Linoleum Flooring Materials - History, Components, Identification: this article provides information about linoleum flooring: the history of linoleum, linoleum ingredients, and the properties of linoleum resilient or sheet floor coverings.
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Earlier, in the 1700s, non-woven floor coverings were made of oil cloth - heavy canvas coated with wax or oils (for water resistance and durability) that were then painted.
Previously, painted oilcloth floor covering was probably the most common non-woven floor covering for nearly two hundred years, or until Walton's linoleum entered production.
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Our photo illustrates sheet flooring uncovered by reader JH in a 1920's apartment. JH was worried that this flooring might contain asbestos. Subsequent tests did not find asbestos in this floor sample.
Because of its durability and ease of production, Mr. Walton's linoleum quickly found use as a floor coverings in buildings - a much larger application than battleships. Linoleum's appeal rose from its properties as a durable, water-resistant sheet-type floor covering. Glued to a backer of jute or canvas to resist cracks and tears, this flooring has a long history of durability and service.
"Linoleum" was named by Walton from his observation that his original linoleum products were made using linseed oil as an ingredient (linseed oil forms a thick flexible skin when it dries), combined with ground cork dust, pigments, and resins, often with a jute, burlap or canvas fabric backing (see our antique linoleum photos just below).
Descendents of Linoleum include Anaglypta and Lincrusta (many writers spell it "Linocrusta or linacrusta"), an embossed patterned covering used on walls and ceilings. Walton was also the inventor of a textured sheet product LINCRUSTA CEILINGS & WALLS,.
Thomas Palmer, who had worked for Walton, soon produced a similar but lighter sheet product ANAGLYPTA CEILINGS & WALLS.
Besides linseed-oil based linoleum flooring, other sheet floorings backed with jute or asphalt-impregnated black paper typically were composed of mostly cellulose (wood fiber or paper products) (60%) with a bit of horsehair (5%) for strength, and tar. While people often refer to those pre-vinyl sheet flooring products as "linoleum" in a true sense of ingredients they're not.
Watch out: some asphalt-felt or black tar paper-like backed sheet flooring products might contain asbestos, as we'll explain next.
According to Rosato, "The original resilient floor coverings were developed during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century by Frederick Walton. The original covering was linoleum for use as a floor decking on British naval ships."
Perhaps confusing traditional linoleum formulas that did not contain asbestos with the asphalt-impregnated felt mounted sheet flooring that did, Rosato asserted that ..."the composition of the original linoleum products included asphaltic binders to which an asbestos filler was added by mixing on a rubber mill."
This description fits asphalt-saturated felt backed sheet flooring but not traditional or "true" linoleum, as you will read below.
Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007) note that saturated-felt based linoleum-like flooring appeared in the U.S. as early as 1910, and expanded by Armstrong's Linoflor beginning in 1937. Asphalt-saturated felt-based sheet flooring was less expensive to produce and is [unfortunately] often referred to by the same term - linoleum - even though its constituents are different. We warn below that many asphalt-saturated felts contained asbestos as either a strengthener (in fiber form) or as a filler (in both sheet flooring and asphalt or vinyl based floor tiles).
Those same authors note that cork flooring product names included Kencork, Linotile, and Corkoustic - of which Linotile may have added to the confusion about use of the term linoleum.
For the asphalt-paper backed sheet flooring above (widely described as "linoleum"), our advice was this:
True linoleum wouldn't be expected to contain asbestos, and felt-back linoleum lookalikes generally won't contain asbestos either; but some asphalt-paper-backed sheet flooring might, as asbestos was used as a reinforcement in some asphalt paper products and backings including for flooring. Asbestos might also be in the black mastic flooring adhesive one sees in your photos.
If you are going to remove the flooring and adhesive I would treat it as presumed to contain asbestos: avoid making a dusty mess, wear protection &c. A good option is to leave such flooring in place and simply cover it over: less risk, less cost.
More about linoleum look-alikes backed by asphalt felt is at LINOLEUM "LOOKALIKES" ADHERED to FELT
Our reader had a sample of this flooring tested by Western Analytical who reported that there was no asbestos detected in this flooring nor in the adhesive mastic used below it.
