-floor prior to installation.

Ease of Maintenance

  • Top pick: Luxury vinyl plank flooring
  • First runner-up: Laminate flooring
  • Second runner-up: Cork flooring

Luxury vinyl plank flooring is hard to beat in when it comes to basic maintenance requirements. Its solid vinyl construction is impervious to water damage so you can mop to your heart’s content, though all that is required to keep it looking good is a daily sweeping with a dry dust mop. Laminate flooring is the second-place winner for ease of maintenance. It is also resistant to stains and scratches but reacts similarly to hardwoods when exposed to water. Our third-place pick for ease of maintenance is cork flooring for its resilient surface that, while not stain resistant, is more resistant to water damage than either laminate or hardwood flooring.

Durability

  • Top pick: Hardwood flooring
  • First runner-up: Engineered wood flooring
  • Second runner-up: Laminate flooring

Durability is another category with a great deal of subjectivity built into the criteria for determining the most durable. In the end, we gave the top honors to hardwood flooring because it is the only wood or wood alternative flooring that can be resurfaced when dull or damaged. This alone makes it the longest-lasting product, as all the other flooring options will need to be replaced if damaged. Engineered wood flooring earned the second-place spot due to its scratch and stain resistant coating and its ability to be resurfaced at least once before needing to be replaced. Laminate flooring rounds out the top three because of its tough resin protective surface which resists stains, scratches, and some moisture damage.

Versatility

  • Top pick: Luxury vinyl plank flooring
  • First runner-up: Laminate flooring
  • Second runner-up: Cork flooring

When it comes to versatility, the top prize must go to Luxury vinyl plank flooring. It is the only wood or wood alternative flooring product that is truly waterproof and thus can be installed anywhere in the home without concerns about excess moisture or pooled water ruining the floor. Laminate and cork round out our top three as both are resistant to scratches and some degree of moisture. Laminate has a slight advantage over cork because its hard protective surface is resistant to gouges while cork’s soft resilient surface is not.

Return on Investment

  • Top pick: Hardwood flooring
  • First runner-up: Engineered wood flooring
  • Second runner-up: Laminate flooring

There is no question when it comes to resale value of your home that the only flooring option that you can count on to add digits to your selling price is authentic hardwood flooring. Modern home buyers are savvy and not easily impressed. They are only willing to pay a premium for the truly hard-to-find details like real hardwood flooring. Engineered hardwoods may net some return on your investment but this is not a certainty. The third spot goes to laminate flooring. If there is any sliver of a chance to recoup the flooring costs from a home with wood alternative flooring options instead of hardwood flooring, then laminate is going to be your best alternative wood option. This is based on its huge variety of styles and the off-chance that you have selected an edgy, modern alternative that is unique enough to warrant doling out extra cash for the home.

Eco-Friendliness

  • Top pick: Bamboo flooring
  • First runner-up: Cork flooring
  • Second runner-up: Laminate flooring

Our final category looks at the best pick for the ecology-minded consumer. The top award here goes to bamboo flooring for the sustainability of its resources. Bamboo is a grass that is cut rather than removed from the ground. The bamboo growth that is cut to craft goods like bamboo flooring is replenished in less than 6 years versus the more than 20 years required to replenish just one single tree. Cork flooring earns second place for its sustainable resource qualities and its non-toxic construction with no off-gassing of VOCs. Laminate is a distant third place as the greenest of the “not very green” products. Laminate flooring is, however, crafted from 99% recycled wood chips rather than living trees which is greener than most of the competition.

The Verdict

This guide was written with the sole intention of providing the facts about laminate flooring and how it stacks up against the competition. We think laminate is one of the best flooring options on the market, but what truly matters is how it matches up with your own personal criteria. If you are most concerned with cost, easy installation, and maintenance, and you appreciate having a variety of options to choose from, then the information we have shared here should rank laminate flooring at the top of your shortlist. On the other hand, if you are committed to using only the greenest options for your home or you are looking to maximize the return on your investment, then laminate may not be the best option for you. At the end of the day, the only one who can select the best product for your situation is you. We hope we have provided you with all the information you need to make a truly informed decision on the best options for your home and your life.



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