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Bamboo is a popular choice in hardwood flooring because it's very durable and considered eco-friendly. See more pictures related to green living.

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Ultimate Guide to Bamboo Flooring

Hardwood flooring has been all the rage with homeowners in recent years. Hardwood floors can increase the value of your home tremendously, are easy to take care of and can be installed by you or a professional. Wood floors are also great for people with allergies. Unlike carpet, which traps dust mites and other allergens, wood can be easily swept and cleaned. The wide variety of woods available makes it a great flooring choice for any budget.

In the age of green building, bamboo flooring has become a major player in hardwood options. An incredibly durable, versatile, sustainable and price-competitive form of hardwood flooring, bamboo has become the floor of choice for many people building or renovating homes with an eco-friendly edge. In fact, what makes bamboo so unique and appealing as a flooring option is its sustainability. Bamboo is considered a rapidly renewable source of wood. When it's cut, the root of the bamboo stalk stays in the ground. It grows back to a mature height in anywhere from three and a half to seven years. Then, it's ready to be cut again. That's incredibly fast, considering a tree such as an oak can take more than 120 years to be strong enough to be harvested for wood!

Bamboo floors are also very popular because they give a stunning look to any room and can be adapted to any decorating style. Bamboo itself can also be dyed into many colors or kept completely natural, finished or unfinished. The choices are almost infinite. You can also find bamboo at reasonable prices, which makes it a wonderful option for redecorating on a budget.

You may be wondering about the various style options, installation, maintenance and why bamboo flooring may not be as eco-friendly as it seems. First, let's find out how bamboo flooring is made.

Premium bamboo hardwood flooring planks come in a variety of designs and colors.

iStockphoto/Yuriy Borysenko

Bamboo Flooring Design

When trees are cut down, the stump and roots are left in the ground to die. However, when bamboo is properly harvested, the root system remains intact, allowing the bamboo to grow again to its full size. Bamboo is usually harvested when the stalks are around six years old. If bamboo is harvested earlier, it won't produce a strong floor. Harvested later, the bamboo will be too brittle. Since it's hollow, there's very little waste produced when making the flooring. Every part of the grass is used in the process, making a very sustainable flooring product.

In the first part of the production process, the exterior, green layer and shoots of the bamboo stalk are removed. Then, the stalks are cut into strips called logs, resembling the length of the final flooring products. The bamboo then goes through a purification process, usually by boiling it to remove any insects or sugars that may be left in the bamboo. Some bamboo is steamed under pressure to give it a darker color, which we'll discuss later.

Next, the bamboo logs are sorted into "A" and "B" grades based on quality. After they're separated, the strips are dried in a kiln. Then, the strips are assembled either horizontally or vertically, glued together and pressed under high pressure to achieve the strength and durability that makes bamboo flooring so popular.

The final step is milling the bamboo blanks (what bamboo boards are called after they're formed and glued). Milling creates the finish of the flooring. At this step, the blanks are shaped into perfectly measured boards with smooth edges so they can be properly installed. In this part of the process, cuts called grooves are created in the blanks for click-on flooring, which we'll discuss later.

Now, here's how we get so many colors of bamboo flooring. After the bamboo stalks are cut into strips, manufacturers can choose to keep the strips a natural color, or follow a carbonization process to darken the wood.

Natural bamboo - After the harvesting and stripping processes, bamboo strips are boiled to eliminate impurities. The natural color of the bamboo emerges. It's a light -- almost blond -- wood color. This is considered to be the "natural" bamboo color, and further color processing is not necessary. The boards are then glued and pressed together into bamboo planks.

Carbonized bamboo - To carbonize bamboo, bamboo strips are immediately pressure-steamed after stripping to give the bamboo a darker color. Carbon is added to the steam chamber, which dyes the bamboo throughout the strips, not just on the surface. Carbonized bamboo ranges in color from a honey or caramel color to a light coffee. Carbonizing actually decreases the floor's strength about eight to ten percent, so keep that in mind when researching bamboo flooring.

Stained bamboo - Bamboo planks can also be stained into a wide spectrum of colors after the bamboo planks have been produced. Bamboo distributors can dye the wood virtually any color of the rainbow to accompany any interior design style. Stain can be painted on or rubbed on by hand.

Bamboo can be processed into boards in a variety of styles and colors. The surfaces can also be finished or left unfinished. There are an infinite number of options to consider when choosing bamboo flooring. First, let's take a closer look at bamboo flooring construction.

Did you know?

Contrary to its appearance, bamboo is actually a grass. There are more than 1,400 varieties of bamboo, ranging in various sizes and root systems. Bamboo can grow from just 12 inches tall to over 100 feet tall. It can grow in virtually any climate. Tropical bamboo grows in steamy jungles while more temperate bamboo thrives in grassland or mountainous areas. Bamboo can also stem from one-root systems (clumpers) to more spread-out root systems (runners). The most common -- and pretty much the only species of bamboo strong enough to be made into flooring -- is the Moso variety. Moso bamboo can grow up to 60 feet in the first few months. It reaches maturity in just three years.

