What is Laminate Flooring? | Laminate 101

What Are Laminate Floors?

Laminate flooring is an affordable and popular flooring choice, best compared to vinyl plank floors in terms of quality, durability, installation, care, and cost. A great budget option, it has a “hardwood look,” but beyond that, it’s not comparable to real wood flooring in either construction or cost.

Last Updated: September 22, 2023, by: Jamie Sandford

This overview of laminate flooring covers everything you need to know about laminate flooring products, pros and cons, installation techniques, daily and long-term maintenance, a discussion of laminate vs vinyl and a wealth of FAQs.


Are you completely new to laminate flooring? Let’s start with the basics and work out whether a laminate floor is even a good option for you.


The term laminate means layers of material. Without getting too far into the “weeds” of construction, here are the different layers that laminate planks are built with, from the top down.

1). The Surface Layer: Also called the transparent wear layer and top layer, it is a tough, clear film. Melamine film is standard and costs less, though aluminum oxide film is considered more resistant to scratching and fading. It is preferred for high-traffic areas.

2). Print Layer: AKA the image layer, this is a high-resolution digital image – a picture – of real wood, stone or tile printed on paper.

3). Core: Most manufacturers use an HDF fiberboard, wood particles bonded with melamine resin or other resin, heated and compressed for rigidity and stability. The makeup of the core partly determines whether the laminate is advertised as water-resistant or waterproof.

4). Backing Layer: This thin, very dense layer of melamine gives pieces stability and helps protect them from moisture traveling through the subfloor.

5). Optional Underlayment: Most of the laminate floors you’ll come across have a thin underlayment attached to each plank. It saves a step in the installation process at a minimal extra cost per square foot.

Otherwise, rolls of underlayment are available to cover the subfloor. Underlayment serves to reduce noise and smooths out minor imperfections in the subfloor.


Laminate is a popular flooring choice where a hard surface is preferred to carpet and where solid hardwood flooring is not in the budget.

However, it is not recommended for homes in neighborhoods where solid hardwood flooring, stone and quality ceramic tile is standard.


Yes, today’s laminate is much improved and advances in technology continue to make the flooring more durable and easier to install.

To improve water-resistance, for example, planks are now sealed on all sides and ends to prevent moisture penetration from spills and humidity. You can read reviews of the best waterproof laminate flooring.

Wear layers have been improved too, providing better protection against dulling, yellowing and scratching.

Laminate flooring is certainly worth considering especially as an alternative to vinyl plank or tile flooring.


As discussed, laminate flooring is most easily comparable to vinyl floors, both are budget friendly, attractive and equally durable, lasting 8-20 years based on initial quality and how much traffic they get.

There are key differences in construction, water-resistance, comfort and wear. So, which is the right choice for you and in what specific ways do vinyl and laminate floors differ?

Composition – Laminate is mostly wood – usually a high-density fiberboard core mixed with resins. Vinyl flooring is all plastic or has a wood/plastic composite or stone/polymer composite core. As a result, solid vinyl flooring is more resistant to water damage. Laminate, if exposed to water for a prolonged period, is likely to absorb moisture and swell or separate.

Comfort – Vinyl feels slightly cooler to bare feet and pets.

Appearance – Laminate mimics hardwood flooring using a digital image of real wood. Vinyl is textured and tinted to mimic wood flooring.

DIY InstallationLaminate planks require cutting with a saw, and it creates a lot of dust you definitely don’t want to breathe. Vinyl can be cut with a utility knife and a straightedge.

Price Ranges – Laminate floors have a wider cost range from cheap to pricey. Vinyl floors prices are cheap to mid-range.

ROI – Laminate flooring was once clearly preferred by homeowners, so it had a higher ROI. But LVP is trending up, while laminate is stagnant or trending down. So, currently, the resale impact of luxury vinyl is more positive than it is for laminate floors.

Environmental Factors – Laminate is more eco-friendly. It is made with recycled wood and can be a low-VOC flooring. PVC vinyl flooring contains chemicals hazardous to you and the planet. If this is a concern, look for a low-VOC label on either flooring type.

Scratch Resistance: Laminate and vinyl flooring are equally scratch resistant as long as you’re comparing similar products – basic, better or best.

