If you’re researching a new home flooring project and have a pretty strict budget to adhere to, then a good starting point is to look at laminate flooring which, over the years, has evolved into a very strong and competitive alternative to authentic solid hardwood or stone floors.
In this Home Flooring Pros guide we drill down to get to the heart of finding the best laminate flooring available. This post is meant as a general guide, please consult with a reliable home flooring professional before making a final decision. For our full laminate flooring section, that includes detailed information on prices, installation and maintenance, click here.
So what exactly is laminate flooring and what makes it the best choice for you? A laminate floor is a composite product that consists of several different layers fused together. Generally speaking there are four or five layers: the first top layer is a transparent wear layer that protects the floor from scratches and liquids; next is a decorative 3D photographic layer that reproduces the authentic product; the middle core layer is the thickest and is made of high-density fiberboard (HDF); finally the base of the floor is sealed with a melamine resin layer which adds stability and moisture resistance.
Further, with some laminate brands a fifth layer is included to help minimize discrepancies in the subfloor – see more about underlayment below. So now you know what it is, let’s look into more detail about the advantages and disadvantages of laminate floors.
Barely distinguishable from the real thing! – To the untrained eye, top laminate brands that feature modern 3D digital photographic layers and replicate both the look and feel of wood or stone, are often difficult to tell apart from the real thing. As witnessed by Dorris and Greg from Ginger and The Huth Blog:
“we were sold on this flooring after the salesman we were working with brought out real hardwood in the same black maple color to compare to the laminate black maple we were looking at. I wish I had taken a picture because we could not tell the difference between the real hardwood and the laminate.”
Infinite variety of design – Again today’s photographic and printing techniques make it possible to recreate just about every kind of flooring surface imaginable, so laminate floors can replicate any look you want. As explained by Bill Dearing, president of the North American Laminate Flooring Association:
“any design you can imagine is possible in laminate… Unique and rare species that aren’t possible in real wood, and marbles and stones that would cost thousands of dollars – all of it’s possible in laminate design.”
And even the different hardwood finishes can be reproduced, from distressed to hand-scraped to even planks with saw marks in them!
Cost – Because the processes involved in creating laminate flooring often happen within the same facility, the cost of producing it is cheaper and thus the retail price is often significantly cheaper than authentic hardwoods or stone products. For example, solid oak hardwood generally retails upwards of $3 per square foot, whilst certain oak look laminates ranges can retail for as little as 99 cents per square foot. For more detailed info on the cost to install laminate flooring click here.
Eco-Friendly – It can be argued that producing laminates, which are mostly made in the home country of sale, provide a lower carbon-footprint than the farming, harvesting and transportation of hardwoods or the quarrying and transportation of stone flooring. Plus many manufacturers use recycled wood products for the MDF component of the laminate flooring, and laminate flooring does not need special glues for installation or cleaning materials.
Easy installation and easy removal – The vast majority of today’s laminate floors come with “click-lock” design systems (also sometimes referred to as a Uniclic system), which mean that you simply install the laminate boards as a floating floor over a sub-floor and foam underlayment. One edge of the board will have a groove into which the other edge that has a “tongue” is clicked and locked into place. Some manufacturers infuse the grooved and tongued edges with dry adhesive that you simply dampen before clicking into place to add an extra level of locking. And because of this click-lock system, laminate flooring is one of the easiest floors to remove when it’s time for an update.
Durable, scratch and stain resistant – The best quality laminates offer generous wear layers that make the flooring very durable and resistant to scratches, dents and stains – much more so than hardwood that can dent much more easily.
Install everywhere, even with under floor heating – Because of its durability, laminates are perfect for high traffic areas and can even be installed in wetter areas like bathrooms. Beware though that laminates – just like hardwood – are not waterproof and will not fare well if water is left to sit on them.. Under floor heating systems specifically designed to be used with laminate flooring are widely available; but double check with your floor manufacturer as to suitability. Check out our Laminate Flooring in the Kitchen post for more info on the pros and cons of laminate floors in a kitchen.
Easy clean and maintenance – Laminate flooring is also seriously easy to clean: simple vacuum or sweep and then run a barely damp mop over it, perhaps with a tiny bit of cleaning product added (read our guide to the best cleaners for laminate flooring). And no annual maintenance program is required! See our main laminate cleaning and maintenance guide for the best way to clean laminate floors.
Cons of Laminate Flooring
It’s not real! – That is probably the number one reason that puts some people off laminate – the fact is that it isn’t actually authentic wood or stone. This is perhaps not a true disadvantage, but it does need to be considered in terms of the perceived value of laminate.
Lower perceived value – Because it is lower in cost and not authentic, laminate is seen as a lower value product. But this is not necessarily a disadvantage depending on the context of the project, as explained by Ashley Phipps from Simply Designing, laminate flooring is a
“good mid-grade home improvement project. Not ideal for a very high-end or custom neighborhood depending on location. Always research what other homes in your neighborhood have as you don’t want to over or under upgrade your home.”
A somewhat higher-end alternative to laminate, but still not as pricey as hardwood, is engineered hardwood.
