Or, maybe you’re trying to figure out whether you even need underlayment for vinyl flooring in the first place?
Either way, it’s completely understandable! Choosing the proper underlayment for vinyl flooring isn’t nearly as fun as picking the vinyl itself. But we think the hard-working underbelly of your floor deserves just as much attention as its elegant topside!
And really, there is a lot to consider when choosing the proper underlayment for vinyl flooring. The type of floor you buy, the installation style you use, and even your subflooring can play a role.
That’s why below, we’re going to dive into everything you need to know about choosing underlayment for vinyl flooring. We’ll cover common types of underlayments, subfloors, materials, and more. By the time you’re done reading this article, you should have everything you need to find the right underlayment for your vinyl floor!
The Best Underlayment for Vinyl Flooring Depends on a Lot of Factors
If you’re installing new vinyl floors, you’ve probably spent ages looking into different types of flooring—vinyl, laminate, even different types of wood flooring. So we know that youprobably know a lot already.
But choosing the best underlayment for vinyl flooring entirely depends on many different factors—some of which aren’t so obvious. The biggest things to consider are:
The type of vinyl flooring you buy (sheet vs. plank, different types of cores, etc.)
The installation style you use (floating, glue-down, etc.)
Your subflooring material (wood, concrete, etc.)
The specifications of your specific product.
Your specific needs.
We’re going to talk about all of these in detail, but before anything else, we have to make one thing really reallyclear. Vinyl floors don’t always need an underlayment. In fact, some floors will have their warranties voided if you pair them with the wrong underlayment.
So: be absolutelysure to check with your flooring manufacturer and installer first.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk basics!
What are the Common Underlayments for Vinyl Flooring?
As you already know, underlayment provides a thin layer between your subfloor (and what is subflooring, exactly?) and the finished floor. It can muffle sound, help control moisture, and even make hard floors a bit more forgiving under your feet. Here are some of the most common materials.
Foam is one of the least expensive underlayments you can buy. If your subfloor is made of plywood, foam is often a good choice. Be sure, however, that you have no moisture issues first. Foam and water aren’t a good mix.
And remember: by “foam”, we’re not talking about packing peanuts. We’re talking about a harder product that’s similarly air-filled. It usually comes in rolls, and can be purchased in a thicker or thinner width (depending on your needs).
Felt is an excellent underlayment for helping with sound issues. It’s denser than foam, so it muffles noise better. It’s also pretty darn insulating. But on the other hand, it’s quite thin—so it doesn’t often help as much with comfort.
Cork is another material that absorbs sound. It’s a good choice if you have minor moisture issues, but not if there’s a lot of water. Moisture causing some mold? Cork is great at combatting mold and mildew.
Particleboard is…well, think of it as a cross between wood and foam. It’s inexpensive, but it’s also fragile—so be sure that you have an excellent subfloor beneath it. Just don’t use particleboard anywhere near moisture or it’ll rot.
Plywood underlayment has a lot in common with particleboard, only it’s a lot stronger and does better with water. However, it needs weight to be evenly distributed above it since it can’t handle weight all in one spot.
Oriented Strand Board
Oriented strand board (OSB) is similar to plywood, but isn’t quite as durable. It swells easily when exposed to moisture, so be very sure your subfloor is dry.
Rating Systems for Vinyl Flooring Underlayment
Each underlayment product has a rating that indicates what its best uses may be. This rating will be your best friend in making sure your underlayment is working in the way you need it to.
STC (Sound Transmission Lost Test): The larger the STC score, the more ambient noise (like talking and music) your underlayment will absorb.
IIC (Impact Sound Transmission Test): Just as with STC, the higher the number, the better the underlayment is at absorbing sound. Unlike STC, however, the IIC score refers to impacts like footsteps.
R Value:This rating has to do with insulation—more specifically, how an underlayment transmits heat. The higher the number, the less heat movement there is (and the more insulation you have).
Vinyl Flooring Overview
OK! Now that we know what subfloor materials are available, let’s talk about different types of vinyl flooring.
