Linoleum and vinyl are both types of resilient flooring, but apart from that, they don't have much in common. A primary difference between vinyl and linoleum flooring is that 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 flooring 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.
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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 flooring is made in layers, with a top layer that's finished to protect the next layer, which is the embossed image layer. 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, however, is embedded — it goes all the way through the material. Because of the way that linoleum is embedded, the pattern remains unless 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 a compound of the Latin words linum (flax) and oleum (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.
Linoleum Flooring 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, however, 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 is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.