How to Tell If You Have Vinyl or Linoleum

Linoleum and vinyl are both types of resilient flooring, but apart from that, they don't have much in common. Linoleum is a natural product invented in the 1800s; whereas, vinyl is a synthetic material that didn't come on the market until the 1950s. Vinyl overtook linoleum in popularity after its introduction, but since it's a green building material, linoleum is making a comeback. A few pointers can help you tell these floor coverings apart.

Collection natural linoleum
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Linoleum floor samples.

Embossed Vs. Embedded Color Pattern

Compared to linoleum, vinyl is a recent building material, so if your house predates 1950, it's doubtful that the original floor covering in the kitchen is vinyl. If you suspect that the covering is more recent than the house, look for signs of wear. Vinyl has an embossed pattern on the surface; whereas, the pattern on linoleum flooring goes all way through the material. The difference is similar to that between engineered hardwood and real wood. If the surface of vinyl wears, the pattern disappears. The pattern on linoleum, on the other hand, remains until a hole develops.

Natural Vs. Artificial Pigments

The man who invented linoleum, Frederick Walton, discovered that dried linseed oil formed a durable film; the word "linoleum" is Latin for linseed oil. He supplemented it with materials such as rosin, limestone, powdered cork and wood dust, and to give it color, he used natural pigments. These natural pigments tend to appear earthy and muted, much like the dyes used for handmade oriental rugs. The colors of vinyl are more vibrant and artificial-looking, like those found on factory-made rugs. The linseed-oil base of linoleum further mutes the colors and often gives them a yellowish tinge.

The Fire Test

The process that Walton developed to manufacture linoleum is still used today. A cement made with linseed oil and resin is mixed with limestone, cork and wood, rolled into sheets, and baked for 21 days to cure it. Vinyl, on the other hand, is manufactured by extruding plastic similar to the process used for PVC water pipes. This produces a material that you can melt with a cigarette butt or a match. Linoleum, on the other hand, won't burn. The curing of the resins and linseed oil make it not only fire-retardant, but also stain-resistant and hypoallergenic.

Other Distinguishing Features

Since its introduction, vinyl has been available as tiles as well as sheet flooring, but the availability of linoleum tiles is a recent phenomenon. Consequently, if you have older floor tiles in your kitchen, they're almost certainly vinyl, and they could even contain asbestos. If you're still unsure about your sheet flooring, look at its cross section in a doorway; you may have to lift the edge of the flooring to do so. Vinyl flooring is seldom thicker than about 1/8 inch, but linoleum can be 1/4-inch thick or more. Jute backing also positively identifies the material as linoleum; vinyl sheet flooring usually has cloth backing.

Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.