And the first thing we need to talk about is the difference between vinyl plank flooring and vinyl sheet flooring. Because the underlayment you need for these two types of flooring is entirely different.
The underlayment you use for vinyl plank is going to vary hugely by brand, subfloor, and installation type—but we’ll get into that more below.
What is Vinyl Sheet Flooring?
Vinyl sheet flooring, on the other hand, is not a hardwood alternative.
While vinyl plank is made of multiple layers, vinyl sheet is exactly what it sounds like—a single sheet of PVC flooring.
It comes in rolls, and it’s traditionally glued straight onto a subfloor or underlayment in one large piece. While the cost to install vinyl sheet flooring can be cheaper than the cost to install vinyl plank flooring, it really depends on the LVP installation method.
At the end of the day, though, there aren’t many disadvantages of vinyl plank flooring—and buyers love its realism. That’s why those vinyl sheet kitchens and bathrooms of yesteryear are starting to disappear so quickly!
The big takeaway: underlayment isn’t generally needed for vinyl sheet flooring. That said, an underlayment can help solve some problems. You can use particleboard, for example, to smooth out a bumpy subfloor before laying down vinyl sheet.
LVP (Luxury Vinyl Plank) vs. LVT (Luxury Vinyl Tile)
Wait, you mean there are more types of vinyl flooring than just plank and sheet? Well… yes and no.
LVP stands for luxury vinyl plank flooring, which mimicks wood floor designs. It comes in planks, just like real wood.
LVT stands for luxury vinyl tile, which mimics different types of tile. It comes in stone or ceramic appearances and is shaped like real tile!
That’s really the only difference. Some people use one term or the other to talk about all luxury vinyl (we prefer the term “vinyl plank”).
Broadly speaking, there are 3 main types of rigid vinyl cores—each with its own underlayment needs.
SPC Cores are The Most Durable—But They’re Not as Comfortable
SPC flooring is one of the most popular types of LVP on the market. The term SPC stands for stone-plastic composite (or stone-polymer composite, depending on who you ask).
These vinyl planks have a core that’s infused with stone powder for extra durability. However, they’re not at thick as some other vinyl planks. And their harder core means they’re not quite as comfortable.
Translation: SPC floors often benefit from softer underlayments like cork or felt.
WPC Cores are A Bit Softer
WPC flooring stands for wood-plastic composite flooring. These products infuse use a bit of wood powder (aka ultra-fine sawdust) into their cores. This creates a more natural, comfortable feeling under your feet. WPC flooring has more give and bounce than SPC flooring does, but the planks are often a bit thicker.
Translation: WPC floors often benefit from thinner underlayments.
Pure Vinyl Cores Aren’t Quite as Strong (or Comfy)
Cores made of pure rigid vinyl (or “vinyl foam”) aren’t generally as durable or comfortable as SPC or WPC cores. For that reason, these might need a more specialized underlayment, depending on the product.
What Kind of Core Does My Vinyl Plank Have?
If you’ve already purchased your flooring (or if you’ve picked it out and are ready to pull the trigger), you might be wondering what type of core it has. Here are some of the most common brands and their core constructions.
Again: the right underlayment for your vinyl flooring very much depends on the type of core your vinyl flooring has!
SmartCore flooring is Lowes’ in-house LVP brand. It comes in both WPC and SPC varieties, meaning the underlayment for this vinyl floor will depend on what specific product you buy.
LifeProof vinyl flooring is Home Depot’s in-house LVP brand. There’s very little information about its construction available online (which is odd, given its popularity)—a common signal that it uses a pure vinyl core.
The COREtec brand actually invented WPC flooring, so all COREtec floors come with a WPC core. And COREtec flooring reviews are stellar. The only downside? It’s super expensive.
NuCore flooring is Floor & Decor’s in-house LVP brand, and it has an all-vinyl core. We’d highly recommend getting a good underlayment for this vinyl flooring brand, since reviews are mixed.
