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Bamboo Flooring

Similar To Hardwood & Eco-Friendly Too

Bamboo flooring may sound somewhat exotic and to some degree it is. Compared to traditional hardwoods it a relative newcomer to the flooring scene. It mimics wood floors yet it offers a distinctly different look from the well-known grain patterns of an oak or maple floor.

Naturally a blond, it can also be a brunette thanks to a process called 'carbonization' that turns the bamboo a caramel color. And it also has a light environmental footprint, being a renewable resource and a quick-growing one at that.

So, bamboo has looks and personality, and it's a good environmental citizen. Should you run out and get some now? Hopefully that's what the information below will help you decide.

Bamboo can be a great flooring surface and there's a lot of information out there touting it's virtues. But like most other things, there's the good and not so good about bamboo you should understand before you buy. Take a closer look and see if it's the right choice for your next floor.

What Exactly Is A Bamboo Floor - Is It The Same As Wood?

bamboo flooring

You probably know what bamboo looks like but if you're not familiar with a bamboo floor, it's understandable if it's hard to visualize how hollow poles end up as flat boards.

A bamboo floor looks like a wood floor but the only difference is that the planks are made out of numerous smaller strips of bamboo that have been milled into straight pieces and glued together.

It looks like wood, feels like wood and can be stained like wood but officially it's not a wood. Bamboo is actually a "grass".

The material used for bamboo floors is taken from the "culm" of the bamboo plant.

The culm is the stalk or 'trunk' of the plant and produces bamboo poles with the characteristic nodes that flare out along its length, appearing to segment the pole into many sections.

The poles are dried and then cut into thin strips which are planed to shape them straight and square. These strips are then laminated (glued) together to form the larger planks that make up a bamboo floor.

Common Terms

Before going any further it helps to get familiar with some common terms that are associated with bamboo flooring. The first has to do with how the strips that make up the plank are oriented when they're glued together to form a larger plank. You'll come across these terms in bamboo floor brochures and other manufacturer literature.

Vertical grain bamboo has the strips oriented so their edges form the top surface of the board. Vertical grain is sometimes referred to as edge grain.

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Two examples of vertical grain (click on image for larger view)

Horizontal grain bamboo aligns the edges of these strips next to each other so that the face of the strip forms the surface of the plank. Horizontal grain is sometimes called flat grain. The nodes or "knuckles" on the bamboo stalk are visible with a horizontal grain pattern, evidenced by the locations where the grain lines bunch together.

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Two examples of horizontal grain (click on image for larger view)
Strand woven bamboo flooring is made up of bamboo fibers that are tightly compressed together under high pressure and bound with adhesive. Among the different types of bamboo, strand woven bamboo flooring bears the most resemblance to the grain look of standard hardwood flooring.

The Janka ball test is the name given to a procedure used to measure the hardness of wood. It's a term that's used a lot around the discussion of bamboo floors since one of the attributes of bamboo is its hardness, but more on that later. The test measures how much force is required to depress a small steel ball into the wood's surface. The harder the wood, the more force is required and the higher the Janka number.

Environmental Benefits

If you want to build or remodel using a greener approach, bamboo floors are a good choice. One of bamboo's greatest attributes is that it's a highly renewable and sustainable resource. It grows to it's full height within the first year and is harvestable within 3 to 7 years depending on it's intended use. What's more is that the bamboo plant remains intact after the stalks are harvested, and is able to regenerate new stalks.

Compare this to hardwood trees that take decades to mature, are consumed to reap the wood and must be replanted to generate new material. Trees are also a renewable resource but take much longer to produce the same yield that a bamboo plantation can produce in a short amount of time.

Although there are embodied energy costs that factor into bamboo's "green-ness" (such as the fuel required to ship the products from their Asian source), from a sustainable-material point of view, it's hard to beat.

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What Should I Know About Bamboo?

Although bamboo floors have good attributes there are several things you should know that will help you make a better decision about whether they're a good choice for your home.

  • A Laminated Product That Contains Glue
    Bamboo floors are laminated products. That means they're made with glues and adhesives that may consist of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and can irritate those with allergies and other respiratory issues. Now to be fair to bamboo, formaldehyde is also found in anything made with pressed-wood products such as furniture and cabinets. Particle board and plywood are some of the more common pressed-wood materials.

    The US, Europe and Japan have regulations that limit the amount of formaldehyde that can be 'off-gassed' or emitted into the air. From that standpoint these products are considered safe. However, that doesn't mean improvement wouldn't be beneficial and efforts continue in both industry and legislation to further reduce formaldehyde use and exposure.

    In response to this some bamboo floor manufacturers have begun to use formaldehyde-free glues or low-emitting glues that fall well under the regulatory limits.

