Feature Article: Kitchen Flooring

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Introduction
Utilitarian Considerations
Material Options
Wood
Laminate
Bamboo
Linoleum
Vinly
Ceramic Tile
Stone
Cork
Concrete
Rubber
Soft Flooring
Radiant Heat
Do-It-Yourself Options
Flooring Resources
Vendors
Manufacturers
Bamboo
Ceramic and Stone
Concrete
Cork
Hardwood
Laminate
Linoleum
Vinyl
Radiant Heat
Rubber and Leather

Like most decisions you’ll make about what to put in your kitchen, choosing the right flooring material is a balancing act between aesthetics and utility. Because flooring is probably the single largest surface area in the room, and certainly the part of it you’ll be in physical contact with most, finding your particular equipoise between taste and function is critical. With the range of today’s design options as broad as it is, whether you’re leaning toward Italian marble or linoleum, finding flooring you’ll consider beautiful, and aesthetically harmonious with the rest of your kitchen and house is not difficult. So let’s put aesthetics aside for the moment and focus on function.

 

Utilitarian Issues

Before surveying the main factors in the flooring decision-making process, we’ll offer our first piece of advice: No matter which styles and materials you're considering, unless you have flooring experience, talk to people who do. Merchants and installers abound who can offer you valuable advice regarding materials and installation.

When considering flooring, the utilitarian characteristics to take into account are comfort, maintenance requirements, durability, and acoustical properties.

Distressed Indian Limestone
Distressed limestone floor

Comfort is a matter of not only how the surface feels when you’re standing or walking on it—whether you’re wearing shoes, socks, or nothing on your feet—but also of how your body feels after you’ve been standing on it for a couple of hours. The dynamic is a little like that of carrying a 25-pound bag of potatoes 100 yards across a parking lot. It's not bad for the first few yards, but by the time you’re halfway to your car, you’re not marveling at how strong you are so much as how insidious gravity can be. After standing on a hard floor, such as stone, ceramic tile or concrete for a couple of hours, your feet, legs, and back will feel more stressed than after the same amount of time on a floor with some “give”, like bamboo or cork. Also, the harder the surface, the denser the material, and denser materials are better conductors of temperature, which is why tile and stone floors are more prevalent in warmer climates. On any typical winter morning, granite and marble aren’t as inviting in New England as they are in Key West.

Today's flooring materials, both nautral and synthetic, are low maintenance compared to the wax-and-buff, pre-polyurethane flooring of years ago. Depending on your lifestyle, a virtually maintenance-free surface may be appropriate, such as laminate or vinyl, in mid-range colors that won't show dirt, scratches or scuff marks as much as on floors with lighter or deeper shades. Flooring manufacturers prescribe (and often sell) products designed for optimum maintenance and cleaning of their flooring.

Whichever material you choose for your kitchen, if it’s installed well and you care for it properly, it’s likely to last and look good for decades. Still, be sure to order enough material so that after the floor is installed you have several leftover tiles or planks, n case you need to replace pieces later. The same goes for grout, sealants and finishes, and any other materials that will enable future maintenance and repairs.

As with comfort, the kitchen floor’s acoustical properties have both an immediate and an aggregate effect. A goup of loud kids is going to sound louder in a room with a lot of reflective surface area, like stone or tile. And they’re going to seem even louder after a period of time.

Material Options

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Wood

Hardwood floor
Cherry floor

Any of the woods customarily used for flooring are suitable for a kitchen as long as they are installed properly onto a level, stable subfloor, and then properly maintained. Wood is warm underfoot, easy on the lower body, and fairly quiet. The harder and more tightly-grained the species, the more durable and moisture-resistant the floor will be. Yellow pine is at the lower end of this spectrum, along with other species of conifer, like spruce and redwood. Brazilian cherry is at the higher end, with walnut, oak, maple, and hickory in the middle, in ascending order. A wood species comparison chart offers a more detailed picture of the choices. We also link this Wood Species Guide in the Hardwood section of our Flooring Resources at the end of this article.

Hardwood - maple
Maple wood flooring

Like most natural materials, wood will fade in both artificial light and direct sunlight. Unless you use a very dark (or stained) variety, your floor will probably need refinishing due to normal wear and tear before you notice discoloration due to light. Refinishing is usually called for every ten years or so, depending on various factors.

