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What is the difference between hardwood floors and laminate flooring?

Updated on March 15, 2010

There is a difference between hardwood and laminate flooring and what you choose could come down to your lifestyle and budget.  First, let's go over the similarities of the two.  Both are very popular in terms of flooring in homes nowadays.  And from a looks perspective, high quality laminate and wood floors would be hard to differenciate. The main difference between the two other than price is what they are made of. 

Many do-it-yourself weekend warrior types prefer laminate over hardwood because it is much easier to install compared to traditional wood flooring.  For the most part, laminate flooring is traditionally what is known as a floating floor, meaning that you don't need to use a direct fastening method such as nails or glue so common with laying hardwood or bamboo.  What that means is that laminate can be installed over virtually any floor without going down to the room's subfloor.  That said, nothing can compare to the real thing.

Because of the composition differences of the two, your choices really depend on what you are looking for in a floor.  While wood flooring is more natural, laminate is more durable making it a solid choice for those with pets or kids or in areas that are considered high traffic areas.

What is laminate flooring made of?

The planks of hardwood versus laminate are also different; laminate panels are usually thinner than their counterparts which may or may not be a pro to installing it.  In some cases, laminate floors can be made from planks that are engineered and can be fairly thick though.

In fact, laminate can be better compared to engineered wood rather than solid hardwood because just like engineered wood, it is made up of several plies or layers.  The top part of the laminate is known as the wear layer. This layer is treated with plastic resins that make it stronger than hardwood and capable of withstanding more damage that natural wood.  It is the wear layer that makes laminate a better choice for people or families with dogs or kids because it is more scratch resistant.

Just underneath the "wear" layer, is the design layer.  This layer is nothing more than an image of whatever the wood it is trying to mimic.  Typically, this layer is nothing more than a picture of the hardwood and done well, it will generally reproduce the variations in colors that we know to be hardwood.

Beneath the design layer is the core layer.  This layer is the core of the floor.  Usually this layer is made of particle board.

Hardwood floors- What is the difference?

Hardwood floors are different in other areas as well.  Many different species of hardwood will actually get darker over time as they age if exposed to light.  While this may be attractive to some, if you have area rugs in light, you won't be able to move them without the flooring underneath looking bleached.  Alternatively, laminate will look the same as the day it came out of the box.

Hardwood floors are also easier to repair if the planks become damaged.  They can be sanded down and restained if your floors get dented or scratched.  This isn't the case with laminate.  Typically, if a section get damaged, you will have to replace it with new laminate flooring.  This could become a problem as you will have to match flooring.

As far as bang for your buck is concerned, hardwood flooring wins straight out.  Hard wood floors will almost always increase the value of a home as it is considered more valuable.  Laminate will not do so.  Of course, you will pay more for hardwood and the price differences could be as high as $10-15 including labor for high quality wood.

The bottom line is that while the differences between laminate and wood floors aren't as huge as you may think from a looks perspective, making the decision between the two really depends on what you want and your budget.  If you aren't trying to increase the value of your home or have kids or pets and are looking for something more scratch or dent resistant, then laminate flooring may be what you are looking for.  However, if you are looking to increase the equity of your home or are looking for a more natural or organic feel to your house and don't mind paying for it, then hardwood is the way to go.


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