Solid and Engineered Bamboo Flooring

During the gluing process of production, solid bamboo flooring can be laminated into three unique styles, each producing a unique look. Choosing which kind of construction is based on decorative choice, but there are strength and environmental aspects for each variety as well. Urea formaldehyde, a chemical that is toxic and does not meet indoor air quality guidelines, is often used as the adhesive during this step. Many companies, however, now use low-emission formaldehyde or a water-based solvent during manufacturing.

With horizontal construction, bamboo strips are placed into three layers on top of one another. One board usually contains 15 strips of bamboo. The strips are then pressed together. This creates a traditional "knuckles" or nodes look, because the grain of the board closely resembles the look of bamboo grass.

With vertical construction, bamboo strips are turned on their side, then laid next to one another. They are then glued and pressed together. Typically, 19 strips of bamboo comprise one vertical bamboo board. Vertical boards give a much more linear look and are considered less durable than the layered, horizontal construction.

Woven, strand-woven or stranded bamboo construction, as it's sometimes called, differs dramatically than both horizontal and vertical construction. Instead of gluing strips of bamboo together in a uniform way, strands of bamboo fibers are compressed under intense pressure to form the floorboards. The woven look of bamboo flooring is very nontraditional. Manufacturers can create very exotic looking flooring, blending varying colors and length of bamboo strips. Woven construction is also the most environmentally friendly form of bamboo flooring because it uses very little adhesive. It's also considered to be the most durable of all the bamboo flooring due to the intense pressure used to create it.

One aspect buyers may not realize they need to decide is if the flooring is solid or engineered. While the look of these two kinds of bamboo flooring is similar, there are some differences regarding the strength of bamboo flooring.

Solid bamboo flooring consists of only bamboo strips pressed together to create the floorboards. While more of a pure floor, solid bamboo can only be nailed or glued on the subfloor.

Engineered bamboo flooring consists of bamboo strips (usually 1/8'') on top of the plank, and is layered with other types of wood underneath. Engineered bamboo is thought to be stronger than solid bamboo because of the blending of woods. It can be nailed, glued, or floated to the subfloors.

What is this subfloor we're talking about and why is it important? Let's discuss installing bamboo flooring, and the various ways bamboo flooring can help make your home beautiful.

Finished or Unfinished? That is the Question...

Unfinished bamboo flooring comes to your home without any lacquers, stains or finishes. In order for it to achieve the highest standards of durability, it must be sanded and finished during installation. Considering many companies use several layers of colors for finishes, using an unfinished floor can add a lot of time to the installation process.

Prefinished bamboo flooring is finished before it reaches your home for installation. Quality bamboo flooring will be finished with an environmentally friendly aluminum oxide lacquer or a water-based polyurethane finish.

Installing Bamboo Flooring

Before installing bamboo floors, you must acclimate the boards in the room of choice. Acclimating flooring simply means leaving the boards in the room for several days to get used to the climate of the room. This helps ensure that changes in room temperature and humidity won't warp the boards after they're installed. Bamboo flooring can be installed over many types of subfloors, such as wood, plywood, vinyl or concrete. Different types of bamboo flooring can be installed on various subfloors.

Basically, there are three ways to install bamboo flooring. You should consider what type of subfloor surface you'll be attaching the bamboo boards to and whether you'll be doing the job yourself or hiring a professional installer.

  • Bamboo boards are nailed onto the subfloor with nails or staples. Any type of bamboo flooring can be installed through nailing, which seems to be the preferred method for wood subfloors.
  • Flooring is glued directly to the subfloor. Any style of bamboo flooring can be glued. Make sure to use the highest quality glue, and never use water-based glue.
  • Floating, click-on or snap-lock flooring is the perfect option for do-it-yourselfers. There is no nailing or gluing involved, meaning less mess with the same results. The bamboo planks are fitted during milling with cuts and grooves that click into one another and lie flat on the subfloor. Not all types of bamboo floors can be floated -- engineered floors are the most popular floated floors. If you're going to tackle this job yourself, follow all instructions carefully. For example, when you install floating flooring, you have to leave enough expansion room, or you'll end up with buckling and other problems.

To get beautiful floors that last for years, it's very important to install your bamboo floors properly. Next, let's find out what it takes to keep your bamboo floor looking new for years to come.

Bamboo flooring gives this home a modern look.

© iStockphoto/victor zastol`skiy

Bamboo Flooring Care

As with any hardwood floor, there are important factors necessary to keep bamboo looking as beautiful as the day of installation. Most important, make sure to keep water from collecting on floors, which can cause warping. Clean up spills quickly and thoroughly. Areas such as the floor under an icemaker or sink should have a small rug to absorb water.

