When you take on a flooring project, you have a number of factors to consider. Often, your choice will come down to two favored options, and it’s tricky to decide between them. It can be a battle of head vs. heart, or you might have two perfectly rational choices in front of you, and neither’s budging. Laminate vs. solid hardwood is a debate that kind of sits across both scenarios.
Laminate is often cited as the practical choice over the more emotive option of hardwood. But as we’ll see, there are practical cases for both, and it’s certainly not the case that laminate is always such a compromise when it comes to looks. We’ll take into account the performance of both over factors, such as looks, price, durability, and comfort, before giving our verdict on which has the claim to be the better choice.
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Laminate Vs. Solid Hardwood – Comparison Chart
Main Difference Between Laminate & Solid Hardwood Flooring
We’ll start by examining exactly what goes into each flooring type, so you have a better understanding of what we’re dealing with when considering solid hardwood vs. laminate. The structure of each is key to their respective levels of performance.
Laminate flooring is a multi-layer structure, with very distinct layers having very distinct purposes. Starting at the top, we have the overlayer, which is a transparent, extremely tough material such as urethane, and the strength of this layer will be primarily responsible for the AC score the flooring achieves. What’s an AC score? AC stands for abrasion coefficient (or sometimes criteria), and the higher the score, the more durable the floor.
The next layer is what carries the design. Below this is the core, often made from a material like high-density wood fiber. This gives the floor solidity. Finally, at the bottom, we have the backing layer, which protects the core from damage. The whole structure is pressure-laminated to give durability and waterproofing.
Solid hardwood flooring is pretty much just what’s cut from the tree. The wood (often oak, cherry, or another dense-grained variety) will be seasoned and can be treated, but that aside, it’s as nature intended, with an underlay usually being added to protect the planks and give a bit of stability.
It’s hard to credit, but more often than not, laminate gets its looks from a layer of paper that carries a photo of some wood. It actually looks a lot more impressive than we’ve made it sound, but this is pretty much all there is to it. Once the paper is protected under the wear layer and the whole structure is treated, you get a pretty good facsimile of wood. This can be enhanced with a textured overlay. OK, it won’t stand up to close inspection, but it’s passable with just a quick look.
This is the business. What a lot of synthetic flooring is trying to simulate is this very substance. The depth of color and the natural variations in grain combine in solid hardwood to deliver a product that’s utterly unique to every home. And you can examine it as closely as you like – it just gets better and better the more you look at it. And it often looks better as it ages too.
Our Choice On Looks: Solid Hardwood
Probably a bit predictable, but we had to go with the solid hardwood. Laminate has made tremendous strides and looks better now than ever before, but solid hardwood has a look that’s all its own.
You’re looking at a starting point of around $0.99 SFT (TrafficMaster, which is AC3 rated), so you can immediately see one of the main reasons laminate is chosen – it can be very cheap! Even at the top end of what you can buy at HomeDepot, you’re still only paying just over $4.00 SFT (actually down to $3.48 at the time of writing).
OK, this was never going to be cheap. But just how much are we talking? Again, taking HomeDepot’s prices, hardwood starts at $3.99 SFT (for MonoSerra’s no-frills range), so a crossover (albeit a small one) with laminate pricing. Hardwood goes up to a sizeable $8.28 for Bruce’s Revolutionary Rustics, a heavier-weight board. Depending on the supplier, hardwood can be much, much more.
Our Choice On Price: Laminate
Laminate’s the winner on price, as it is inarguably more affordable. Of course, whether you get what you pay for is something we now turn our attention to.
Comfort & Acoustics
As a result of the base layer, laminate tends to cushion your tread and spring back to give a slight sense of propelling you along as you walk. Temperature-wise, laminate doesn’t have what you might call oodles of natural warmth, but it is certainly less chilly than ceramic tile or stone. Laminate acoustics can be quite an offense to the ears, amplifying every footstep with a distinctive hollow and/or squelchy-creaky sound. However, this flaw can be addressed with acoustic underlay, so it shouldn’t be regarded as insurmountable.