For vinyl, consider the thickness of the wear layer from 4 mils (basic) to 12 mils (best). For laminate, check the Abrasion Criteria Rating from 1 (basic) to 5 (best).

Further Reading: How to Fix Scratches on Laminate Flooring


Hopefully the comparison above has helped you to choose between laminate and vinyl flooring. If you’re still not sure consider the following statements

I want affordable flooring that looks like real wood.

Laminate looks more like real wood because it is topped with a high-resolution image of the real thing. Vinyl can’t make that claim.

If your priority is a floor that most closely resembles wood then choose laminate.

I want to use one material throughout the house, including bathrooms and the laundry room.

Vinyl is certainly more versatile because of its superior resistance to water damage. If you want one material throughout the house the choose vinyl.


You’ve heard that laminate is a budget friendly flooring option, so what does that mean in practice?

How much is laminate flooring?

The average cost to buy laminate is around $1,500 for a 300 square foot kitchen or office. That’s the cost for materials only. For a pro-installed floor, the cost average is $2,100 to $2,700 for the same square footage.

How much is laminate flooring per square foot?

Laminate flooring and accessories cost between $1.50 to $6.00 per square foot with an average cost around $2.75 to $5.50.

How much is laminate floor installation?

Professional laminate floor installation costs $3-$5 per square foot taking the total cost of materials and labor to $4.50 to $11.50 per square foot installed.

Cost factors include initial flooring cost, what underlayment you choose, whether a vapor barrier needs to be installed and, if you choose pro-labor, how complex the job is and how much trimming is involved.

Further Reading: Cost to Install Laminate Flooring

Is laminate flooring cheaper than carpet?

In terms of cost, the laminate price range is consistent with cheap to the good-quality carpet. Premium carpet costs more than the most expensive laminate.

In terms of quality, cheap laminate lasts a little longer than cheap carpet. Good laminate is as durable as the best carpet.

Related Reading: Cheapest Flooring Options


There is some confusing and misleading information swirling around regarding types of laminate flooring. Forget anything you might have read about glue down or pre-glued (peel and stick) laminate flooring, these options don’t exist.

Laminate floors come with a click and lock installation system and are always installed as a floating floor.

Furthermore, you may also have heard that laminate comes as wood look planks or stone look tiles. You can find a very limited range of stone look laminate flooring (take a look at Pergo Portfolio) but the vast majority of laminate comes in wood-look, click together planks.

What is Laminate Wood Flooring?

The term “laminate wood flooring” is a hangover from a time when there was a lot more laminate that looked like stone or tile. Buyers and retailers would differentiate between the two types of laminate by talking about laminate wood flooring and laminate tile flooring. As discussed, there’s really only wood-look laminate flooring these days…there’s no such thing as laminate wood flooring.

What is the difference between laminate and engineered flooring?

Engineered wood flooring is sometimes called laminate flooring because it is layered. But instead of an HDF fiber core with an image and wear layer on top, engineered flooring has a thin layer or veneer of solid hardwood on top. Engineered hardwood costs about twice as much as laminate. They are very different flooring products.


So as you browse the main different laminate wood-look planks available you will need to make decisions about the following:

Plank Width: Wider planks offer a more relaxed aesthetic, a nice fit for wide-open spaces. But they can look “too wide” for narrow spaces like halls and bathrooms.

Narrow widths look “too busy” in wide-open areas but are ideal if your rooms are smaller and cozy.

Planks 4”-5.25” look good anywhere.

Wear layer: You’ll pay more for a thicker wear layer or higher abrasion / AC rating. If your household is hard on floors, then the extra cost is worth paying.

Texture: Smooth floors are considered a more contemporary feature. Textured flooring is traditional – some is quite rustic.

Flooring Thickness: Laminate thickness options are 7mm to 12mm. There is a definite relationship between thickness and quality/price. Thin is cheap. The best stuff is 10mm or 12mm.

Thicker laminate flooring usually has several advantages:

  • Beefier core for better stability and wear
  • Thicker wear layer that improves longevity
  • More realistic texturing

Tip: If the flooring is going to adjoin another flooring type, you might want to choose a laminate with similar thickness to minimize the transition.

