Flooring Underlayment

The 8 Best Flooring Underlayment Types

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Whether you plan to install hardwood, vinyl, or laminate flooring, it’s important to decide on the right type of underlayment. This is an essential component if you want to create a solid foundation when remodeling the flooring or building a brand-new one. You can think of the underlayment as an added layer between the subfloor and the top covering. It’s not always necessary but provides multiple benefits such as increasing the longevity of the flooring material.

The flooring underlayment is capable of creating a protective barrier against moisture and mold, especially important if you have a concrete subfloor. Another notable advantage of adding underlayment is sound reduction. There are types of flooring underlayment specifically designed to minimize noisy foot traffic. Some underlayment options can also improve the overall comfort of the floor by adding cushioning or thermal insulation. Let’s take a closer look at the best flooring underlayment types you should use and analyze the compatibility with different types of flooring materials.



1. Standard Foam

Standard Foam




Basic foam underlayment enjoys great popularity, especially on laminate flooring. Most standard foam underlayment types rely on thin layers that provide only decent cushioning. Although it has great advantages for many flooring types, foam isn’t suitable for areas that experience a lot of moisture unless combined with a separate vapor barrier. Thanks to its overall affordability, versatility, and user-friendly installation, foam represents a great pick as a flooring underlayment.



2. Combination Foam

Combination Foam




If you like the features of foam underlayment and wish to install it in high-moisture places, it’s recommended to opt for combination foam. It stands out compared to standard foam by including a vapor barrier attachment which offers reliable moisture protection. As you’d probably expect, this extra ability comes at a higher cost because combination foam underlayment types tend to be more expensive. The superior versatility might make it worth the investment over standard foam.



3. Cork

Cork




If your main priority is soundproofing, it’s safe to say that cork would be one of the best underlayment choices. This natural material is able to retain its shape quite successfully when walking over it and also provides respectable insulation and antimicrobial features. Some people find cork underlayments less comfortable underfoot compared to others but that’s not really a drawback. The real problem with this type of underlayment is the high cost which makes it a less attractive option if you’re on a tight budget.



4. Rubber

Rubber




When it comes to versatile flooring underlayment materials, rubber manages to stand out. It’s fairly straightforward to install and also boasts great sound absorption. Rubber underlayments are typically manufactured using recycled materials making them suitable for environmentally-conscious people. In terms of insulation, rubber performs decently while also offering good protection against mold and mildew. The only notable drawback of this type of underlayment is incompatibility with some flooring types due to staining.



5. Plywood

Plywood




A thin plywood material works as a solid underlayment solution for many types of flooring. Plywood provides a conveniently flat surface for many flooring projects that don’t necessarily require an underlayment but can’t handle the installation on subflooring affected by various knots or other textural imperfections. Plywood underlayment types don’t offer water resistance but are fairly versatile and can be surprisingly durable as long as the installation is done properly.



6. Felt

Felt




Although it is not the most comfortable underlayment option, felt is highly recommended if sound insulation is an important concern. Similar to rubber, felt underlayment can be considered a solid eco-friendly choice because it’s based on recycled fibers. Many felt underlayment types tend to feature thin layers but some can be thicker than standard foam options which results in great sound absorption and good comfort. Manufacturers of this type of underlayment provide variants that incorporate a moisture barrier for added versatility.



7. Particleboard

Particleboard




Not very strong or resistant to moisture, particleboard is a type of underlayment that can only be recommended if affordability is the most important aspect for you. Aside from its low cost, particleboard has some other advantages but the drawbacks will almost always outweigh them. This type of underlayment is made from dry wood particles bonded together with a resin. It can work as a thick base for carpeting and certain types of flooring but it’s highly vulnerable to moisture damage while the flaky particles make installation quite challenging.



8. Cement Board

Cement Board




As the name implies, this type of flooring underlayment is a cement-based material that has some specialized uses. It’s ideally built to form a solid base for floor tiles because it lacks the usual moisture issues of other underlayments. Cement board works as an extra rigid layer to ensure that tiles gain better resistance to cracking. Keep in mind that cement board is not actually waterproof despite often being marketed as such. It’s highly resistant to moisture but a dedicated water barrier is usually necessary for a correct installation.



