How to Tell the Difference Between Hardwood and Laminate Floors

How to Tell the Difference Between Hardwood and Laminate Floors

Knowing the difference between hardwood and laminate can be a tricky business if you don’t know what to look for. However, the importance of knowing the difference is essential when shopping for your new home or looking into renovating. The flooring of a home is one of the first design elements a person notices when entering a home or building. So whether you are looking to update your floors, buy a new home, or do a little shopping, being able to notice the differences will help! Here we will show you what to look for when trying to spot the differences so you can make the best decision for your home. 

What Material Are They Made From

Laminate 

Contrary to popular belief, laminate is not made out of plastic. When this product first entered the market, the shine of the floors led many to believe it was derived from plastic. However, laminate is actually a flooring made of multiple layers of synthetic flooring products that have been fused together. Another word for laminate flooring is “floating wood tiles” because they mimic the look of wood flooring.

There are typically 4 layers that make up a laminate floor: wear, design, core, and the back layer. The “wear layer” is the layer that sits on top of the visible layer of the laminate. This layer is made up of aluminum oxide and appears clear. Its purpose is to protect the floor from burns, stains, and fading. Under the wear layer is the “design layer” which is a high-resolution photograph that can be customized to closely imitate the look of a vast variety of floor coverings such as ceramic tile, finished hardwood, and natural stone. Under the design layer sits the “core-layer”. The purpose of this layer is to protect the floor from indentations and moisture. It is made up of densely compressed wood fiber that can withstand pressure and heavyweight. Beneath this layer is the foundation of the laminate, the “back layer”. This bottom layer is commonly composed of plastic and is responsible for protecting the plank against moisture and keeping the floor balanced. 

Hardwood 

The materials used for wood flooring are pretty simple. It is made of planks, milled from a single piece of timber. Wood flooring can however differ depending on the type of wood used and can come in various styles, colors, cuts, and species. 

Solid wood floors have a thick wear surface that can be sanded down and finished to freshen it up and give it a newer-looking appearance. 

Dents 

If you pay close attention to the surface of the floor, you might be able to figure out if the flooring is wood or laminate just by how it dents, or chips. 

The durability of hardwood floors isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Many factors contribute to the durability, such as the finish the wood has and what species of wood the planks are derived from. Softer woods like pine and fir are more susceptible to dents and scratches from heavy foot traffic. Wood species like Brazilian Cherry and Acacia, however, are a much tougher and less malleable wood and can resist dents and scratches better than the softer woods.  

The top layer of laminate flooring is made by fusing melamine resins and aluminum oxides at extreme heat and pressures. These materials make laminate flooring very hard and difficult to scratch, dent, or chip. Of course, if you strike a laminate food hard enough it will damage or chip but the force would have to be very strong. 

Difference in Coloring

Another way to deduct whether a floor is made of wood or laminate is to pay special attention to the consistency of color. Look near the windows, or under the rugs of the floor, you are examining and see if you can find fading. 

Wood is an organic material, and like most things in nature, is affected when exposed to natural elements like water and light. The culprit behind this is oxidation, and oxidation is inevitable and cannot be stopped. Exposure to light is one of the main reasons a hardwood floor becomes discolored and not just sunlight. Even light bulbs can damage a hardwood floor and fluorescent light bulbs cause the most damage. 

Another element to look for when typing to spot discoloration in wood flooring is in the finish. Laminate flooring has a straightforward clear finish that is hardly affected by any element, but hardwood flooring has a few different finish options.

If you see the floor is starting to take on a yellow hue, this floor is probably made of wood that has received an oil or varnish finish. While this type of finish is most beautiful and bright when first applied, it yellows the older it becomes. Water-based finishes, however, do not necessarily change the color of the wood when applied and do not tend to yellow as they age. Then there are clear finishes that do not alter the color much when initially applied but do tend to darken as it ages. 

