When you hear the word linoleum, you may think of your grandmother's kitchen floor. Durable, yet boring. You might even have believed manufacturers gave up on it long ago. But you'd be wrong. In fact, because linoleum is made of natural, renewable materials, more consumers, designers and builders are choosing it as environmentally friendly flooring. It's got a long lifespan -- 25 to 40 years. Once that's over, it can be completely recycled using a variety of methods.
But that's not the only reason linoleum is regaining its popularity. Once considered the dull stepsister in its role as the mainstay of hospital rooms and school hallways, linoleum has gone through a beauty makeover. The ghoulish grays and boring beiges of yesteryear have given way to vibrant tones and never-ending patterns. Thanks to new installation methods, the flooring is also cheaper and easier to put down than it used to be.
Over the years, "linoleum" has become a catch-all term for resilient flooring, similar to the way Kleenex, Xerox and other brand names have in their fields. But not all pliable floorings are the same. Many people confuse linoleum and modern vinyl flooring, which is made of synthetics that are petroleum based. Most of today's vinyl products are composed mainly of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is basically plastic. Today, only three companies in the world make true forms of linoleum with linseed oil and other natural materials. One of these is Marmoleum, a trademark owned by Forbo Flooring Systems, a British company that has 65 percent of the global market share [source: Forbo]. Forbo has been making linoleum for more than 100 years, and through the decades, the process has changed very little. The company boosted the appeal of linoleum by introducing more colors and making the durable flooring easier to maintain.
In case you were wondering, Forbo's Marmoleum got its name from the words "marbleized linoleum."
What's in Marmoleum?
According to popular legend, in 1860 English inventor Frederick Walton was watching the way linseed oil formed a layer of rubber-like material on top of a can of paint when he got the idea for linoleum. Walton mixed the oil with numerous other natural materials then pressed the concoction onto a fiber backing.
Initially, linoleum, from the Latin words "linum" (flax) and "oleum" (oil), was a plain Jane. The colors were drab and without design, but the flooring was tough and inexpensive.
In the 1960s, as plastics became more prevalent, flooring manufacturers began making products from vinyl. It could be produced more cheaply than linoleum and was just as durable. It also could be pressed into numerous designs, which is still one of its appeals today. Linoleum manufacturers couldn't keep up, and the flooring nearly met its demise.
Now, linoleum is making a comeback, and Marmoleum is one of the best-selling brands. It comes in more than 100 colors and designs can be customized. For instance, installers can cut borders and specialty patterns using an Aquajet (water-based) system.
Ingredients in today's linoleum remain true to Walton's early recipe. Linseed oil, which comes from pressed flax seeds, is the main component of Marmoleum. Pine-tree rosin gives the flooring strength and flexibility. Wood flour or sawdust helps bind the pigments for brighter and longer-lasting colors, and also contributes to the smooth surface quality of the flooring. Forbo calls the pigments used in Marmoleum "ecologically responsible," and they contain no heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Most are mineral-based. Ground-up limestone works as a filler, and woven jute serves as the backing for the flooring.
Forbo has numerous manufacturing plants, but the company's facilities in the Netherlands and Scotland are the ones that produce Marmoleum.
How Marmoleum is Made
To understand how linoleum is made, first we need a chemistry lesson. The film that Walton found on his can of paint was the result of oxidation. In essence, oxygen molecules in the air mingled with molecules in the paint, causing a chemical change and forming a thin film.
But linseed oil doesn't oxidize overnight. Forbo speeds the process up by heating the linseed oil to high temperatures. The resulting material is mixed with rosin to create linoleum "cement." When the manufacturer adds wood dust, limestone and pigments, it creates colorful granules of linoleum.
These granules are blended together to make the linoleum base, then are passed through a rolling machine called a calendar to produce sheets that can be marbled, flecked or single-hued.
The Marmoleum sheets, which are about 0.1 inches (2.5 millimeters) thick, are pressed onto a jute backing. The patterns and colors extend throughout the thickness of the material and don't wear down. Vinyl flooring, on the other hand, contains only a thin layer of pattern on the surface, which can wear away with heavy use.
The finished sheets cure in huge, heated rooms called stoves for several weeks to dry. The chemical process also produces a yellowing or "ambering" effect. The coloring is temporary and disappears once the flooring is exposed to light, either natural or indoor. Recently, the company began drying some of its products in greenhouses, and the natural sunlight helps to dissipate the yellowing [source: Forbo].
