Laminate vs Hardwood Flooring

Laminate vs Hardwood Flooring

In this guide, we present a prime-time cage match of two competing materials: hardwood flooring versus laminate flooring.

Hardwood has been around for hundreds of years. It evokes a warm, natural feeling that many consider a luxury.

It is even common for real estate agents to highlight hardwood floors. They are considered desirable to buyers.

Laminate flooring is the newcomer on the block. However, it has made serious inroads as a legitimate competitor to hardwood.

So, which is better? The tried and time proven hardwood or the younger upstart laminate flooring?

Well, the answer is more involved than just comparing prices. We have summarized a few key issues for your convenience and consideration.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

Side-by-Side Comparison

 LaminateHardwood
Make-up/ConstructionComposite made of layers of fibers in melamine, photographic layer, and coatingsSolid wood
Installed Cost$ less than hardwood ($2-8)$$$ more than laminate ($12-20)
Typical locations/useHigh traffic areas and rooms like offices, bedrooms, dens, living rooms, sometimes kitchens. Not great choice in wet areas like bathrooms, but better than hardwood, and requires increased maintenance, can be used in kitchen with precautions.Most residential rooms(not a great choice in bathrooms, engineered wood is better choice), not recommended below grade.
Durability"Good scratch and abrasion resistance, cannot be refinished
rated AC1 to AC6
some say will only last ten years"
Is susceptible to scratches from things like pets, but can be refinished a number of times, wear patterns may show in high traffic areas
CleaningEasy to clean, soap and water, should clean spills immediately and do not let water stand for extended periodsNeed to minimize water and treat with oil?
LimitationsStanding or extended periods of exposure to liquid waterSlabs-on-ground w/ no vapor retarder, wet areas
FinishPrefinished at factory, photo in clear resin based coatingStain, clear coat (can be applied on site or at the factory)
InstallationFloating floor, adhered - easier and is often labled as DIY friendlyNailed, floating, glued - considered on the hard side to install
Thickness1/4 in. (6 mm) to 1/2 in. (12 mm) 3/4 in. (5/16 in. is also available)
Edge connectionLocking tongue and groove that "snap" togetherButt, spline, shiplap, tongue in groove
Dimensional StabilityIs more dimensionally stable with changes in humidity than hardwood and less requirements for expansion jointsSwells with high humidity and can cup, shrinks with low humidity, flutes often cut into back of plank (absorption strips) to help with cupping
Expansion joints40 ft. run max., and need 5/16 to 3/8 in. perimeter joints, t strips at doors and on large floorsNeed 3/4 perimeter joints, about 10 x 12 is max, and on larger floor "dime" or "washer" gaps in center of large floors, can also use splines in center to reverse direction of grain, on maple gym floors 3, 6 or 10 ft. exp. Joints
On Site ConditioningAcclimate 1 to 3 days onsite, some products not as senstive to humidty as hardwood"Acclimate three days minimum
MUST DO MOISTURE TEST TO COMFIRM MOISTURE CONTENT OF SUBSTRATE TOO"
SunlightUV inhibitor in top coatCan fade at different rates (e.g carpet covered section vs. bare floor)
ResaleSurprised to find some realtors stating that quality laminate is desirable and helps to sell homesConsidered to add value by some, also seen as higher end floor material
Radiant heatYesNo
Flooring GuideLaminate Flooring GuideHardwood Flooring Guide

Composition

One of the most obvious differences between hardwood and laminate flooring is the composition.  The plank materials, finish, thicknesses, and edge geometry all differ.

1. Materials and Thickness

Hardwood is a natural product. The manufacturer cuts the planks from a larger piece of wood. Then, they mill it to its final size and shape.

The individual boards are a piece of solid wood and the thickness is often three-quarters of an inch, but a thinner five-sixteenth inch version is also available.

In contrast, laminate flooring is a manufactured product. It is a composite with a finish applied at the factory. Typically, it is one-quarter to one-half inch thick. It is made up of multiple layers such as:

  • A backing that serves as a stabilizing layer, often made of melamine, and serves to provide water resistance as well as dimensional stability to the board.
  • A core that is usually made with fiber board, and is the thickest layer.
  • A photographic layer that is embedded into a coating.
  • A clear resin top coat containing aluminum oxide, which provides scratch, UV, and wear resistance to the flooring.

