These notes are in addition to the installation instructions you will get with the particular product you buy. Where there is a conflict, go with their instructions. I learned a couple things about installation from the Pergo website; www.pergo.com. Pergo has a videotape on installation, but I didn't find it very helpful.
There are three basic types: snap-together, click-together, and glued. The snap-together types are a one-shot assembly that cannot be separated, and for that reason, they are not recommended. The click-together types are most of what you see today; they can be disassembled and re-assembled. The glued types have all but disappeared from the marketplace. I believe there is only one generally available glued type available today and that is Pergo Paradigm. It is unique in that the glue is pre-applied; you wet it with water from a special water bottle and it changes color to indicate that it is ready to be assembled. I have no experience with this product but it is rated highly. There are also many grades and qualities available from various manufacturers. Water resistance is no longer a factor of being glued together.
Typically a laminate is installed over a foam or cork underlayment to absorb small irregularities in the floor surface and to quiet the laminate. There are now some laminates that include the underlament attached to each plank.
Many manufacturers supply laminate flooring in both plank style and tiles. I have not used the tiles but I understand they should be installed the same way as the planks. The rest of this discussion is focused on the planks, but you can adapt it to the tiles.
There are a couple different thicknesses, there are a couple different backing materials, and there is some variation in the surface finish. Also realize that there may be more than one thickness of underlayment. My observation is that the thicker laminates and thicker underlayments give the quietest floor. Be cautious of inexpensive laminates sold by home centers; many are a spec grade designed to meet a low price, but without quality considerations.
First Things First
Order your material and leave it in the unopened packs in rooms near where it will be installed for at least 48 to 72 hours, to acclimate to the temperature and humidity. While it is doing that, you can prepare the rooms where it is to be installed.
Laminate can be laid over concrete slab, wood floors and vinyl sheet. Do not even think about laying laminate directly over carpet because the laminate will flex and the joints will crack. Don't plan to lay it over ceramic tile unless you first use a latex-modified cement-based floor leveling compound; select one that can be feathered out at the edges. You can also use this leveling compound if you find hollow spots in the subfloor; laminate manufacturers usually say hollow spots should be no greater than 3/16" in 6'. Laminate flooring is a floating floor - not fastened down - but hollow spots will allow it to bounce and weaken the joints. If you find humps in a wood subfloor, you can power sand them down using a very coarse grit. If you find humps in a slab, you may be able to sand or grind them down but you may end up having to fill everywhere else. Do not lay laminate over glued down wood floors or vinyl on a slab unless there is a moisture barrier over the slab under those products. The laminate underlayment can absorb small bumps in the flooring, but you will get the best job if the floor is flat and clean.
When we laid laminate in our place in Southern California, it was replacing some vinyl tile, sheet vinyl, and carpet. When I pulled the carpet, I found some old sheet vinyl I had forgotten about. I removed the vinyl tile and all the sheet vinyl, as well as the carpet. I may not have needed to remove the vinyl tile and sheet, but I didn't want any question about how well it was fastened down around the edges. Also, you want the minimum thickness of floor covering in a kitchen so the dishwasher is not impacted. I used an 8" razor floor scraper, the heavy kind with a single blade; the weight worked in my favor. It was hard work but really didn't take all that long, and it left the concrete slab very smooth. I swept and vacuumed up the dust and then as I laid the 6-mil plastic, I swept up the fine dust with my hand.
You may not feel it is necessary to go to those lengths to get the slab clean, and I won't argue with you. But by sweeping the floor clean with your hand, you can also tell if it is as flat as you want.
Layout of the pattern is extremely important; it will make the difference between a quality job and an amateur job.
The general rule of thumb is to lay the planks across the field of view from the most important view point. For example, if you see the laminate in your family room from the entry of your home, you should lay the planks side to side across that view. Some manufacturers say to lay the planks so sunlight is in the direction of the length of the planks, but I don't agree. Doing so will emphasize the lines of the planks. The other rule is to run the planks the length of a hallway rather than across it. If these rules conflict in your place, you will have to be the judge of which is most important, but I would consider the first rule the most important. We had a hallway that turned a corner at the end. We laid the planks down the main hall and continued that direction as the hall went around the corner since that was an area that would seldom be seen by a guest.
