In the midst of selecting fixtures, sinks, faucets, and a myriad of accessories, it’s easy to forget about one of the most important features of your new kitchen or bathroom–the floor. Yet the floor has more impact on the look, feel, and function of the area than nearly any other item. It’s important to get it right because it’s expensive and difficult to replace if you get it wrong.

Fortunately, flooring choices have never been greater than they are today. There is a flooring material for every need, every style, and every application. There are many more environmentally conscious choices, and more low-maintenance, durable flooring choices than ever before.

Flooring may be roughly grouped into three categories. Non-resilient flooring includes ceramic tile, stone, and concrete. These materials have no “give” in them whatsoever. However, they make up for it by being about the most durable materials you can use. Resilient flooring includes sheet vinyl and vinyl tile, linoleum, and cork. They are more comfortable to walk on and do not retain cold like the more durable materials. Somewhere in-between includes wood and bamboo. These are not as hard as stone, tile, and concrete, and not as resilient as vinyl and cork. For this two-part blog feature, we’re briefly going to discuss each material so that you’re better informed when it’s time to decide what flooring will work best for your new kitchen or bath.

Wood

Wood flooring has the versatility to be used in contemporary or traditional settings. It can be stained to produce a variety of wood tones and colors from very light to very dark, or show off its natural beauty with a clear finish.

There are two types of wood flooring commonly used in home construction: solid-wood flooring or engineered-wood flooring, which uses a thin veneer of real wood over plywood. Engineered-wood flooring is usually purchased already prefinished and is easier to install because it comes in large tongue and groove sheets and are often glued together instead of nailed to the sub flooring. Since it’s prefinished at the factory, the messy and sometimes dusty process of sealing and varnishing the floor is avoided.

Solid wood wins by a big margin on longevity and durability. Because most engineered-wood flooring is 3/8″ thick with as little as 1/32″ of hardwood veneer, if the surface is damaged, it cannot be easily repaired. By contrast, 3/4″ solid-wood flooring goes all the way through the strip, so any but the most severe damage is easily repaired. Solid-wood flooring is available in strip, plank, or parquet form.

Bamboo

Bamboo is one of the world’s most environmentally friendly, natural construction materials. It is not wood; it’s a stalk of grass! There are over 1,000 species of bamboo growing in most places in the world, including the U.S.

Bamboo used as flooring is not bamboo in its natural state. Bamboo flooring is an engineered product of which bamboo is one ingredient. Multiple plies of bamboo strips are laid down cross-wise in layers, much like plywood. These are then laminated together under great pressure with a binder or glue to produce beams, which are about the size of railroad ties. The result is generally known as “woven-strand” bamboo. The beams are then cut into planks and have a factory-applied coating, much like pre-finished wood flooring products.

Something to keep in mind about bamboo flooring is that it will not take stain, so it is only available in two basic colors: natural or carbonized. Carbonized bamboo has been baked to brown the sugars in the material, which gives it a brownish color, but also weakens the fibers. Bamboo flooring will swell when exposed to liquid (like water) for a long period of time, and it will not return to its original dimension once it dries. Therefore, using it in a bathroom or a kitchen prone to constant spillage is not recommended. If damaged or worn, bamboo is difficult to repair, and usually has to be replaced. Sanding the floor often results in a fuzzy surface as individual fibers are torn off by the sanding process — bamboo is not wood and does not sand like wood. Sanding can also release formaldehyde in the form of dust, so any sanding dust needs to be completely controlled to prevent contaminating your house.

Laminate Flooring

Originating in wood-starved Europe where it has been used in homes for more than 30 years, laminate flooring migrated to the United States for residential use in the mid-1990s. Laminate flooring is similar in construction to laminate kitchen countertops but with a much tougher wear layer.

Much like engineered-wood flooring, laminate flooring is a tongue and groove interlocking flooring system that floats on top of an existing sub floor (which can be wood, concrete, an existing vinyl floor, or any other flooring type), but is not attached to the floor underneath. A special polyurethane padding is laid down prior to the new laminate flooring being installed. Some laminate flooring is glue-free and just snaps together, while other brands require a bead of specially-formulated, water-resistant, glue be placed between the tongue and grooves of every plank to hold the planks together and to seal all the edges of the planks from moisture.

Laminate flooring has an exceptional ability to reproduce the look of other materials such as wood, stone, and tile and is a good choice for homeowners who want the look of a wood floor at less cost and with minimum maintenance. Most laminate flooring is 5/16-inch thick. Less expensive, thinner laminates are also available but are not as durable. Laminate flooring can be installed on any level of the house, including below grade and there are even water-resistant designs made especially for bathrooms.

Well, that covers the first half of our two-part flooring feature. Check back in a couple of days when we will dive into ceramic, stone, porcelain, vinyl, cork, and concrete flooring.

*image courtesy of Dwight Sipler/Flickr.com