Installation methods include nailed, stapled, or glued down planks, and “floating floor” installation. The latter method is commonly used over a concrete subfloor, or in homes in which there is a high degree of temperature and/or humidity variation, such as a vacation home that is not climate-controlled year round.

Wood flooring can be purchased unfinished or pre-finished. While the factory-applied finish offers a cleaner, smoother look, some experts recommend having the kitchen floor finished by the installer, assuring better sealing of the joints between the planks. The seepage of moisture between or under the boards is the most common cause of kitchen wood floor damage. Stains, scratches, nicks and dents can be sanded, filled, refinished; warped or rotted planks can not usually be repaired, but can sometimes be replaced. Since its invention in the 1940s, polyurethane has become the finish of choice for wood floors that need protection from high traffic and exposure to dirt and moisture. It’s usually applied directly to unfinished or sanded wood in several coats. It’s tough, needs no waxing, resists moisture, and is easy to clean. It’s available in a wide variety of lusters—notably gloss, satin, and matte. Heed the advice of the manufacturers and installers when choosing a finish and caring for your floor.

Parquet—geometrically patterned tiles made up of individual wood slats fastened together, usually with glue—is an alternative to planks. The available products vary widely in quality; otherwise, the tiles have much the same properties as planks.

Parquet pattern 1   Parquet pattern 2
Two styles of parquet flooring

Average cost range for installed solid wood floors is $7 to $14 per square foot.

 

Laminate

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Laminate - Maple
Maple laminate
Laminate - Walnut
Walnut laminate

This recent development in flooring material, introduced in the US in 1996 by the Pergo company, is like a highly evolved plywood. It consists of a high-density fiberboard with a laminated surface of aluminum oxide with a printed photograph that makes it look like wood, stone, ceramic, or some other natural material. For its low cost, ease of installation and maintenance, durability, and availability in a huge range of patterns and colors, laminate floors became very popular in a short period of time, with companies like Mannington, Formica, and Wilsonart introducing flooring lines in the late 90s to grab a slice of the burgeoning market.

Laminate is usually installed as a floating floor, sometimes with a thin layer of foam between the long planks (typically 48"x 10") and the subfloor, which can be an existing floor, unlike with wood. It usually has a bit of "give", making it fairly comfortable, but it tends to be a little more acoustically reflective—noisier—than wood. Glue is used between the planks to keep them together, but the seams are not sealed on the surface, and big spills can seep between the planks and cause major damage that can be difficult to repair. Also, the surface cannot be sanded or refinished.

Laminate cost is often lower than real wood by several dollars per square foot. Even though laminate is more impervious to scratches and dents (four times more so) than hardwood), and is less prone to fading from light, its susceptibility to repeated exposure to water makes the installation of a laminate floor in the kitchen more questionable than installing the same material in, say, a rec room.

Cost range: $4 to $8 per sq. ft. installed.

 

Bamboo

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Natural Bamboo
Bamboo - natural color
Carbonized Bamboo
Bamboo - carbonized

In every region of the US, the use of bamboo in the interior construction and renovation field has exploded in the last couple of years. This self-regenerating grass grows in East Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, sometimes at the rate of two feet a day, which makes it an extremeley renewable resource. Most of the bamboo flooring material used in the US is engineered in factories in China, and is either made of solid bamboo—narrow individual strips glued together and made into multi-layered planks using a heat/pressure process—or a format called longstrip, where strips of bamboo are adhered onto wood core boards. We’ve seen this latter format referred to as “plyboo” in a couple of places, but we’ll not be using that term. In both cases the surface is harder than oak and maple, the two most popular types of hardwood flooring. It's generally more durable than hardwood when finished properly, expands and contracts 50% less than most hardwoods, and costs a bit less than hardwood flooring. It can be installed as a floating floor over almost any solid existing floor, including concrete and vinyl, and secured with glue or nails. When its surface does begin to show signs of wear, about the same time as wood, it can be sanded and refinished, but only once, because of the way it is layered. Regarding comfort and acoustical properties, bamboo is comparable to most hardwoods.

A limitation of early bamboo flooring was that it was available in only a few shades. Natural bamboo has a light, blonde, maple-like tone. Carbonized bamboo, achieved through a process of smoking the bamboo, allows the grains to take on a darker caramel or amber tone. Increasingly, we're seeing bamboo lines in more widely varied colors and shades.