Stainmaster luxury vinyl comes with an all-vinyl core. When it comes to underlayment for vinyl flooring, you get what you pay for. And given the poor reviews for this brand, we’d really recommend investing in a high-quality underlayment to help it out.
CoreLuxe is the higher-end in-house LVP brand from Lumber Liquidators (sorry, “LL Flooring”). And despite LL Flooring’s many issues, this product does come with a durable SPC core. Just don’t expect its wear layer to hold up for too long.
There are two different ways to achieve a floating setup—click-together and loose-lay—and the best underlayment for vinyl flooring will depend on which you choose.
1. Underlayment for Click-Together Vinyl Flooring
Click-together flooring snaps together like puzzle pieces. These floors make a single sheet that rests upon your subfloor. The big disadvantage of floating floors of this kind: they leave a tiny space between the floor and the subfloor, which can sound hollow when you walk on it.
For that reason, the preferred underlayment for vinyl floors of this type is foam (or something else that can fill the space). Additionally, they can benefit from harder underlayments if their subfloors aren’t level (to prevent planks from peaking and gapping).
Pro tip: if your planks are less than 4mm thick, some installers recommend forgoing an underlayment, as it will weaken the interlocking tabs.
2. Underlayment for Loose-Lay Vinyl Flooring
Loose lay vinyl plank flooring is simply laid across a subfloor. These planks are generally a bit heavier than normal planks. This weight—plus an attached rubber backing—keeps them in place.
Because loose-lay planks almost always come with an attached rubber or foam backing, you generally can’t use a soft underlayment with them. However, they do need a level subfloor—so harder underlayments can be used for this purpose.
Glue-down flooring may need a softer underlayment, depending on the type of flooring you buy. While some of the best vinyl plank flooring brands offer SPC planks with attached underlayments, many can benefit from an underlayment that reduces shock.
And Underlayments for Vinyl Flooring Also Vary by Subfloor Type
We’ve mentioned subflooring as another variable to consider when choosing a vinyl flooring underlayment. Let’s dive a bit deeper into common subfloors and their underlayment needs.
You know that concrete is crazy hard. Underlayment can add some much-needed softness and bounce. Not only does soft underlayment feel better to walk on, but that extra give is better for your joints.
A cushiony underlayment, such as foam or cork, goes well with concrete subfloors. Additionally, it can really help with insulation. If you live in a cold climate, that’s something to consider!
Adding underlayment over a wood subfloor can help with sound and comfort. Even the best vinyl plank floors may sound hollow if they’re put atop wood subflooring.
To that end, an underlayment that absorbs noise, like felt, will help.
The underlayment doesn’t need to control moisture or temperature since the wood subfloor takes care of that. Here, you just need a sound-absorbing underlayment for your vinyl flooring.
Again, moisture isn’t likely to be much of a concern here. When placing vinyl planks over existing floors, you’ll most want to focus on comfort and sound.
Underlayment can also help to cover some imperfections that the existing floor may have, but can only go so far. Be sure the floor is in fairly good shape, otherwise, you’ll be asking for problems. Vinyl planks won’t be able to hide a floor that is wrecked.
If that’s the case, we’d recommend a more rigid underlayment to create a level surface.
Underlayment for Vinyl Flooring: FAQs
Great! We’ve discussed all the big factors that will influence your underlayment needs. But we know: you still have questions. Let’s answer some FAQs about vinyl flooring underlayments.
Does Waterproof Vinyl Flooring Need an Underlayment?
Even waterproof vinyl flooring can benefit from an underlayment. Remember, underlayment does more than control moisture. Noise reduction and insulation may still be needed!
Does Vinyl Plank Flooring with an Attached Pad Need Underlayment?
If the vinyl planks that you’ve chosen already have attached padding, huzzah! You probably won’t need to purchase and install an underlayment. This varies depending on your subfloor and your personal needs, however—so take that into consideration!
Example: the best wood flooring for dogs is generally some type of waterproof hardwood flooring affair (though as always, it depends on you). But: dogs need softer surfaces to be comfortable. After all, no puppy wants to sleep on a cold concrete block! For that reason, you might also consider getting a softer underlayment, even if your LVP has an attached pad.
