What is linoleum flooring and is it worth saving? This is a big question a lot of old home owners ask. If you’ve got an older home there is a good chance you have or had linoleum flooring in your kitchen at one point. Linoleum was an extremely popular and affordable flooring choice for decades.
There’s a lot of misconception about linoleum flooring. People often confuse it with vinyl flooring which is similar in appearance and use, but has a very different composition and performance. The bigger question when deciding whether to keep or trash your linoleum flooring is whether it is actually a historic product that belongs in a historic house.
So you can make the best decision let’s dig into what linoleum is and what is isn’t first.
What is Linoleum Flooring?
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. He spent nearly a decade toying with the process by adding natural ingredients like pine rosin, ground cork dust, wood flour, and a canvas or juke backing to the dried linseed-oil before patenting his new product linoleum stealing the “Lin” part of the name from the linseed oil used in the process.
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. Combine that with today’s focus on natural materials that are eco-friendly and linoleum is one mean, green flooring option.
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.
Linoleum has had a resurgence in recent years with the movement toward green building products since it made with mostly natural products unlike vinyl which is manufactured using petrochemicals.
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 materials make it stain resistant and fire retardant
- Relatively easy to care for and install
- Contributes to LEED points
- Excellent water 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
- Can retain dents from heavy furniture over time
What is Vinyl Flooring?
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 called Vinyl Composition Tiles (VCT), 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 in historic cusp homes and mid-century modern homes where it became a prime feature of the style.
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
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
Costs & Options
Linoleum is more expensive than than vinyl flooring, but less expensive than many other types of flooring. It is available in sheet form for around $2 to $2.50 per SF and in tile or click-lock form for around $3 to $5 per SF. The sheet form of linoleum is challenging to work with and usually requires professional installation whereas the tile and click-lock formats are DIY friendly and can be installed by most homeowners.
The most common brand of linoleum today is Marmoleum made by Forbo Flooring but there are other manufacturers like Nova, Tarkett, and Armstrong Lino Art. Today’s formulations of linoleum flooring have not changed much from the original patent so keeping that same historic feel and look isn’t difficult though finding the same pattern may be a challenge.
Care & Lifespan
Linoleum is a very low maintenance product needing only occasional sweeping and mopping to keep it clean. No complex chemicals are needed, just soap and water and a standard mop. Linoleum has excellent water resistance so it can work great in bathrooms and kitchens, but standing water should be avoided especially with linoleum tiles where the constant water penetration at seams can cause issues with the underlying glue.
Linoleum also has a lifespan comparable to engineered wood floors lasting between 20 and 40 years depending on the manufacturer and the style installed. For example, Forbo gives a 15-year warranty on its sheet and tile linoleum products and a 25-year warranty on its click-lock products.
Warranties are usually shorter than the expected lifespan and I’ve seen many linoleum installations last 50+ years if cared for properly. The biggest obstacles to a long-lived installation is usually settling or movement of the subfloor causing stress on the glue and joints.
Linoleum does have a tendency to yellow slightly with age and exposure to UV light and that is largely due to the natural linseed oil used in the manufacturing process. Linoleum gains its longevity from being flexible which is another quality of linseed oil.
Is Linoleum Flooring Historically Appropriate?
For historic homes built before the 1950s, linoleum is the only period appropriate resilient flooring. That’s not to say that you can’t use vinyl if you’d like, but prior to the 1950s vinyl floors were exceedingly rare in homes.
Keeping linoleum floors in kitchens, bathrooms or utility rooms or adding them back to these working rooms is something you can do without fear of being historically inappropriate.
Linoleum is a flooring product that I believe is posed for a big comeback due to its health benefits, relatively low price, and long life. Not to mention linoleum is one of the most pleasant flooring options to walk upon given its soft and resilient texture.
Add in the naturally microbial performance of linoleum and in the post pandemic age of flooring and the renewable products used to manufacture it and you’ve got the perfect flooring for residences, schools, hospitals, and long-term care facilities.
So to come all the way back around to our initial question. Is linoleum flooring worth saving? In this contractor’s opinion, linoleum flooring in good shape is definitely worth saving. More than that, if you are looking for a new flooring option linoleum is an excellent choice whether you have a new or old house.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.