Cannot be refinished – This is the really major decision that you’ll need to make with laminate: if it gets very badly damaged you cannot simply sand it back and refinish it like hardwood. It will have to be replaced. Having said that, if you opt for a top quality laminate brand with a good wear layer, the chances of it getting so badly scratched, dented or worn are minimized.
Hard, noisy and slippery! – Because it is predominantly made of HDF, laminate floors have a harder feel to them than real hardwood. This sensation can be dulled to a certain extent by installing a good quality foam underlay under the laminate. The hardness of laminates also makes them less good at absorbing sound, which some people find off-putting – again getting a good quality foam underlay can help improve sound absorption. Also beware that some of the cheapest laminates do not have a decent anti-slip agent added to the wear layer and therefore can be a bit slippery!
So What Makes a Great Laminate Floor?
As with many flooring products, you get what you pay for! Whilst laminate is a cheaper option than real hardwood planks or stone tiles, do not make the mistake of choosing the cheapest of the cheap as you may get disappointing results including buckling, swelling and gaps appearing between edges. Good mid-range laminate floors tend to be priced around $2.50 per square foot.
If you are concerned about hardness and sound absorption, then make sure you go for a laminate that is at least 12mm thick (0.47 inches) – not including underlay. Thicker laminates also tend to have a better feel to them in terms of authenticity because the planes of the 3D photographic layer can be deeper and more detailed and thus more realistic.
Another quick check for quality of the laminate is to see what the moisture swell rate is: this should not be more than 18%, and ideally you should look for brands that have a swell rate of 13% or lower.
And to create better authenticity, it helps to choose a laminate that has a large pattern repeat: a laminate which has a 1 in 10 pattern repeat will mean that there will be fewer planks in your batch that are exactly the same, making it easier to create a more varied and natural look to your floor as you lay it.
But by far, the most useful thing to look out for is certification from the North American Laminate Floor Association (or NALFA for short). NALFA apply a strict set of criteria to the laminates that they certify: laminates need to pass 10 quality control tests that are performed in an independent laboratory to check for numerous aspects including wear, water, light and stain resistance, static load, dimensional tolerance, surface bond and thickness swell. The NAFLA website has a wealth of information and includes an up-to-date list of the best brands and manufacturers that they have certified, see it here.
Newest Laminate Flooring Design Trends
As with everything interior related, the best laminate flooring manufacturers have kept up with all the latest design trends to ensure their products stay relevant to today’s market. The biggest trends are:
Bigger planks – Not only are manufacturers seeing more interest in thicker planks, but in trying to replicate trends in real hardwood flooring they are now offering longer and wider planks too.
High gloss finishes – Gloss on laminates used to mean dangerously slippery conditions, but new improved finishing processes means that you can now get high gloss finishes that are non-slip too. High gloss laminate flooring paired with refined minimalist interiors can offer a very chic high-end look, even on a budget.
The “not-so” new neutral – Gray has been a key “new neutral” for a while now, so it’s not really that new, but it is still very much on-trend; gray toned laminates in various finishes can now be found in many top brand collections.
Industrial edgy – This is what we are calling the emergence of cement flooring as a new look for residential settings, particularly loft-type homes. If you like the look but decide that pouring a cement floor is not a realistic option for you, then cement look laminate tiles are the next best option.
Laminate your walls! – Yes, you read that right! If done right, adding the same wood look laminate flooring from your floor onto a key accent wall can look spectacular.
Top Rated Laminate Flooring Brands Reviewed
Pergo – Pergo are literally THE original laminate flooring brand. Back in the early 1980s the brand was launched by a Swedish company called Perstorp who had actually invented the laminate flooring technique, and had been bringing both laminate and plastics products to the market since the late 1800s! The brand was subsequently acquired by the gigantic US based Mohawk Industries conglomerate, and continues to dominate the global market as the leading laminate flooring brand. As a result – unsurprisingly – the Pergo collections of wood and stone look laminates are both extensive and sublime!
There’s something to suit every taste and style in the Pergo range: from authentically reproduced classics like hickory and oak, to beautifully rendered exotics like bamboo and jatoba, to delicately veined travertine marbles and dramatically rugged slates. And, naturally, their laminates are available in a large range of widths, thicknesses and finishes. What they do especially well, though, is to create laminates that replicate more interesting distressed, painterly and stenciled finishes: in particular the bold grey, white and golden tones of the painted effect Inspiration plank (pictured below left), the lace-like barely there stencil pattern on the gray Mystic Oak plank and the super-cute stenciled animals integrated into the Zoo Friends plank are like nothing we’ve seen anywhere else.
Mohawk – But if the Pergo brand doesn’t have quite enough choice for you, then Mohawk’s own name brand currently has 138 laminate flooring options for you to consider, including hardwoods, exotic woods, and stones. The collection features mostly classic styles and finishes – there are some very pretty distressed laminate planks and a number of lovely high gloss ones – and delivers best in offering lots of different colors/ styles within certain classic wood looks; for example there are 58 different oak laminates alone!