How to Choose the Right Underlayment According to the Type of Flooring

Laminate Flooring

Laminate Flooring




Whereas other types of flooring allow installation without underlayment, it’s safe to say that all laminate options require it. Adding this extra layer between the subfloor and the top covering is critical because laminate floors are designed in a floating style. It’s so important that some laminate flooring manufacturers incorporate the underlayment for a simplified installation. Without the underlayment, the laminate flooring loses stability, makes a lot of noise, and planks may even separate from one another.

Foam is the best type of flooring underlayment to use on laminate flooring because it’s affordable and easy to install. Although it’s considered the most basic type of underlayment, foam offers excellent value for the money. It can reduce noise, adds decent cushioning, and is also fairly reliable against moisture if you select foam underlayment products designed for subfloors vulnerable to moisture.




Although foam underlayment brings a lot of advantages, other options can be better if you’re concerned about noisy laminate flooring. It’s recommended to select an acoustic type of underlayment based on cork or felt. This kind of layer ensures that sounds made by footsteps are more efficiently absorbed and won’t be heard in adjacent rooms. Keep in mind that acoustic underlayments are more expensive compared to foam options as you need to be prepared to spend more for creating a quieter space.



Tile Flooring

Tile Flooring




When it comes to underlayment types that you should use for tile flooring, the best solution in most cases is cement board. This is a reliable option because it creates a strong barrier against water damage and a great level of stiffness that’s necessary for tile flooring. Cement board underlayment combines cement with other materials such as wood pulp or sand that enable some extra flexibility which is necessary during changes in humidity.




Thanks to its overall durability, cement board underlayment can withstand the installation process of tile. However, this type of underlayment might sometimes be more difficult to mount on the subfloor and still not provide as much needed flexibility as others. An alternative is to use uncoupling membrane underlayment which is based on a special square grid packed with mortar to stabilize the tiles on the subfloor. It’s built with a more flexible polyethylene membrane that’s virtually impervious to moisture and enables expansion and contraction.



Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl Flooring




If you plan to install vinyl flooring, your best bet is plywood underlayment. It makes the necessary smooth surface for the installation process of the top flooring while also reinforcing the subfloor. A great advantage of plywood underlayment is its user-friendliness which allows for a quick installation as long as you choose the right kind of sheets according to the size of the room. Due to vinyl being waterproof, you don’t need to worry about special plywood sheets equipped with a moisture barrier.



Floating Hardwood Flooring

Floating Hardwood Flooring




Many hardwood floors can be installed using the floating style which speeds up the process by removing the need for glue or nails. Different types of underlayment are compatible with floating hardwood flooring such as cork, felt, and rubber. It’s hard to say which one works best because it depends on several factors.




If you need superior warmth and cushioning, cork underlayment represents an excellent pick. It goes well with in-floor heating systems to maximize heat retention. Another great choice is felt which doesn’t need a moisture barrier and is very affordable. The sound dampening and cushioning capabilities are acceptable but not as good as cork. Rubber is considered better in terms of insulation and sound absorption than the other two but it creates an unpleasant smell that will eventually go away.



Fastened Hardwood Flooring

Fastened Hardwood Flooring




As opposed to modern floating hardwood flooring options, traditional ones rely on fasteners or glue for a proper installation. Whether nailed or stapled into place, this type of hardwood flooring requires only an underlayment layer that provides moisture protection. Felt or asphalt paper work best in this case. If you choose to install hardwood flooring using glue, there’s no need for an underlayment but it’s important to select a suitable type of glue. For example, select an adhesive with an integrated moisture barrier for cement subfloors.



Carpet Flooring

Carpet Flooring

Although carpet padding is considered a type of underlayment, you still need an additional layer of underlayment for a proper carpet flooring installation. There are multiple options in this case but the best ones include foam and rubber padding. Select memory foam underlayment if you’re interested in adding the softest level of cushioning. Different densities are available to find the right thickness for your needs. Rubber underlayment is also quite reliable in terms of cushioning but doesn’t perform as well in high-traffic areas in the long run.


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