Why I don’t recommend laminate & prefinished flooring

Why I don’t recommend laminate & prefinished flooring

The problems with laminate flooring in brief

  • Beveled edge catches dirt
  • Floating flooring sounds hollow
  • Thin wear layer is easily damaged
  • Cracks between planks allows water intrusion

There are many types of residential flooring. Hardwood, vinyl, cork, bamboo, ceramic tile, laminate, carpet, concrete, terrazzo, and linoleum are commonly available. Each type of flooring has an almost infinite variety of colors, textures, sheens, widths, levels of durability, installation requirements, and price levels.

So how do you make a decision about what to install in your home? First and foremost, do research. Look at magazines, read product reviews, visit stores, and take a look at the floors in the homes of friends and family. Then decide on what type of flooring you would like to have in your home.

Start with a floor type you think is attractive. Then make a decision on how suitable the flooring type is for the location. Do you want to install carpet at the front door where it will receive traffic from wet feet?  Do you want to install a cold tile floor in the bathroom?

Once you figure out what type of floor to install, then deal with the cost issue.

When you consider the cost of flooring you of course think about how much it will cost to install it on a square foot basis.

But, think about it, flooring is the most important interior surface in a home. It must add comfort, have durability, be easy to maintain, and add style. When you consider all the factors that make a good flooring surface, the materials that have stood the test of time have done that for very good reasons. Wood, ceramic tile, terrazzo, and concrete have been used for centuries with great success. Linoleum, vinyl, and carpet are more recent additions to the arsenal of flooring materials and have also yielded good results. Recent additions such as laminate, and prefinished plank flooring have not proven their long term durability.

Over the years I have installed just about every type of flooring you can think of. I have installed tile, vinyl, linoleum, hardwood, softwood, concrete, prefinished plank, and laminate flooring in a wide variety of projects.

I can recommend almost every type of flooring except laminate and prefinished plank flooring. Each manufacturer’s laminate and plank flooring product line has its own set of benefits and each has its downside. Some are more expensive to install than others, some are easier to live with than others, and some are more durable than others. But as a flooring category they are, unfortunately, a product I cannot recommend. They are not durable, not easy to keep clean, and look cheap.

The thin veneer of material on the surface of laminate flooring can be easily damaged. Most manufacturers use a very thin layer of plastic printed with a picture of hardwood as the surface layer. This layer is so thin it can easily scratch. It can also delaminate so bubbles can form under the surface. And it can never be refinished, so when the surface wears out the entire floor will need to be replaced. It is very difficult to remove one plank and install a new one in the middle of a floor. I have tried it and it is possible to make a repair. But, it is not easy. So if you install laminate flooring keep extra boards on hand. And make sure you store them in a warm dry environment; otherwise they might not be usable when you need them.

Prefinished plank flooring is like laminate flooring except that is made with real wood either as a thin layer on the surface of a plywood base or as a piece of full thickness wood. Manufacturers claim the coatings they apply to the surface of the material are durable and I don’t doubt it. The problem is the gaps between the boards are a dirt and moisture trap. The material is manufactured with a beveled edge so the boards can be installed against one another without sanding. If the bevel did not exist there would be a very slight ridge from one board to the next. The beveled edge hides that slight ridge. But that bevel edge, along with the gap between the planks is not sealed, so dirt and moisture can easily seep between the boards.

Some laminate and prefinished plank flooring systems require edge gluing during installation. Gluing will help lock the planks together and help prevent dirt and moisture from getting between the boards. But you will still have to deal with the dirt that will get down into grooves of the planks.

So how can anyone keep a floor clean when dirt and water can easily get into the gaps between the boards? Not easily. Sweeping will push fine particles of dust and dirt into the grooves and into the joints between the boards. If you tried to clean the floor with a damp mop you would push damp dirt into the grooves. So I guess you would have to use a vacuum to make sure that dirt did not fall in the seams of the flooring. No matter how durable the surface coating is, if the gaps between the planks aren’t sealed the likelihood of failure is much higher than a hardwood floor that is fully sanded and coated after installation.

Laminate flooring systems are designed to float, so when you walk on the material it sounds hollow. Not like a real hardwood floor that is nailed to the subfloor of the building. When you walk on nailed down hardwood flooring it sounds like it is part of the building. The sound of someone walking on laminate flooring just sounds unnatural to me.

When traditional hardwood flooring is installed the surface is sanded so the finished surface becomes flat and smooth. Then it is coated with several layers of a durable finish that completely seals and protects the surface against dirt and moisture. Dirt and moisture does not have a chance to get between the boards.

Most laminate flooring is plywood. So you are installing plywood strips on your floor. Glue is used to stick the layers plywood together. The glue can emit fumes and can adversely affect indoor air quality. Some manufacturers claim their products do not emit fumes. I have not installed those products, so I can’t recommend them.

Don’t try to pretend that the laminate or prefinished plank floor is going to look like a real site installed and finished hardwood floor. The bevel is a dead giveaway and marks the floor for what it is, an inexpensive floor. It will not fool anyone.

There is one more thing you should consider about prefinished hardwood plank flooring. All floors will require refinishing at some point. If a prefinished plank floor requires refinishing the beveled edges will need to be sanded down to remove them. I suppose you could lightly sand the surface and leave the groves then match the color of the stain in the groves so they are less noticeable. But that would require sanding the entire floor to the exact same level so all the groves are sanded to the same depth. You would need to be an expert at sanding a floor to not remove the groves in one area.

Is the installation of laminate and hardwood plank flooring an acceptable compromise over the cost of the real thing? If you don’t have the funds to hire a contractor to install a real hardwood floor, you can install and finish a hardwood floor yourself. It takes time and hard work, but the results are far superior and add more value to a home than the installation of a less expensive substitute. Perhaps you can install the flooring material yourself and have a professional flooring contractor sand and finish the floor. Or you can hire a contractor to install the flooring and you can rent the floor sander and finish it yourself.

If you are interested in a quality floor, research all the possibilities for installing a real hardwood floor before you install laminate or prefinished plank flooring.

Personally, I think installing a laminate or a prefinished plank floor would be a mistake. The manufactures make it seem like a homeowner can install a inexpensive, durable, and attractive flooring material with relative ease. But do you really want to install a cheep looking inferior product in you home? Personally, I would rather scrimp on the cost of other elements in a home before I would install an inexpensive flooring material.

I would rather have a lesser grade kitchen cabinet than install a lesser grade floor. If you are inclined to install a floor yourself, and don’t have much experience, try installing a ceramic tile floor. It is a lot easier than you might think, and the results you achieve will be much better than you would ever get with a laminate floor.