A Sharper Image --Pergo has focused much of its product improvement efforts on enhancing the clarity of its abrasion-resistant overlays to better highlight the detailing in the wood-look decorative prints beneath. Pictured is Concord Oak, from the company's Pergo Select line.

Increasing numbers of consumers today are selecting laminate flooring for their homes primarily because of the look of the product, not its performance. Do you remember the wood-grained laminates of only a few years ago? Those grains looked flat and were accented by color ticks that did not blend with the background. But the latest laminate products look better than ever, as technological advancements now allow for deceptive realism with not only wood grain, but stone and tile patterns as well.

To better appreciate why the current generation of laminate flooring looks so good, one needs to understand how the product is made today. Laminate flooring makes use of a printed decorative layer that is covered with an extraordinarily durable overlay (or wear layer) made with aluminum oxides.

The actual flooring pattern — be it a wood, stone or ceramic look — is printed on the decorative layer. These layers are placed on top of sheets of phenolic resin-treated kraft paper. (“Phenolic” refers to a plastic commonly known as Bakelite, and “kraft” is a German word meaning “strong.”) These layers and sheets are then adhered to a high-density fiberboard core that is baked with a backer designed to keep the board from warping.

Over the past three years, advances in printing and image separation processes have brought about new enhancements in laminate patterns — especially in the wood grain category. Advanced computer programs have produced grain pattern variations and a complexity of design that looks natural enough to fool the eye.

“In the past, wood grain (laminate) was made in a three-stage process,” says John Amell, design manager at Toppan International, a printing company that produces wood grain patterns for the decorative surfaces industry. “First a base color was laid, then a secondary pattern — which created the shadowing — and then a ticking pattern that actually created the grain.

“Now the process is completed in three, four or five stages,” he continues. “When the pattern is separated, instead going through three completely separate stages, the textures are combined. The ticking, for example, will be incorporated in each stage instead of just flatly laid on top. This effort allows for better transition of ink coverage, more elegant movement from light to dark, and improved crispness and details.”

Wilsonart International's Spice Mesa takes an abstract approach in depicting the appearance of ceramic tile to compensate for the difficulty of realistically reproducing the look of authentic grout lines.
The addition of pearlescent inks in the highlight of the grain also has brought new life to what otherwise might be a flat print. Although every laminate floor manufacturer is striving to bring better designs to market, the approach of each can be vastly different.

Rob Surra, manager of design applications for Pergo, explains that “there is potential for the overlay to ruin a design because it contains aluminum oxides, which provide abrasion resistance but obscure the pattern below. Pergo has been a pioneer in developing an unique overlay that is remarkably clear, allowing us to see the details of the print below, yet maintains a high wear resistance.”

Flooring retailers should make consumers aware of the many factors that influence perceptions of a flooring design. Lighter-colored patterns, for example, tend to look brighter under wear layers than darker colors, which sometimes look a bit muddy.

“Of the patterns Pergo offers, I feel that Concord Oak in the Pergo Select line and Helsinki Birch demonstrate the craftsmanship of Pergo laminate,” explains Surra. “The Roma collection of marble and sandstone effects, and the aged-looking Virginia Rustic Oak, are also good examples.”

Faus Floors employs its Embossed-In-Register manufacturing technique to physically apply the natural texture of the tile and grout directly to the surface of its laminate planks.
In addition to the light or dark value of a pattern, consumers also should be made aware of the effects of gloss. High-gloss finishes, which mimic the traditional shine of polyurethane, give a very clear view of the pattern beneath. Even though matte finishes (which are created through special texturing effects) are becoming more popular, the matte texture slightly obscures the view of the print layer.

“Think of the analogy of glass,” advises Bill Byrne, vice president of marketing and sales at BHK of America. “Shiny glass is clear. But frosted glass, which is often made by sand blasting, obscures the view through the glass. The same principal applies to laminate flooring finishes, and consumers need to be aware of the drawbacks.”

On the other hand, high-gloss surfaces tend to show wear scratches easier than matte finishes. This is not to say that a gloss finish scratches any easier, but scratches are easier to see than with a matte finish.

BHK last year introduced Living Surfaces, a texture that creates an unusual effect when light hits the material. The texture breaks up the light and makes the print look and feel more like real wood. The Living Surfaces texture is created with a special metalplate. In the near future, BHK will introduce a 15-inch-square tile with a new stone texture developed from the same technology.

Formica Flooring's White Castle Block pattern combines the images of different-sized tiles on each 24-inch-square plank.
“Manufacturers are experimenting with various effects to enhance the look of laminate flooring,” explains Gwen Petter, manager of surface design atWilsonart International.“But the importance of a good print can’t be underestimated.

“Today, there are advanced computer programs that allow for extremely complex separations of wood grains to be made. These more intricate separations allow for the production of photographically realistic wood designs,” Petter adds. “Interestingly with tile looks, people generally prefer patterns that are more abstracted than realistic, because it is difficult to simulate the grout lines.”

For it’s part, Faus Floors is one laminate manufacturer that has tackled the challenge of recreating the authentic textured look of imported ceramic tiles with grout lines. The company’s new Embossed-In-Register manufacturing process physically applies the natural texture of ceramic tile and grout lines directly onto the surface of laminate planks.

BHK of America's Rustic French Oak floor features the company's Living Surfaces texture, which diffuses reflected light to make the wood-grain print appear and feel more like real hardwood.
The resulting ceramic-textured laminate floor is, the company says, “so realistic, you’ll swear your feet are cold.”

Formica Corp. has taken print technology to a new level with its Castle Block Series. This laminate flooring pattern combines the images of different-sized tiles on a 24-inch-square plank. And unlike most laminate manufacturers, which supply planks with four different patterns per box, Formica offers planks with seven different patterns per box.

“That’s 75% more design per box,” notes Kevin Boothe, marketing manager for Formica Flooring. By supplying more design, he adds, the overall floor pattern looks more random, less repetitive and therefore more realistic.

Beauty may be skin deep, but the improved looks of laminate flooring are the result of the combined efforts of designers, chemists, printers, manufacturers, and research and development technicians of all types. The degree to which these efforts have brought forth better looking, more realistic laminate flooring products is nothing short of amazing.