2. Edge Geometry

Hardwood planks will normally have an overlapping edge treatment, such as tongue and groove or shiplap, so the board edges overlap and interlock.

This allows the planks to expand and contract while providing resistance to warping or working loose. But in some instances, such as in older homes, you will find planks of hardwood with plain edges that are simply butted together.

Laminate flooring is usually supplied with specialized tongues and grooves that click together to hold the seams snug. Another system you might see is a special clip that is installed between the laminate floor boards to hold the planks tight to one another.

Most consider the snap together edges to be more user-friendly than the nailing, stapling, and gluing used when installing hardwood flooring.

Also, you will find prefinished hardwood often comes with edges that are slightly beveled at the top of the plank, to provide a small V between boards. Aesthetically, this provides a shadow line and adds a feeling of dimension to the floor, but some do not like it and feel it is a dirt magnet. In reality, the small bevels are there because prefinished hardwood is not sanded after it is laid and the V gap created by the tiny bevels helps to hide small but visible differences in board thickness.

3. Finish

The manufacturer supplies laminate flooring with the wood grain and color using a photograph of stained wood embedded in a clear coating.  You select a particular product you like, and then you simply install it at the site, no finishing necessary.

You can also buy hardwood prefinished with stain and a clear finish. But a major difference between hardwood and laminate flooring is that you can also purchase hardwood planks that are, well, naked. People install and sand the unfinished hardwood floor. Then they apply the color and finish at the job site in a very labor-intensive, and not so DIY-friendly, process

So, you need to decide whether you want to use prefinished flooring (laminate or hardwood) or a site-installed hardwood finish on your project. Consider the construction site and if dust reduction or clean working conditions are important.

If so, then a prefinished hardwood or laminate floor is a good choice since you are eliminating dust from sanding. You are also eliminating odors from stains and finishes.

Do you have a custom interior design that needs a one-of-a-kind floor? Then an unfinished hardwood floor is a good choice. You can mix your stain to achieve that precise color you or your designer picked, and select a finish to get the perfect sheen.

Also, for those who do not like the V’s created by the microbevels of prefinished hardwood, unfinished hardwood is supplied without bevels since it is sanded flat on site before the finish is applied.

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Underlayment

An underlayment is a sheet good normally supplied in a roll, and it is simply cut to size and installed on the subfloor prior to laying your floor.  There are a number of different underlayments and they provide a number of functions such as easier installation, subfloor gap bridging, moisture protection, sound deadening, and cushioning.  Many hardwood and laminate floor installations will require an underlayment.

It is important to select the proper underlayment, especially when moisture is a concern, and you should follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. (For example, with slabs-on-ground it is often vital to pick an underlayment to protect the flooring from water vapor emitted from the concrete slab.) The laminate and hardwood manufacturers are keenly aware of the importance of the underlayment. They provide detailed guidelines on what underlayment you need for specific situations.

They do not recommend hardwood below grade, even with high-end underlayments.  So that fancy rumpus room in the basement is probably not appropriate for hardwood flooring.  However, some people use laminate flooring below grade, but the concrete slab must have a vapor retarder underneath. You must carefully select the underlayment you use on top of the concrete.

Another option on the market comes from the laminate manufacturers who offer products with a “cushioning” underlayment on the bottom of the boards.  This additional feature speeds and simplifies the installation of some laminate floors.

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Installation

Laminate flooring is straightforward and people often call it DIY-friendly. Yes, you do need some special tools (e.g. a tap block and pull bar), but the tools are widely available and they are inexpensive. Most homeowners can handle the click-together tongue and groove floor.

One question some homeowners have about laminate flooring regards the cutting of the boards. Most people cut the laminate planks with standard wood saws (hand or power), but use a fine-tooth blade for a smooth cut. You do not want to chip the top layer, which contains the embedded photograph of finished wood.

Hardwood, on the other hand, is considered best left to the pros. It requires knowledge of moisture content in wood, walk behind sanding equipment, as well as a number of other fussy details.

