Linoleum vs. Vinyl Flooring (What’s the difference?)

Marmoleum Linoleum flooringLinoleum and vinyl. Vinyl and linoleum. If you’re like most people you might think they are the same thing. But in reality they could not be more different. They two very different products from two very different times. Each one has its advantages but only one of them rightfully belongs in a historic home. Do you know which one is right for you?

Linoleum

Linoleum was invented in 1860 by Englishman Frederick Walton. Quite by accident he noticed that dried linseed-oil formed a strong yet flexible film of the top of an oil-based paint can. After nearly a decade of toying with the process and adding natural ingredients like pine rosin, ground cork dust, wood flour, and a canvas or juke backing to the dried linseed-oil he patented linoleum.

Linoleum was slow to take off but eventually became an affordable flooring alternative for homes and businesses. Compared to other flooring options of the time like hardwood and tile linoleum provided better moisture resistance and a lower price.

Linoleum is considered a resilient flooring like vinyl and creates a soft surface to walk and work on. Because of this characteristic it was installed on most US Navy ships and is still used on submarines today. Its popularity peaked in the 1950s when it was slowly replaced by the even more affordable vinyl. However, in recent years it has reappeared as Marmoleum, which is made just the same as the original linoleum. If you’d like to purchase Marmoleum the best pricing and selection is at Green Building Supply.

Pros of Linoleum

  • Made from only natural and biodegradable products.
  • Has color throughout its body unlike vinyl and therefore has a much longer wear life.
  • Naturally antimicrobial, antistatic and hypoallergenic.
  • Natural ingredients make it stain resistant and fire retardant.
  • Relatively easy to care for and install.
  • Contributes to LEED points.
  • Excellent moisture resistance.

Cons of Linoleum

  • Not as readily available as vinyl.
  • Some varieties require occasional waxing.
  • More expensive than vinyl.
  • Less color and pattern options than vinyl.

Vinyl

Vinyl flooring was introduced to the public at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. It was relatively easy to install and could be purchased in tiles or as a large sheet that was cut to size much like linoleum.

In the lean times of the Great Depression and WWII a very inexpensive flooring option like vinyl was bound to catch on, and it did. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s when vinyl really began to appear in homes across America.

Vinyl flooring is made from a combination of several chemicals. Ethylene (a petroleum byproduct) and chlorine, which adds stability and and gives vinyl its heat resistance. Vinyl is very similar in its composition to PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

With the relative abundance of fossil fuels, vinyl could be inexpensively and quickly manufactured. It is made up of several layers of the material with the top, or wear layer, being the one with the color or easily stamped patterns that became so popular.

Pros of Vinyl

  • Very inexpensive.
  • Easy installation and care.
  • Wide availability at home stores and suppliers.
  • Wide variety of colors and patterns.
  • Excellent moisture resistance.

    Damaged asbestos vinyl flooring

    Be careful of older (pre 1980) vinyl because it may contain asbestos

Cons of Vinyl

  • Made from non-renewable petroleum products.
  • Wear layer is thinner than linoleum and does not stand up to heavy traffic as well.
  • Prior to the 1980s many vinyl floor tiles contained asbestos.
  • Emits small amount of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the living space.

 

Who knows, you may have one or both already in your house. However, for historic homes built before the 1950s linoleum is the only period appropriate resilient flooring. It’s safer for your family in many ways, easier on the environment, and not much more expensive than vinyl. I like it enough that I installed it in my own home in our guest house project which I’m excited to share with y’all in the next couple months!

What’s more important to you, cost, quality, or green building products?
Image credit: refugebuilding.com & Scott Sidler

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

13 comments

  1. Daniel on said:

    I was skeptic about linoleum and it was hard to find quality info about both good and bad sides of it. You blog provided it, so thank you for sharing.

  2. Doris on said:

    Thanks for the great info Scott! What really concerns me now is that we may release asbestos when we replace our floor! We have a 9 month old baby and I’m scared to touch it.

    We recently purchased a 1950s home and the kitchen floor has very old fading vinyl tiles. My husband pulled up a couple pieces and it appears there are 4 more layers underneath! He said the last two layers look like whole sheets of either vinyl or linoleum.

    We are saving to renovate the kitchen in about 5 years and would appreciate your advice on our options to replace the flooring for now. There are gaps between the tiles and the glue is constantly making our feet sticky and gross. We were going to buy new groutable vinyl tiles at Home Depot and just put it on top of everything but the flooring guy there said not to put more than 3 layers. Since there’s already 5 layers we’re afraid adding another layer may not work. Please help. Thank you!!

    • Doris, If it were my house I would take a sample of each layer of flooring and have it tested for asbestos. That way you know what you are getting into. Depending on how the tests come back you can have a clearer picture of what you’ll need to do to proceed and what the costs will be.

      • Doris on said:

        Thank you for the suggestion Scott.

  3. Linoleum is a floor covering made from renewable materials such as solidified linseed oil (linoxyn), pine rosin, ground cork dust, wood flour, and mineral fillers such as calcium carbonate, most commonly on a burlap or canvas backing; pigments are often added to the materials. Thank you a lot for sharing this valuable info.

  4. Toni on said:

    Great post! I’m not even sure if I’d be able to tell the difference, so I’ll have to spend some time in a home improvement store studying! Good to know though if we ever need to replace any flooring. :)

    • You may not have much luck at the home improvement stores. They’ll likely mistakenly tell you that linoleum and vinyl are the same thing. The manufacturer I buy from us Marmoleum. It is a great all natural product.

  5. Thanks for your side by side comparison on vinyl floors ! Its an interesting and useful history for both pros&cons lists.

  6. Thanks for the side by side comparison on vinyl and Linoleum floors! The history of both and the pros and cons lists were very useful and interesting!

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