Wood has a tiny amount of give but not as much as laminate. With the exception of cork, which is relatively bouncy, the solidity of wood, so important for durability, is its curse when it comes to comfort. Consequently, walking on it will not give much in the way of a cushioning experience. However, this can be improved with underlay. What wood does deliver is a feeling of warmth underfoot or, helpfully, cool during the hotter months. Acoustically, wood makes more noise as it ages, when the boards start to creak, a little like our aging joints. Again, though, underlay can help with this.
Our Choice On Comfort & Acoustics: Tie
With laminate winning on comfort but losing on acoustics and with the whole issue being muddied by the underlay factor, we have no choice but to declare a tie.
One of the key buying points with laminate is its durability, especially as you go up the scale to the approx $3 mark. What you’ll encounter here are options with an AC4 or higher rating, which translates to suitability for all residential environments, together with some commercial ones.
In general, hardwood won’t be able to compete with laminate, especially when similar price points are compared. It should be mentioned, however, that although wood won’t carry the warranty that laminate does, it can, with the right care, look better with age than laminate can. Additionally, it can be refinished multiple times, depending on thickness.
Our Choice On Durability: Laminate
Laminate’s the winner when it comes to durability – it’s built to last, and it takes a lot of wear. Especially with the AC4 and AC5 models. Although wood may retain its looks for longer as it can be refinished, laminate is our choice for its ability to stay strong and withstand scratches and water, which leads us to our next comparative factor.
Water & Scratch Resistance
Often touted as waterproof, laminate is more correctly thought of as splashproof. Its top layer will protect against water ingress, but not indefinitely. Unlike, say, luxury vinyl, which will stay watertight all day long, even when immersed in the stuff, laminate will eventually succumb. Any water left on the surface for too long will seep in and leave a mark. Against scratches, laminate can be very well prepared. An AC4 rating or higher will be a good indication that the laminate product will have sound scratch resistance.
This category’s not a good one for solid hardwood. Although small spills aren’t disastrous if dealt with promptly, wood’s not going to thank you for anything more torrential. The fact is wood’s designed to absorb water. It’s how trees stay alive. So, although certain woods won’t be quite as absorbent as others (e.g., bamboo – alright, it’s a grass – is a little more watertight), and if you opt for finished over unfinished hardwood, you’ll get a slightly better level of waterproofing, in general, hardwood’s not a good choice for a watery spot. It doesn’t repel scratches very well either, so not the best option for homeowners with dogs.
Our Choice On Water & Scratch Resistance: Laminate
Laminate’s the clear winner here: like a well-drilled Marine, it’s prepared specifically for the dangers it’s going to face in an often hostile environment, and it’s got the capability to survive relatively unscathed. Hardwood’s more like the catering division – very welcome as a sop to the senses, but you wouldn’t necessarily choose them for the frontline.
Typically, laminate is installed using the click/locking method so that you end up with a floating floor, i.e., one that’s not actually glued or nailed down to the subfloor. This technique has the advantage of being relatively quick to deploy, as well as being within the competence of most reasonably practical individuals.
This stuff is best left to the pros. Hardwood’s heavy, awkward, and doesn’t relish being handled by amateurs. Hardwood planks need to be fastened securely to the subfloor and underlayment and to do this, you need to have an array of fancy tools, including a bunch of different kinds of saws and a hygrometer to test humidity levels. You have to know what you’re doing, or you stand the chance of wasting a lot of very expensive wood. Call a flooring guy/gal.
Our Choice On Installation: Laminate
If you compare laminate vs. solid hardwood on installation, laminate is the clear winner. Nobody wants to have to invest in a whole new range of expensive equipment only to find that, no, they can’t do the job themselves after all. This is why hardwood’s very much trounced by nice ’n’ easy laminate when it comes to installation.
Cleaning & Repair
This material’s a breeze to clean. Most of the stuff you’re trying to get rid of will stay very proud on the surface, with laminate being so impervious to ingress. For this reason, a simple sweep and a damp mop will do the trick in most situations. For stains, you can get your hands on proprietary cleaning solutions that will get rid of the mark without damaging the flooring. Repair’s not so easy. If you have a damaged piece of laminate, you’ll probably have to remove it and replace it with another.
Again, sweeping and mopping (as long as the mop’s only touch damp) are your best bets. Microfiber cloths can get into where dirt’s burrowed its way in. Once in a while, a once-over with a dedicated hardwood floor cleaner will keep it looking beautiful. As far as repair matters are concerned, should your floor’s surface be damaged by staining or scratching, you can fix most defects by having the affected boards re-finished.