With its long history of providing excellent quality flooring of all kinds, Mohawk’s over-arching dominance in the arena means that their products are very readily available and well known to many contractors and retail stores across the country. Quite aside from the huge range of floors to choose from, Mohawk also offer a complete range of laminate trims and moldings to complement their flooring and give your home a completely professionally finished look.
Furthermore, Mohawk’s laminates feature their GenuEdge technology, which means that the photographic design layer rolls over the edges of each plank and tile, just as it would in the real thing, lending an extra element of authentic replication. BuildDirect sells a good selection of Mohawk laminate.
Quick-Step – As the Pergo story shows, in today’s world of multi-national conglomerates, things do tend to be a bit interconnected, so you perhaps won’t be surprised to know that Quick-Step is a brand made by a company called Unilin which was created back in the 1960s in Belgium, but which is now is also part of the enormous Mohawk Industries group! But, in contrast to its complicated incidental acquisition history, Unilin plays a rather more straightforward and important role in the whole history of laminate flooring: they were behind the introduction of the original and award-wining Uniclic “click-lock” system that almost all laminate floors use today.
The Quick-Step brand of laminates continues to innovate and bring new products to market even today, with new interesting laminate flooring collections regularly being added. One of the Quick-Step advertising strap-lines is that their floors are “so realistic, even Mother Nature has to look twice” – and indeed their newer collections show a very particular attention to detail that is hard to beat! The Eligna, Modello and Sculptique collections are of particular interest as they comes in extra long lengths of up to 54”, which means you can create a more realistic hardwood floor look. We also rather like the Quadra stone look laminate collection, which comes in four different colors.
Mannington – Mannington is probably best-known for its world-leading luxury vinyl tile ranges, but their laminate flooring range is certainly also worth considering, not least of because some of them are really rather lovely! The range is divided into six collections, including the Revolutions Tile collection for stone look laminates. Of the other five wood look laminates the two that are really worth looking into are the Diamond Bay and the Restoration collections, both of which offer thicker 12mm planks than the other collections.
Of particular interest is the large range of choice within the Restoration laminate collection which features a slightly weathered, distressed and vintage aesthetic in beige, sepia, dusky and grayish tones applied to all kinds of different wood types including walnut, oak, birch, hickory and maple. My personal favorite – the new waxed-effect finished, driftwood like Riverside birch plank that comes in three colors: natural, oyster and pearl (pictured below left).
Shaw Floors – Established in 1946, Shaw Floors is probably best known in the US for its dominance in carpeting and rugs, but entered the hard surface flooring industry in 2002 with the opening of its first laminate flooring facility. Shaw has gone on to be one of the major players in all areas of flooring, and today offers no less than190 products in its laminate range.
Of particular note are the products in the Luminiere High Gloss collection – Shaw were one of the first to bring high gloss laminates to the market – which features very diverse different wood looks to suit almost any interior design, from the creamy light modernist Echo Lake to the more classic deep cocoa brown Brazilian Vue.
Also of note is the large number of wide laminate planks that create a very on-trend look, like the Landscapes Eastlake Hickory floor shown below right. Bear in mind that the vast majority of the Shaw Floor laminates are wood look for a good reason. For whilst they do have a limited range of stone effect laminates (Majestic Visions, available in 3 colors and Majestic Grandeur, in 6 colors), they are rather generic looking and perhaps not the greatest example of what Shaw do best! Again, a selection of Shaw laminate floors can be found at BuildDirect.
Get It Right – Top Laminate Flooring Tips!
Consider where it’s going – High traffic areas such as entry hallways and kitchens may need laminates with superior wear layers, so consider those that have aluminum oxide added to them for extra durability; and different areas, such as basement or bathroom may need specific underlayment to deal with potential moisture threats.
Don’t forget the underlayment! – As with everything, not all underlayment is created equally – the best products will offer good quality sound absorption and help smooth out imperfections in your subfloor. Take the time to research the different options available, particularly if you and if you are looking at a laminate that already has an underlayment later attached, and if you are planning to use laminate in the bathroom or with under floor heating. Click here for a bestselling laminate underlayment.
DIY-friendly? – Yes, laminate flooring is one of the more DIY-friendly flooring options, even for DIY novices, as long as you do due diligence with preparing the sub-floor, using the correct tools and referring to the manufacturer’s instructions. There are tons of how-to guides and videos online, including this nifty series on the NALFA website, but why not start right here on Home Flooring Pros with our laminate DIY installation guide.
Why not find out how much you could save yourself by getting a free quote for laminate floor installation from local contractors?
Other laminate flooring options – If you’re interested in the general idea of a laminate floor, particularly because of its green credentials, then other excellent green alternatives to consider are bamboo, eucalyptus and cork floors. These floors are created using similar fusing technologies as those used to create laminates, and often use similar “click-lock” floating floor installation processes. Also of interest is the manufacturers WE Cork who alongside their 100% cork range, also create laminates that incorporate a high-density cork layer rather than the usual HDF layer to create a softer, more comfortable feel. For more info on cork and bamboo flooring click here.