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All About Linoleum Flooring

Durable, easy to clean, and eco-friendly before green was a selling point, linoleum is winning new fans. Here's what you need to know if you're considering it for your home

Hardworking Floors

Photo by Stacey Brandford

When the RMS Titanic set sail in 1912, many of its public spaces featured linoleum flooring, and nearly 100 years later, an expedition to the famed wreck discovered those tiles—still intact. Patented by Frederick Walton in 1863, linoleum remains one of the longest-wearing and most versatile flooring materials a homeowner can choose. "The material itself hasn't really changed, but it now comes with a durable factory finish, so there's a lot less maintenance," says Joel Hirshberg, president of Green Building Supply, in Fairfield, Iowa. Pigments have improved too, allowing for a broader palette of some 170 stay-true tints.

Linoleum's smooth, water-resistant surface is comfortable underfoot, and its natural ingredients shrug off dirt and bacteria, making it the floor of choice for hospitals, schools, and libraries. All that in an easy-to-clean, budget-friendly package that's priced comparably with higher-end vinyl but has green cred that newer material can't match.

Here's the lowdown on lino and how to put this hardworking surface to use in your home's most demanding rooms.

Shown: A third color adds a twist to the classic two-tone checkerboard pattern in this kitchen. Forbo Click in Van Gogh, Sky Blue, and Silver Shadow, starting at about $7 per square foot; forboflooringna.com

Recipe for a "GREEN" Floor

Photo by Joe Yutkins

Linseed oil (1) gives linoleum its name: a Latin mash-up of linum (flax) and oleum (oil). Other components are cork dust (2), wood flour (3), pine resin (4), ground limestone (5), and pigments (6) pressed onto a jute backing (7).

The Vitals

Photo by Ryan Benyi

How much does it cost? Sheets and tiles run about $4 to $6 per square foot and click-together pieces, and about $7 to $9. For a pro installation of sheets and tile, add an extra $2 to $4 per square foot.

Will it last? Linoleum can wear for decades when properly installed and maintained.

How much care? Moderate—damp-mop with a pH-neutral cleanser recommended by the manufacturer. Because it's porous, linoleum now comes sealed with a UV-cured factory finish that also makes it water resistant. The finish is not covered under warranty; you can expect about five to eight years of normal wear before it needs to be refreshed with a buffer or a liquid polish.

Where to buy it: Flooring retailers and green-building suppliers.

Linoleum Three Ways

Photo by Andrew McCaul

Three major manufacturers—Forbo, Armstrong, and Tarkett—produce the lion's share of lino. Backings and installation techniques differ, depending on the type.

Linoleum Sheets

Photo by Andrew McCaul

Sheets 6½ feet wide and backed with jute can be laid over any properly prepared level subfloor, above or below grade, as long as no moisture can penetrate. After being glued down with a water-based adhesive, sheets are flattened with a 100-pound roller. Keep the floor clear of heavy furniture for three days to avoid creating dents.

Linoleum Modular Tiles

Photo by Andrew McCaul

Tiles generally come in 10-by-10-inch and 20-by-20-inch squares, as well as 10-by-20-inch rectangles. The backing is polyester instead of jute, for dimensional stability. The edges are slightly beveled, so the pieces fit together tightly, making seams all but invisible. Installation is the same as for sheet linoleum.

Linoleum Click-Together Tiles

Photo by Andrew McCaul

For this DIY-friendly option, linoleum is glued to water-repellent, high-density wax-sealed fiberboard with a cork backing in 12-by-12-inch squares and 12-by-36-inch panels. The tongue-and-groove pieces fit together without glue and can be laid over subfloors that aren't totally level; furniture can be replaced immediately.

Three Easy Pieces

Modular tiles make it easy to put a pattern underfoot. Place 10-by-10-inch or 20-by-20-inch squares in a standard checkerboard or pitch them at a 45-degree angle. Use 10-by-20-inch rectangles in a chevron or subway-tile motif, combine them with squares for a basketweave, or blend different shapes for a design all your own.

Lino Versus Vinyl

Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

By the 1920s, linoleum was a household staple, especially in kitchens. It began to slip from favor in the '60s thanks to vinyl being pitched to harried housewives as "no wax" flooring. Back then, vinyl was made with a top coat, while lino had to be site-finished and required regular resealing with a liquid wax. Many people still use vinyl and linoleum inter-changeably, but while the resilient materials do have similarities, they differ in significant ways.