The protective layer laminate wears on the surface is typically enough to protect it from fading. Occasionally you will find laminate flooring experiences a little bit of fading near a bright window. However, typically, if you see fading, especially under a rug, furniture, and near sunny areas of a home, it is hardwood flooring.

Wood Grains

Get out your magnifying glass because, under close examination, you will find that the wood grains of a floor is a dead giveaway if a floor is made of real hardwood or laminate.

As we have discussed previously, laminate floors have a high-resolution photograph under the finish clear finish. This means that if you look long and hard enough you will find repetition in the pattern. It is an easy thing to overlook but if you spend enough time examining a laminate floor you will begin to find boards with the same grain of the wood. 

This is impossible with hardwood flooring because each tree has its unique pattern of wood grain. Since hardwood flooring is made from long planks of timber from trees each plank will have a variety of grain.

Another variation of hardwood flooring that is a dead giveaway is knotting. Knots in hardwood flooring look like big circular dark spots. There are two ways knots develop in wood, live wood knots, or scars.

A live wood knot is when a new tree branch grows from a branch or the trunk. When the tree is cut, the place it joins creates a dark spot or knot. A scar is formed on the wood just like on the skin when it is damaged. Sometimes the damage is caused by humans and sometimes the natural elements give the wood scars. Trees can heal the damage done to their wood, but if the nutrients cannot restore the scar fast enough, the knots are called “dead knots” on wood panels. 

Knots in wood flooring can be a quite beautiful thing. They can enhance the floor with their beautiful pattern and make a floor look even more authentic and eye-catching. 

Staples

Staples are another obvious indicator of whether or not a floor is made of hardwood or laminate. 

The planks of laminate that are linked together are held but a sort of tongue, or groove for an easy installation. This creates more of a smooth look. Some laminate flooring even snaps or clicks together for an even easier installation. Instead of using glue, nails, or staples, all you have to do is apply a little bit of pressure. 

Hardwood floors are typically not so easy. Some hardwood planks come with a type of tongue or groove for easier installation, but most need to be installed with an adhesive, nail, or staple. If you find nails or staples in your flooring, you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have found true hardwood floors. 

Price Point

Hands down, the easiest and most obvious way of differentiating hardwood flooring and laminate flooring is the price variation.

Laminate typically costs 30%-70% less than true hardwood flooring. The cost of laminate varies between $0.70 and $2.00 per square foot depending on what kind of finish it has. The more inexpensive types are maple, white oak, and red oak. Hickory, however, is the most expensive. There are mid-range varieties that include acacia, cherry, and beech. These types cost average around $1 per square foot but the prices fluctuate seasonally.

Hardwood floors are typically much more expensive than laminate (initially). Bamboo is the most affordable option of wood flooring and averages around $2 per square foot but true hardwood flooring is becoming increasingly more expensive. The price of hardwood floors varies greatly on the species and if it is exotic or not. Low range hardwood flooring is estimated at $3- $5 per square foot, mid-range $5- $10, and high-end costs around $8- $13. 

However, even though hardwood floors may cost more initially, they are very durable and almost always can outlive laminate flooring which has about a 20-year lifespan.

Now that you know what to look for, we hope these tips come in handy for finding the perfect floor for your home! After investing in the flooring of your home, it is wise to protect your investment by working with a home insurance agent.

Additional resources used:

https://www.newinhomes.com/blog/how-to-tell-the-difference-between-hardwood-and-laminate-flooring
https://www.hardwoodbargains.com/blog/learn-the-difference-between-laminate-and-solid-wood/
https://www.bobvila.com/articles/laminate-vs-hardwood/https://www.flooringamerica.com/blog/what-is-laminate-made-of

https://homeguides.sfgate.com/difference-between-hardwood-laminate-bamboo-flooring-99426.html

Matt McWilliams
matt@mcwilliamsmedia.com

Hi there! My name is Matt and I write for Expert Home Report. I enjoy writing about everything related to home improvement, home tips and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either spending time with my family, doing a DIY project or learning a new skill.