Flooring being installed

How to Choose the Perfect Hardwood Flooring Underlayment

Written by: BuildDirect



Time to read 4 min

Whether you’re installing hickory or maple flooring, underlayment is essential. Underlayment may not be visible underneath your beautiful wood floors, but this material offers many key benefits. Along with providing added support and sound protection, underlayment also improves durability and helps your flooring last longer. To get the most out of the underlayment, however, you’ll need to select the right material. Find out how to choose the best underlayment for your new hardwood floors.

Know Your Underlayment Options

Underlayment comes in a range of materials and thicknesses. Take a closer look at some of the most common types of underlayment for hardwood flooring.

  • Felt: Perhaps the simplest type of underlayment, felt offers basic sound absorption and moisture barrier capabilities.
  • Foam: This material is one of the easiest and most affordable types of underlayment to install. Foam underlayment provides a high level of sound insulation, making it a great option for limiting hollow noises.
  • Rubber: This type of underlayment takes sound insulation to the next level, easily absorbing noises and disturbances. Thanks to its pliability and flexibility, rubber underlayment is also one of the easiest types to install.
  • Cork: This material offers both temperature insulation and sound absorption. Since it’s made from a natural material, cork underlayment is one of the most eco-friendly options you’ll find.

Consider the Hardwood Species

Not every underlayment material pairs perfectly with each hardwood species. To find the ideal match, consider the type of hardwood flooring you’re planning to install.

  • Cherry: This hardwood species is known for its warm, cozy hues, but you may not realize that it’s one of the softest types of wood flooring. Cherry works best with an underlayment that provides extra support and padding, such as cork or rubber.
  • Hickory: One of the hardest and most durable hardwood species, hickory flooring doesn’t need much help to withstand traffic and wear. Hickory flooring typically pairs well with flexible foam underlayment.
  • Maple: Along with hickory, maple is one of the hardest types of wood flooring. It generally works best with foam or rubber underlayment, as both offer a moderate amount of support and insulation.
  • Oak: Whether you choose white or red, oak flooring is on the softer side. Both types of oak pair well with rubber underlayment, which provides the insulation and absorption capabilities white and red oak need.
  • Walnut: This type of flooring may look impenetrable, but walnut is one of the softest types of hardwood flooring. Consider pairing it with cork underlayment for extra support and added durability.

Think About the Subfloor Condition

While the hardwood species certainly impacts the type of underlayment you’ll choose, don’t forget to consider the subfloor, too. Take note of both the material and the condition as you make your decision. Subfloors that are damaged or uneven tend to work best with the most flexible underlayment options, as these materials can make up for any subfloor imperfections.

If the subfloor is plywood, opt for an underlayment that’s semi-permeable. This type of underlayment allows both the hardwood floor and the wood subfloor to breathe without trapping mold and mildew or causing the material to rot. If the subfloor is concrete, choose an impermeable underlayment instead. This type of material is designed to stop moisture in its tracks and prevent water from seeping through the concrete and into the hardwood floor.

Evaluate the Purpose of the Room

In many cases, the room itself determines the ideal underlayment. For example, a condo or apartment on a higher level of a building may need a rubber underlayment which can provide additional sound insulation and vibration absorption and prevent disruptions in the unit below. Along the same lines, a family room or entryway that experiences a high level of traffic may need a cork underlayment, an underlayment which is more supportive and can boost durability.

Accommodate Radiant Heating Needs

If your new wood flooring needs to accommodate radiant heating, you’ll need to be more selective with the type of underlayment you choose. You’ll want to rule out any underlayment options made with asphalt, as this material tends to produce strong odors when heated. Since radiant heating can cause temperature fluctuations that may produce condensation, you’ll also want to choose an underlayment type that can handle moisture without damaging either the hardwood floor above or the subfloor below.

Assess Environmental Concerns

Whether you want to keep harmful chemicals out of your home or you want to minimize your carbon footprint, you’ll also want to assess any environmental concerns with your underlayment choice. Many types of rubber underlayment are made with recycled materials that make this option more sustainable than most. In addition, cork is easy to recycle after use, making it one of the most eco-friendly options on the market. Before you choose an underlayment, check the specifics to confirm the materials and the environmental impact.

Check the Building Requirements

If you’re installing hardwood flooring in a larger building, remember to check the building requirements for underlayment. Your building may require you to use an underlayment with a certain impact isolation class (IIC) rating, which absorbs footsteps, or a particular sound transmission class (STC) rating, which refers to noise reduction.

Your building may also regulate materials for safety or durability reasons. Before proceeding with your hardwood floor installation, make sure your underlayment choice meets or exceeds what your building requires, or you could have to schedule a second renovation project sooner than you had planned.

Confirm the Manufacturer’s Approval

Finally, don’t forget to confirm the flooring manufacturer’s approval. Many hardwood flooring manufacturers recommend certain types of underlayment for use with their products. You’ll want to make sure that the underlayment’s material, thickness, and installation requirements are compatible with the flooring. After all, selecting the best underlayment for the hardwood flooring ensures that your floors will look fantastic, feel comfortable, and last for years to come.

Keep the tips above in mind as you pair the ideal underlayment with your hardwood of choice. Once you’ve chosen the right underlayment, you’ll be one step closer to installing new hardwood floors and creating your dream home.