Linoleum was produced and is still produced today in solid colors, in a wood-grain pattern, in jaspsé (colored streak patterns), in marble-like patterns, in floral designs, in brick patterns, and in both printed geometric and inlaid geometric designs.
There are modern linoleum products that still use these traditional (non-asbestos-containing) ingredients, there were asphalt-saturated felt-backed linoleum-like products, and today there are both traditional linoleum and modern non-linoleum lookalike sheet flooring products made of vinyl.
The "linoleum" photographs shown above and just below illustrate two traditional linoleum floor patterns. Source: Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007).
Below an illustration from the same authors is a beautiful example of a Congoleum "rug" still in use by the US FPL.
See CONGOLEUM-NAIRN FLOORING for more about this company and its floor covering products.
Watch out: But as we explain below, there are also sheet flooring products loosely referred to as linoleum that are adhered to a felt backer and that may contain asbestos in that backing material.
We noted at ASBESTOS FLOOR TILE IDENTIFICATION PHOTOS by YEAR that Linoleum may be used as a generic term for a variety of older sheet floorings (sometimes incorrectly or at least confusingly).
Note the fabric backing of the flooring material.
This sheet flooring covering backed with burlap fabric is probably more than a century old. We examined it in an non-public area of the Justin Morrill Homestead, a historic building in Vermont. The material has not been tested for asbestos fibers, but where we see what is obviously a jute backing it's not likely that this sheet flooring product contained asbestos.
The possible origin of this product is discussed at Asphalt & Vinyl Floor Tile History - history, dates, and description of the production process and ingredients in asphalt floor tiles, asphalt-asbestos floor tiles, & vinyl-asbestos floor tiles 1900 to present.
Details about the history of Sheet and Tile Resilient flooring are
at FLOOR TILE HISTORY & INGREDIENTS.
According to Armstrong Flooring, in Portugal (no coincidence as you'll read below)
Linoleum is the only floor covering offered on the market that is predominantly made of natural renewable raw materials.
Linoleum is still in modern production (we describe the ingredients in linoleum just below), and it is a very durable product. Armstrong Portugal asserts that "Commercial reference projects laid with Armstrong DLW Linoleum are in use up to 90 years".
This age, combined with the observation that because of its constituent products linoleum is biodegradable, gives modern linoleum floor coverings a very low life-cycle cost. 
The reader-contributed photographs just below demonstrate Congoleum's Gold Seal™ linoleum in a braided rug design or pattern. [Click to enlarge any image]. Below we list the ingredients found in linoleum floor coverings.
Because of its solid red color we wondered if this Gold Seal Congoleum product was a rubber-backed flooring product. Help in distinguishing sheet flooring types is
at RESILIENT SHEET FLOORING ID GUIDE and at SHEET FLOORING INSPECT / TEST.
Here are the ingredients in true linoleum:
The "linoleum" photo at left in rug pattern (notice that the sheet flooring does not extend fully to the room perimeter) illustrates a linoleum "rug". Source: Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007).
CORK FLOORING also uses ground cork, but in a more coarse form described in that article.
Photos above of saturated felt-backed "linoleum" flooring (installed on a bench top) were provided by reader C.W. In addition to use on floors, linoleum was a popular covering for workbenches and kitchen counters and sink draining areas.
I wanted to seek your advice on the attached images which is some sort of tiling that a previous homeowner put on a work bench as a covering. I looked through your website, but couldn't find a match. Does this look like asbestos tiles to you? If so, any idea on the brand? Thanks in advance! - C.W. 1/17/2014
Our guide to identifying older types of sheet flooring, including products that may contain asbestos, is found at RESILIENT SHEET FLOORING ID GUIDE. There we describe some simple tests that can often confirm the flooring type and basic materials.
From your photographs (the pair above and second pair given below) showing that the flooring product, now covering a workbench top, has a woven rug -patterned top layer over a black substrate or backer, I would guess that this is an asphalt felt paper-backed sheet flooring product resembling linoleum.
The "linoleum" photo at left in a "marbelized pattern" illustrates a similar example of black felt-backed sheet flooring referred to by some experts as "linoleum". Source: Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007).
