What’s the Difference: Linoleum vs. Vinyl
Flooring options abound—even the options have options. But if you’re looking for inexpensive flooring, especially in a potentially wet area such as a kitchen or bathroom, you’re probably going to consider linoleum and vinyl. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, these materials are not the same. The mention of either sometimes conjures up images of second-rate products, but both have their place. Linoleum and vinyl fall into the category of resilient flooring. According to Michele Zelman of Armstrong, which makes flooring products out of both materials, to call a flooring material resilient means that it can restore its shape. If a heavy object were to land on it, the material wouldn’t necessarily be permanently dented. Linoleum is mostly, but not exclusively, limited to commercial applications. Vinyl is found in numerous residential and commercial applications. Both materials are available in sheets and in tiles.
First patented over 150 years ago, linoleum is an older product than most people realize, and like many innovations, it was discovered by accident. English inventor Frederick Walton observed how a solid but flexible film formed on top of linseed-oil-based paint. He experimented with this natural product and eventually found it to be a perfect floor and wall covering. Since linseed oil was the primary component, Walton called his new product linoleum.
Another important characteristic of linoleum that is largely unknown—but far more relevant to current home-building trends—is that it’s all natural and biodegradable. In addition to linseed oil, linoleum includes pine rosin, limestone, cork flour, wood flour, jute as the backing, and coloring pigments. Its color goes through to the backing, so scratches don’t readily show. Homeowners increasingly are selecting it as a green material that is relatively inexpensive.
Linoleum must be installed over a clean, smooth, and level surface, as imperfections in the floor can cause bumps. If the surface can’t be smoothed, an underlayment may be needed. Linoleum is cut with a utility knife or a heavy-duty curved linoleum knife. Typically, it’s secured with flooring adhesive, and depending on manufacturer specifications, a 100-lb. roller may be used to promote strong adhesion. Seams on some products can be heat welded. Rigid click-together tongue-and-groove tiles are also available that install over a thin foam underlayment without any adhesive or fasteners. These tiles typically are cut with a jigsaw.
Linoleum isn’t as flexible as vinyl, and it is more difficult to cut. There are also fewer color options with linoleum, and the material isn’t used nearly as widely as vinyl. New linoleum also has a temporary yellow cast called bloom that eventually disappears when exposed to light.
Linoleum requires only basic routine care such as sweeping and mopping with a product-specific pH-neutral cleaner, but the flooring must be polished with a sealer once or twice a year because the surface is porous.
Tile – $4 to $10 per sq. ft.
Sheet – $23 to $50 per sq. yd.
Vinyl was also discovered accidentally. Waldo Semon created it in the late 1920s while attempting to develop a glue for bonding rubber to metal. Today, vinyl is, of course, used in a huge variety of applications.
Even though they are often confused and can look similar once installed, vinyl and linoleum are significantly different in terms of composition. While linoleum is all natural, vinyl is a synthetic product made using a variety of toxic chemicals, primarily polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin. Sheet vinyl flooring also contains plasticizers for flexibility. Vinyl’s large market share comes with a huge number of color and pattern options. Also, not all vinyl flooring is inexpensive. Luxury vinyl flooring (LVF, or LVT for tiles) is a higher-quality version of the product.
Like linoleum, vinyl flooring is available in sheets and tiles that get installed with flooring adhesive. A 100-lb. roller is often used, and the seams on some products can be heat welded. There is also a large selection of self-adhesive peel-and-stick tiles. Vinyl flooring is cut with a knife or shears, and since it generally is thinner and more flexible than linoleum, it’s easier to cut.
Vinyl’s color and patterns are printed, which allows for a tremendous variety and keeps costs low. It also means that deep scratches may show, since the color and patterns don’t always go through to the backing.
Vinyl flooring requires no special care. In most cases, a mild cleaner is recommended by the manufacturer.
Tile – $1 to $10 per sq. ft.
Sheet – $7 to $45 per sq. yd.
Product photos: Dan Thornton. Installation photos: courtesy of Armstrong.