    If you have chemical sensitivities you'll want to look closely at a manufacturer's documentation to see if the adhesives they use are formaldehyde-free or at least produce low levels of formaldehyde emissions. Some producers make these claims on their website and in their literature. If you need to be absolutely sure, check a document called the "MSDS" (Material Safety Data Sheet) which is a legal document they're required to have for employees involved in the manufacture of a product. It provides information on any hazards associated with a particular substance. You should know that a manufacturer is under no obligation to provide the MSDS to consumers though some do and will probably do so if asked.

    Additional information on the subject of formaldehyde use and its effects can be found at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website discussion on indoor air quality. The site includes links to additional resources on the subject such as the US Consumer Safety Commission and the US Dept. of Health and Human Services.

  • Bamboo Can Be Colored And Stained Like Wood
    Bamboo's natural color is a light blond but a process called carbonization produces darker, caramel-colored tones. Many bamboo floor producers offer their products in the natural color and the carbonized color.

    bamboo floor grain and color bamboo floor grain and color

    One thing to note about the carbonizing process however is that it will soften the bamboo, making it less resistant to dents and depressions than its natural counterpart.

    Like wood, bamboo floors can be stained and there are several producers that offer bamboo floors in a number of different colors. So if you like the look of bamboo but aren't keen on its natural light tan color, there are products that provide color alternatives.
  • bamboo floor grain and color bamboo floor grain and color

  • Hardness That's Comparable To Wood Products
    One of bamboo's characteristics that gets a lot of attention is its hardness. There's a lot of information circulating about how it's harder than oak and maple, and with the right bamboo and under the right processing, it can be. But it doesn't mean that all bamboo is rock-hard.

    Bamboo matures quickly but if it's harvested too soon it won't have had time to naturally harden and will be soft. The type of bamboo predominantly used for flooring is the Moso variety, also known as Mao Zhu. It reaches maturity between 5 and 7 years. Harvesting any sooner may result in softer and inferior products.

    A natural process called "lignification" and the extent to which it occurs in the bamboo determines the hardness of the material. Bamboo, like wood, is made up of a bunch of capillaries or 'tubes' that run the length of the stalk. As the bamboo ages, the walls of these tubes thicken inwardly, or 'lignify', adding strength and stiffness. Cutting the bamboo before this occurs sufficiently (i.e. before 'maturation') disrupts this process and results in softer bamboo.

    So how do you determine which bamboo is better than others? There's no cut-and-dried answer but hardness results from the Janka Ball Test help. These test results, available in the product's technical specifications, indicate how hard or soft the bamboo floor is. You can then compare that to other types of wood.

    When it comes to the specific grain types of bamboo floors, strand woven bamboo is by far the hardest followed by horizontal grain then vertical grain.

    See the Publisher's Comments on the hardness of bamboo below for some additional commentary on the hardness issue.

  • Construction And Installation Similar To Wood
    Bamboo floors are made in several forms, similar to wood floors and can be installed using several methods.

    Bamboo is manufactured in solid planks, engineered planks and in floating-floor panels. The engineered planks have a bamboo top surface that's laminated to a core backing material, typically plywood or another type of wood. The construction is essentially no different from engineered hardwood floors.

    Installation options include glue-down, nailed (or stapled) and 'floated', using panels that click together but have no connection to the subfloor. Floating floors work well with radiant in-floor heating systems and for below-grade (basement) applications. Stapling the floor may provide better results than nailing due to the tendency of bamboo to splinter when using nails.

  • Read The Warranty
    The warranty on bamboo floors logically varies between manufacturers and among the different products they offer. What you'll usually see is a warranty that provides coverage on the structure and the finish.

    The structural aspect covers defects in manufacturing, delamination of the bamboo plies, etc. However it won't cover dents, scratches and wear and tear that normally occurs.

    The finish portion of the warranty covers wear-through of the surface coating to the bamboo surface. Scratches and dulling are not covered. Finish coverage runs the gamut from 5 years to 27 years whereas structural warranties are in the 20-25 year range up to lifetime coverage.

    Understanding what is and what isn't included in the warranty is important because things like how the floor is installed or where it's installed has a bearing on the warranty's validity. Some manufacturers do not cover the product if it's installed in a bathroom for example. Make sure you understand the warranty as does your installer if you're not installing the floor yourself.

  • Bamboo Will Fade
    Bamboo will fade with exposure to sunlight. How much fading will depend on the amount of direct sunlight it receives. This can be particularly noticeable when portions of the floor normally covered with things like area rugs are moved.

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What Does It Cost?