We explain in this article that the ingredients of true linoleum include natural resins, linseed oil, color pigments, cork powder and limestone, with a jute backing. Those products do not contain and never contained asbestos.
But other sheet flooring products loosely called "linoleum" may indeed contain asbestos. The US Forest Products Lab asserts that some forms of "linoleum" were glued to felt underlayment. (US FPL 2007).
The black backing and body of the flooring in your photos looks to me like an asphalt product, though I'd have to see and test a sample to know for certain.
Photos above and below, show felt-backed "linoleum" provided by reader C.W.
Watch out: some older felt underlayments and similar asphalt paper products used in flooring, roofing, and wall coverings or building papers contained asbestos. While I'm doubtful that the small quantity of flooring in your photo presents a measurable asbestos hazard (unless some fool grinds or rips it into shreds), it may thus contain asbestos.
If this asphalt-felt backed antique flooring sample were mine I'd preserve it, or a square of it, as it may be historically important. Your second photo of the four (above right) seems to show a plastic or glass cover over this sheet flooring "rug" (as they were called). In that installation the material is protected and most likely completely harmless.
If you decide to dispose of the material as construction debris, I'd be glad to have you cut a pattern square and send it to me for lab examination pro-bono. While we have expertise in asbestos and other material identification in our forensic lab, if you needed an asbestos certification (which in my opinion would be inappropriate for this case) you'd want to use a certified asbestos test lab.
They are old - the kind that last a long time! The fleck type one was under several layers of flooring in my grandparents home. I think they built it around 1935.
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The second one, [shown immediately above] the rug pattern is the one I am most interested in finding out about. The backing is green but I cannot find a makers mark on it. Any idea if that means anything? - Anon [by private email] 23 Aug 2015
The photo shown just above looks like a rug pattern linoleum and if the green rolled material in the right of your photo is the same flooring, it is more likely a Congoleum (or less likely Armstrong) sheet flooring product. Some Congoleum sheet flooring and also some Armstrong sheet flooring included a red or possibly green rubber backing that is not an asbestos material. If you can examine the backing of this sheet flooring there is a good chance you'll see an Armstrong or Congoleum imprinted logo - do send me a photo of what you see.
Red backed sheet flooring by Congoleum is a rubber backing (not asbestos); green-backed sheet flooring is probably a similar product; asphalt felt paper (some of which can contain asbestos) would normally be black (as it's an asphalt product).
IF you are faced with a requirement for demolition and if you are uncertain about the flooring's asbestos content and cannot identify it through our guides, then you have a sample tested.
See ASBESTOS TESTING LAB LIST and as it will help other readers, if you have this flooring tested please confirm the lab result with us and send me a copy of the lab report.
This one is the last on top of tongue and groove.
Black felt backing. With asphalt type adhesive.
Thank you. - L.P. 6/3/2014
LP this looks like a linoleum floor to me.
The spatter pattern was later picked-up and popularized in a similar (not identical) design that appeared in some of the Kentile flooring as its Carnival pattern but those were individual floor tiles, not sheet flooring like yours.
See my warning above about some older felt backing and some flooring adhesives that contain asbestos.
05/05/2015 E. wrote:
I am in need of flooring expertise. I have dibs on a large roll of (what the owner believes to be) 1930’s linoleum. (Age is based off of newspapers pulled out of the wall, so dating method isn’t all that scientific.) I am eager to snatch it up – but am concerned about asbestos.
The sheet was either never glued to the floor, (or the glue dissipated) allowing it to be rolled up and removed from the house. I realize the only sure way to know is to have it tested – but does this image and the owners description of the back give you any feeling one way or the other? Based on the fact that this is rolled up and the backing is smooth, I would tend to think it’s simply linoleum, but I did see a comment on your site that indicated that some smooth backed sheet flooring could contain asbestos.
Here's a close up of the back of the linoleum. Somebody dropped a bobby pin on the floor when they laid the linoleum! The linoleum has a hard backing with no loose fibers that I can see. This picture was taken at about 2 inches close.