Chances are the reader is familiar with most other flooring materials covered in this article. If you haven’t "experienced" bamboo—seen it, walked on it, felt it—you owe it to yourself to do so before eliminating it as a possibility for your home. That experience has had a big impact on a lot of homeowners, recently.

Cost range, installed: $5-$12 per sq. ft.

 

Linoleum

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Linoleum is another green option—a material manufactured from linseed oil, rosin, cork powder, jute, and other renewable resources. But it became a popular flooring choice for residential, commercial, and institutional use many decades before the word "green" had the association with the environment that it does today.

Marmoleum - Aquarius
Marmoleum - Crob Black
Marmoleum - Granada

Compared to the materials we’ve covered so far, linoleum is a bit softer underfoot, and more sound absorbent because it’s not quite as hard as wood, laminate or bamboo. Properly installed and cared for, it’s durable enough for a heavily trafficked kitchen, though it doesn't have as long a lifespan as any of the natural materials. It comes in sheets and tiles (typically 12”x12”), and is applied to the subfloor with glue. The variety of available colors and designs is enormous, and the tiles are easily cut so that installing, and juxtaposing different tiles allows for the creation of a custom pattern for your kitchen. The major manufacturers—Armstrong, Forbo (makers of Marmoleum), and Tarkett—sell adhesives, sealants, and cleaners designed especially for their flooring, and prescribe maintenance practices that will help protect the flooring from scratches and scuffs, and maximize the life of the floor. Because of linoleum’s flexibility, damaged sections of the floor can often be spot-repaired in a way that laminate and engineered wood products cannot. Perhaps linoleum’s biggest drawback is that when large areas of the floor start to look worn from years of heavy use there’s no way to restore it.

If you haven’t seen Marmoleum flooring recently, we encourage you to check it out. Today’s product is quite beautiful compared to the linoleum of a generation ago.

Linoleum costs in the area of $4 to $10 per sq. ft. installed.

 

Vinyl

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For its resilience, economy, relative ease of installation and maintenance, and availability in a vast array of colors and patterns, vinyl, one of the first wholly synthetic plastics, has been a popular flooring material for nearly a century. New manufacturing processes and intense attention from designers have added functionality and pleasing aesthetics to the material generally thought of as cheap, rolled-out floor covering for those who either can’t afford a “real” floor or just don’t care. The knock that, no matter how you dress it up, no matter what kind of texture or pattern you imprint, no matter how many cushioning or sound-absorption features you add, vinyl always looks like vinyl should be questioned as you survey your options. Today's vinyl is an exciting and appropriate choice in many situations.

The cost per square foot is about as low as any of the options, at $3 to $7.

Ceramic Tile

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Ceramic tiles, along with concrete and stone, are the hardest, most durable flooring material in use today. In fact, kiln-fired clay tiles have been demonstrating their durability for millennia. Many mosaic tile floors survived the eruption of Vesuvius, back in 79 AD. They also provide you with the widest array of design options of any flooring material. They come in a range of shapes and sizes, starting at less than a square inch, in the case of mosaics, and colors and glazes that allow for infinite configuration possibilities.

It’s the baked-on glaze that gives tile much of its durability, and that makes it resistant to water, dirt, and direct sunlight, factors that could have a fading effect. Ceramic is porous, so unglazed varieties, like terra cotta, need to be coated with a sealer for kitchen use, and this may detract from the visual or textural appearance of the original material. While glazed tile will stand up better to spills and dropped pots than any of the materials we’ve discussed to this point, the grout that is used between the individual tiles is another matter. It’s quite porous, absorbs dirt and water, and is not easy to clean. It needs to be treated with several coats of sealer specifically formulated to protect the material. see table to compare char of ceramic types.

     
Various ceramic tiles.

Before you run out to your local tile showroom and start falling in love with the Spanish imports on display, consider the drawbacks of a tile floor in your kitchen. It’s hard on the feet and legs (and lower back, if you’re susceptible to back pain after standing for long periods). It’s cold to the touch in cold climates, unless you have radiant heating (which we’ll discuss later, and in which case it’s wonderful to the touch). It won’t be forgiving when you drop your great grandmother’s Waterford pitcher on it the way a softer surface might. Even though it's tough, once a tile becomes chipped or broken, the "repair" usually requires that tile to be replaced.  Even if you have a replacement tile, it can be challenging to match a years-old grout color. Tile is very reflective of sound, and, finally, ceramic tile can be very slippery when wet.

