When plastic-laminate flooring was introduced to the U.S. market in the mid-1990s it was little more than a curiosity. Some builders and designers even considered it a bit of a joke. No one's laughing now. In less than 20 years, plastic laminate became—and remains—the fastest-growing type of flooring sold. It's easy to understand why: Plastic-laminate flooring is extremely durable, highly stain-resistant, affordable, and designed for easy, do-it-yourself installation.
A plastic-laminate floor is installed using the floating floor method, meaning the planks aren't fastened down with nails or glue. Instead, the tongue-and-groove planks are snapped together and then laid, or "floated," over a thin rubber underlayment. This method is one of the quickest, easiest ways to install a new floor. It typically takes about 4 hours to install flooring in a 10 x 12–foot room.
While installing plastic-laminate flooring is rather straightforward, here are a few tips and tricks that can help you end up with a neat, professional-quality installation:
Pry Up the Shoe Molding
If the room has quarter-round shoe molding running along the baseboard, remove it. But leave the baseboard molding in place.
Carefully pry up the shoe molding using a thin pry bar. (Don't damage it—you'll replace it after installing the plastic-laminate floor). The shoe molding will cover the 3/8-inch-wide expansion gap between the plastic-laminate planks and baseboard. And when nailing the shoe back into place, be sure to nail it to the baseboard, not the flooring.
Undercut the Casing
To ensure the new flooring fits neatly around doorways, it's necessary to trim, or undercut, the door casings and side jambs so the flooring will slip underneath.
Lay a piece of rubber underlayment in front of the casing and then set a scrap piece of plastic-laminate flooring on top. This will show you how high to cut. Next, use a reciprocating saw, handsaw, or oscillating multitool to cut flush across the top of the flooring scrap and through the casing. Repeat to trim the remaining casings and side jambs. Then vacuum up all the dust and debris.
Prep the Subfloor
Prepare the subfloor for the underlayment by tapping down any nailheads that may be protruding from the surface. Then slowly walk around the entire room while listening for any squeaks. If you find any, drive a 2-inch drywall screw through the subfloor at each noisy spot. It's most effective if you drive the screws into joists.
Roll Out the Underlayment
The thin rubber underlayment forms a moisture barrier and cushioning layer beneath the plastic-laminate floor. It also helps deaden sound.
There are a few different types of underlayment available, but be sure to use the kind recommended by the flooring manufacturer. It typically comes in 3- to 5-foot-wide rolls in various lengths.
Roll out the underlayment from wall to wall, and trim it to length with a utility knife. A 4-foot-long drywall T square makes it easy to cut straight and square. Roll out and cut the next length, then butt it against the first piece of underlayment. Don't overlap the edges.
There's no need to staple or tape the underlayment to the subfloor. If necessary, you can apply masking tape across the seams to prevent the underlayment pieces from shifting out of position.
Rip the First Row
Before installing the new floor, it's important first to calculate the width of the flooring planks in the very first and very last rows. That's necessary for a couple of reasons: First, the floor will look much better—and more balanced—when the first and last rows are approximately the same width. And more importantly, it's critical that neither row be less than half the width of one full plank. Here's how to do the necessary calculations:
Take your room's width and subtract 3/4 inch for expansion space (because there will be 3/8-inch of space along each wall). Then divide by the width of one plank. That'll give you the number of full-width planks needed to cover the floor, plus the fractional width of any remaining plank. If the remaining width is less than half a plank, you must rip down the flooring in the first row so that the last row will be at least half a plank wide.
For example: Let's say the room is 123 inches wide, and the plastic-laminate planks are 7-1/2 inches wide. Subtract 3/4 inch from 123, then divide by 7-1/2 to get 16.3. That tells us that we'll need 16 full planks to cover the room. It also tells us that if we started the first row with full planks, then the last row would be only three-tenths of a plank, or 2-1/4 inches wide. In this case, it would be necessary to rip 2-5/8 inches off the first row so that the first and last rows would each be 4-7/8 inches wide.
Use a Tapping Block
The tongue-and-groove planks fit very tightly together, so be sure to use a tapping block when closing the joints. If you hammer directly on the edge of the plank, you'll crush it, making it impossible to install the next plank.
You can make your own tapping block from a scrap piece of hardwood, but you'll get better results from a tapping block made specifically for your flooring. Available from the flooring manufacturers, these blocks are usually made from phenolic resin or some other tough plastic. Also, be sure to also use the tapping block when striking the ends of the planks to close up the end-butt joints.
Chop the Planks
You can use virtually any carpentry tool— including a miter saw, circular saw, jigsaw, or even a handsaw—to crosscut plastic-laminate planks to length. However, sawing through the planks creates a lot of super-fine dust because the core of the flooring is made from medium-density fiberboard (MDF). So forego the saws and rent a manual laminate-flooring cutter, which resembles a giant, guillotine-style paper cutter. Its long handle provides the necessary leverage to quickly and quietly slice through the planks without creating much dust.
Drop in the Last Row
The easiest way to install the last row of flooring is to first snap together all the planks end-to-end. Then tilt the entire row into place against the next-to-last row. Align the tongue-and-groove joint, and press down on the last row. If necessary, slip a pry bar between the last row and baseboard to force the joint closed.