Ultimately, anything I would use this for would require some cutting, which I am imagine could be done with a utility knife, as the flooring is still somewhat flexible. Based on what I’ve read, asbestos is only a hazard when it’s crumbled, and/or airborn, and cutting can be fairly safe if you get it wet. I certainly don’t want to take it, find out it’s a hazard, and then have to pay again to dispose of it – it’s pretty huge. - E. 5/5/15
You're right, it looks like real linoleum. In addition to reviewing this article (above) also
see CONGOLEUM-NAIRN FLOOR TILES & LINOLEUM - for more examples.
As we note in the first article, some of these sheet flooring products loosely called "linoleum" may indeed contain asbestos. The US Forest Products Lab asserts that some forms of "linoleum" were glued to felt underlayment. (US FPL 2007), and some felt underlayment contained asbestos. I suspect yours does not, but you're right, you'd need to test a sample.
Keep in mind that if the material is intact and is not ground, sawn, or broken up so as to release debris, even if its backing contains asbestos the airborne levels over an intact floor may be below the limits of detection.
If the cost of the material justifies a lab test - which I recommend - use a certified asbestos test lab and keep me posted on the results. Typical lab tests for asbestos in a material cost about $50.
To identify types of sheet flooring
see RESILIENT SHEET FLOORING ID GUIDE
For the last 50 years or so, linoleum has been used almost exclusively in commercial settings, but it is making a comeback in residential settings, due largely to its use of all-natural ingredients and reputation for durability.
Our photo at below shows antique sheet flooring found in a home built in the 1800's.
Below is a linoleum catalog snippet showing modern linoleum patterns from Fobo Linoleum, Inc. (contact information for the company is given below)
Linoleum in its traditional or original formula was and is still made by boiling oil to form a thick cement paste that is mixed with pine rosin, wood flour, and other fillers such as clay or limestone to make a durable, resilient sheet flooring that wears well and resists indentation.
The traditional backing for linoleum sheet flooring was typically jute fabric, a natural fiber. Other than relatively minor initial off-gassing from the linseed oil base, linoleum is considered nontoxic by most healthy-house advocates. It is also naturally antimicrobial and anti static, making it well suited for hospitals, schools, and rooms with electronic equipment. If well maintained, a linoleum floor can provide a 20- to 30-year service life.
In response to new demand for the product in recent years, manufacturers have responded with a wide variety of solid and marbleized colors and attractive checkered patterns, available in sheet form as well as 19x19-inch tiles that can be mixed to create borders and other designs.
Unlike vinyl, linoleum colors go all the way through the product, making scratches and wear spots less noticeable than on vinyl. Also, scratches, cigarette burns, and other surface wear can be removed with steel wool or a nylon abrasive pad and buffed out.
However, since linoleum does not have a separate wear layer like vinyl flooring and is slightly porous, it requires somewhat more maintenance than vinyl. Applying a sealer or polish to the new floor will help it resist stains and make it easier to clean. Also, portions of a linoleum floor not exposed to light will tend to darken or yellow due to the natural oxidation of the linseed oil base. This coloration will disappear upon exposure to light, and the original linoleum color will be restored, or “bloom.”
Most if not all new linoleum flooring is now manufactured in Europe. Our linoleum sample color & pattern example at left is from the Armstrong Corporation's online linoleum flooring selection catalog. Contact information for Armstrong linoleum flooring products is just below. Some of the linoleum and related cork or rubber flooring product sources listed below were listed by Wilson & Snodgrass - US FPL (2007).
All of the current (2014) Armstrong Corporation linoleum colors and patterns are variations of the pattern type shown here. Older braided rug or facsimile patterns are not currently offered in that company's selection guide.
Image at left: example of Forbo linoleum in marbled pattern from the company's flooring catalog. Contact information for Forbo in North America and in the U.K. is just below.
Photo above: Nova cork plank flooring being installed.
Readers interested in other natural product resilient floor coverings should also see CORK FLOORING: Natural Alternatives to Vinyl Floors: Installing Cork or Cork Tile Floors.
Details about identifying older installations of sheet flooring or sheet-forms of resilient flooring that may contain asbestos are now found at RESILIENT SHEET FLOORING ID GUIDE - live link is given just below.
Armstrong's sheet flooring is described at ARMSTRONG SHEET FLOORING
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