Porcelain is a material made from a denser clay than that from which other ceramics (like stoneware and earthenware) are made, and it is fired at higher temperatures. It is usually white and often has a translucent look. Glass, technically not a ceramic, is used to make tiles, more often for walls but sometimes as a flooring material, and has many of the same properties which we’ve been discussing. Of course, it’s waterproof, hard, acoustically reflective, translucent or iridescent—making its combination with other tiles an interesting and popular design choice. But talk about slippery when wet.

Prices for ceramic tile start around $8 per sq. ft. installed and go up from there.

 

Stone

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Granite - multicolor red Granite - Serizzo Monterossa
Marble - Ebony Onyx Marble - Paonazzo
Slate - multicolor green Slate
Various stone materials

Most of the stone materials used to make floor tiles share many of the characteristics of ceramics. Granite is especially hard, and can outlast your house. Marble, slate, limestone, and travertine are not as hard, and are, to varying degrees, more porous. Limestone, in particular, should be sealed after installation to protect against moisture and stains. Most stone can be honed to a smooth, polished surface, as marble usually is, but one of the appeals of stone is its natural, somewhat rough surface texture. Because tiles made from stone are generally less uniform in appearance than ceramics, having more variations in color, veining, and speckling, different varieties are not usually combined with each other. A

Tile and Stone Comparison Chart provides additional information about a variety of stone types.

The drawbacks of stone echo those of ceramic. It is unforgiving to the touch, to the ears, and to dropped breakables, and it can be cold on the feet, depending on the locale.

Because of the weight and rigidity of stone, its installation is more technically demanding than that of other materials.

The costs vary widely, but are about the same as for ceramic tile.

 

Cork

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Various cork floors

Moving from the hardest, loudest material to one of the cushiest and quietest, excluding carpet, we encounter cork. The floors in the Library of Congress are cork. None of the flooring materials we discuss in this article have more "give" underfoot than cork. None are better insulators against temperature; none are more absorbent of sound or of the shock of a dropped breakable; and none are at both water-resistant and non-slip.

Cork, is harvested from the bark of a cork tree, one of the few trees that has regenerating bark. Each tree can be harvested, with very little waste material, every six years for centuries, making this material one of the most environmentally friendly. The main ingredient in cork is suberin, a waxy substance also found in mangroves, the rinds of some melons, and other plants, whose function is to prevent water from penetrating into plant tissues. This capacity to resist moisture makes cork hypoallergenic in that it resists the growth of mold and mildew. In spite of this, it is recommended that you seal the surface, best done with a few coats of bowling alley wax or other protective coating, as untreated cork has been known to absorb stains, especially greasy ones, and leech dirt from the soles of your shoes. If it does become stained, the only remedy is to sand it down to below the discoloration.

Cork comes in tiles and in planks and can be installed over existing flooring, with or without adhesive. It is one of the easiest of flooring materials to install by the do-it-yourselfer, but unless you have experience with this type of project, seek advice from experts.

Price of installed cork flooring is roughly equivalent to that of laminate and linoleum at $4-$10.

Concrete

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If your existing kitchen floor is concrete, which might be the case if your home is in a building that wasn’t originally designed as a residence, don’t automatically assume you need to lay new material over it in order to have an attractive, practical floor. There’s a wide array of "decorative concrete" options—overlays, paints, acid-stains and polishes, engravings, and skim coats with a variety of finishes—that can turn boring, gray cement into a designer floor.

Concrete example 1 Concrete - acid stained
Concrete - example 2 Concrete - example 3
The varied looks of concrete

Like the other hard surfaces discussed above, it is unforgiving and loud, but it is virtually indestructible. If, later, you decide to change to another flooring material, you’ll have the perfect subfloor to go over.

Rubber

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Rubber flooring tiles

We include links to rubber products— area mats and complete floors—in our Flooring Resources section at the end of this article. Rubber has become one of the more popular flooring choices for gyms, assembly lines, commercial kitchens, and entryways, for its resilience, anti-slip, anti-fatigue, and vibration-reducing, qualities. Still relatively rare as flooring material in home kitchens, rubber might make sense if your kitchen has an industrial cast to it and/or if you have concrete floors.

Rubber is relatively inexpensive and available in a wide variety of styles and colors. If you have a loft or converted industrial space, and you're interested in alternative interior design approaches, it’s worth checking into rubber.