Vinyl

Photo by Courtesy of Mannington

Pros:

• Low maintenance

• DIY-friendly

• Waterproof

• Vibrant colors and patterns

Cons:

• Nonrenewable material

• Not recyclable

• Can off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

• Not color-through, so patterns fade with wear

Linoleum

Photo by Ryan Benyi

Pros:

• Renewable materials

• Recyclable

• Color goes all the way through the material

• Naturally antistatic and antimicrobial

Cons:

• Most versions require pro installation

• Water resistant, not waterproof

• Linseed-oil smell when new

• Needs resealing every five years or so

Pick Your Pattern

As these very different kitchens show, there's a style of linoleum to suit every taste.

Color-Coded Pattern

Photo by Courtesy of Armstrong

Two different shades of sheet linoleum let you visually separate the work zone from the dining space.

Similar to shown: Armstrong Marmorette in Oak Brown and Bamboo Tan, about $4 per sq. ft.; armstrong.com for dealers. Price does not include installation.

Bold Border Pattern

Photo by Courtesy of Forbo Flooring Systems

Add dimension to a small space from the ground up by insetting a premade border inlay.

Shown: Forbo Marmoleum in Bleeckerstreet, about $6 per sq. ft., and New Traditions border, $21 per lin. ft.; forboflooringna.com for dealers. Price does not include installation.

Cottage Carpet Pattern

Photo by Courtesy of Armstrong

This casual cook space is livened up by sheet linoleum in a trio of shades spliced together to create the look of a graphic rug.

Similar to shown: Armstrong Marmorette in Turf, Melon Head, and Parchment Beige, about $4 per sq. ft.; armstrong.com for dealers. Price does not include installation.

Striated Squares

Photo by Courtesy of Forbo Flooring Systems

Square click-together tiles in a linear design, arranged horizontally and vertically, create a basketweave pattern.

Shown: Forbo Marmoleum Click in Trace of Nature, $7 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com for dealers. Price does not include installation.

Striking Stripes Pattern

Photo by Polly Eltes/Loupe Images

The foundation for this eat-in kitchen's casual vibe is the floor's simple wide stripes in cool blues and greens.

Similar to shown: Johnsonite Harmonium Veneto sheet in Majestic, Lakeside, and Sherwood, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com for dealers. Price does not include installation.

Starburst Inlay Pattern

Photo by Nat Rea

Custom hand-cut inlays—like this eye-popping starburst made by Kyla Coburn Designs, Central Falls, Rhode Island—can be created using tile and sheet linoleum. Search online for a local linoleum artisan.

Similar to shown: Forbo Marmoleum in Bleeckerstreet, Black Hole, and Cloudy Sand, about $6 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com for dealers. Price does not include installation.

Choose Your Color

Photo by Andrew McCaul

Linoleum has always been available in rich, saturated colors with graphic or swirly patterns. But modern manufacturing is creating brighter color combos as well as more neutral tones closer to stone, tile, and wood.

1. Purple: A muddled plum in matte. Marmoleum Modular 10-by-10-inch and 20-by-20- inch squares and 10-by-20-inch rectangles. Starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com. Sizes of Forbo's Modular and Click tiles are nominal.

2. Cherry red: A rich wine red with hints of pink. Marmorette sheets, $4 per sq. ft.; armstrong.com

3. Chartreuse: A variegated, reflective green. Marmoleum Modular 10-by-10-inch and 20-by-20-inch squares and 10-by-20-inch rectangles, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

Bright Linoleum Color Choices

Photo by Andrew McCaul

4. Carlsbad: Stone-like gray with clouds of white. Harmonium Veneto sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

5. Orange shimmer: Concrete gray with hints of tangerine. Marmoleum Modular 10-by-10-inch and 20-by-20-inch squares and 10-by-20-inch rectangles, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

6. Lemon zest: A cheery marbled yellow. Marmoleum Modular 10-by-10-inch and 20-by-20-inch squares and 10-by-20-inch rectangles. Starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

Mixed Linoleum Color Choices

Photo by Andrew McCaul

7. Colour stream: A torrent of colors. Marmoleum Striato sheets, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

8. Strawberry fields: A radiant red with dashes of white. Marmoleum Piano sheets, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

9. Durango: A limestone-like mix of earth tones and soft blue. Harmonium Veneto sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

Neutral Mixed Linoleum Color Choices

Photo by Andrew McCaul

10. Asian Tiger: Rusty brown and orange with six other colors. Marmoleum Vivace sheets, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

11. Print White: splattered with black. Artoleum Graphic sheets, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

12. Withered Prairie: Warm wood-like browns on a click-in cork backer. Marmoleum Click 12-by-12-inch squares and 12-by-36-inch panels, starting at $7 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

