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 of flooring materials.
The material itself hasn’t really changed, but it now comes with a durable factory finish, so there’s a lot less maintenance. Pigments have improved too, allowing for a broader palette of some 170 stay-true tints. Here’s a primer on this hardworking surface and it’s potential for use in any modern home’s most demanding rooms.
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 credentials that newer material can’t match.
Linseed oil gives linoleum its name: a Latin mash-up of linum (flax) and oleum (oil). Other components are cork dust, wood flour, pine resin, ground limestone, and pigments pressed onto a jute backing.
Linoleum can wear for decades when properly installed and maintained. Maintenance level is considered 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. Three major manufacturers—Forbo, Armstrong, and Tarkett—produce the lion’s share of linoleum.
Linoleum Sheet Product
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. The floor should be kept clear of heavy furniture for three days in order to avoid creating dents.
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
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.
Linoleum Versus Vinyl
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’s pros include low maintenance, DIY-friendly, waterproof and a range of vibrant colors and patterns. It’s cons include that it is a nonrenewable material, non-recyclable, it can off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and it is not color-through, so patterns fade with wear
Linoleum pros include that it is a recyclable, renewable material, pigmentation goes all the way through the material, and it is inherently antistatic and antimicrobial. It’s cons include that most versions require pro installation, that it is water resistant but not waterproof, it has a linseed-oil smell when new, and that it needs resealing every five years or so.
Patterns and Colors
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,”. A foam rug pad goes underneath for a cushiony feel.
What About “bloom?”
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.
More Uses for Linoleum
Think outside the box—and off the floor—with this versatile product. For example on walls, Rigid Lincrusta sheets, another Frederick Walton invention of 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.
For 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.