They all look the same, feel the same and provide almost the same initial performance if selected for the right application and installed correctly – but one is mostly a natural material, one is man-made and the other is a grass.
The wood look is very popular, as evidenced by so many flooring material manufacturers that have recently decided to produce a faux wood appearance for their products, such as vinyl flooring, ceramic tiles, epoxy finishes and others – all following the same route as laminates to move with the fashion on the look, popularity and elegance of a traditional wood floor which is never out of fashion.
Solid or engineered hardwood?
Solid hardwood floors (regarded as first prize by the fastidious end user) can add real value to any residential or commercial project but, to ensure that the environment is properly protected so that the exotic hardwoods don’t become overtraded and extinct, specify or purchase wood that is from FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified forests which means they are grown by organisations incorporating sustainable forestry techniques and conforming to ISO14001 Environmental Management – such organisations protect and sustain forests worldwide.
One of the greatest advances in wood floors has been the introduction of engineered wood flooring. This is a multi-layered product comprising a core of plywood or high-density fibreboard adhered in a diagonally opposite direction to a less vulnerable wood than hardwood, with a top layer of the selected natural hardwood as the top surface, which can be any available species.
This product then has the natural characteristics of the selected wood species but uses considerably less of the natural material to achieve the same effect and performance.
Also, it has been designed to provide greater stability, particularly where moisture or heat poses problems for solid hardwood floors, and the lifespan of engineered wood floors is the same as what you would expect from a solid wood floor.
Engineered floors can be provided as tongue-and-groove boards or are available using the unique ‘click’ system now so popular with flooring contractors.
This concept was introduced to meet the popular demand whilst at the same time reducing the cost in relation to solid wood, and reducing the amount of exotic hardwood used in the manufacture thereof.
Why laminate floors?
Laminate floors are ideal if you are looking for a less expensive answer but still want the appearance of wood, because with the quality finishes available they are often mistaken for wood, even by experts, as they can match any wood look and can be given a texture that makes them feel like the real thing. They are also environmentally friendly because no hardwood is used in their manufacture.
The hi-tech manufacturing techniques they employ mean that laminate floors can be supplied in any colour, pattern or design and, apart from the wood looks, they are now available in a range of natural stone options.
They are easy to install with the latest ‘click’ techniques that were pioneered by the laminate flooring manufacturers, and the use of modern surface finishes means that laminates have no need of sealing, waxing, sanding, oiling or any other treatment to keep them clean and looking good.
The EPLF (European Producers of Laminate Flooring) say that a laminate floor is the answer for anyone seeking green flooring, because it has good green credentials. They state that the materials used to make laminate flooring have a minimal impact on global resources, and energy consumption for production and logistics is low.
Also, they say, the product is made exclusively from wood sourced from sustainably managed domestic forests; decorative finishes are printed on certified paper with a high proportion of recycled material and natural, water-based inks; eco-friendly resins are used as the binder; and the packaging is made from recycled paper.
Bamboo is probably the most enigmatic flooring around because it looks like wood, is stronger than most hardwoods, has a long service life and is very environmentally friendly, but it’s not wood – it’s a grass!
This hollow, grass-family plant is extremely fast-growing in comparison to hardwoods. It reaches maturity within five years, and can be repeatedly harvested from the same plant.
Bamboo flooring is available in its light, natural colour or in darker shades produced by carbonisation – a process that subjects the bamboo to steam and pressure that causes a darkening of its fibres – resulting in an attractive honey to chocolate-brown colour. Easy to install and keep clean, it is an ideal replacement for hardwood.
Hardness? Some species are harder than maple, and doubly harder than red oak – the really hard natural woods – but it is very resilient and can take the same and if not greater impact than most hardwoods.
Strand-Woven Bamboo Flooring is the strongest type of bamboo flooring. However, it loses the traditional look of bamboo somewhat, coming closer in appearance to some exotic hardwoods. The bamboo is shredded, then compressed with adhesives to create a solid plank.
Perhaps the best advice we can give to specifiers and end users is never buy cheap wood, bamboo or laminate floorcoverings – these will not last and will require very expensive early replacement; make sure you specify or purchase a well-known brand – and a guarantee (for both the product and its installation); and use SAWLFA-accredited installers (Southern African Wood & Laminate Flooring Association). www.sawlfa.co.za
Andrew Murray, chairman of SAWLFA, says that its members are finding it difficult in the present economic climate, particularly as solid timber and bamboo flooring tend to be the preference of the upper end of the market, and the people that would usually look at this investment seem to be looking for cheaper options.
Regarding the impact that luxury vinyl planks has had on the marketplace, Andrew says, “Normally the introduction of new products entering the market hardly affects the market share of our ranges, but the luxury vinyl plank with the wood look is becoming increasingly popular – especially in areas of increased moisture or very high humidity.”
Asked about the latest developments in laminates, SAWLFA member and laminate flooring guru Peter Geyer said that a new, improved wear layer that is factory-applied in a liquid form is currently undergoing tests and should be available later in the year.
Peter also said that luxury vinyl planks are having some effect on the market share of laminates in some respects – particularly in the upper end of the market, but in these cases the LVPs are more expensive than laminates.
“Laminates are a proven product in a multiplicity of applications, including offices and other commercial buildings and in residential projects – the sectors which have not suffered greatly from the introductions of LVPs in the areas where price is a major consideration,” he said.
Peter also pointed out the aggressive campaigns being carried out worldwide by Unilin and Välinge in respect of the labelling of laminates. “If any company has a manufacturing licence agreement with either of these two companies, they must use the required holographic label on the packaging. Some manufacturers have been found to omit this and sell the product at a lower than recommended price as a result. Action will be taken against any company found to be adopting this practice.”