Bamboo flooring has gained a great deal of attention since its introduction in the flooring world. Although bamboo is typically referred to as a hardwood flooring, it is actually a grass that gets processed into a variety of flooring and home products.
Since it behaves much like wood, bamboo flooring has similar benefits and drawbacks to wood flooring. Here we’ll have a look at the history of bamboo flooring in Australia, the pros and cons, and the exciting developments that have been happening within this category of flooring in the last couple of years.
When Was Bamboo Flooring Introduced?
Bamboo flooring first entered the flooring market in its earliest forms nearly 20 years ago through a small importer named Earth Bamboo. In this early incarnation, the product was expensive, soft, had limited choice, and was very unstable!
The choice was limited in these early days to two colours: coffee (carbonised) and natural. These names were to stay with all of the importers who came later, as Earth Bamboo had created names that flooring salespeople had become accustomed to.
In addition to coffee and natural, both colours came in gloss and semi-gloss, expanding the range to four options. But to double this again, there was an option of ‘vertical’ or ‘horizontal’ construction, expanding the bamboo enthusiast’s bank of choice to eight options.
This early product looked beautiful on the floor. It used a tongue and groove glue together installation method (like all floating floors at this time,) and was sometimes directly stuck to the floor. This proved to be a huge mistake.
Suppliers realised too late that bamboo grows and contracts on average 2.5 times the amount of an engineered timber floor in its later incarnation. In the early days it was even more!
This made the boards unstable and prone to splitting. Additionally, compared to Australian species hardwoods, it was quite soft, weighing in at only 7 on the Janka Scale. This was still higher than oak, but due to the flat surface of the early bamboo, every sign of passage was shown, and this floor could be quite unforgiving.
However, if the floor was properly acclimated prior to installation, and growth (or shrinkage) was adequately planned for, the floor could be successfully laid. In fact, many of these old bamboo floors still exist today. Then came the invention of strand woven bamboo and the game changed!
Entering the Mainstream
Strand weaving was a different practice to the horizontal and vertical methods. Instead of being formed from rods of bamboo that were essentially just glued together, strand woven bamboo was sliced into strands.
These strands were then dipped in adhesive and left to dry. They were then placed into a mould, which was heated and pressed, placing the bamboo under enormous pressure while activating the adhesive.
This greatly increased the density and hardness of the bamboo, more than doubling its Janka rating, making it harder than timbers like Ironbark!
Two methods of bamboo pressing were to emerge, and there was a hotly contested battle as to which was better. Both would face issues but were also prolific in their sales, meaning the story you heard depended upon what type of bamboo a supplier imported.
The first strand woven method of bamboo manufacturing was called ‘cold pressing’. With this method, the strands of bamboo were loaded into a mould about 150 x 150 mm in width and height. This mould was then heated slowly in an attempt to ‘cook’ the bamboo through to the centre of this block.
Around this time, locking systems became available for hard flooring, and this is where bamboo flooring saw the first explosion and became mainstream.
Cold pressing was much denser than the old vertical and horizontal methods, with a Janka rating of around 15. Using bamboo strands that were forced back together under great pressure increased the density, meaning that the product had a greater weight per cubic metre than its predecessors.
The locking system enabled the floor to be laid faster (and therefore cheaper) than earlier variants, making it extremely popular with installers. This meant that many manufacturers entered the market in Asia, eager to sell to Australian importers.
Soon, larger importers discovered bamboo and imported it in huge volumes. Poor old Earth Bamboo — who had blazed the trail for bamboo — was soon run over by huge importers and left in their wake. Cold pressed strand woven bamboo dropped in price as these huge companies entered the market, making bamboo seem like a better value proposition than engineered timber.
The sales story was “Why would you only want a 4 mm veneer of the timber, when you can have a solid 14 mm board? I mean, feel the weight of that…”.
This was pitch was true… to a point. It skipped over many of the very important issues as to why we make engineered timber flooring. The story created a life of its own, and soon the beast was out of the cage. Sales skyrocketed, and proud timber houses, who had tried to fight the new insurgent, soon joined the rebellion as bamboo flooring pummelled their sales.
Cracks did start to appear in the armour as the demand for bamboo soared. High demand and the sometimes subpar practices of the country of manufacture meant that a lot product was entering the market that was improperly cured (cooked).
Due to the fact that cold pressed bamboo was formed in the 150 x 150 mm blocks, these blocks were not always evenly dried. Imagine a steak that is brown on the outside and pink on the middle.