The cost of bamboo flooring varies somewhat by product type and where you purchase it. It ranges from approximately $2.00 to $8.00 per square foot, uninstalled. Most products however fall into the $3.00 to $6.00 per square foot bracket.

Prices don't differ that much between the online flooring retailers and the distributors/manufacturers that can sell you the product directly from their website. What you will see from the online floor sellers periodically are lower prices due to sales and clearances.

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Publisher's Comments - Making A Good Choice

A lot of information written about bamboo floors mentions its hardness as one of its best attributes. When you read the feedback provided by people who have installed bamboo in their home, the results are mixed. Some love it and rave about it's looks and their satisfaction with it. Others report problems, primarily with scratches and dents, belying bamboo's reputation for being "harder than oak" and "20% harder than Rock Maple". So why the difference in experience and how to do you ensure you're buying good bamboo? That's a good question.

While researching bamboo floors it was clear to me that their hardness is a major selling point (or maybe I should say 'advertising' point). In my opinion that message appears to raise people's expectations about how bamboo should perform. I'm speculating a bit here but if you keep hearing that bamboo is harder than oak and maple, and you know those woods are pretty hard, then it's not much of a stretch to think that maybe this leads to false expectations in people's minds on how bulletproof bamboo should be.

My research tells me that with bamboo, you've got to be careful and do the due diligence to end up with a very good product. It's either that or lower any expectations you might have that bamboo will never dent or scratch.

So am I saying that bamboo is not a good choice for a floor? Not at all. It's just not as simple as buying a product that's backed by established standards of quality and has a proven track record like hardwoods.

Keep in mind that as a flooring option in the mainstream, bamboo has only been available for roughly 10 years or so. It also doesn't have any set industry standards established that specify that X species, when harvested at Y maturity exhibits Z characteristics. In fact, as stated in a newsletter published in April 2007 by INBAR (International Network for Bamboo and Rattan), "..a major constraint to the development of bamboo as a modern construction material is the lack of design standards for structural bamboo." This refers more specifically to structural uses of bamboo but the point is made that in the absence of such standards, the quality of bamboo flooring could vary widely depending on species, maturation, etc.

So how do you know what you're getting and if it's any good? I'll tell you how I'd go about it based on the information currently available.

  1. Start with the Janka hardness test results
    First off, does the supplier provide this information? If not, can they get it for you? If you have this information, compare the hardness values to other types of wood within the scale to get an idea where the bamboo you're considering stands. Also ask how often the test is performed to gauge the consistency of the product coming out of the plantation (a hardness test performed on product 3 years ago doesn't confirm that what's being grown and harvested today is the same quality).

  2. Find out who controls the manufacturing and quality process
    Is the company you're dealing with just an importer or do they control the actual manufacture of the bamboo floor overseas? Do they monitor and regulate the quality process and are they certified in modern quality management processes such as ISO 9001 2000? If the supplier you deal with has no connection to the manufacturing source or quality process, how can you ensure that their quality doesn't vary? You can find out some or all of this information by checking out item 3 below.
  3. Check out the amount of information suppliers readily provide
    Does the supplier provide lots of information in their literature or on their website that talks about their manufacturing and quality standards? Are they up front about the raw material they use and when it's harvested? Do they provide product technical specifications? Do they respond to your questions? Some do a very good job of establishing credibility by being open about these details. Others provide little information. Which supplier gives you the most confidence?
  4. Test samples of the product yourself
    This may just be common sense but some overlook it. Get some actual samples of the bamboo flooring you're considering and then challenge it. Drop a can of soup on it and see what happens. Walk across it with high heels. Does your fingernail leave an indentation with minimal pressure? How easily does it scratch? If you can, compare it side-by-side to some hardwood floor samples and note whether there's any difference.

I like to think of bamboo flooring as being comparable to some hardwoods relative to its hardness but not dent-proof and certainly not indestructible. It falls within a range of woods that runs the gamut from hard to soft. If you find a bamboo floor that's as hard as oak then just remember that oak still gets dented and scratched, as will the bamboo.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Cork Flooring - If bamboo doesn't suit you how about cork? Cork flooring is another green flooring option with resiliency and a unique look.

Choosing Wood Flooring - Choosing the right wood flooring might seem like an overwhelming task. This article makes it easy to learn what you should know about wood floors and how to go about making the right choice.

Wide Plank Wood Flooring - Wide plank flooring offers a distinctive style that's different from standard narrower width wood floors. Find out what's available in this article on wide plank wood floors.

Exotic Hardwood Flooring - If oak, birch or maple doesn't suit you, check out this article on choosing an exotic hardwood floor.

Reclaimed Wood Flooring - Some of the most unique wood floors are made using reclaimed wood. Find out how to go about choosing a wood floor that has a history behind it.

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