How to Choose Hardwood Underlay

Hardwood flooring underlay is a building material installed under a wood or laminate floor.

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Underlayment products can be made from wood, cork, foam or a variety of other materials and are used to even out a subfloor to provide a solid base for the new floor covering. These materials may also help to control noise while adding a level of insulation to the floor. For many homeowners, it can be challenging to choose between the various types of underlayment products. To find the best material for your needs, consider factors like subfloor construction, sound and insulation requirements, and how the floor will be installed.

Determine how the hardwood flooring will be installed. A glued-down floor often requires no underlayment, though you can use vinyl sheets to control moisture. For nail-down applications, roofing paper or red rosin are among the most common underlayments. If you plan to install a floating wood floor, look for cushioned underlayment products like foam or cork.

Check to see what the subfloor is made of. Wood subfloors work best with foam or cork underlayment. Wooden underlayment products like plywood or OSB should only be used with concrete subfloors.

Consider potential moisture problems. Where moisture is a concern, choose vinyl or plastic-lined moisture barriers combined with foam or plywood. Cork is also an excellent choice for moisture-prone floors. If moisture levels are low, standard foam or wood underlayment is the most economical option.

Examine sound transmission. The wrong underlayment may allow sound to travel through your floors, which can be a nuisance to those living below. Cork is known for its sound deadening qualities. If noise is a primary concern, look for materials designed to minimize sound transmission and avoid wood or foam.

Review insulation requirements. To prevent cold air from entering the home from below, choose an underlayment that can help to insulate the floor. Both cork and foam are good insulators, while most wood and vinyl underlayment products are fairly ineffective insulators.

Choose the right thickness for your underlayment. Cork is one of the best materials for raising the height of a wood floor, which is particularly important if you have other flooring surfaces that will need to meet up with your new floor. It can be layered under the wood flooring to bring it to the same level as nearby floor surfaces, minimizing the need for tricky transition pieces.

Tips

  • Always consult with the manufacturer of your flooring before choosing an underlayment product.
  • Make sure to distinguish between subfloors and underlayment. Subflooring is a structural component and consists of wood panels (like plywood or OSB) that are used to cover the framing members on your floor. Subfloors may also be made from concrete. Underlayment is installed over the top of the subfloor to support and cushion hardwood flooring. It is not intended to replace the subfloor.

About the Author

Emily Beach works in the commercial construction industry in Maryland. She received her LEED accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2008 and is in the process of working towards an Architectural Hardware Consultant certification from the Door and Hardware Institute. She received a bachelor's degree in economics and management from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.