What’s involved in putting down a laminate floor myself?
Laminate flooring came to North America nearly 20 years ago. Laminates please a lot of people, but they disappoint more than a few homeowners, too. The outcome depends on the flooring you choose, where you use it and your expectations. Are you thinking about a new hard-surface floor for your home? Laminates have a lot to offer, but there are things you need to understand that you won't find in sales brochures.
Originally developed in Europe, laminates are made of a high-density fiberboard core covered with a visible, outer layer that simulates wood, stone or tile. Some laminates are available in plain colors, too. Neighboring pieces fit together with tongue and groove edges, without attaching to the underlying floor at all. Original designs required all these edge joints to be glued together, but most modern laminates click together with a self-locking, glueless tongue and groove joint.
My 10- and 17-year-old sons and I recently put down about 500 sq. ft. of flooring in my office in one day, including some areas that required fancy cutting. It got to the point where my youngest helper could quickly and easily install the flooring all on his own, unattended, as fast as any carpenter. Professional installation costs are typically 50 percent above material costs, so you can save money if you put it down yourself.
DIY success is easy if you understand several essential tricks on cutting, fitting and working around existing door trim and baseboard. For technical information on installing your own laminates, send me an e-mail.
Besides speed, laminate flooring is also one of the best wood-type options for installation above radiant in-floor heat. It resists drying and shrinkage better than solid wood floors, and it also requires no nails that might puncture the plastic heating pipes that carry warm water. Laminates simply float, installed over a thin layer of medium density foam underlay that compensates for the inevitable small bumps and depressions in the subfloor.
Laminates can be exceptionally durable, but not always. And this is exactly where disappointment sets in for some homeowners who select a particular laminate without sufficient understanding. Too often, people unwittingly choose a low-priced version without realizing that there's a huge difference in physical durability across all laminate choices. The best versions are tough enough to endure use in stores and restaurants where people walk on the floor all day long wearing gritty street shoes. At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find cheap laminates that chip and scratch with annoying ease. And because damage such as this can't be repaired flawlessly, you need to choose a product that's tough by design.
There are two ways to get a sense of the real world durability of the laminates you're considering. The first is to look at products specifically rated for heavy residential or light commercial applications. Next, buy a single bundle of your favorite product and temporarily click it together in the highest traffic area of your home for at least several weeks. Besides giving you an accurate sense of resistance to scratching and chipping, you'll also see how the flooring shows dirt. Many dark colors look terrific in the showroom but show dust and grime much more obviously than lighter designs. Try some out, and you’ll avoid nasty surprises. Do your homework, and then take the time to put care into your laminate installation. There’s no easier way to install a great looking floor all on your own.
— Steve Maxwell, contributing editor
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