When you start the installation, open up a couple cartons and lay them out in order on any convenient floor. You may note a repeating pattern on the planks in each carton. I would also expect that you will find the pattern at the end of one plank will line up with the beginning of the next plank, and so on. If you find this repeating pattern, I recommend you stick a small piece of masking tape on each plank and number it, as it comes out of the carton to make this pattern matching easier. So you will have numbers 1 through 6, say, from each carton, and each number 1 will be identical. You want to continue the pattern matching in each row and you want to offset the pattern in adjacent rows. The end result will be an apparent random pattern.
Next lay a few planks loose, end to end, across the length of the room to see how they end up at the far wall. You may want to adjust the position of the first plank so you do not have a very small end plank. Also check to see how the width of the planks will come out across the room in the other direction, so you don't end up with a sliver of a plank at the far side. More on this later.
For a quality job you need to set the planks under door casings and jambs. The instructions will probably advise you to cut the bottom of these away by laying a handsaw on a scrap of material. This is a tedious process for a large job, and a backbreaker. Instead, rent a Crane jamb saw at Home Depot or a rental yard. This is basically a circular saw set on end in an adjustable frame. You adjust the frame for the thickness of the planks and the underlayment, and then cut each door jamb and casing. This takes just a fraction of the time and does a neater job. Rental of this saw should be something like $30 for a half day, and you can do the whole job in less than an hour in a typical home.
The other major tool you will need is either a table saw or a power mitersaw to cut the ends of planks. Sooner or later you will also have to rip cut the width of one or more planks. These planks chew up even carbide blades, so for a large job, you may need two or three blades. One economical solution is to buy an inexpensive 10" benchtop table saw, or rent one. You can get a cheap Delta table saw for about $120, plus blades. You can get almost the same saw from Harbor Freight and Tools for less money, and they are frequently on sale for $90. The cuts you make should all be covered by quarter round or base shoe or edge molding, so they could even be made with a circular saw or a saber saw (jig saw).
If you are using the glued laminate, you should rent a Pergo Installation Kit, for about $35/day; this includes several strap clamps that will reach across the average room and also some adjustable spacers. You should also buy the inexpensive kit of wedges, tapping block, and pull bar.
You will need scissors and/or utility knife to cut the plastic sheet used on concrete floors and the foam underlayment, plus pencils, etc as you would expect. You can mark the planks for cutting with a pencil.
Starting The Job
On a slab floor, you need to lay a moisture barrier, which is usually a 6-mil poly sheet. While it is tempting to use standard poly from a home center, it would be best to use the manufacurer's product so the warranty will not be voided. The poly must be overlapped at the joints by 8".
A foam or similar underlayment is required for laminate flooring. Some products have the underlayment already attached to the back of the planks. If you have a choice, using the premium or heavier underlayment will give a more solid sounding floor, and I highly recommend you do this. The underlayment sheets are butted together, not overlapped. Tape the joints with masking tape enough that they do not shift as you lay the laminate. In some cases the manufacturer offers a combination moisture barrier and underlayment; follow their directions in using it.
You have already laid out the first few planks to check the fit, so start off with the real thing. Start in the upper left corner with the tongue edge against spacer blocks against the wall. Pergo tells you to lay the first plank without cutting, then cut 1/3rd off the first plank in the next row, and 2/3rds off the first plank in the third row. This process is continued across the width of the room. This staggering is very important for two reasons. One is that it makes the joints stronger and the other is that it gives a random pattern. I saw Pergo laid in a retail store (a flooring store, no less) where the installers did not stagger the rows. The effect was terrible and very obvious. On some other types of plank patterns, the manufacturer may specify a different method of starting and staggering the pattern; follow their recommendations.
Tap the planks together with the tapping block or pull bar as you go. Use wedges against the far wall to maintain the spacing. If you are gluing, start using the strap clamps right away to clamp the planks both directions as you glue them. Keep the straps lined up reasonably straight with the walls. Apply the glue per directions on the carton. A helper can be a real asset, if only to open cartons, number the planks, and hand them to you. Start by assembling three rows of planks, full length; at that point eyeball check that the joints are straight. Then build the planks in a triangular fashion from there. If using the glued type, wipe off the excess glue immediately as you go; a big yellow tile sponge and vinegar water works well for this. Be sure the planks are pulled together tightly in both directions.