As a last step in the manufacturing process, Forbo applies a water-based finish called Topshield to protect the product, keep the colors bright and help make cleaning and maintenance easier.
Linoleum Installation and Maintenance
Marmoleum comes in a variety of forms. The first is a long, wide sheet that can be cut to fit any room exactly. It also comes in planks, much like wood flooring, and tiles that can be clicked into place. The material has an installation cost of $2.75 to $3.55 per square foot [source: Forbo].
Although you could install Marmoleum yourself, you may find that a professional installer might be a better choice for several reasons. First, the sub-floor must be level and prepared to accept the flooring before installation. In addition, the sheets are heavy and hard to maneuver, and cutting for a perfect fit requires a certain level of expertise.
If you want patterns or borders, flooring specialists can ensure proper alignment. Seams must be bonded using a heat process, which also requires some training.
Marmoleum requires adhesive to install. There are many varieties available, and the kind of adhesive an installer uses depends on where the floor is located in the home, the moisture content of the room and how much traffic the flooring will receive.
Marmoleum Click, a recent innovation for Forbo, is a floating floor that doesn't require adhesives. Instead, it features a tongue-and-groove system, which makes it easier to install than the original Marmoleum. Forbo suggests having a professional installer handle Click, but with the right tools, an experienced do-it-yourselfer should be able to install the floor.
Cleaning is fairly easy. Early linoleums required regular waxing to keep colors vibrant and the floor looking its best. But Forbo says Marmoleum with Topshield is ready to use and does not require extra topcoats of finish unless the floor is damaged.
While Marmoleum is water resistant, it isn't waterproof. You should wipe up spills immediately to avoid damage and to keep the material bacteria resistant. Regular cleaning includes dry mopping to eliminate dirt and other debris, and damp mopping with diluted Marmoleum Floor Cleaner. Forbo says you should avoid ammonia-based and other harsh cleaning products, which may damage the flooring.
In the event the floor is permanently stained or damaged, you should clean Marmoleum thoroughly. You may also need to apply several coats of Topshield to return the floor to its original state. It's a good idea to apply soft material to the feet of chairs, tables and other furniture on a Marmoleum floor to protect the material from scuffs and scratches.
If you're going to put rugs down on your floor, be sure to use only colorfast, woven area rugs. The chemicals in rubber or latex-backed mats can stain the floor.
How Marmoleum Stacks Up
Consumers have a variety of flooring options to choose from depending on their lifestyles. Price, performance and durability factor into any purchase. So how well does Marmoleum compare to other popular flooring materials? Let's take a look:
Solid wood/bamboo -- High points: Natural and beautiful, it comes in a variety of colors and is environmentally friendly. It can be sanded and refinished several times to maintain its beauty. It's easy to clean with dry mopping. Low points: Spills and high humidity can damage wood flooring. Wood also dents and scratches easily, so you have to be careful to protect it from the wear and tear of furniture. It's hard to install. Cost: $7 to $12 per square foot.
Plastic laminate -- High points: The flooring is tough and easy to install, using a variety of methods, including floating. It mimics the look of hardwood, but is less likely to be damaged by water or spills. It's easy to clean. Low points: Laminate cannot be refinished. Cost: $4 to $8 per square foot
Vinyl -- High points: Vinyl flooring comes in a variety of patterns and is good for baths and kitchens. It's easy to install and resists wear, moisture and stains. Low points: Vinyl is made from petroleum and may not be as durable as linoleum. Cost: $4 to $9 per square foot
Linoleum -- High points: Linoleum is warm and resilient and works in a variety of rooms. It resists moisture and dents and also has antibacterial and anti-allergenic properties. It lasts anywhere from 25 to 40 years. It's also easy to clean. Low points: The surface wear varies. Cost: $4 to $9 per square foot
Ceramic tile -- High points: It's good for baths and kitchens; tile resists wear and most damage. It's made using natural materials and resists bacteria and allergens. You can install tile yourself to save money. Low points: Tiles can crack and be cold and slippery. You should apply sealants once a year. The grout you use to install the tile can stain. Cost: $8 to $15 per square foot
Carpet -- High points: Low maintenance, quiet and soft. Comes in a variety of fibers, patterns, textures and colors. Low points: Carpet can sometimes hard to clean, especially spills. Cost: Beginning at about $2 per square foot
Marmoleum's Environmental Footprint
True linoleums are considered environmentally friendly because the ingredients are made from raw, renewable materials. That means linoleum is nearly CO2 neutral throughout its lifetime. Forbo claims that Marmoleum is 96 percent organic [source: Forbo]. No toxic chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are used in the manufacturing process.
