The most common DIY renovation queries that infiltrate my inbox always seem to involve laminate flooring. What type of laminates should I use? What’s the difference between regular laminates and vinyl laminates? Is the installation process easy, so I can do it myself?
There are all valid questions, and it’s best to do your homework before you run out and purchase a laminate that catches your eye — they are all somewhat similar in many ways, but quite different in a whole lot of others.
Laminate thickness, the materials with which they are manufactured, the mechanics behind each respective interlocking system, costs per square foot — and let’s not forget of course style, texture and colour — will all factor into your decision-making process. The thicker the laminate, the better chance the laminate seams won’t "let go" over time in high traffic areas. Laminates made with a wood-based core are often better priced than vinyl laminates. They do not, however, react well to water or moisture, whereas vinyl laminates are often sold as "water resistant." Costs can vary greatly, and laminates of any type are available in a variety of styles, surface textures and colours.
More than two-thirds of all laminates on the market fall into the glueless-click category, which are well suited for any beginner. Although some laminate flooring types require glue as-you-go, or have glue already embedded within each joint and require moisture as-you-go to activate the glue, the glueless-click laminate is recommended for the DIY’er — it is forgiving should you make an error and require a "mulligan" (a step backwards, to partially redo something).
A good rule of thumb — get more of the laminate than required! In other words, once you’ve calculated the total square footage of the area you’ll be tackling with laminate flooring, add 15 to 20 per cent to that number. If those overage costs are a factor, inquire with the flooring supplier whether any leftover boxes of flooring can be returned after the job is done (keep a few boards on hand, just in case). Trust me — you do not want to run out of flooring while in the middle of the task. And furthermore, you’d hate to find out that the flooring you choose is no longer available (yes, this happened to a client of mine recently… no fun. It all had to be redone with new laminates that were available).
Allow the laminate flooring to acclimatize to the room’s temperature and humidity. It’s easiest to install flooring that has been regulated to the environment.
The subfloor should be clean and flush, and free of any debris. Slight and subtle variations in the subfloor will be hidden by the laminate flooring, as it does "give" a little for that very reason. All baseboards and door casings should be removed. The finished floor will look best if the door jambs are also removed prior to laminate installation. But in most cases, the DIY’er gets away with properly notched laminate boards as close to the jambs as possible, without having to remove them.
If the laminate you’ve chosen does not have a padded or cork backing, it is very likely you will require an underlay. The basic underlay simply provides a cushion on which the laminate will lay. However, certain underlays have been engineered to eliminate noise and some underlays are mould resistant (or both). For example, for a second-floor bedroom, you could select a basic or noise-resistant underlay, whereas a mould-resistant underlay is best for basement applications. Underlay installation is a quick process — the underlay comes in rolls, and quite often one edge has an adhesive strip. Cover the entire floor with the underlay and tape down any seams that are not connected by an adhesive strip.
Review the installation instructions that come with the product, they should be enclosed in every box. Inspect one of the laminate boards and determine how they click in. This will determine your start point. The start point should be at the location of the area that requires the least amount of back-tracking, should there be hallways and adjoining rooms. Although there are usually transition mouldings available for every style of laminate, a congruous laminate flooring installation always looks best (no seams). You will also want to establish whether boards can be laid one at a time for all rows following the first row, or does each row need to be created before "clicking" it into the previous row. I’ve come across either scenario — one is clearly more difficult than the other.
Laminates are considered "floating" floors in that the laminate surface is not formally secured to the subfloor, just to itself. As such, the flooring will expand and contract slightly with the changing of the seasons. Therefore, a gap is required at each end of each row — one-eighth to one-quarter inch should suffice. This gap will be hidden once the baseboards and casings have been re-installed.
I suggest you take the time to do a dry run, to determine the best starting point and even best board width — just like when you tile, layout is oh so important. You never want to have tiny little slivers of boards, if it can be avoided. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable when installing continuous flooring throughout several rooms and hallways. You’ll need to cut as you go; at the ends where the laminates meet a wall, holes for flooring vents, around doorways… etc.
Where your new laminates meet other flooring, or if you plan to finish a stairwell with the same type of laminate, things can appear more complicated. Just remember there are several ways to reach the same end. Most laminate flooring manufacturers offer a multitude of flooring solutions, which include flooring transitions and stair nosing. And even with these, there are a couple of ways to proceed.
I’ve often avoided transitions entirely, when laminates meet tiled floors. The height of the laminates is engineered by building up the subfloor so that the laminates and tile flooring are flush after installation. The laminates are glued during installation on the end of each row adjacent to the tiled floor, a perfect grout-line width from the tile. With a bead of grout-matching caulk in the seam, it will appear as though the tile is grouted against the laminates. However, the caulk will flex with the laminate, so a cracking grout-line is avoided.
The stair nosing that is offered with a laminate flooring is often surface mounted by using a high-adhesion construction glue. It is also possible to install the nosing flush with the stair’s laminate surface by cutting back the stair laminate to allow for the depth of the nosing and building up the stair tread below the nosing slightly until it’s flush with the stair’s laminate surface. I’m not a fan of the latter, as it can often create gapping in high-traffic areas. Another solution may be to find a matching hardwood nosing and affix it to the front edge of each stair, flush with the laminate surface of the stair tread.
Keep in mind
Depending on the laminate type you’ve chosen, cutting boards will either require a utility knife (for thinner vinyl laminates) or power saws (miter, circular, jig) for most wood-core laminates. A few years ago, the laminate purchased by a client of mine was coated with a thin rocky, ceramic surface, which made it necessary to change the miter saw blade four or five times.
At any rate, measure twice or thrice, cut once. And with that sound advice, you can avoid using all of that extra 15 to 20 per cent flooring you bought, just to be safe.
Out of all the tasks I’ve undertaken throughout my years of renovating, the installation of laminates always seems to go much faster than anticipated — I think it’s because once you get in the groove, it’s go, go, go baby! So, take on something new; you won’t regret it. Laminates are definitely a confidence booster for any DIY’er.