Note that the laminate should go under a toilet; trying to fit it around a toilet would be tedious and could be a serious problem if you have to replace the toilet in the future; the new toilet may have a different footprint.
Where two areas of laminate could shift in relation to each other because of natural expansion/contraction, use a T-molding strip to join these areas. For example, if you have run the laminate down a hallway past a bathroom where you will also be using the laminate, it might be wise to allow the joint at the doorway to shift so the joint will not pull apart. The T-molding will cover the gap between the two areas.
There are other special moldings available such as End Moldings for where the laminate butts up against exterior door thresholds or other hard surfaces, and Carpet Reducers for where the laminate meets carpeting. I hear that Pergo has the largest selection of moldings and that they are the best designed. Pergo, and possibly others, can supply a small base molding but it looks pretty cheap; however, the color-coordinated base shoe (quarter round) works well against your base molding.
In wet rooms - kitchen, bath, and laundry - you must seal the edge of the laminate with a permanent caulk. But in my opinion, it is best to seal the edges in all rooms. You can get a clear 50-year latex caulk by DAP that is easy to use and certainly adequate. I do not recommend silicone caulk because it is unreliable unless put on a perfect surface, and it is messy to clean up. Apply the caulk and smooth it with a finger to assure adhesion. Use this also around the toilet flange in a bathroom.
You should place the planks so there is a gap of 1/4" or so all around the room. This gap will be covered with base shoe or quarter round. We liked the effect of the quarter round that matched the laminate, against painted base molding. With this combination, the base molding stands out and the quarter round blends with the floor. Use your own judgement about base molding under kitchen and bath cabinets; it may not be necessary and may not even fit. But do use the base shoe.
Installing base shoe or quarter round is very easy if you have access to a pneumatic brad nailer or finish nailer. Nail it to the wall or base molding, not the laminate. I usually caulk around a toilet after it is installed, but some people claim that should not be caulked so if there is a wax ring leak, it will be obvious right away and can be repaired before damage is done. A good compromise is to caulk the front but leave the back few inches uncaulked.
Nail holes in the quarter round and gaps between planks can be filled with the matching finishing putty, which is a color matched caulk or similar product.
Disaster? Maybe not. Water on the laminate that is not wiped up right away may cause some damage. The joints will probably absorb some water and swell up. Worse, the water will get under the laminate and not be able to evaporate so that the swelling will continue for some time. Let me tell you of three situations to demonstrate what could happen.
An experience I had was in our kitchen where we have a glued-together laminate. While we were on a two-week vacation trip the fridge water connection broke and a small amount of water leaked onto the laminate. The water got under the laminate and seeped under an area roughly 3x4'. I could tell because the end joints in particular swelled up a small amount. The quarter round at the wall was damaged beyond repair, but that was simple to replace. I just didn't want to rip up the laminate so I let it go. Over a period of several weeks the swelling of the joints gradually went down so that today there is no evidence of water damage.
A story from a website tells of a mother who thought the floor should be wet mopped regularly. When she did this, she apparently really laid on the water. The floor was a click-together type and the joints were destroyed.
One of my customers wanted an inexpensive solution to a maintenance problem. This was for an elderly lady, and the caregiver told me she had "accidents" on the way to the bathroom from the adjacent bedroom. A further complication is that the bathroom had a walk-in shower with the sliding doors removed; that meant water came out of the shower onto the floor pretty heavily and had to be mopped up. The off-white carpet just had to go, and we discussed several alternatives. She finally opted for laminate flooring even though I said it could not be guaranteed to stand up to water. I selected QuickStep laminate (a click-together type) because the source said it had just been approved by the manufacturer for use in a bathroom; it had a very unique interlocking joint. I installed it and the last time I saw it, it was holding up very well.
Normal cleaning couldn't be easier! Use a Swiffer cleaning tool (about $15); these can use either a dry dusting pad or a damp cleaning pad. The dry pad is electrostatically charged to pull dust and hair out of crevices. My wife actually wraps a wash cloth around the tool and it works very well. For a vacuum, a long handled cordless vac is good (about $40). For a stubborn spill, use some vinegar in water, or any water-based household cleaner. In desperation you can use a petroleum solvent.