Hardwood flooring is made from natural, durable woods, such as oak, maple, or hickory, that can last a long time when maintained properly. Laminate flooring, which is made of a synthetic fiberboard material and has a laminate finish, is much cheaper than hardwood but will not last as long. This does not mean laminate flooring is a particularly inferior choice, however, as, in some cases, it can be more resistant to stains, scratches, moisture, and even general wear and tear. Much comes down to upkeep and quality materials.
edit Composition and Appearance
Hardwood flooring comes in a variety of differently sized cuts (e.g., wide planks, parquet, etc.) and is made from real solid woods, giving it natural grains and tones, from light browns, to neutral grays and rich reddish bronzes. It can be stained or left natural, finished or left unfinished. Hardwood flooring has become more popular in recent years, as it is a healthier option than carpet for allergy sufferers. Oak and maple are the most common hardwoods used in flooring.
The appeal of hardwood flooring's appearance is far reaching, so much so that laminate flooring is often made to imitate hardwood's graining and colors; it is also sometimes designed to look like stone. Laminate flooring, which is at times known as "floating wood tile" in the U.S., is a synthetic fiberboard product. It is usually made of four layers: a stabilizing layer at the bottom that resists moisture, a layer of treated high-density fiberboard, a photographic pattern layer that provides a surface design, and a clear melamine resin layer at the top that helps protect the laminate flooring from wear and tear. Newer laminate flooring sometimes replaces the photographic pattern layer with a thin slice of wood veneer.
Watch the video below to learn more about solid hardwood vs. engineered hardwood vs. laminate flooring.
How durable a hardwood floor is depends on a number of factors, such as whether the floor is finished or unfinished, what type of wood is used, what room the floor is in (i.e., a kitchen prone to water spills versus a dry living room), and how well the floor is maintained over time with proper cleaning, waxing, and polishing.
It is common for homeowners to forego finishing a new hardwood floor in order to save money. However, an unfinished hardwood floor will not be as durable as a finished one. For example, unfinished hardwood flooring may swell or warp when it comes into contact with moisture.
Ultimately, durable hardwood flooring costs more upfront and may demand more regular and careful upkeep, especially in certain rooms or conditions, as is the case in wet bathrooms or in rooms where wood treatments might fade under harsh, direct sunlight. Still, a properly finished and well-maintained hardwood floor can potentially last for decades with the need for only occasional repairs and refinishings.
Good laminate flooring is less prone to some of the problems that plague hardwood. Usually, the top layer in a laminate floor's composition will help protect it from nicks and scratches, and its water resistant layers mean it is appropriate for kitchens and bathrooms in a way that hardwood is not. It is unlikely to fade in sunlight. Some cheaper forms of laminate flooring may appear very shiny and become easily scratched or stained, or develop smudges that require frequent cleaning. However, unlike hardwood, laminate flooring does not require waxing or polishing.
With wood veneer now sometimes used in place of the traditional photographic design layer, laminate floors have become a popular, cheaper alternative to solid hardwood flooring. Laminate flooring will not last as long as a properly maintained hardwood floor, though, and most laminate floors will need to be replaced after 15-25 years. Lower quality laminate floors may need to be replaced even sooner.
edit Cost of Laminate vs. Hardwood Flooring
With proper care, hardwood flooring is a better long-term investment than laminate flooring, but hardwood's upfront costs may deter homeowners. Even so, the cost of hardwood varies drastically, with some woods — oak, maple, American cherry — being fairly affordable and others — exotic wood species, wenge, teak — being expensive. Generally, the harder the hardwood, the more expensive it is, but also the more durable it is. The cost to finish and treat a floor can vary as well. Including labor expenses for installation, most hardwood floors cost between $8 and $15 per square foot. This can get quite expensive, especially since homeowners are advised to purchase an extra 5% to 10% of flooring to account for mistakes, general waste, and future repairs.
By comparison, a laminate floor is much cheaper than a hardwood floor — $4 to $8 per square foot, including the cost of installation. Homeowners should be careful purchasing cheaper brands of laminate flooring, however, as it may be much more prone to damage and require replacement far sooner than more expensive, quality brands.
In general, hardwood flooring and laminate flooring are relatively easy to maintain, but some care is required. Both floors will last longer if they are kept clean and not subjected to harsh treatment that might lead to scratches or otherwise cause damage. Both will last better if rugs are used in a room — especially to protect from moisture — and if felt pads are applied to the feet of furniture.
They should be regularly swept free of dirt and other debris or vacuumed. Wet-mopping hardwood is discouraged, and though laminate flooring is typically more water resistant than most hardwood flooring, water spills should not be allowed to sit on either, but instead should be wiped up promptly. Allowing water to stand on either type of flooring for long periods of time may result in stains or warping.
With hardwood floors, it is particularly important to use the right kinds of cleaners. Cleaners intended for linoleum or vinyl floors should not be used on hardwood, as they might ruin protective finishes.
Both types of flooring will likely require sawing in order for the planks to fit the exact dimensions of a room. Moreover, current weather conditions (i.e., humidity) can affect plank size, making DIY installation risky.
edit Installation of Hardwood Floors
Hardwood flooring is more difficult to install than laminate flooring generally, but hiring a professional for a new installation or for repair work of either is highly recommended. For DIY jobs, how difficult installation will be depends on experience and how the hardwood or laminate flooring is cut for installation.
In the past, hardwood flooring was very difficult to install and could require a cutting, nailing, stapling, and/or gluing; mistakes could be frustrating and expensive. Today, many hardwood floors, particularly those that are made of engineered wood, are pre-cut into tongue and groove planks that snap into place, but some hardwood flooring is still made in the traditional fashion.
edit Installing Laminate Flooring
With its typical tongue and groove planks, laminate flooring is meant to be easy to install, but a professional will almost certainly install it better than someone less experienced with flooring will, especially when it comes to trickier matters, such as soundproofing (laminate flooring can be quite noisy).
edit Environmental Considerations
Hardwood flooring can be very environmentally friendly, provided it is bought from a supplier with responsible forest management practices and installed with eco-friendly glues (if needed). One of the best ways to buy from an environmentally friendly source is to look for hardwoods certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
It is difficult to determine the environmental impact of laminate floors. While it is common for recycled materials to be used in laminate flooring, it is also made with a resin composed of melamine and formaldehyde. Formaldehyde emissions, particularly in certain temperatures, may be cause for some environmental and health concerns; however, a South Korean study from 2010 showed formaldehyde emissions may be reduced with different manufacturing standards. At present, no scientific body within this U.S. definitively regulates this matter, though the state of California has sought to regulate it to some degree.
edit How to Know if a Floor is Hardwood or Laminate
Most people can't tell if a floor is real hardwood or laminate just by looking at it casually (you can take a test here). Here are some guidelines you can use to tell the difference:
- Examine the grain: Hardwood grains are random and so they do not have any repeating patterns. But with laminate floors, you will find patterns repeating every few boards.
- How are floorboards attached?: Laminate floorboards are often glued together while with hardwood it is more common to find nails or staple holes on the surface.
- Look for wear and tear: Natural wood is more prone to dings and scratches so if there are a lot of dents, the floor is more likely to be natural hardwood than laminate. Similarly, hardwood is more prone to staining and fading. So with hardwood floors you are more likely to find water marks and faded or discolored areas.