Plus, most homeowners will not have or know how to use the fancy pneumatic staplers or nailers needed, although you can rent them. The installer will also need to know specifics like when and how to include “washer” or “dime” expansion joints to prevent buckling for different kinds of wood.

Speaking of expansion joints, both types of flooring require a gap at walls and other solid obstructions to allow for movement.  With most residential projects, the rooms are small enough to preclude the use of additional expansion joints.

But in larger rooms, you may need expansion joints in the field of a laminate floor. Check the instructions for your specific flooring material to determine when and where you will need joints.

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General Durability

Those familiar with old houses in New England know hardwood floors last. Laminate flooring has not been on the market as long as hardwood flooring, so a comparison based on who has the oldest floor still in use is not possible. However, there are still some general arguments we can make regarding both flooring materials.

Dropped items will dent both hardwood and laminate floors, but hardwood floors can be repaired more easily than a laminate floor.  You can replace a damaged plank, or sections, of laminate flooring but it is difficult and from a do-it-yourself job.

In high traffic areas, you may see more wear and tear with hardwood floors. This will vary for different types of wood, and you can choose specific wood species to provide increased traffic resistance (e.g. hickory is harder than white pine). Laminate flooring has a hard top layer and usually provides better wear resistance, compared to hardwood.

One last durability issue worth mentioning is fading. Hardwood will fade at different rates depending on the amount and intensity of sunlight, and in some cases, this provides a desirable patina.

But it can be a problem with hardwood flooring, like where carpet covered areas fade differently than the rest of the floor, or a pattern created by localized areas fading from sunlight through a window.

Laminate flooring has a protective top coat formulated to provide UV protection and fade resistance.  Fading problems are not as pronounced when compared to their hardwood counterparts.

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Scratching and Abrasion

The coating applied on top of laminate flooring contains aluminum oxide, which is hard and durable, and this also adds abrasion and scratch resistance. This makes laminate a great flooring options for those who have pets, since cats and dogs often scratch hardwood floors.

Laminate floor manufacturers go so far as to rate their “abrasion class” (“AC”) on a scale from one to six, and a higher number means higher abrasion resistance. (In general, a rating of one through three are residential grade, one being light traffic and three high traffic. Four through six are commercial grade, again light to high traffic.)

So, things can scratch it, but in general, laminate flooring resists traffic wear and scratching better than hardwood.

Hardwood is, not to be too obvious, hard wood, but it is still susceptible to scratching and abrasion. If scratching and abrasion are concern, select the hardest hardwood your budget allows. And one advantage scratched hardwood has over scratched laminate is that you can sand and refinish hardwood a number of times.

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Humidity

An increase in humidity causes hardwood to swell, creating stress in the plane of the floor that can cause planks to rise and twist (called buckling or tenting and can create a tripping hazard). A decrease in humidity will cause hardwood to shrink, and can open large gaps between planks.

To minimize these problems, hardwood flooring must be acclimated by letting it rest at the construction site for a minimum of three days in opened boxes, and often longer.

Also, the moisture level must be measured with a meter to confirm the moisture content is appropriate. The acclimation and testing steps are vital to prevent large gaps or buckling and lifting of hardwood floors caused by changes in the humidity.

The necessary moisture level depends on the expected temperature and humidity. It seems a bit complicated, but there are charts to aid in determining the moisture content for your wood (it is usually somewhere between six to nine percent as measured with a pin meter).

You should also acclimate laminate floors to site conditions. But that is for a shorter one to three days.

Compared to hardwood, quality laminate flooring is less affected by changes in humidity, which do not affect quality laminate flooring as much. That is because of its layered construction (just like plywood is less likely to cup because of its layers) and locking edges that prevent boards from separating.

But laminate flooring quality does vary. You should test the moisture content of the core layer of some products. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use the test they recommend to meet the results they require.

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Water

Liquid water is the sworn enemy of many interior building materials. That is the case with laminate and hardwood flooring.

Use in a kitchen, bathroom, mud room, basement or other wet areas is possible. But it is tricky and you need to take special precautions. It depends on whether you use laminate or hardwood flooring.

