The Beauty Of Laminate Flooring

Ten years ago most Americans had never heard of laminate flooring. Now you can't pick up a decorating magazine without seeing a barrage of ads for wood-look laminate floors touted as tough, beautiful and easy-care. Consumers have taken notice too: Laminate sales have gone from zero in 1994, when the Swedish company Perstorp Flooring started selling Pergo in the United States, to a multi-billion dollar industry!

Since its arrival in the United States, the product has steadily improved in looks, durability and variety. These days more than 100 companies offer laminate floors with the appearance of antique heart pine, Brazilian cherry (the hardest hardwood around), chestnut, pecan and just about any other wood you can imagine. The floors also come in ceramic and stone look-alikes, and other custom designs are beginning to emerge.

Some people say you can't tell the difference between laminate and hardwood. Laminate is not a second-rate product, it's a viable substitute for wood, and in some cases it's the preferred product.

Laminate flooring is composed of three layers: a melamine backing; a wood or wood-fiber core topped with a "print layer," or photographic image; and a melamine wear layer,: similar to a laminate countertop but 10 to 20 times harder.

Durability is good to excellent for a non-wood floor: Most manufacturers guarantee the product for 10 to 25 years against stains, wear and fading. Formica now offers a 15-year warranty against water damage, a major innovation, since laminate's wood core has made it susceptible to swelling and damage if exposed to water. (For that reason, laminate isn't recommended for use in bathrooms and laundry rooms.)

Here's the rub: A laminate floor's good looks are protected only by the wear layer. Once it's damaged or worn through, the floor's life is over: It can't be refinished or restored. 

Hardwood flooring, of course, lasts darn near forever, given a modicum of care. The palace at Versailles still has original wood floors! Because wood is softer than laminate, though, it's more easily scratched and dented. That doesn't mean it has to be babied: I've heard people say they don't wear shoes indoors because they have wood floors. That's ludicrous. The pioneers had wood floors, and they're not as delicate as people believe.

Over the long haul, wood floors win the durability contest because they can be recoated or refinished, restoring their looks. Because of wood's unbeatable combination of beauty and longevity, hardwood flooring increases the resale value of your home; laminate doesn't.

Here's how laminate and wood compare in cost, installation and care: 

Cost: Laminate's uninstalled retail price ranges from $1.50 to $6 per square foot, compared with $5 to $20 or more for prefinished hardwood.

Installation: Do-it-yourselfers with the proper tools can successfully install both laminate and hardwood floors, but neither process is foolproof. Before laminate is installed, a layer of padding is laid down over the subfloor. Then tongue-and-groove laminate planks are glued together to form a "floating" floor that isn't attached to the subfloor. It's critical that the glue be applied properly in order to get a good fit between planks and to prevent moisture from entering the cracks between planks and getting to the core.

Solid hardwood flooring is available finished or unfinished. Both kinds are nailed or stapled to a wooden subfloor. Prefinished floors, like laminate, can be installed quickly. Unfinished floors, in contrast, must be sanded, stained and either sealed and waxed or finished after installation. The process can take days.

Care: Dirt is the enemy of all hard-surface floors because it abrades the wear layer. Manufacturers recommend vacuuming or dust-mopping laminate and wood floors frequently, placing rugs at all exterior doors to trap dirt, putting protective pads on furniture legs and taking off high-heeled shoes, which can ding or scratch floors.

If laminate floors get stained, clean them with a damp towel or mop. Laminate floors should never be wet-mopped or waxed.

When you're cleaning a wood floor, use only products recommended by the manufacturer. Floors finished with polyurethane can be spot-cleaned or damp-mopped with appropriate cleansers. They must never be waxed. Wood floors protected with a wax finish should be waxed and buffed once or twice a year. Clean up spills immediately, as water can leave white spots on wax.

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