Laminate Flooring

This once revolutionary concept speeds and simplifies installation while offering greater versatility and durability

Written by: Steve Maxwell
Photos by: Pergo

The first time I held a piece of laminate flooring it was the winter of 1993, and I thought the stuff was ridiculous. An editor sent me samples of 12X12-inch red tiles for a test, and we both laughed as she told me the sales rep’s absurd prediction: “Laminates will revolutionize the flooring business.”

Silly as it sounded back then, that’s exactly what happened. Year after year, sales continue to rise, and the reason for the success is something I hadn’t considered a dozen years ago. Innovation. Today’s laminates aren’t what they used to be.

Laminates are the original and most widespread type of ‘floating floor’ in the world. Neighbouring pieces of laminate connect via intricate tongue-and-groove edges, all without fastening to the subfloor. This once revolutionary concept speeds and simplifies installation without any compromise in floor performance. Laminates are available as square tiles or planks of varying widths, but all are made with a central core of high-density fibreboard (HDF). A wear-resistant, coloured layer on top provides the visible floor surface; a plain protective layer on the underside of the HDF helps inhibit moisture absorption.

If laminates had remained nothing more than cute tiles offered in bright, primary colours, no one would have noticed. But innovation led the way toward more colours, more styles, easier installation systems and much greater durability. Innovation prompted Canadians to begin buying laminates in the first place, and innovation is what convinces them to keep buying today.

More than a billion square feet of laminates go down every year in North America. The best of this 21st century flooring is tough enough to carry 30-year warranties (even in potentially moist locations). They go down very quickly, and they can be used in situations where real wood flooring will almost certainly fail. The real trick is understanding what options to look for in your quest for the ultimate laminate floor, and there are three areas where you need to pay attention.

Original laminates had plain tongue and groove edges that you’d join using white wood glue and special clamps. This system was durable, it yielded a floor that didn’t make noise underfoot, and the glue prevented spilled water from seeping down between pieces of laminate. On the downside, glue-style laminates were also slow to install, requiring extensive clamping.

They posed a danger, too. If you didn’t clamp up every joint tightly before the glue grabbed, the resulting gap would throw the rest of the installation out of kilter. Glue residue on tile surfaces would also leave a dull haze that required extra work to remove.

Most of today’s laminates side-step the problem of traditional glued installations with glue-free, click-lock tongue and groove edges. Slip a fresh piece of laminate into the groove of a neighbouring piece at an angle, and then tilt it down to lock the joint. This is much faster than using a glue bottle, though a different kind of glue is now making an appearance within click laminate options.

These are the ‘pre-glued’ options, and they have tongue-and-groove edges that are impregnated with a water-activated adhesive. Moisten the surface of the tongue, and then insert it into the groove of the neighbouring plank. Click the joint together and tap it tight. Pre-glued laminates provide very solid results almost as quickly as with click-only floors, along with a greater measure of water resistance and solidity.

Laminates use photographic images to simulate the appearance of wood grain or tile on top of the HDF core. While these have always been surprisingly convincing when viewed from afar, it’s not so when you get up close. That’s changing as laminates become three-dimensional. Wood texture is now part of high-end laminate lines, including a vintage effect not seen on real wood floors for more than 50 years.

Before the advent of electric sanders, wood floors were smoothed using large hand-held metal scrapers. This created slight, concave undulations in the floor surface that was the hallmark of traditional hand finishing. Now you’ll find laminates that include hand-scraped details that look and feel very convincing. Some brands of wood-look laminates also come in widths as large as 9 1/2 inches, eliminating the choppy, too-busy look that was common in first-generation wood laminates.

When the HDF core of early laminates got wet, they got ugly. That’s because the fibreboard was very thirsty, absorbing as much as 20 per cent of its weight in water, if you gave it the chance. Wet laminate used to swell up like a bowl of forgotten breakfast cereal. Today, the absorption figure has dropped to just six per cent, allowing some manufacturers to warranty their product even against water damage. This is why laminates are now being used successfully in bathrooms, laundry rooms and entrance hallways.

All this sounds good and it is. But laminates are fake. They seem to be something that they’re not, and that does offend the purist in me. Then again, you have to admit that a tough, easily installed, attractive, reasonably priced ‘fake’ that carries a 25-year warranty is pretty hard to ignore. For most people, it will do just fine until the real thing comes along.