Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Singing the Praises of Linoleum

By Matt Cantor
Friday January 26, 2007

I am in love with old houses. When I get a chance to spend a few hours or a day in an older home that has been left unchanged over the decades, I’m really in something of a trance much of the time. 

There is something about the way things were done 80 years ago (the age of many of the houses I look at) that’s much more deliberate, thoughtful and honorable. The aesthetics were often quite humble and sometimes quite homely (no pun intended but the shoe does fit, don’t it). Nowhere is this more true and applicable than in the flooring used in these homes and particularly in the use of that most servile and courageous of floorings, linoleum. 

For the most part, people of today have no idea what linoleum is, although the word is used widely (and usually in misnomer to mean vinyl flooring). Vinyl sheet flooring has become so thoroughly the usurper and pretender to this throne that actual linoleum is nearly forgotten and what a tragedy this is. 

Linoleum is nearly 150 years old and was developed and patented near London by a Rubber manufacturer in 1860 named Frederick Walton. The process involved the use of linseed oil, pigments of various sorts, pine rosen and pine flour. 

The mixture is cooked into a mixture called linoleum cement, which is in turn mixed with more pulps and then spread on a canvas backing. One of the things that this process produces is a solid, homogenous material that will retain it’s appearance as it becomes worn through.  

One of the things that has always amazed me about linoleum is the fact that it will maintain its appearance for an incredibly long time if it receives even a smidge of care and a minimum of abuse. I’ve been in kitchens from 1925 that still had, what I am sure was, the original floor and these often still look pretty good. There is no way that we’re going to be able to say that about any vinyl flooring installed today, unless the house were sealed up and left unused. 

These old floors also commonly featured in-laid patterns, often of incredible complexity and detail. I’ve seen some where a field of circles were cut through and a contrasting color was spliced in and then another shape was cut through both (just to show off) and spiced again. Some pattern are quite deco and some are just simple and pretty. 

The most common in-lay is a border piece and, in the style of the time, they often mimic the living room oak floor by taking the border through a knot at the visible corners. Sometimes these end up being installed on funny angles as the knot works its way around a 45 degree corner. These little touches and hand-workmanship separate these floors from the ones of today by a huge margin in my opinion. They are truly works of fine craftsmanship, as valid as a piece of fine furniture or a well-knit scarf. 

Linoleum has a look and feel that, even from a distance, separates itself, head, shoulders and torso, from vinyl floors. They seems to me much more comparable to nice quality ceramic tile but have advantages over that material as well. Linoleum, due to it’s springy ductile nature, endures when houses shift, holds water when the sink overflows, resists cracking and also allows for high traffic by wearing through with little visible aberration. It’s also easier on the spine and the old aching feet. 

The installation of true linoleum requires the same sort of knowledge that is involved in vinyl and is best left to installers. That said, a hearty venturer who does not want to try to cove the material up to baseboard height can master this with some patience. The danger is that a couple of hundred dollars worth of the material may have to get thrown out if things don’t work out. 

Vinyl flooring on the other hand is made from a very thin layer of PVC, which is stretchy and easily torn or damaged, laid over either cellulose based backings or fiberglass reinforced backings. Vinyl has the potential to be printed in a wide range of interesting patterns but frankly, the industry has shown an amazing lack of imagination and an overall aesthetic torpor. 

What is it with the manufacturing industry in this country? It’s not so bad overseas but U.S. manufacturers must be afraid that someone’s going to call them sissy-boys if they put out something really good looking. Oh well. No matter. Vinyl is largely of such inferior quality to linoleum that it’s hardly worth the trip. It is somewhat less expensive at $1-$2 per square foot, (Linoleum is in the $4-$6 range), but installation makes up the larger portion of the cost on most jobs anyway and in the end, it’s unlikely to cost twice as much for the same kitchen floor to do Linoleum. 

I’ve seen so many torn vinyl floors over the years that I can no longer imagine bothering to recommend the stuff. Vinyl rigid flooring tiles are somewhat better but again, the styles of most leave me pretty bored so I question the value of bothering to install the stuff. 

Linoleum flooring, on the other hand is now beginning to appear in some other forms that make for interesting option when it comes to installation. Marmoleum, which is type of linoleum made by the Dutch company Forbo, is available on a solid backing that has a click together joint.  

This “floating floor” is easy to install and even easier on the back and feet than conventional installations. Marmoleum is a slightly non-traditional formulation and is attached to a jute backing. The Dutch are not, apparently, afraid of sissy-boys (and let them get married and everything) and produce great colors and patterns. Go Holland. 

By the way, many other types of floors including cork, bamboo and various hardwoods are becoming more and more commonly available with click-to-join planking that greatly speeds installation. The choices available to us are almost TOO much and you really have to start any project by getting very specific about what you want things to look and feel like. Think about how the space will be used and the needs of the occupants. As noted above, consider your back and your feet. Consider the effects of a dark floor on the luminosity of the space (will you be looking for sewing needles on a black floor?). This kind of thinking is how one arrives at a great design. 

I just have to share one last thing before I call it quits for this one, my friends because it gave me such a giggle. This quote from the Marmoleum Tile Installation instructions (it’s not tile!) on the Green Building Supply website; 

Take pride in your work and be Professional at all times. (I am NOT joking). 

Words to live by, eh?