Lineoleum: A Green Flooring Option

Marmoleum Imagine, designed by Sigrid Calon and manufactured by Forbo
credit: Forbo
With its 80s-themed designs, this contemporary linoleum is not your grandparents' flooring!

Shortly after its invention in 1860, linoleum became the inexpensive go-to floor covering for kitchens, hallways, commercial spaces, and other high-traffic areas. Linoleum is inevitably compared to or mistaken for vinyl flooring, which supplanted it in popularity in the 1950s. (In fact, "linoleum" is considered the first brand name to become a generic word referring to a broad category of product.)

But whereas vinyl flooring is a petrochemical product, linoleum is made from natural ingredients: linseed oil, pine resin, wood flour (something like sawdust), ground limestone, cork dust, and pigment. It is the cork dust that allows linoleum to be a type of resilient flooring—it compresses and springs back when you walk on it, so your footsteps have a little bounce. This is what allows a dish dropped onto a linoleum floor to survive when it would surely shatter against ceramic tile or wood. Cork flooring and vinyl flooring are other types of flooring that are categorized as resilient.

Harmonium, by Tarkett
credit: Tarkett
Linoleum typically has striations...
Harmonium, by Tarkett
credit: Tarkett
... or a marbled effect.

As a petroleum product, vinyl will melt if you drop something hot on it, such as a lit match or hot frying pan; linoleum won't. Not only does the composition of linoleum distinguish it from vinyl flooring, but the structure of the two is completely different. The ingredients in linoleum are all mixed together, then pressed through a rolling mill onto jute backing, a material similar to burlap. Because the pigment goes all the way through the linoleum, scratches and damage don't show in the same way as they do on vinyl flooring, where the design is printed on just one specific layer. In contrast, when vinyl flooring wears out or fades, you notice it, and there's nothing to be done but replace it.

Tips

In fact, you can easily repair gouges in linoleum, but it requires saving any leftover flooring you have. For small gouges, scrape fine shavings from the extra flooring, mix them with wood glue, and fill the hole with this mixture. Fix larger damage by putting in a veneer insert of matching linoleum.

The structure of linoleum.
credit: Manufacturing Skills Australia, Flooring Technology
Sheet of solid linoleum adhered to a jute backing, with a surface finish to prevent porosity.
The structure of vinyl flooring
credit: Belgotex
In comparison, vinyl flooring consists of at least four—but as many as eight—layers of materials, and the design layer is thin.

Linoleum was invented by Frederick Walton, an English manufacturer who patented it in 1860. Its name comes from linum—the Latin word for "flax"—and oleum, meaning "oil." It was a vast improvement over the oiled or wax floor coverings that people had used to that point, and after it went into production in 1864, it soon spawned many imitators and innovations, including embossed linoleum wall coverings that looked something like carved wood or leather.

These days, linoleum flooring comes in three forms:

  • Sheets 6 1/2 feet wide. Linoleum is a much stiffer material than vinyl, and installing sheets requires some understanding of how the material will react to the adhesive—it shrinks in length and expand sin width and can dent if weight is placed on it before the adhesive has fully set—so as a DIY-er, save yourself the headache and don't expect to install sheet linoleum yourself.
  • Snap-together tiles designed for floating floors. The linoleum is mounted onto high-density fiberboard with a cork backing.
  • Glue-down modular tiles backed with polyester instead of jute, which keeps the material stable.

Linoleum tiles may give you sticker shock: They run $4.50 to $7 per square foot, which is considerably more than vinyl flooring. But remember that when properly installed, linoleum will wear much better than vinyl, and last far longer, too. If you don't find linoleum stocked at your local big-box store, get it from a flooring retailer or green-building supplier.

Marmorette, by Armstrong
credit: Armstrong
Besides smeared colors like this one, you can find linoleum that mimics wood and slate.

Pros

With its wide range of color options, linoleum is making a comeback with homeowners. It's an obvious choice if you want to update an old house with period flooring, but its positive attributes make it a winner for any home.

  • Linoleum is made of natural materials. As such, it won't set off allergies, it doesn't off-gas VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and it's recyclable, unlike vinyl. (Note that while linoleum is seen as environmentally friendly, it requires more energy to produce than vinyl flooring.)
  • It's incredibly durable—properly installed and maintained, linoleum floors in commercial settings have been known to last 40 years.
  • It's water-resistant and easy to clean. (Just damp-mop it with a pH-neutral cleanser.) This makes it particularly ideal for kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, mud rooms, entries, and any other places in the home that see a lot of foot traffic and moisture.
  • Linoleum is naturally resistant to bacteria, which is why healthcare facilities, daycare centers, assisted living residences, schools, groceries, and other commercial institutions use it for their flooring. It's anti-static, too.
  • Scratches and damage don't show because the pigment goes all the way through the linoleum, and they're easily repairable.
  • As a resilient flooring, it's more comfortable to stand on for long periods of time. And it feels warmer on bare feet than tile.
  • Linoleum used to be porous, but now manufacturers seal the surface with a UV-cured factory finish. The finish yields 5 to 8 years of normal wear before the floor has to be refreshed with a buffer or a liquid polish.

Cons

Keep some of these downsides in mind as you make a decision whether linoleum is right for your home.

  • Some people still view linoleum as down-market, so choosing it over a different flooring may affect how potential buyers see your home.
  • Newly installed floors give off a strong smell of linseed oil. This goes away after a few months.
  • When furniture or other objects placed on linoleum block light to it, it may take on a yellowed cast caused by the linseed oil oxidizing. This discoloration quickly disappears when it's exposed to light again—quickly in bright sunlight, and more slowly with artificial lighting.
  • Because it's a hard material, linoleum reflects sound in the same way that hardwood floors do, rather than absorbing it as do carpeting or cork.
Roberts 100-pound roller
credit: Jet
You'll go over the glue-down tile with a 100-pound roller as the final step of installation.

Installation

For glue-on tiles, your subflooring doesn't need to be very strong, but it must be smooth. Install glue-on tiles with vinyl flooring adhesive, using a 1/16-inch square notch trowel to apply it in sections so that the adhesive doesn't dry before you have time to place a tile on it. The tiles have bevels on two sides; as you put down each tile in a row, install it in the opposite direction as the previous one to get a seamless appearance. Afterward, immediately go over the entire surface with a 100-pound roller—which you can rent from home-improvement stores—to make sure every inch of the tile has adhered to the substrate.

For snap-together tiles, put down a moisture-insulating underlay first, then install the tiles in much the same way as floating floors are installed.