This was happening to bamboo, meaning that the boards on the outside of the blocks had a lower moisture content, and the centre of the boards from the centre of the blocks was higher. This made for a very unstable product prone to splitting through the centre of the plank.
Enter Hot Pressing
In an attempt to cure this problem, a new method of strand weaving was invented, known as ‘hot pressing’. Like cold pressed bamboo, the bamboo strands were loaded into a mould, but this mould was differently shaped, being roughly the width and length of a queen sized bed, and just over 30 mm in thickness.
This allowed more bamboo to be loaded into the mould to create a product with greater density. Additionally, because the mould was much thinner, the ‘cooking’ time was greatly reduced from over half a day to under an hour! The bamboo went into a hot mould, hence the term hot pressing.
Where cold pressing slowly heated the mould in an attempt to cook the product through to the centre evenly, hot pressing was like flash frying. Instead of a nice tender steak, you instead got a piece of shoe leather.
However, as you walk on flooring and don’t eat it, this had many benefits. When this ‘sheet’ was taken out of the mould, it was cut evenly down the centre and opened up to create two sheets about 15 mm thick. These sheets were then sliced into boards and profiled.
The product was denser and more stable than cold pressed bamboo. It had a greater density, and due to the shape of the mould, more pressure was able to be placed upon it, making it harder. Hot pressed bamboo exceeded 16 on the Janke Scale. In the war between hot and cold pressed bamboos, hot pressing was taking a lead.
However, hot pressed bamboo had an issue of its own. Due to the fact that it was flash fried, and not cooked gently, the colour of hot pressed bamboo fluctuated dramatically, often being very different to the sampling that that the end consumer purchased from. Ultimately, the hot pressed method was less prone to issues that were structurally related and proved the more stable option.
Both kinds of bamboo were very successful. The value proposition of a solid floor as opposed to an engineered one was a story that caught the attention of the consumer. Additionally, bamboo was only about 60% of the cost of engineered timber.
The Fall of Bamboo Flooring
This was not a complete success story though. As with all product categories, technology and competition in the market produced better and less expensive options.
Around 2012, bamboo really started to hit its stride. By 2015, all of the major importers of timber flooring decided to stop discrediting the product and jump on the bamboo bandwagon.
As more players entered the market, the price kept dropping, and consumers were spoiled for choice. Bamboo sales were prolific with every major supplier of hard flooring entering the category, along with many second and third tier companies.
As happens when a product gains success, all and sundry enter the category, leading to cheaper products getting imported (and they are ALWAYS cheaper for a reason). By 2016, bamboo had become a villain in the market place, and sales were tanking.
Frontline salespeople, often under pressure to achieve sales targets, either omitted or were not aware of the fact that bamboo is not a timber and will grow on average 2 ½ times more than the engineered timber floor that they were selling against.
Acclimation was almost never mentioned to the consumer, and often when a consumer was told of this process, they were unwilling to wait for the product to acclimate or to accept expansion joints in the floor.
As a result, complaints of bamboo skyrocketed, and online reviews started to erode confidence in the product category. Within a couple of years, suppliers minimised their bamboo collections, with many flooring stores pulling bamboo from the shelves entirely or relegating it to a small handful of placements, usually in the back corner somewhere.
Fortunately, in the last couple of years, there have been some rather interesting developments in bamboo flooring that have greatly enhanced the stability and overall performance of the product.
What Are the Different Styles of Bamboo?
This style of bamboo will probably never disappear completely. There is something satisfying about picking up a plank of solid bamboo flooring and feeling the weight of it against engineered flooring.
While there is a certain feel-good factor to this, the reason engineered flooring exists is to reduce the amount of growth in a floated flooring product, and help to stabilise it in large rafts.
Engineered bamboo flooring follows the same principle of engineered timber by having a thinner top veneer (usually 3 mm) of bamboo bonded to a plywood core. Studies show that growth and shrinkage are reduced by around 30% when bamboo is made as engineered flooring versus its solid equivalent.
You might think that a 3 mm veneer would equal a great price reduction against a 14 mm solid product, but this is not the case. The process of manufacturing an engineered bamboo floor is much greater than that of a solid one as there are more stages to the process, making it more labour intensive.
This translates to an increased raft sizing before the floor requires expansion breaks, and has even led to 180 mm wide bamboo flooring. Previously, this was something that only the bravest dared to attempt in solid bamboo, and it failed, spectacularly! The additional stability of engineered bamboo flooring makes this a reality now.