The coating on top of most laminate flooring does not develop milky spots or hazing with drips or splashes. That can happen with some of the conventional finishes people apply to hardwood.

Also, because installers do not nail or staple down laminate floors, they float. You can place a waterproofing membrane under your floor to protect your subfloor. It will also protect your insulation, joists, and everything else under your bathroom floor.

Many “experts” caution against hardwood in a bathroom or wet areas. You should never use it below grade.

Installers usually nail or staple down hardwood floors. That defeats the purpose of a waterproofing membrane that people use in many wet areas, like bathrooms.

Also, problems like water staining or hazing of the finish and buckling due to swelling from water are difficult to prevent with hardwood.

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Wet Area Use

Some use water-resistant laminate flooring in bathrooms or other wet areas.  However, standing water can penetrate the plank joints, and expose a wood-based layer to liquid water for extended periods. This may cause swelling of the planks and buckling of the floor, as well as deterioration of the core.

When using laminates in a bathroom, you may want to consider a laminate floor designed for wet environments. Specialized laminate flooring with a PVC core is available.

You can use it in wet environments since plastic replaces the susceptible fiberboard core.  Also, look for products with a waxed edge that acts as a positive sealant between boards when snapped together.

When you spill or drip water onto a laminate floor, remove it as fast as possible. It is important to use shower mats and promptly remove spills and splashes to prevent standing water if you use laminate flooring in a bathroom.

People install both laminate and hardwood floors in kitchens. But you should mop up and clean spills or drips as they occur.

Water or other liquids left on hardwood floors will induce swelling and buckling of planks, as well as staining and clouding of some finishes. When water or other liquids are left on laminate floors, stain resistance is good but the planks may swell and lift, or the fiberboard core may deteriorate.

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Cleaning

Let’s start with an important warning, avoid using a steam or wet mop on either type of flooring. Water driven down into the joints does damage to both laminate and hardwood. So, it is important to exercise care to keep water out of the joints and you should wash using only a damp, not wet, cloth or mop.

The general procedure to clean laminate, or for cleaning hardwood flooring, follows a “simpler is better” thought process. Sweep or vacuum regularly to remove all dust, dirt, and debris to prevent abrasion damage.

Move the broom or hardwood vacuum in direction of the boards to remove debris between the planks. Then, wash with a damp cloth or mop.

As for specifics for hardwood:

  • If needed, use a soap or cleaner recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Wash and buff with the grain.
  • Buff after cleaning with a microfiber towel or cloth diaper.

And for laminate:

  • If needed, use soap made specifically for laminate or as recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Never use wax, pine scented cleaners, degreasers, wood oils, etc. on laminate as these can damage the resin-based coating.
  • A damp microfiber towel used as a cleaning cloth may help to eliminate streaks.

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Cost

Everyone has a budget, and the price can vary widely for different hardwood and laminate flooring materials. Prices can seem like they are all over the place, but one rule of thumb is that hardwood flooring materials are twice as much as laminate flooring.

But this will depend on the type of wood or laminate you choose. There are also price ranges quoted in the market for installed floors. They show an installed hardwood may be in the range of three times as much.  

But prices do vary quite a bit, for example one website states a typical range of two to eight dollars for installed laminate flooring, and twelve to twenty dollars per square foot for installed hardwood floors.

In general, a tight budget will find laminate floors more economical. But for those who have their hearts set on a hardwood floor, the added cost may be worth it.

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The Verdict

For those who want the longevity and natural, warm feeling of hardwood, the increased cost of materials and labor may be worth it. Also, for custom designs, the freedom to stain and finish the hardwood on site allows for a unique, precise color and gloss that complement the interior design.

Those who have pets or are worried about scratching and wear may benefit from installing a high AC rated laminated floor. Or, for those who are working with limited funds but want the look of hardwood, laminate flooring provides an economical choice that meets both their aesthetic and budgetary requirements.

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Ben Dolce

About Ben Dolce

Ben has been a freelance writer for the past eight years. But before becoming a writer, he worked as materials engineer and consultant for twenty-plus years developing, testing, and investigating failures of flooring materials.

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