Faux oak woos with greater durability

You want wood floors but can't afford those old West Virginia barn planks. The Australian cypress is exotic but out of the question.

Think laminates.

They may not be real wood, but they look so much like it that many people don't care, and even prefer laminates because of their durability, low maintenance, and expanding universe of options.

In the past five years, laminates have emerged as the hottest thing in the US flooring market, says John Simonson, a 25-year veteran of the industry.

"Laminates have gone from nothing to 3 to 4 percent of the total flooring market in a relatively short time," Mr. Simonson says, noting that carpeting, while still the most economical and often-selected choice of consumers, continues to drop in popularity.

"People want easy-maintenance floors," says Simonson, the developer of Floor Search (www.floorsearch.com), a consumer resource of Herregan Distributors Inc., one of the largest floorcovering distributors in the United States. "With husbands and wives both working, they don't want to be down on their hands and knees cleaning all the time or vacuuming."

Especially for Americans with children and pets, he says, the low-maintenance aspect can win over even those who might prefer real wood.

Laminate flooring debuted in Sweden in 1984 and has been a popular choice in Europe ever since, partly because it can be laid over the existing flooring.

Laminates are "floating floors," not nailed or screwed to the subfloor like hardwoods, but placed over a very thin sheet of polyurethane padding that acts as a moisture barrier and sound-deadening layer.

The plastic-resin soaked wood core product is sold in 8-by-48-inch sections with wood-grain patterns. They are glued together at tongue-and-groove joints.

Perstop Flooring of Sweden introduced Pergo laminate flooring in the US in 1994. Quickly other foreign manufacturers jumped in, joined by major American companies confident that this is no short-lived trend. Formica, Mannington, WilsonArts, and Bruce are among the better-known US manufacturers.

Durability is a key advantage of laminates over hardwood floors, says Kevin Boothe, flooring marketing manager with Formica. "Hardwood is susceptible to [dents and scratches when] things fall on it," he says. "With a laminate, you not only can get the look of wood, you get a product that is impact resistant, heat resistant, and won't stain or fade."

Formica, like other laminate makers, offers a 15-year warranty on wear features, but has extended its guarantee to include protection against water damage.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a hardwood floor that offers that kind of warranty," says Mr. Boothe, who acknowledges that laminate tends to attract customers of mid- to upper-end vinyl and not hardwood.

Laminates, after all, are still not the real McCoy. Despite efforts by top-name brands to make laminates even sound like wood, most people can tell the difference right away, says Rich Weiner of the Flooring Network, a Northeast association of floor-covering retailers. "The laminate has a little echo, it sounds a little hollow, whereas a wood floor is solid," he says.

The difference has less to do with thickness - 3/4-inch for wood compared with 5/16-inch for laminate - than it does with the hardness of the laminate surface and the fact that it "floats."

Lesser-grade products also sometimes give themselves away with fuzzy photographic registration. The best quality laminates, though, hardly look any different from their natural counterparts. This is a result of the sophisticated technology now employed in shooting and reproducing wood images on the print layer embedded in laminates, including those of historic and exotic woods (see story at left).

Classic oak remains a favorite, Boothe says, but darker wood, especially cherry or anything with a burgundy cast, is on the rise.

In comparing the costs of various flooring materials, much depends on the specific products discussed. Generally, however, laminates are not cheaper than wood.

Mr. Simonson puts the costs to do a 12-by-15-foot floor, either with installed laminate or installed, job-site-finished oak, at roughly $1,300. Get several estimates because prices can vary widely. In any case, experts suggest getting an estimate for the finished job, rather than square-foot or square-yard costs, which can obscure wastage costs. One Boston-area retailer says a box of laminate planks, covering 20 square feet, sells for about $100.

To save money, do-it-yourselfers interested in laminate may be tempted to buy from hardware superstores and install the floor themselves.

This is certainly doable for experienced DIY-ers, but only ones with good measuring skills and the right equipment. Without a special blade, a circular saw can overheat quickly cutting through the tough aluminum oxide-impregnated laminate coating. One also must be careful not to install laminate planking so that it looks like repeating wallpaper.

Mr. Simonson of Floor Search advocates professional installers because they know how to lay out the planks and they're more familiar with the gluing methods, which vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

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