Sheet vinyl is thinner than laminate. Most carpet and stone tile is thicker. Luxury vinyl is about the same. Ceramic tile varies. Flooring transition strips are  used at these locations. There are strips for flooring of equal height and when one is higher than the other.


Home Flooring Pros recommend you browse a lot of manufacturers’ sites to see their products installed in homes and room sizes that are similar to your own.

This will give you a good understanding of the width, colors, and the texture you’ll be happiest with. Order a few samples to match colors with your home’s décor. Samples usually cost around $3 to $5 each plus shipping.

Alternatively head over to Lowes or the Home Depot and get your hands on full-sized samples that can really inform your buying decisions. You will get a much better sense of whether to choose a smooth or textured finish and the plank width you prefer.

In short, the more you investigate your laminate flooring options, the more likely you are to be happy with the finished product in your home.


You know what laminate is, it fits in your budget and you’ve found a style that you like, but before you buy, ask yourself a few questions around installation.


You can install laminate floors anywhere in your home. The most common locations include the kitchen, dining area, home offices, entryways and hallways. For bathrooms and laundry rooms consider water-resistant laminate flooring.


What laminate flooring is best for basements?

For basements choose a laminate floor billed as waterproof whenever you plan to install it below ground level.

Choose another flooring if your basement has known moisture issues. You won’t be happy with its long-term performance in wet areas.

Further Reading: Best Basement Laminate Flooring

Can laminate flooring go on concrete?

Yes, you can install laminate over concrete, but a vapor barrier, aka a moisture barrier, of at least 6 mils must be installed over the concrete and taped at the edges and seams.

Further Reading: Basement Vapor Barrier | Installing Laminate Over Concrete


Laminate is a favorite DIY flooring for homeowners. There are plenty of step by step installation guides available online. For a successful install take note of this advice and our tips:

1). Bring the boxes of flooring indoors for 72 hours to allow it to acclimate to your home’s temperature and humidity.

Tip: Keeping your home humidified in winter is important for any plank flooring. Extremely dry air may cause planks to shrink and separate.

2). Read the included Installation Guide completely before starting. Watching tutorial videos is a great idea, especially if produced by the manufacturers.

3). Have a flooring saw or table saw handy with a newer blade on it – and know how to use it.

Tip: Wear a mask and eye protection when cutting laminate. It creates dust you don’t want to have contact with. And you might want to do your cutting in a garage or outdoors. Turn off the HVAC system, and cover grates with plastic, if you cut indoors.

4). Plan your layout so that partial pieces running along walls on either side are balanced. In other words, you don’t want a 1” piece on one side and a 5” piece on the other.

Tip 1: Measure the width of the room and divide by the width of the planks to determine the number of pieces plus what is left over. If, for example, 4” is left over, your first piece should be ripped (cut lengthwise) to 2”. You’ll end with a 2” piece as well.

Tip 2: Perimeter gaps of 1/4″ to 3/8” are essential. Laminate, though quite dimensionally stable, will expand and contract a tiny bit with changes in indoor climate.

Multiply “a tiny bit” by 20+ planks, and the whole flooring field can change size enough to buckle if edges are tight against the wall. Tile spacers or a piece of thin, uniformly thick trim can be used as a spacer.

*Just remember that the gap must be narrower than the trim you plan to use – the right trim will be wide enough to cover the gap between the flooring and the wall.

5). Stagger plank lengths, so that the ends of adjoining planks are more than a few inches within each other.

6). Practice the click-lock technique for joining pieces. It’s sort of tongue and groove on most brands. Tutorial videos should show it. Use short pieces in case you damage your practice planks.

For most, with one plank lying flat, bring the second piece in at a 45-degree angle. Push the tongue into the groove, maintain pressure, and push in and down. Done.

7). Go slow at first. Measure twice, cut once, and all that. You might wreck a few pieces in the early going. Some of the click-lock edges are thin and fragile. But that’s the price of gaining a new skill – and it is a much lower cost than hiring a pro to install it.

Tip: Buy an extra box. If you don’t have flooring left over when you’re done, purchase a backup box for future repairs before the flooring gets discontinued, and it will, sometime in the next 5-10 years.


