Originating in Europe, where it has been used in homes for more than 20 years, laminate flooring was introduced in the United States for residential use in the mid-1990s. Laminate flooring is similar in construction to laminate kitchen countertops but is much more durable.
Construction methods differ somewhat, but most laminate flooring has a rigid core of fiberboard or particleboard, a decorative top layer and a backing material to prevent warping. The layers are bonded together under high pressure and heat. The decorative layer has an image printed on one or more sheets of paper or another fibrous material, and is impregnable with plastic or resin for durability. Coated with aluminum oxide to make it impact- and scratch-resistant, laminate flooring also resists burns, stains, the impact of dropped objects, and fading from sunlight.
Laminate flooring has an exceptional ability to reproduce the look of natural materials such as wood, stone, and tile. "Design is what many consumers look for," says Terri Arthur, marketing manager for Wilsonart Flooring, which makes more than 75 styles of laminate planks and tiles. Laminate flooring offers "everything from rich wood grains, natural marble and stone, to exciting new abstracts."
Traditional wood-grain patterns are the most popular, particularly oak and maple. Laminate is a good choice for homeowners who want the look of a real hardwood floor at less cost and with minimum maintenance. Regular vacuuming or sweeping and occasional damp mopping is all that's required. Because laminate floors can sound hollow when walked on, some manufacturers recommend a foam underlayment.
Most laminate flooring is 5/16 inch thick. Less expensive, thinner laminates are also available, but are not as durable. Warranties are a good gauge of quality; they can range from 10 years to lifetime. Most of them guarantee against defects, wear, fading, stains, and water damage. Laminate flooring can be installed on any level of the house, including below grade. There are even water-resistant designs made especially for bathrooms. Check the warranty to be sure what's covered.