Can I Get a Soundproof Underlayment for Vinyl Plank?
Of course! Soundproofing is super important for the upper levels of a home, or in apartment buildings. The right underlayment can quiet footsteps; if you’ve ever lived beneath noisy walkers, you know the importance of this.
Can Underlayment be used with Radiant Floor Heating?
It may be possible to pair underlayment with radiant floor heating, but you would need to check with the manufacturer. A rule of thumb: if an underlayment is safe to use with heating wood floors, you’re usually good to go.
How Thick Does Underlayment Need to be for Vinyl Plank Flooring?
The underlayment that you’ll use for vinyl plank flooring is typically thinner than it would be for other types of flooring. When shopping for vinyl plank underlayment, you’ll mostly find thicknesses between 1mm–3mm.
What is a Vapor Barrier and Why Do I Need It?
This is a big one. A vapor barrier isn’t an underlayment per se—but it’s often used with or instead of an underlayment to make sure moisture doesn’t find its way between a subfloor and floor.
If that happens, you could have mold growing right under your floors. And if you thought buying low-VOC flooring was important, wait until you learn how important it is not to inhale mold spores.
All of that to say: if you have a concrete subfloor, it’s especially important to put in a vapor barrier. That goes double if you’re installing your vinyl flooring below grade (like in a basement).
What Qualities Should I Look For in Underlayment for Vinyl Flooring?
Again (and we can’t stress this enough), it’s all about your specific situation. We’re talking about the type of vinyl you buy, where you’re installing it, what your subfloor is made of, what installation style you’re using, etc.
However: in general, there are a few things that you should look for in any quality underlayment.
Underlayment Should Absorb Sound
To avoid the daily nuisance of loud floors, get an underlayment that helps soundproof your footsteps. Sometimes it isn’t even about loud footsteps, either—but rather the movement of planks on top of your subflooring. The right underlayment can help turn even the noisiest of floorboards whisper quiet.
Underlayment Should Protect from Moisture
Water-resistant wood flooring is fantastic, but excess moisture can still cause problems for your floors. If enough water seeps into your planks it could cause them to warp. An underlayment that protects from moisture can prevent mold from forming under and between your floorboards.
Obviously, we’d really recommend using a vapor barrier if at all necessary. But still.
Underlayment Should Hide Subfloor Mistakes
Your subfloor may have some problem spots: dents, chips, or perhaps some unevenness. A sturdy underlayment can smooth over that and provide the cover your subfloor needs. Your subfloor needs to be usable; it can’t be in such bad shape that even just walking on it is a chore. If that’s the case, it’s best to just completely redo your subfloor. Underlayment can only hide so much.
Underlayment Should be Insulating
Nobody likes a cold floor. Sometimes, it can’t be avoided—but an insulating underlayment can help. It can also keep some cold out of the home altogether, preventing your room’s temperature from dropping. And of course, better insulation means lower heating and cooling costs.
How to Install Underlayment for Vinyl Plank Flooring
The most important thing you can do when installing your underlayment is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. They know their own product best, so listen to the experts. That said, here’s a crash course in installing underlayment.
Look ahead before you jump in. Gather all the tools you’ll need and keep them accessible (just like if you were installing do-it-yourself flooring).
Get your subfloor as spotlessly clean as possible. It needs to be completely free from dirt and debris. If there are any major problems like holes, get those fixed.
Roll your underlayment out from wall to wall in the opposite direction the planks will run.
Measure out your strip and cut it; line up the next row exactly along the side of the first. Leave no gaps and make sure nothing overlaps.
Connect the rows using an adhesive. If none is included, duct tape can work in a pinch. Once the whole subfloor has been covered, you’re ready to install your flooring!
And Remember: You Don’t Just Need Underlayment For Vinyl Flooring
You’ve definitely heard of laminate flooring, and you may even have some bad associations with it. Think 1970s kitchen floors and the great linoleum vs. laminate debate. But really, today’s laminate is so much more than it used to be—and certainly deserves a second glance!