Soft Flooring Options

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There are myriad beautiful options in soft flooring, including carpeting and leather, and while it may be tempting to have a quiet, cushy floor underfoot as you’re cooking, it’s just not a practical option for a kitchen. One spill of red wine, or a dropped, grease-filled pan can wreak havoc on a carpeted floor. An alternative to carpeting an entire kitchen floor is to use area rugs and/or rubber mats to provide comfort, and that can be removed for cleaning. Even if you use a washable, hypoallergenic, commercial-grade carpet, or imported Italian leather tiles, these absorbent materials require much more maintenance than the other flooring options when installed in a kitchen.

Radiant Heat

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If you’re installing a new kitchen floor in a house located in a region where the winters are cold, you might consider including an under-the-floor heating system. Unlike convection heat, in which warm air rises wastefully from vents and radiators to the ceiling, in-floor radiant heat transfers warmth to people and other objects in the room vis-a-vis direct contact with the floor, rather than heating the air directly. Radiant heat requires less energy than other methods to heat a given thermal mass, making it relatively efficient. A larger surface area is warmed to a lower temperature, with the benefit of avoiding the dangers of very hot radiators.

Electric radiant systems, in which thin heating wires, sometimes embedded in insulating boards or mats, have become more common, and can be installed under almost any type of flooring without raising the height of the finished floor more than 2-3 millimeters. "Wet" systems, in which warm water, heated in a boiler or water heater, is circulated through a network of plastic tubes, is also a popular option.

The cost of installing radiant heating has come down as the systems have been made more modular and as the market has become increasingly competitive. An electric radiant heating system can be installed in a 15' x 15' kitchen for as little as $1,500.

The Do-It-Yourself Option

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Many of the materials discussed above are available in lines designed to allow for homeowner installation. Particularly, the engineered, wood-based products—laminate, cork, bamboo—come in a variety of prefinished formats, including tongue-and-groove plank ,or fit-together tile, and can be installed as floating-floors, which don't require nailing or mastics. If you don't have experience working with the materials you've chosen, educate yourself about any special difficulties before you take on the project. From prep work to finishing, each medium poses very particular demands. Often, the most challenging aspects of a flooring job for the do-it-yourselfer are the perimeters: working around corners, doorways, and other irregular spaces where the flooring material has to be cut very exactingly to fit the room tightly. Special tools are usually required, the use of which can call for particular skills. Your expertise in cutting wood with a scroll saw will serve you well when you cut tile with a wet saw for the first time, but don't underestimate the learning curve required by a new tool or technique. As always, planning and preparation is key. Be sure to have enough material to allow for mistakes and waste. The condition of the subfloor is of supreme importance. If old flooring needs to be removed, or if the surface is not level or needs repair, consider enlisting the help of an experienced hand. Remember that the margin for error in a kitchen floor may be smaller than in a room where there's less traffic, fewer spills, and no heat-generating appliances.


Flooring Resources

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Vendor Links:

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These vendors carry very extensive lines of flooring —their sites are good sources of more info, product photos, and prices. Most of the outlets listed carry lines in a wide range of materials.

Bamboo-Flooring.com
Black River Flooring
FastFloors.com
FooringAmerica.com
ifloor.com
InternetFloors.com
kitchentiledirect.com
Linoleum City (not just linoleum)
rubbercal.com
SimpleFloors.com

Manufacturer Links:

The following flooring types are in alphabetical order.

Bamboo

123 Bamboo
Duro-Design
EcoTimber
Shanghai C & E
Teragren

Ceramic and Stone

Dal-Tile
EDGE Flooring Tile
Original Style
Polcelonosa
Stone Peak
Solistone

Concrete

Concrete Network (source of general information)

Cork

Duro-Design
Jelinek
Wicander

Hardwood

Anderson
Bruce
Columbia Forest
Kahrs
Nordstar
Nydree Flooring
Torlys
Wood Species Comparison Chart
HardwoodInfo.com: Species Guide

Laminate

Armstrong
Bruce Laminate
Mannington
Pergo
Wilsonart

Linoleum

Armstrong
Forbo / Marmoleum
Tarkett

Vinyl

Armstrong
Congoleum
Tarkett

Radiant Heat

Radiant Design Institute (general information site)
Warmboard
Warmly Yours
Warmup

Rubber

Rubber Cal Torlys Leather Floors

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Updated: February 24, 2010