Swirled and Flecked Linoleum Color Choices

Photo by Andrew McCaul

13. Blooming: A deep purple with some darker swirls. Harmonium Veneto sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

14. Mesa: Warm beiges reminiscent of travertine. Harmonium Veneto sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

15. Scenario: A 1950s look: gray flecked with white and black. Artoleum Graphic sheets, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

Mosaic and Mashed Linoleum Color Choices

Photo by Andrew McCaul

16. Summer pudding: The color of mashed berries. Marmoleum Modular 10-by-10-inch and 20-by-20-inch squares and 10-by-20-inch rectangles, starting at $5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

17. Astute: A handsome mix of dark blue and black stripes. Harmonium Lenza sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

18. Shitake: Marble-like movement in browns and tans. Marmoleum Click; 12-by-12-inch squares and 12-by-35-inch panels, starting at $7 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

Dappled Linoleum Color Choices

Photo by Andrew McCaul

19. Cloud nine: A cream tile dappled with bright white. Harmonium Veneto sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

20. Sprouting: A light- green marble look. Harmonium Veneto sheets, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com

21. Chagall's circus: Mostly deep blue with browns and red. Marmoleum Vivace sheets, starting at$5 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com

Good to know: Linoleum's hallmark marble patterns help hide dirt, especially when they're a blend of two or more earth tones. The swirls do a better job than most solid hues at hiding crumbs, spots, pet hair, and scratches.

Must-know Info for Installing Linoleum

Photo by Kristian Septimius Krogh/istockphoto

Proper installation is key to linoleum's durability. Because they're glued down and rolled flat, sheet and tile linoleum must go on over a perfectly flat surface—otherwise you'll end up with trapped air blisters or popping seams. That's why an experienced pro (or a "master mechanic," as they're known) should do the job. "But a homeowner can help by prepping the subfloor before installation," says Lane Brettschneider, of Lane's Floor Coverings & Interiors, in New York City.

Using a trowel, fill holes, seams, and other imperfections with a portland-cement-based compound, then sand smooth. Sweep clean or vacuum with a beater brush. A dry surface is also crucial. If installing linoleum over new concrete or on a below- or on-grade slab, take a moisture reading with a relative humidity probe (available at home centers); you may need to install a vapor barrier. Because linoleum responds to changes in temperature and humidity, let it acclimate in your space for at least two days before installation, at a minimum room temperature of 68 degrees F.

Shown: Install click-together tiles at a 15- to 20- degree angle and they'll snap right in.

DIY Installation Tips

Photo by Ryan Benyi

Looking to DIY click-together tiles or planks? You needn't worry about leveling the subfloor. But do let tiles or planks acclimate for two days before installation. When clicking tiles together, "it's all about the angle," says Green Building Supply's Joel Hirshberg. "Find that sweet spot—about a 15-degree to 20-degree angle—push down slightly, and the tiles will snap into place."

See the full step-by-step instructions for How to Install a Linoleum Tile Floor

Easy Floor Fix

Photo by Ryan Benyi

Linoleum is tough stuff, but if it's ever gouged or dented, a DIY repair is easy—as long as you save a remnant after installation. Shave slivers off the scrap with a sharp utility blade. Grind them up with a mortar and pestle, then mix with clear-drying wood glue to form a paste. Overfill the damaged area with the paste and let dry overnight. Sand off the excess with 250-grit or finer aluminum-oxide paper until the repair is flush with the surface, then reseal with the manufacturer's proprietary floor finish.

Bold Borders

Photo by Andrew McCaul

Forbo does the stenciled-on border designs of vintage sheet linoleum one better with inlaid strips of individually cut pieces that are crisper and longer wearing. They also allow for more detail. From $21 per linear foot.

Where to Use It: Bath

Photo by Di Lewis/Ewa

Lino can go anywhere, though certain formats lend themselves to particular spaces. Linoleum is mildew resistant and can stand up to moisture. But it's not waterproof, so a sheet is best in baths because it has fewer seams. It's typically run up the base of the wall a bit, with a curve, so that water can't get underneath. Can go over radiant heat if the surface temperature doesn't exceed 85 degrees F.

Similar to shown: Johnsonite Harmonium Veneto in Lighthouse, about $2.50 per sq. ft.; www.tarkettna.com for dealers.

Where to Use It: Entryway

Photo by Courtesy of Forbo Flooring Systems

Because it repels dirt and cleans easily, linoleum is great for heavily trafficked areas. Feel free to use light colors.