Bamboo floors should be swept or dry-dusted daily, and never wax the floors. When it's time to really clean your floor use only a damp mop -- never pour a product or water directly onto the bamboo. The layers of finish will be enough to protect your floors from wear and tear for years, and many bamboo floors can be sanded and refinished during their lifetime, if necessary. Be sure to place soft felt or plastic protectors under the legs of furniture to prevent scratching. It's also a good idea to place rugs in high-traffic areas, such as in doorways.

If you live in an area of high humidity, you may want to rethink using bamboo floors. If you decide to go with bamboo, be sure to diligently maintain a cooler temperature in your home during warmer months. Distributors will also tell you to acclimate your flooring where it will be installed, so it can get used to the humidity of the room. All manufacturers recommend keeping bamboo flooring out of direct sunlight, which can cause the floors to discolor or soften.

Keep in mind that bamboo floors are not indestructible. Many manufacturers will recommend never wearing high heels on bamboo. A woman walking in high-heeled shoes exerts as much as 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, which can damage wood flooring.

Now that we've discussed the best ways to maintain bamboo flooring, on the next page we'll learn why bamboo may not be as eco-friendly as we think.

Where Does All That Bamboo Come From?

You may be surprised at the answer. India is the world's largest producer of bamboo, but most bamboo used for flooring comes from China and Vietnam. Indonesia, Japan and Costa Rica also export bamboo for flooring. You can even find some varieties of bamboo growing wild in the United States.

Pros and Cons of Bamboo Flooring

While bamboo seems to be a miracle flooring option, there are some unknowns you need to investigate when choosing a flooring company. Most bamboo used for flooring is produced in China and other countries where labor practices are questionable. Many overseas farms and factories have no guidelines for fair labor practices. There are no regulations in the United States as to where the bamboo originates. Also, in China there are no set government standards for bamboo flooring production and construction or for air quality standards. For these reasons, it's possible that production of bamboo flooring produces toxic byproducts and expends large amounts of energy. Many bamboo floors exported from China contain high levels of urea formaldehyde that do not meet safety standards in other countries.

Fortunately, because bamboo flooring has become so popular, many flooring distributors in the United States have established must more stringent guidelines for products they sell. Some of these guidelines require bamboo flooring to have water-based finishes and to be manufactured with formaldehyde-free processing. Keep in mind that quality bamboo dealers will also disclose the bamboo's country of origin. They will also indicate whether the bamboo was harvested from a plantation, which would point to more stringent harvesting techniques.

One factor you can't avoid is shipping. For example, if a product is coming from China, it may be traveling a long way to get to you. Green building practices encourage finding more local products to avoid the energy used in shipping. Unfortunately, as long as bamboo floors are made in Asia, there's no getting around the issue for people who live elsewhere. Some flooring distributors help offset the costs and energy of shipping by donating money to carbon offsetting companies.

If you're in the market for a bamboo floor, always check with the manufacturer to make sure you're purchasing formaldehyde-free, fair trade bamboo flooring. You can also check with the Forest Stewardship Council, which maintains a thorough database of businesses that manufacture well-made, responsibly-produced bamboo flooring.

Remember, a cheap bamboo floor will yield cheap results. As the saying goes, if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Get lots more information on how bamboo flooring works on the next page.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Alter, Lloyd. "Bamboo Flooring - Is it Really Treehugger Green?" Treehugger.com (Sept. 12, 2005)http://www.treehugger.com/files/2005/09/bamboo_flooring.php
  • American Bamboo Societyhttp://www.americanbamboo.org/GeneralInfo.html
  • http://www.builddirect.com/bdu/bdu_bamboo_1_a.aspx (manufacturing and kinds of floors)
  • Bamboo Hardwoodshttp://www.bamboohardwoods.com/items.asp?Cc=FLOOR&Bc=
  • Bamboo Technologies. "About Bamboo, the Giant Grass." (Feb. 29, 2008)http://www.bambooliving.com/bamboo.html
  • Build it Green. "Bamboo Flooring Fact Sheet" (Aug. 11, 2007)http://www.builditgreen.org/bamboo-flooring-build-it-green-fact-sheet-pdf
  • Eco-wise.com. http://www.ecowise.com/green/floor/bamboo.shtml
  • Green2green. http://www.Green2green.org
  • Hardwood Installer. "Maintenance Problems"http://www.hardwoodinstaller.com/hardwoodinstaller/bamboo-maintenance-problems.htm
  • Tiny Timbers. Janka Hardness Scale. http://tinytimbers.com/janka.htm
  • Walker, Rob. "High on Grass". New York Times. (Nov. 5, 2006)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/05/magazine/05wwln_consumed.html?scp=7&sq=bamboo+flooring&st=nyt
  • U.S. Green Building Council. LEED® for New Construction & Major Renovationshttp://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=1095