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It has been one of the most popular finishes for kitchen counters for nearly half a century. Now, plastic laminate is one of the hottest products to hit the flooring market in decades. Harder than vinyl, it has the ability to match virtually any wood flooring or even ceramic tile pattern with uncanny accuracy. The reason? The floor pattern is essentially a photograph -- but it's coated with a protective layer that provides years of virtually maintenance-free use, provided that you're not too rough on it. Remember, it's like having your kitchen counters under foot; although it has a harder finish, it can still scratch and dent.

Maintenance is simple. The first thing to keep in mind with laminate (and many other types of flooring) is to avoid abrasives. This includes abrasive cleaners. It also means keeping your floor clean from dirt, one of Mother Nature's most natural abrasives. Door mats, gliders under chairs, and frequent vacuuming are the easiest ways to avoid wear and tear.

Next, damp mop the floor with clean water. As you mop, keep changing the water to avoid re-depositing dirt on the floor. Never use wax cleaners, polishes, or abrasives like steel wool or scouring powder.

Scratches and dents can be fixed using specially designed repair sticks or fillers prepared by the flooring manufacturers. If you need such a fix, contact the manufacturer to find out what's available. If an exact match can't be found, keep in mind that you can often mix two colors for a perfect blend. Just choose one that's slightly lighter and one that's slightly darker than the color of the spot you're trying to match.

If you've got a really big boo-boo and ruined an entire plank, keep in mind that the whole piece can be successfully cut out and replaced. This procedure, however, takes practice and is best left to a trained installer.