Bamboo Flooring: What to Know Before You Buy

Bedroom bamboo floor


tulcarion / Getty Images

Bamboo flooring has become popular as a residential wood flooring choice. Virtually unheard of a couple of decades ago, bamboo flooring easily competes with softwoods like spruce and maple and hardwoods like oak and walnut for its share of the floor covering market. But this is a peculiar popularity since this supposed wood flooring is not a wood at all.

What Is Bamboo Flooring?

Bamboo flooring's source material is one that has been so heavily engineered and impregnated with resins that it is as durable as some of the hardest of the hardwoods. Bamboo is a grass, not a wood. Most bamboo that is sourced for flooring comes mostly from the southern Chinese province of Hunan. Because bamboo flooring does not fit into other flooring categories such as tile, vinyl, or laminate, it is conveniently slotted into the wood flooring category, if only because it looks so much like wood.

Bamboo is quickly renewable. It matures to full size in just three years, at which time it can be cut for use as a floor. Some hardwoods can take up to a half-century to mature. It is because of bamboo floor's quick renewability that is considered to be a green or eco-friendly building material.

Horizontal or Vertical vs. Strand-Woven Bamboo Flooring

Horizontal or Vertical Bamboo Flooring

Both horizontal and vertical bamboo flooring give you the look of actual bamboo in flooring form.

During the preparation and milling process, the bamboo stalks are sliced into strips. After boiling to remove the starch, the strips are dried and laminated into rough board form. The boards are then milled into strip flooring, just like conventional solid wood flooring. Finally, the bamboo flooring is treated with a preservative.

Strands or stalks can either be laid out and adhere vertically or horizontally. The main difference between vertical and horizontal flooring is aesthetic. Horizontal bamboo flooring looks very much like the way bamboo should look. The pattern shows the bamboo's culm (stalk) and its nodes, which are similar to knuckles.

When the stalks are laid out vertically, the flooring looks more like striped tigerwood. The flooring still looks like bamboo but its streaks are more pronounced. Tigerwood bamboo, often called tiger strand bamboo or zebrawood bamboo, also uses a mixture of carbonized and non-carbonized bamboo strips to produce the distinctive tigerwood look.

The term vertical bamboo flooring might be deceptive. The bamboo stalks are laid vertically, but this does not mean on end. Rather, the stalks are laid on their sides, roughly similar to the way a stack of paper might be laid on its side.

Strand-Woven Bamboo Flooring

Strand-woven bamboo flooring uses bamboo, but the end result looks more like hardwood or softwood than like bamboo.

Strand-woven bamboo flooring integrates the smaller strands and not just the stalks with the adhesive, making it a stronger product. The bamboo is completely pulped and mashed up, just like wood is pulped to form particleboard. This means that the manufacturers of strand-woven bamboo flooring can create a full range of appearances.

Bamboo Flooring Durability

Bamboo flooring is considered to be highly stable. It is a good choice for high traffic homes and for homes that have pets, as it stands up well against claws.

Bamboo flooring's durability varies since it is the treatment of the bamboo by adhesives and its processing that give it its hardness and rarely any inherent quality of the grass itself. In fact, one treatment, called carbonizing, adds color to the bamboo but further weakens it. This increases the need for additional strengthening methods.

Lower quality bamboo may range around 900-1300 on the Janka scale for flooring hardwood. More typical Janka Hardness Scale numbers for bamboo flooring are around 1500, placing bamboo between soft Douglas Fir (660) and the extremely hard and expensive Brazilian Walnut (3800).

Bamboo Flooring Installation Methods

Bamboo flooring offers a variety of installation methods. The installation method depends on the type of flooring purchased. Verify with the flooring company which type of installation method is appropriate for your flooring.

Nail Down or Staple Down Bamboo Flooring

As with normal hardwood floor installation, the bamboo floorboards are nailed or stapled into place atop a subfloor. The nails or staples are driven through the grooves in the floorboards.

Floating Bamboo Flooring

Strips of bamboo flooring snap into each other on top of foam underlayment. No nails or glue are used. The considerable weight of the bamboo flooring acting as a single unit prevents it from sliding around. The floating method is popular with do-it-yourselfers because the floorboards can endlessly be rearranged until the perfect look is achieved.

Glue-Down Bamboo Flooring

Strips of bamboo flooring snap into each other and are glued down for maximum stability. Glue-down bamboo flooring is less popular among do-it-yourselfers because its short working time does not allow for mistakes.