From the moment the first laminate flooring products landed in the U.S., no other category has done as much to change the industry. From manufacturing all the way to installation, the segment has had an influence on every other flooring category.
Case in point is the mechanical locking system. Introduced in the mid to late 1990s, this glueless installation method not only added terms such as “click” and “snap” to the industry’s vernacular along with hundreds, possibly thousands of lawsuits around the world, the innovation that quickly transformed how laminate was installed is rapidly gaining a grip in other flooring categories as manufacturers see the benefits of incorporating such a system (see related stories throughout issue).
Like the floors themselves, not all locking systems are the same. Over the years manufacturers and suppliers have developed numerous versions as they try to improve durability and ease of use as well as differentiate themselves from the competition. Others have been developed to such an extent the makers have been extremely successful in licensing the technology for mills to incorporate in their production—after years of court battles from here to China.
Locking systems came about from a few perceived needs, including making the installation process less messy, quicker and easier, and also opening up the product category to the do-it-yourself market. Consumers, it was felt, would feel more comfortable installing a floor that snaps into place rather than dealing with gluing the planks together.
Roland Thompson, president of the Delmarva chapter of the International Certified Floorcovering Installers Association (CFI) and a Master II certified installer himself, said the early, glue-together systems were not bad in and of themselves. “Most of the early laminates went together very well…with very little movement, making them hold together and not come apart.”
There were two main issues, though. One was swelling, which most of the time, as many experts have noted, installers got the blame even though they were not at fault. The other issue came from having to clean the glue off.
“It seemed you always had to fight so as not to leave a haze,” Thompson noted.
While locking systems eliminated the second issue altogether and the first for the most part, Thompson said they created a potential issue of which installers and retailers need to be weary. With so many changes taking place due to innovation or economic needs, and so quickly, repairing a board is not as simple as it used to be.
“One good thing when it came to the glue,” Thompson explained, “is when you did a board replacement if you used the right router bit you could make the new board fit back in. Today, companies are changing their locking systems or the millimeter size so it is hard to know if the new order will match up to the one from just a few years ago.” In some cases, he added, a T-molding has to be used “no matter what.”
These changes Thompson referred to have been a mixed bag when it comes to locking systems. This is especially true with the low-end products, as some do not lock as tightly as others. “To keep the price down some of the lower-end products have cut back on the inner core and quality of the locking system. They go together loosely— some have too much play in the joint—and the tongue chips easily making it harder to put together and work with.”
On the other hand, with the better products, he added, “You can feel them when they lock. It gives you a snapping feel.” And that is really what professional installers care about. “Most do not care about the face or even the inner core of the product. All they care about is when they lock it together it does so easily and fits tight. How well it cuts is important, too.”
When locking systems were first introduced, one of the selling points was they would allow installers to make more money because they could lay down more flooring than before. While the second half of the theory is correct, installers say any increase in the overall amount of money is negligible. Why? Locking systems have lowered the overall installation price and taken some jobs away as consumers install the floor themselves, Thompson said. And, “You still need to do the same kind of floor prep, the same time doing the layout to make sure you have the joints staggered right, and with [certain types], it takes more time when you are working around door jams and the last wall area.”
He does admit some of the technological advancements in the product’s looks have helped with the overall installation. “The face has improved so much over the years, looking more and more real.” As an example, he pointed to eased or beveled edges, which help hide the joint.
Like the category itself, locking systems will continue to evolve. That noted, the accompanying chart is a sampling of some of the most widely used by laminate manufacturers, and explains how they work and some of their distinguishing features/benefits.
Web editor’s note: For a full chart of laminate click systems on the market, see the Sept. 13/20 issue or the Special Supplement: Retailers’ Guide to Selling Laminate Flooring.