Our Choice on Cleaning & Repair: Tie
Laminate’s probably slightly easier to clean, but hardwood’s ability to be repaired means that the latter just shades it in this category.
If you avoid the very cheapest, laminate is a product that’s built to last. AC4 and AC5-rated flooring won’t give up on you in a hurry. A good example of this level product is Pergo Outlast+, which gives a lifetime residential warranty, plus coverage for ten years in a commercial setting.
At the bottom end of the scale, wood will usually only fetch you a 10-15 year residential guarantee. If you’re prepared to spend a little more, you’ll get a better result (e.g., Blue Ridge’s Red Oak, at $5.40 SFT, comes with a 50-year finish warranty with residential use), but you won’t get the same warranty that you get with laminate. However, wood has demonstrated in historic properties all over the world that, with care, it can give flooring that can last centuries.
Our Choice on Lifespan: Solid Hardwood
If you invest in AC4 or AC5 laminate, you’ll have a floor likely to last at least ten years or longer, which is why they dish out those lifetime guarantees. However, our final choice for lifespan is solid hardwood. Although warranties on the finish are not as long, solid hardwood can be refinished multiple times in its lifespan. We’ve seen many solid hardwood floors over 50 years old that just keep looking better every time they’re refinished.
Now, this is one area where laminate may struggle to gain traction. The majority opinion of this superb flooring material hasn’t caught up with what it’s now able to deliver. Early laminates tended not to be so high-performing or look so good, and a lot of people are still stuck in this era. This means that a laminate floor will not boost the value of a house as much as it probably should. However, having said that, it tends to be welcomed more in specific rooms, such as bathrooms and kitchens, than in others.
You can’t argue with hardwood floors’ impact on the eye, which is what sells. You’re looking at an increase in house value by around 2.5%, so more than enough to offset the installation costs and then some. It’s one of the best house value investments you can make and less bother than a loft conversion, for instance.
Our Choice On House Value: Solid Hardwood
Hardwood does it for us on the house value front. The right wood in the right room can be a wow factor that will leave a buyer unable to keep their wallet closed.
This will come as a surprise to some, but our overall winner for the laminate vs. solid hardwood tussle is laminate. OK, hardwood’s got the looks and the resale appeal, but your floor should be, most of all, about usability. And this laminate’s got to spare. It’s available in a wide range of looks and finishes, so there’s a laminate that’s near-perfect for most settings. It meets the usual residential needs and then some and can shrug off the woes of family life with remarkable ease.
Hardwood will always have its fans, and so it should. However, for our money, it’s laminate that’s the sensible choice when it comes to deciding which flooring is better overall.
Our verdict, while fairly decisive, shouldn’t be taken as solid guidance for every situation. When considering hardwood vs. laminate, the right one for you will be down to a number of points. First of all, budget. Laminate, in almost all cases, is going to be the winner here. Secondly, practical matters. If it’s a bathroom or other area that water’s likely to be splashed about, then, again, it’s laminate. However, if it’s a large expanse of feature flooring in the lounge of a historic property, then you’d be better advised to go with hardwood.
You also have to factor in your tastes. If the look of solid hardwood flooring is something that leaves you unmoved, and you think you’d rather spend your money on something more likely to excite you, then it best to go for practical and economical rather than lavish money on a material that doesn’t do it for you. For others, only hardwood, with all its needs and vulnerabilities, will do. So, what is the best advice? Go look at some options and start envisaging.
What lasts longer: solid wood or laminate?
Although wood can retain its looks for longer, and the odd scuff can add to its character, laminate carries longer warranties than wood and will stay scratch free longer than wood. Overall though, solid hardwood has a longer lifespan than laminate as it can be refinished multiple times.
Which is more waterproof: laminate or wood?
If you compare laminate vs. solid hardwood, laminate has better water resistance than solid wood, but neither is truly waterproof.
Are laminate and solid wood easy to install?
Laminate is installed by clicking into place and is manageable by most people who are at all handy. Solid wood installation takes expertise, time, and equipment, so it is usually a professional job.
How will laminate or solid wood increase my house value?
It’s been found that solid wood will deliver a real boost in house value. A laminate installation hasn’t shown a house value dividend.