Flooring: Fake Beats Real

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More and more genuine hardwood flooring is hitting stores with a hand-scraped, worn finish that looks as if it spent years in a rustic country kitchen. But for real-world kitchen scrapes, scuffs, and dents, the fake stuff wins.

We accelerated the effects of foot traffic, dragged-in pebbles, dropped plates, splattered juice, and sunlight to see how well more than 30 varieties of flooring stood up to daily abuse. The best vinyl, linoleum, and laminates typically lasted twice as long as solid-wood flooring before their surface began showing wear.

Plastic laminates like those from market leaders Pergo and Shaw are the fastest-growing alternatives to wood. Essentially dense fiberboard with a photo of the real material beneath a clear protective layer, it can mimic nearly anything from oak to marble. Easy click-and-lay-it installation, called floating, is also a plus for those who want to sidestep the strip-by-strip nailing needed for solid wood.

A downside to plastic laminate: Some can have a repetitive pattern. Worn flooring can't be sanded and refinished like solid wood, and replacing a damaged section is hard since it can't be nailed to the subfloor. But as with wood, choosing a matte finish for laminates can help hide minor damage.

We also tested engineered-wood flooring, a growing solid-wood alternative that uses a wood veneer over plywood and can often float like plastic laminate. Many exotic woods come only in this type. But you're likely to prefer the solid stuff if you insist on real wood. Months of testing also show that some premium vinyl isn't premium in performance, and some "greener" flooring options can change color prematurely.

Engineered wood wore quickly. Engineered wood began showing wear far sooner than solid wood in our abrasion test. While you can sand and refinish a solid-wood floor several times, engineered wood can often be refinished just once before its wood veneer is gone. What's more, small spills can damage it.

Bamboo can change on you. Bamboo reaches harvesting age faster than wood and is considered more renewable. But it could be a problem with lots of natural light. Two, the Mannington Statements and Anderson Pacific Hemispheres, quickly darkened in our UV tests. Experts say color change can be a problem with other exotics, plus walnut and cherry.

Linoleum varied widely. Often confused with vinyl, which is plastic, linoleum is mostly linseed oil and wood products. Two brands we tested were best at handling dents and sunlight. But one was vulnerable to scratches, the other to wear.

Some premium vinyl can't take it. Premium vinyl is designed to more closely match stone, tile and grout, and even oak. The best also resisted wear and scratches better than standard vinyl, though two high-priced models scored among the lowest for scratches and stains.

HOW TO CHOOSE

More than half of home buyers consider hardwood floors important. But you may not care if you aren't selling and you value toughness and easy installation.

Here are some other tips:

For solid wood, consider the finish. More and more is factory-finished like the kind we tested. Unfinished wood costs roughly 40 percent less, according to RSMeans, a leading construction-data firm. But installation can offset that savings, since the floor must be sanded and finished over several days to seal it from moisture. Prefinished floors should hold up better than site-finished floors in wear resistance, and their warranty comes from the manufacturer, not the installer. On the downside, the beveled board edges on many examples may not be for everyone.

For vinyl, look for easy installation. Most vinyl flooring comes in sheets. Vinyl tiles, such as the top-scoring Congoleum DuraStone and NAFCO Better Living flooring, and planks like those from Mannington Adura, are easier to handle but can take longer to install.

Consider spills. Vinyl proved tops in our moisture tests, with linoleum, plastic laminate, and solid wood nearly as good. But engineered-wood products we tested from Lauzon, Bruce, Armstrong, and Tarkett buckled, warped, or separated after 24 hours, even with little moisture.

Look for safety. Nearly all flooring was judged good or better in ­slip-resistance both dry and wet. Two exceptions were the solid-wood Anderson Pacific Cumberland and plastic-laminate TrafficMaster by Shaw (a Home Depot exclusive), which scored only fair.
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