Shown: Forbo Click panels in White Cliffs and Pacific Beaches, about $9 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com for dealers.

Where to Use It: Family Room

Photo by Courtesy of Forbo Flooring Systems

Color combos are unlimited, making linoleum ideal for jazzing up an informal space.

Shown: Forbo Click panels in Walnut, Red Copper, Camel, and Silver Birch, about $7 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com for dealers.

Where to Use It: Office

Photo by Courtesy of Armstrong

Wheels glide smoothly over linoleum, so you can protect a wood floor by using a remnant under a rolling chair.

Similar to shown: Armstrong Marmorette sheet in Stars at Night, about $4 per sq. ft.; armstrong.com for dealers

Where to Use It: Laundry Room

Photo by Andrea Rugg/Collinstock

Tolerant of dirt and muck and fine over concrete or a single layer of another resilient flooring—provided it's smooth and dry—linoleum is a smart choice for utility spaces. Mudrooms, shops, and finished basements are other prime spots.

Similar to shown: Armstrong Marmorette sheet in Bluebird, about $4 per sq. ft.; armstrong.com for dealers

Where to Use It: Playroom

Photo by Courtesy of Forbo Flooring Systems

Tough enough for whatever your kids can dish out, and antimicrobial to boot, linoleum is an excellent choice for a child's space. Plus, its antistatic properties repel pet hair, so furry family members are more than welcome.

Shown: Forbo Click in Barbados, Pineapple, and Lime, about $7 per sq. ft.; forboflooringna.com for dealers

The Rug Revival

Photo by Andrew McCaul

At one time, linoleum manufacturers dedicated catalogs to these low-maintenance coverings. In the 1890s, Frederick Walton began to broaden the appeal of his wonder flooring by incorporating patterns created with a stencil or block-printed with wood. Produced in standard rug sizes, typically with a border around the main motif, these floor coverings were marketed as a low-cost, easy-care alternative to wool carpets. They became all the rage, taking linoleum beyond the kitchen and bath to the dining room and living room with ornate Orientals, colorful florals, and jazzy geometrics.

While genuine vintage specimens are scarce, a new generation of artists, including Christopher Stearns, of Westling Design, in Seattle, are creating modern versions. Stearns hand-cuts pieces of linoleum, then glues them to the reverse (paper) side of sheet vinyl and binds them with a black-rubber "reducer," as shown. A foam rug pad goes underneath for a cushiony feel. A custom-made rug starts at about $35 per square foot; westlingdesign.com.

What About "Bloom?"

Photo by Spiderstock/Getty Images

Linoleum oxidizes even after the floor is in place, which makes it harder and more durable over time. But that same oxidation process can also give linoleum a yellowish cast, called ambering or bloom. Most noticeable right after manufacture, the discoloration goes away once linoleum is exposed to natural or artificial light. The brighter the light, the faster the bloom fades. In areas that light doesn't reach—say, under furniture—the ambering remains until those areas are exposed, when it will fade to match the surrounding floor.

Care and Maintenance

Photo by Eliza Snow/Getty Images

After installation, use a buffing machine with a recommended pH-neutral cleaner to gently scrub the floor and preserve the finish, something a pro charges about $3 per sq. ft. for. Repeat this every few years to restore the top coat's luster; it might also require a liquid polish, depending on the manufacturer. Damp-mop with the same cleaner or a mild dish soap mixed with water for everyday dirt. In cases of extreme wear, a pro can sometimes strip, then reapply a finish for about $6 per sq. ft.

More Uses for Linoleum

Photo by Kolin Smith

Think outside the box—and off the floor—with this versatile product.

Walls: Rigid Lincrusta sheets, another Frederick Walton invention in the 19th century, adorned the walls of many a Victorian home. But don't let the intricately embossed designs fool you: This stuff is hard-wearing yet easy to clean, and you can paint it. No wonder it still holds appeal as wainscot, a full wallcovering, and for decorative friezes.

Countertops: Linoleum makes a smooth, comfortable counter surface; you may have seen it at the checkout of your local Whole Foods. Made from sheeting, it's often given a metal or wood-strip banded edge. While not ideal for food-prep areas, where it could accidentally be cut by a knife, its antibacterial properties make it a natural for the kitchen—a nice retro touch for a breakfast bar or other dining area.

Desks and Tables: Although not advertised to the residential market, linoleum-topped desks, tables, and even bulletin boards have long been a staple in offices, hotels, and other commercial institutions. Having lino installed? Hang on to a remnant to create a stylish, carefree work surface.