One study looked at how flooring products contributed to global warming. Carpeting ranked high while linoleum was at the low end of the spectrum. [source: Petersen] Oak flooring has the fewest emissions.
The linseed oil in Marmoleum continues to oxidize after installation, making the flooring stronger over time. That's why the product, and all linoleum, is so long-lasting, making it a good flooring for both high-traffic commercial operations and residences. Supposedly, the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall danced on the same linoleum floor for more than 20 years [source: Wilson].
The same chemical change helps produce the flooring's anti-bacterial properties, which is why linoleum is so often used in health-care facilities and schools. The oxidization process either kills bacteria or provides an uninhabitable place for it to thrive.
Linoleum is naturally anti-static, so dust doesn't have a chance to cling to or embed itself into the flooring, unlike wool or synthetic carpeting. That makes it appealing for modern housekeepers. Marmoleum Click requires no adhesive to install, making it popular with people who have asthma or allergies.
Forbo and other green builders contend that Marmoleum doesn't release foul-smelling chemicals that can be associated with other floor coverings, especially vinyl. The company says its cleaning products for Marmoleum are water-based and don't emit chemicals, either.
More Great Links
- Armstrong. "Armstrong Linoleum FAQs" (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.armstrong.com
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "Asthma and Allergy Certification Program." (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.asthmaandallergyfriendly.com
- Consumer Reports. "Flooring." Vol. 74, Issue 8. pp. 42-44. August 2009.
- Day, Scott. Marketing Services Administrator, Forbo Flooring NA. Personal correspondence. Nov. 20, 2009.
- The Economist. "The Joys of Green Lino." Vol. 316, Issue 7662. Page 81. July 7, 1990.
- FindAnyFloor.com. "History of Linoleum." (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.findanyfloor.com/linoleum/LinoleumFloors/LinoleumHistory.xhtml
- Forbo Flooring Systems. "Installation Guide." (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.forboflooringna.com/getfile/IM_Residential_2008.pdf?id=895&t=dl&ot=docdlctr&chc=-642750107&ext=.pdf&fn=IM_Residential_2008.pdf
- Forbo Flooring Systems. "Linoleum Collection Overview." (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.forbo-flooring.com/Business/Products/Linoleum/
- Forbo Flooring Systems. "Residential Care Guide." (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.forboflooringna.com/getfile/res_maintenance.pdf?id=896&t=dl&ot=docdlctr&chc=2071164906&ext=.pdf&fn=res_maintenance.pdf
- Forbo Flooring Systems. "Sustain." (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.forboflooringna.com/getfile/Forbo_sustain_122011.pdf?id=1101&t=dl&ot=docdlctr&chc=-1049071543&ext=.pdf&fn=Forbo_sustain_122011.pdf
- Forbo Flooring Systems. "Sustainable development: Taking care of the environment." (Feb. 23, 2012) http://www.forboflooringna.com/getfile/forbo_environment.pdf?id=507&t=dl&ot=qckdl&chc=349320079&ext=.pdf&fn=forbo_environment.pdf
- Forbo Flooring Systems. "Taking care of the environment." (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.forboflooringna.com/Environment/
- Green Building Supply. "Marmoleum." (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.greenbuildingsupply.com/All-Products/Flooring-Marmoleum
- Klenck, Thomas. "How Vinyl Flooring is Made." Popular Mechanics. Vol. 179, Issue 12. pp. 121-122. December 2002.
- Petersen, Ann, and Solberg, Birger. "Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Costs over the Life Cycle of Wood and Alternative Flooring Materials. Climatic Change. Vol. 64, No. 1-2. pp. 143-167. May 2004.
- Powell, Jane. "Lie Like a Rug." Old House Journal. (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.oldhousejournal.com/linoleum_rugs/magazine/1471
- Powell, Jane. "Linoleum." Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. 2003.
- Roberts, Jennifer. "Good Green Kitchens." Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. 2006.
- Wilson, Alex. "Linoleum, Naturally." Architect. Vol. 88, No. 5. Page 161. May 1999.
- World Floor Covering Association. "Linoleum/Cork/Rubber Flooring." (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.wfca.org/Pages/Linoleum-Flooring.aspx