Before you buy a laminate floor you need to know about cleaning and maintenance.

Cleaning laminate flooring is pretty simple.

Read your flooring’s Care Guide. Use the tools, techniques and products it recommends. If their branded cleaning product is excessively priced or hard to find, a quality generic laminate cleaner will be fine.

  • Keep abrasive dirt off your flooring as needed with a microfiber mop, hard-flooring vacuum or by occasionally wet mopping with a damp mop.
  • Clean up spills quickly to prevent stains and water damage.
  • Put pads on furniture feet to avoid dents and lift rather than drag heavy objects over the floor.
  • Keep the claws of large dogs trimmed and encourage kids to play with toys that might damage the floor somewhere else.

Follow these essentials, and your floor will last longer.

What about laminate floors and door mats? We go against the grain a little bit here. It’s a great idea to keep shoes off laminate. We can all agree on that.

But placing shoe mats outside on a covered porch or garage entrance is a better plan than laying them on the flooring – for two reasons.

  • Moisture from wet shoes can get trapped under the mat and damage the floor.
  • Grit gets trapped too and acts like sandpaper on the wear layer.


You should have a clear idea of what laminate flooring is but here are the answers to a few more frequently asked questions:

Is laminate flooring waterproof?

Laminate floors aren’t waterproof like a submarine.

But some flooring is sealed on all edges to withstand damage from a small amount of water sitting on it for a day or so – a puddle, not a broken-pipe kind of flooded floor.

The standard guarantee for waterproof laminate flooring is 24 hours. Aquaguard’s warranty is 30 hours. Armstrong Audacity is aptly named with a 72-hour standing water warranty. Armstrong puts it in writing.

Is laminate flooring toxic?

Laminate can be toxic in two ways. First, cheap, usually imported, laminate is made with materials containing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Some of the compounds are carcinogenic. VOCs are emitted, a process called off-gassing, for months or more after installation.

Find a FloorScore or GreenGuard Gold certified low-VOC laminate. There are plenty of them, so you have a good selection for width, color, style and texture.

Tip: Even low-VOC non-toxic flooring will have that “new floor smell.” Stuff smells. But you’ll have the peace of mind that what you’re breathing isn’t loaded with VOCs.

Secondly, breathing dust created while cutting the laminate is a hazard. Using a saw with a vacuum on it – or at least wearing a mask – will eliminate this risk.

What goes under laminate flooring?

Underlayment goes under laminate flooring. It’s available in several types and grades. Here are their pros and cons.

  • Attached underlayment is common but thin. Made of light foam, it provides minimum cushion and sound reduction.
  • Foam roll underlayment is a good choice over plywood, especially on the first floor or basement. Again, it offers basic functionality.
  • Combo foam and vapor barrier is used over concrete to prevent migrating moisture from damaging the flooring from beneath.
  • Cork underlayment is your top choice for reducing noise. It is recommended for use on upper floors but can be used anywhere. It isn’t waterproof, so you’ll need a vapor barrier beneath it if the subfloor is concrete.

What happens if you don’t put underlayment under laminate flooring?

There are two potential problems if you don’t put underlayment under laminate flooring. The floor will be a little noisier. And if there are minor imperfections, such as a small gap in plywood or crack in concrete, they might eventually “telegraph” through the material. Underlayment can help reduce telegraphing.

Related Reading: Laminate Stair Treads | Kitchen Laminate Flooring | Best Laminate Flooring Brands

About the Author: Jamie Sandford

Jamie Sandford, Owner and Editor of Home Flooring ProsJamie Sandford is the Owner and Chief Editor of Home Flooring Pros (find out more). After 12 years’ experience in screen and stage set construction, followed by a further 15 years working in the home renovation/remodeling business, he now writes and curates online home improvement advice.

“Buying and installing home flooring should be a fairly straightforward process, but often it isn’t. After more than 15 years experience in home flooring and remodeling, I started Home Flooring Pros in 2013 to help homeowners navigate the often-over complicated process of choosing, buying and installing a home floor. The aim is to save you time and money by helping you to make better floor buying decisions.”

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