On solid ground - Laminates gain popularity

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS * Armstrong World Industries

Laminate flooring mimics the appearance, grain and texture of real wood, but with far fewer maintenance headaches. Laminates are European and rapidly are gaining favor with do-it-yourselfers who can readily install the faux planks without professional help.

By David Bradley ~ The Associated Press

Imagine a stylish, wood-fiber floor that will never need to be polished or refinished, is impervious to moisture, can be installed quickly and cleans up with a damp cloth.

Too good to be true? Not if you're talking about new generation laminate flooring.

This hybrid flooring starts with wood byproducts compressed under thousands of pounds of pressure to form a super-hard, super-durable water-resistant plank that dares to be rapidly installed where other water-sensitive woods fear to tread: laundry rooms, kitchens and baths.

Clint Davis, laminate and vinyl flooring vice president for Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, says this European import has rapidly gained attention as a lower-priced option for homeowners who want the look of wood without the maintenance headaches.

"Two things helped laminates grab 4 percent to 5 percent of the flooring market. One is a water-resistant core, the other is a glueless locking system so consumers can install planks," says Davis. "It's the only flooring do-it-yourselfers can install confidently with professional results. You couldn't say that three years ago."

Until recently, laminates had cores that, as Davis says, "soaked up water like a sponge" and limited use to rooms without water sources. Improved core technologies meant laminate floors could be laid in any room.

Laminates are sandwiched layers of a non-warping platform, wood-product core, and a wood look-alike veneer. The veneer is top dressed with aluminum oxide -- second only to diamonds in hardness. Beveled planks and veneers that mimic the grain of wood lend an authentic wood appearance to laminates.

"Natural wood is beautiful, but we have customers every day that mistake laminates for the real thing," says Davis. "This is a homeowner's dream. It can be put down in high-traffic areas because it won't warp or show wear, won't ever need wax, polish or refinishing, and it's warranted against stains and fades for 25 years."

Ease and speed of installation has also made believers of many do-it-yourselfers. Installation of real wood is usually left to professionals because of the time-consuming process to glue and clamp planks. Inevitably, wood shows wear and tear and needs frequent maintenance. The tongue-and-groove laminate planks offer snap-together installation without glue. "It's like putting together Lego blocks," says Davis. Installation can be done in one day without subsurface preparation. Laminates can also be laid over existing vinyl floors.

Not surprising, consumers warm to the cost economies. Top-grade laminates from Armstrong and Pergo cost nearly $3 to $4 per square foot, compared to $4 to $6 for wood. Both are uninstalled prices. But Davis pegs professional installation of wood at $3 per foot, so savings can quickly mount in favor of laminates if consumers opt for self-installation.

"The informed consumer is voting for laminates," says Davis. "This is still a flooring product in its infancy, and it has gained a lot of market share because it's ultra-durable, easy to clean and install, and there's no question it looks like the real thing. What laminates have going for them is looks and ease of maintenance."

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