Q: We need a new floor and are considering installing a laminate flooring over an existing wood floor, which is beyond repair. The laminate wood imitations look good in the showroom, and the salespeople extol their features and durability. Just how durable are they? Any recommendations you have concerning this type of flooring would be appreciated.

A: Laminate floorings got their start in Europe and were introduced to the U.S. market in the mid-1990s. They are rapidly gaining in popularity.

Laminates can give you the look of real wood without the expense. For the layperson, it's often hard to tell the difference. Put a laminate plank next to a hardwood plank, and they appear nearly the same. Both have grain and slight imperfections. The key factors to the popularity of laminates is durability and low maintenance as well as cost.

Laminates can stand up to the traffic of the average family. They don't require refinishing as wood does with wear, and cleanup is easy with just a damp mop and a special cleaner. They are particularly suitable flooring substitutes in kitchens and bathrooms where moisture, an enemy of wood, is present.

A laminate floor will tend to sound more hollow when walked upon compared with a real wood floor. Laminates have high-strength polymer coatings to protect them from deep scratches. What appears to be wood underneath the protective coating is actually, in most laminates, a photograph--a picture of an expensive real hardwood. Laminates are not restricted to wood imitations. Excellent reproductions in granite, slate and brick are also available.

Although laminates are durable, with age the protective coating will wear down. Depending on use, you can get 10, 15 or even 20 years out of a laminate flooring. But eventually laminates require replacement. A real wood floor can last indefinitely, although it needs refinishing from time to time.

Although laminates are scratch-resistant, they are not impervious to scratching and scarring. Manufacturers of laminates have repair kits that consist of matching color paint or crayon and an epoxy cement. Using the kits, you can hide minor scratches, but large gouges tend to do irreparable damage.

It is best to purchase some extra planks when you invest in a floor system and keep these on hand for replacements if needed. Warranties will vary with the manufacturer. When shopping, compare warranties and what they cover. Some companies provide warranties against wear, stains and fading for up to 15 years.

There are two types of laminate flooring systems: glued and floating systems.

They differ in how they are installed. Much of the three-eighths-inch thick flooring is glued to the subfloor, which, in this case, is your old wood floor. When installing these new laminate planks, always place the planks at either a 45-degree or 90-degree angle to the original flooring to prevent the old floor's natural expansion and contraction from affecting your new floor. As an added bonus, the elastic properties in the adhesive, like the laminated wood's cross-grain construction, help stabilize the floor. Glued-down laminate flooring comes in many styles, including planks that are three inches, five inches and seven inches wide. You can also find laminated plank flooring with pegs for added charm. Beveled edges create a groove or channel between the boards, completing this old-time look.

The other type of laminated wood flooring is a floating floor system. The laminated planks, usually about one-half-inch thick, are layered over a thin (one-eighth-inch) foam pad. Other than the glue used to secure each tongue-and-groove plank to one another, no adhesive or nails are used. The advantage this floor has over the glued ones is that it is easier and quicker to install. Also, the foam can better bridge irregularities in the floor below. In some installations, such as over a concrete slab, a thin layer of plastic sheeting is generally laid on top of the subfloor to guard against moisture damaging the underside of the laminate. The layer of foam over the plastic provides some cushioning and "give" to the floor, creating a tread similar to a real hardwood floor system.

Floating floor systems usually come in relatively large pieces. One of the styles imitates the old strip flooring. Each piece is about seven inches wide by eight feet long, and looks like three strips of 2 1/4-inch flooring together. The sides and ends are milled with tongues and grooves for easy, tight installation.

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