What is laminate flooring, exactly? It’s remarkably similar to vinyl flooring in that they’re both high-performance composite surfaces that generally mimic wood.
When you compare vinyl plank vs. laminate flooring, though, you’ll find some major differences. Where vinyl plank is waterproof, laminate is merely water-resistant. (Except for RevWood, the wünder-laminate!)
On the other hand, laminate is more environmentally friendly than vinyl (since it’s not made out of plastic the way vinyl is) and you can find plenty of non-toxic laminate flooring choices.
It’s similar to laminate in the sense that it’s made of multiple layers, but that’s where the similarities end. The major difference between engineered hardwood vs. laminate is that engineered hardwood is actually real wood. But instead of being one solid piece throughout (like solid hardwood is) it’s made of a plywood core and solid veneer.
There’s a lot to love about hardwood (both solid and engineered)—especially their natural beauty. You’ll want to be sure to study up on any hardwood or engineered wood disadvantages before making your decision, of course, but these options are worth serious consideration.
Cork Floors are Truly Unique
Go back and read that again. Yes, we said CORK floors!
Cork is an amazing and unique choice for your floors. It’s insulating as well as noise-absorbing. And it’s quite soft underfoot! Its pliability may work as both a pro and con of cork flooring, as it can be easily damaged.
Cork is water- and mold-resistant, but even the best cork flooring isn’t waterproof. If the disadvantages of cork flooring prevent you from installing it in the space you were considering, perhaps you’ll find a suitable area elsewhere in your home. Wouldn’t it be worth it for the novelty of inviting friends over to check out your cork flooring?
And remember: these great qualities also make cork a great underlayment for vinyl flooring!
Bamboo Flooring is Durable as Heck
Bamboo flooring is shockingly strong. In fact, it’s one of the most durable wood flooring options around! Although technically speaking, bamboo isn’t a wood floor at all—it’s actually grass! But it has many of the same benefits as wood flooring. In fact, you can even refinish bamboo flooring just like wood!
When you’re considering what would be the best bamboo flooring for you, don’t forget to consider engineered bamboo. It’s much like engineered hardwood, only with bamboo as its top layer.
Wait! Don’t scroll past the tile section simply because you’re looking for wood or wood-like floors. Did you know you can get wood-look tile? There are so many different types of tile to consider, but pause for a moment to compare tile vs. wood floor options.
You can also opt for snap-together tile flooring for an easier install. It’s also incredibly, wonderfully hard, making scratches and dents a thing of the past. These specs make tile vs. laminate comparisons inevitable, though we love them both.
Underlayment for Vinyl Flooring: Our Final Thoughts
Clearly, there’s no single catch-all underlayment that will be the best choice for all situations. As we’ve established, everything depends on your unique situation. Your subfloor, your particular vinyl plank flooring choice, even your personal needs will all influence what your best vinyl underlayment option is.
Here’s the most important thing we’ll say, though. Whatever you do, DO NOT TAKE BOX STORE EMPLOYEES AT THEIR WORD WHEN IT COMES TO UNDERLAYMENT.
Remember what we said: warranties may be voided if you use the wrong underlayment. And box store clerks are not known for their extensive knowledge of floors—after all, they sell literally tens of thousands of products.
Additionally: DO NOT GET YOUR FLOORS INSTALLED BY A BOX STORE. Box stores outsource their labor to the lowest bidder and often take zero responsibility if something goes wrong. It’s just not worth it.
Given that the right underlayment for vinyl flooring depends on so many different factors, it’s best to work with a real flooring professional. Find a top-rated flooring retailer in your area instead—any of them will be preferable to a box store!
If you’re not quite ready to shop just yet, read up on more flooring ideas and information below. And good luck with your flooring search!
Courtney is a freelance writer who wears many other hats: kindergarten teacher by day, Broadway diva in the shower. She is a transplant Hoosier who originated in New England. When she isn't writing in her spare time, you will find her reading history books, arguing with her latest knitting project, or being beaten by her kids at most games.
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