If you choose to install your own hardwood or engineered hardwood floors, you have a lot of decisions to research and make. One such choice is the type of underlayment you will install. If this is your first step into the world of DIY flooring, this might be the first time you’ve even heard of underlayment. Never fear! Once you know what it is, why you need it, and what choices are available, making the right decision for your new floors becomes simple. Learn about the different hardwood floor underlayment options with this guide.
What Is Underlayment?
Simply put, underlayment is a layer of material between your subfloor and your floor. While some flooring comes with the underlayment attached, others will require you to install a separate underlayment. Most of the time, underlayment consists of rubber, cork, foam, or felt. Each option has different qualities to suit the needs of various floors and rooms. Though your underlayment will be invisible beneath your floor, choosing the right type will improve your flooring and help it to last longer.
Why You Need Underlayment
While underlayment isn’t always necessary for your hardwood floors, there are always benefits to it. One of the most significant reasons to install underlayment is the added stability and durability. Underlayment provides support for your floor and helps smooth subfloor imperfections. It allows your flooring to lay correctly over the subfloor, preventing tripping hazards or an uneven appearance. Underlayment also provides extra sound absorption for your floor. Quality underlayment will muffle footsteps and other impact sounds, as well as reduce echoes from voices, TVs, and other noises that travel through the air. Underlayment can also protect your hardwood floors from moisture damage. The underlayment’s moisture barrier is particularly beneficial when it comes to wood floorings, as it will help prevent warping and other expensive damages. All these benefits work to protect your wood floors and create more durable, longer-lasting flooring for your home.
Hardwood Floor Underlayment Options
There are four main types of underlayment to choose from, each with its own qualities and capabilities. Some options work better for different types of flooring, so research the details before you decide which option to install. As you search for the perfect underlayment for your home, consider the sound ratings and density in addition to the type of material you use.
One of the most popular types of hardwood underlayment is felt. This option provides basic moisture resistance and sound absorption. You can choose heavier layers of black felt for additional insulation, sound absorption, and moisture resistance. Thick layers of black felt also provide extra cushioning, increasing the comfort of your room. Manufacturers create felt underlayment out of recycled materials, making this an environmentally friendly option for your home. However, felt is relatively simple compared to other underlayment materials. While higher-density felt underlayment provides extra protection, it still won’t absorb as much sound as other options.
Foam underlayment is both affordable and easy to install. Like felt, foam provides extra cushioning for your wood floors. In addition to extra comfort, it also provides flexibility and insulation. Foam underlayment reduces friction between the floor and the subfloor as your wood naturally expands and contracts with the seasons. Foam also offers a high level of sound absorption, which can drastically reduce the level of hollow noises from echoing sound waves and impacts against the floor. Some foam underlayments come with a built-in moisture or vapor barrier to protect your wood floors from water damage—an important option to consider in basements, kitchens, or other rooms that see a lot of water or humidity.
Though not quite as popular as felt or foam, cork underlayment is an excellent choice due to its environmentally friendly materials and great sound absorption. Cork is a natural and renewable resource. Meanwhile, its exceptional sound absorption makes cork a popular choice for second-story rooms or apartments on higher floors. This firm yet flexible material is also perfect for adjusting to imperfections in the subfloor, providing extra stability to your floors. Cork is also a natural insulator that can help regulate the floor’s temperature. Finally, a unique perk about cork is that it has anti-microbial properties that prevent the growth of bacteria and mold in your floors. However, cork isn’t waterproof. Like foam, you’ll want to look for cork underlayment options that have a built-in water or vapor barrier.
Rubber is another easy-to-install option, thanks to its flexibility and pliability. This versatile alternative offers excellent sound absorption, moisture resistance, and insulation. The naturally waterproof material helps to prevent moisture issues in your wood, including the growth of mold or mildew. Rubber underlayment also offers superior sound absorption and prevents hollow-sounding floors. While rubber underlayment is less popular due to its higher price, the easy installation and incredible benefits make it an effective and versatile choice. As such, rubber is still worth considering when choosing the best underlayment option for your new floors.
How To Choose the Right Underlayment
Now that you know the different underlayment materials available, there are a few other details to consider when making your choice. The species of hardwood flooring and the specific needs of the room affect the quality of your underlayment. Black walnut, white oak, or red oak engineered wood flooring all consist of softer woods that require additional support and stability from their subfloors. As a result, softer wood species work well with cork or rubber underlayments. On the other hand, harder wood species such as hickory or maple don’t need the extra support and, instead, benefit from the insulation and flexibility of foam or rubber. You should also consider the room you want to install your underlayment in. Does it see a lot of traffic and activity? If so, an underlayment that provides extra stability and durability is the best option. If you install new flooring in a room on the second floor or above, extra sound absorption can keep your footsteps from echoing throughout the building. Take the time to decide what your room needs the most before you choose the type of underlayment to install.