“Green” is trending as awareness grows of the critical importance of protecting our natural resources. More and more retailers, designers and homeowners are willing to explore sustainable building materials as viable alternatives to traditional products—including bamboo flooring.
However, a cursory search of the Internet on the pros and cons of bamboo flooring returns a barrage of often contradictory information, leaving the interested party with equal parts intrigue and apprehension and potentially vulnerable to the schemes of low-quality manufacturers. A comprehensive view of how bamboo is sourced, manufactured, acclimated and installed is key to alleviating concerns and empowering the informed choice of every consumer.
Is bamboo for you? In this article, you'll learn...
- how to measure the quality of bamboo flooring
- tips for installation
- how to maintain bamboo flooring
Measuring a product’s quality
Of all of the bamboo found around the world, the prized Moso in China’s Anhui province is the species renowned for strength, hardness and versatility. Incredible in natural abundance, Moso grows at a rate that far exceeds people’s ability to harvest it. This remarkable resource is self-sustainable, and has been used for centuries due to its natural structural properties. The recent and rising popularity of bamboo—which is a woody grass and not a hardwood—has driven down the costs associated with sourcing and producing it, making it a competitive product in today’s building materials markets.
Bamboo flooring first hit the market in the 1990s but with a number of early setbacks. Original models weren’t so aesthetically pleasing and were very susceptible to denting. Since that time, however, manufacturing processes for sourcing, designing and producing bamboo materials have significantly improved.
Modern manufacturing is now capable of producing a far more attractive, versatile and durable product that can outperform even the hardest of traditional hardwoods. And yet, because the bamboo manufacturing process has yet to be subjected to strict quality control standards, it is undoubtedly vulnerable to those who want to cut corners. Because differences are often hard to determine with the naked eye, it is crucial for the consumer to understand ways to differentiate between low-cost and quality bamboo flooring.
The process by which quality bamboo is manufactured begins with Moso bamboo that is harvested at its peak, which is around five to seven years. Low-quality floors, on the other hand, use bamboo that is young and immature, which makes it softer. Quality bamboo is thoroughly dried to 6-8% moisture, while lower-cost floors dry to 8-12%, cutting time to market and saving on labor, but resulting in less durable flooring.
Quality bamboo manufacturers focus on structural integrity and use high-grade adhesives, while cheap bamboo flooring is manufactured with inferior glues that not only affect the integrity of the product but can contain and release toxic chemicals. These chemicals can be harmful to homeowners if ingested through off-gassing—a process by which material installed in a home slowly releases compounds into the surrounding atmosphere. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can pose serious health risks to anyone, but especially to younger children due to the vulnerability of their developing respiratory systems.
Another way manufacturers can cut corners is with the amount of bamboo that is used in each plank. The true test? Holding samples in hand. Heavier samples indicate quality and durability, while lighter samples suggest inadequate density and planks that may bend and even break. Apart from in-hand testing, the easiest way to determine the durability of bamboo flooring is to reference its Janka hardness rating. This score (achieved through a process of applying thousands of pounds of pressure) helps determine how well the floor will hold up under weight, as well as its potential for scratching and denting.
The durability of bamboo flooring is also determined by the finish applied to the floors. Low-quality manufacturers use fewer coats of aluminum oxide or other finishes, which shortens production time and lowers cost, but means more scratches and damage in the long run. High-quality manufacturers utilize multiple (sometimes upwards of 10) coats to protect the floor from wear. Performing a simple scratch test on samples can be highly effective in determining the quality of the material and its finishing.
A product called “engineered bamboo” has been recently brought to market in the green building community. However, just as with solid bamboo, not all engineered bamboo is equal. Low-cost engineered bamboo is comprised of mostly unspecified woods and a very thin top (wear) layer of bamboo, making it only partially eco-friendly and much less durable. Quality engineered bamboo flooring is a true hybrid of sustainable woods, usually comprised of products such as eucalyptus or poplar that has been cross-layered to support a wear layer of bamboo. Interested consumers should look into the materials used, as well as the density of the engineered bamboo.
With a keen awareness of the importance of how a floor is manufactured, savvy purchasers can choose quality bamboo that is harder, more durable, incredibly flexible, versatile and even comparable in cost to traditional hardwoods. Keeping this in mind, what then keeps homeowners from purchasing bamboo flooring? Much of the apprehension involving bamboo centers around a lack of knowledge regarding application, installation, and care and maintenance.
When it comes to application options, quality bamboo flooring can be an ideal solution for a variety of commercial and residential requirements. Bamboo can be installed over any subfloor, and solid bamboo can even be installed over radiant heat. In addition, while solid bamboo can be applied in almost every area, engineered bamboo products open the door to environments with extremely low or high humidity (such as below-grade rooms, like basements).
Like all traditional hardwoods, bamboo flooring expands as it absorbs humidity and shrinks as the air grows drier. Unlike traditional hardwoods, bamboo has been known to expand in more than one direction. While traditional hardwood planks only expand in one direction along the grain, bamboo’s lack of grain can cause expansion in two directions. The effects of this type of expansion can be minimized by allowing for expansion space along all four edges of a room, and by following a manufacturer’s pre-installation guidelines.
Pre-installation guidelines often include keeping subfloors clean and level, applying vapor barriers to concrete subfloors, choosing the correct underlayment for the application and allowing a floor to acclimate for the recommended time frame. Solid bamboo flooring may require a minimum of five days (longer for areas with extremely low or high humidity) for acclimation. Proper acclimation allows floors to adjust to the conditions in which they’ll be installed, and allows the homeowner to mix and mingle planks, accounting for natural color variation in the bamboo. (Editor’s note: Acclimating a strand-woven product can take significantly longer, and getting an accurate moisture reading in a strand-woven product can also be difficult.)
After flooring has been properly acclimated, it can then be installed based on the method recommended by the manufacturer. Installation options often vary based on how the planks have been milled. Industry standard tongue and groove (T&G) is the most versatile format, allowing for gluing, nailing and floating. Click-lock milling, while beloved by DIY-ers for its inherent simplicity, can only be glued or floated, not nailed down. Regardless of the method preferred, it is vital to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and choose the proper method of acclimation in order to diminish any potential for future concerns.
The final question regularly posed by people considering bamboo is “Can it be refinished?” Traditional hardwoods have been around so long that homeowners have become programmed to brace themselves for a refinishing process every five to 10 years. Strand-woven, aluminum-oxide finished solid bamboo flooring breaks this cycle due to its extreme resistance to denting and scratching. While it can be refinished, it rarely (if ever) needs to be.
All of this prep work leads to one final consideration: How to keep bamboo flooring looking great for many years to come. Just like hardwood floors, bamboo flooring performs best when kept free of dirt and debris; when homeowners use only a vacuum designed for hard surfaces and never wet mop the floor; and when the only chemicals utilized for treatment are those recommended by the manufacturer. Light surface scratches (typically appearing as white lines) can be easily disguised using a color-matched touch-up marker. For deeper gouges, a fill stick can be used prior to the touch-up marker. Keeping the home’s relative humidity as consistent as possible and avoiding prolonged exposure of the floors to direct sunlight also helps minimize wear and discoloration.
The eco-friendly nature of bamboo ensures its ability to meet increased demand, and aesthetic improvements allow it to mimic many modern design trends (such as wide and ultra-wide plank, oil hard-wax finishes and unique, hand-scraped surface distressing). High-quality bamboo floors are available in virtually any style and color, which can also appeal to traditional hardwood lovers.