Laminate flooring basics. Types of laminate flooring. Styles, construction and value.
Types of laminate flooring.
There are two major categories of laminate floors, high pressure (hpl) and direct press or direct pressure (dpl).
There are very few manufacturers still producing hpl laminate. Last time I checked, Alloc was the only company selling hpl laminate. Wisonarte is probably best known for it’s hpl laminates but they stopped production of laminate flooring in 2010. Some older Pergo products were hpl. I see less and less out in the field as time goes by but it’s easy to tell when a laminate product is hpl. Try breaking an hpl plank in half and when it snaps, it’s like a small explosion. I’ve sprained my thumb from the shock of a shattering hpl plank. Also, if you look at the cross section you can see how it’s put together. The fiber core is sandwiched between a sturdy wear layer and a stiff backing. The wear layer on an hpl plank looks like a thin sheet of Formica. It’s noticeably thicker than the graphic print paper on a dpl plank. A hpl plank is a true functioning composite. This stuff was super tough, it’s what we think of when we hear about all the benefits of laminate flooring, especially the scratch resistance. Too bad there’s not much left, but it was expensive to make and the consumer began to purchase products for their cost or visual appearance. Hpl wasn’t the most realistic looking laminate, but it was the best. Hpl laminates should be valued at around $4.50 per square foot in Orange County, CA, 2016.
Most laminate flooring out there is dpl. It’s so common now, and it comes in so many varieties that I will need to break up this category into sub-categories.
8 mm Three Strip (Sometimes 7mm)
This is actually the style of most high pressure (hpl) laminates, so don’t confuse three strip hpl with dpl. Most 8 mm three strip laminates produced today are very inexpensive. A low end 8 mm three strip dpl can sell for .85 per square foot versus a similar looking hpl valued at $4.50 per square foot. It’s easy to identify the cheap stuff because it breaks easily and has a very thin top layer. A name brand 8 mm three strip should retail for about $2.25 per square foot while a no name eastern import will retail for about $1. A three strip plank has a graphic representation of three narrower planks in one single 6″ to 7″ plank. It is intended to be seen as a traditional hardwood floor with an on-site finish.
Three strip products have a square edge profile which makes them very difficult to repair if the new material isn’t an almost perfect match. Any discrepancy between the new and existing materials will be felt when walked on, and may result in failure of the floor. Because of this, unless the transition between new flooring and existing flooring is separated by a molding or a step, an exact material match will probably be necessary in order to perform a repair.
9 mm and 10 mm Laminates
9 and 10 mm laminates are less common today but there are still some out there. These are an upgrade to the standard 8 mm and come in various styles, including three strip and single plank. They are also generally higher grade that the thicker 12 mm laminates that we will look at later because 9 and 10 mm laminates were commonly produced by U.S. manufacturers such as Quick Step.
12 mm Laminates
12 mm laminates are primarily eastern imports and are generally mid to low quality. There are exceptions, and these exceptions are becoming more common. When eastern laminates first hit the market there was a huge quality difference between products manufactured in the U.S. and Europe and those manufactured in China. To offset this difference in quality, many Chinese manufactures started making thicker laminates, 12 mm vs 8 mm and 9 mm. This worked well in the showroom because 12 mm laminate samples feel so much sturdier than 8 or 9 mm products. problem is that the 12 mm products have a lower density and abrasive resistance. A well made 8 mm laminate is far superior to the average 12 mm import.
Armstrong, a U.S. company, produces it’s laminate products in China and the quality is quite good. Other American companies are also beginning to sell 12 mm products as well. It has proven difficult to educate the consumer on the intricacies of laminate flooring so it’s easier just to sell a 12 mm product rather than depend on flooring sales people to explain why a 9 mm American high density fiberboard core is better.
Laminate Flooring Features
Embossed in Register
A laminate is embossed in register when the embossed texture lines up with the photo print. This is an improvement in technology that was a big deal a few years ago but is now an expected feature, especially with distressed textured products.
High Gloss Finish
This was all the rage in the mid to late 2000’s. Like many new technologies, it seemed so realistic when it first came out but consumers soon realized that they needed to carry a Swifter around at all times because the shiny finish shows every scratch and piece of dirt. This style has faded with the exotic hardwood craze, just in time to leave Brazil with a few trees. If you must have a high gloss finish, I recommend spending the extra money for an Armstrong product.
This was more common ten years ago. May have been a way to make an 8 or 9 mm laminate feel as sturdy as a 12 mm in the showroom, or it may have been a way to add perceived value. Laminates with an attached pad are less common today, probably because they really aren’t such a great idea. The only benefit is not having to lay out the underlayment. This isn’t such a great thing because the attached pad provides no moisture resistance, so it’s really only a convenience when installed on an upper level. Many consumers have failed to read instructions and assumed they could just install their new laminate flooring directly onto concrete. When installing laminate flooring over concrete, a moisture barrier is a must. If the laminate has an attached pad, then a 6 mil poly moisture barrier must be installed.
Waxed locking system
Wax on the locking system is said to slow down the penetration of moisture. Can’t hurt, but in wet areas the locking system should be glued together and the perimeter sealed with silicone.
With a plank look laminate product, a weak link is the beveled edge. The wear layer is missing from this part of the exposed plank which makes this area prone to wear. Poorly made products will wear very quickly. An answer to this problem is to press the edge instead of beveling it. A pressed edge is much more durable because the wear layer covers the entire exposed surface. The down side of a pressed edge is that it looks fake. Some are better than others but most look like pressed plastic. Some products have a distressed or scalloped pressed edge. Some of these product look quite realistic.
When laminate flooring first hit the market, there was only one locking system available, and that was tongue and groove. A tongue and groove locking system requires glue. No laminate flooring manufactures use a tongue and groove locking system today, and because of patent lawsuits, there are two locking systems that are licensed for use on most laminate floors, Uniclic and Valinge. Just because most manufacturers use one of the two doesn’t mean that locking systems are all now more compatible. Variations in machining will usually cause one manufacturer’s laminate to be incompatible with another’s and may even cause incompatibility between lots of the same product produced by the same company. Never assume that new laminate will click together with existing laminate. A carton of new material should always be purchased to verify locking system compatibility.
Alloc laminate flooring products are an exception. Not only are Alloc products high pressure laminates (hpl), but they use their own type of locking system. Alloc products use an aluminum reinforced locking system. They are mostly commercial grade and aren’t all that common in residential homes. It’s pricey laminate but extremely durable.
The AC rating is a way for the consumer to know how durable a laminate floor’s wear layer is. In Europe it stands for “abrasion and cigarette” but in the U.S. we use the more politically correct “abrasion criteria.” The ratings range from AC 1 to 5 but most products claim AC 3. Inexpensive imports often fall short when tested and it’s common knowledge in the flooring industry that some manufacturers will label a carton with whatever an importer asks.
An AC rating is tested using an ASTM standard “Taber test.” Hpl laminates were usually AC4 with some AC5 and Dpl laminates mostly claim AC3 with some AC4. AC5 claims with dpl laminate should be met with skepticism.