Micro Veneer SPC Bamboo
Possibly the most exciting development in flooring is micro veneer SPC core products. These are flooring products that use the same SPC core that is in hybrid flooring, but have a 0.6 mm micro veneer of timber or bamboo on the surface.
Essentially, this gives you the visual of a natural floor in that you will never, ever have a repeat of pattern in the floor, while also giving the benefits of the waterproof SPC core.
The theory here is the same as a micro Veneer on a ply core: the veneer is so thin that it does not have enough lateral strength to exert sufficient force on the core to deform the plank. The core, and not the veneer, becomes the strongest layer of the product, increasing its stability many fold.
Because of this, SPC core bamboo allows for much larger raft sizes than even engineered bamboo. Additionally, because the veneer is so thin, the polyurethane coats and completely penetrates the wood, making it waterproof. However, because this is the newest incarnation of bamboo flooring, it is yet to truly be tested in the market.
Bamboo vs. Hardwood Flooring
With so many similarities between the two, it can be difficult to choose between bamboo and hardwood flooring. Bamboo typically features lighter colours than most hardwoods, although you can also find versions that have been carbonised to offer a darker appearance.
Bamboo also has a more uniform texture and grain, as opposed to harwood which features unique grain patterns on each board.
Both materials require sealing against water, although bamboo is slightly more resistant to water damage than timber. Like other hardwood flooring, bamboo may be refinished, depending on the thickness of the planks.
Top-quality bamboo flooring is as durable as traditional hardwood flooring, but both are somewhat susceptible to scratches. As with any product, not all bamboo flooring is created equal. Look for flooring with a substantial warranty.
Finally, bamboo is considered the more sustainable resource of the two, since it is harvested from living shoots that will regrow.
Bamboo Flooring Pros
Now that the market has equalised, bamboo can be a terrific flooring option. For those who prefer modern décor, bamboo flooring has a clean, contemporary look and can be an excellent choice of flooring material, with positive aspects including:
- Properly finished bamboo flooring cleans easily with a mop and mild soap
- Possibility of being refinished, depending on the thickness of the planks
- Potential to be a sustainable resource, depending on manufacturing methods
- Possibility to be DIY-friendly if using laminated bamboo flooring with a top layer glued to multiple sub-layers
- It will add to a home’s value
Bamboo Flooring Cons
Cons of bamboo flooring include:
- It can be susceptible to dings and scratches (especially inexpensive, low-quality versions)
- Bamboo grass readily absorbs water, making it susceptible to water damage
- Bamboo’s contemporary look may not suit all décor
- It is limited to a few shades
- Overseas brands may contain toxins and VOC’s (avoid this by choosing brands certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)
Is Bamboo Flooring Responsibly and Sustainably Sourced?
In Australia, it is illegal to import any timber or bamboo flooring that does not meet strict Forestry Stewardship Criteria. This is shown on product boxes with the FSC logo.
This logo means the product is logged responsibly from sustainable forests that replenish themselves many times faster than timber can! It also indicates that a product is free of the harmful toxins and VOC’s that can be found in brands shipped from overseas.
Bamboo is also a fast-growing plant that is available in vast quantities, making it a rapidly renewable resource. Utilising bamboo also takes some of the pressure off of other species of wood.
Is Bamboo Flooring Right for You?
This is a question that only you can answer. Bamboo floors look amazing, and due to the way that they are manufactured, they never have nested (short) boards in the way that timber floors do. Every board you pull out of the box is the full length of the box.
It is a natural, sustainable product that is eco friendly. If you are worried about VOC’s (volatile organic compounds,) bamboo flooring carries an E1 rating. It is hard, durable, and will increase the value of a house.
Failure of bamboo in the past can be attributed to misinformation and bad installation practices. Unfortunately, being a flooring salesperson requires no knowledge or training of any kind to enter the industry, and as a result, the industry tends to be over-represented and under-skilled.
As a result, product categories like laminate, bamboo and recently LVT flooring have all had periods of being oversold with no consideration as to whether they were the right product for the consumer’s home. In 99% of cases, simply by following best practices and manufacturers’ instructions, problems are avoided, and your flooring will be installed properly.
If you feel you would like to explore Bamboo Flooring, but are not sure whether it is the right choice for you, feel free to contact us and learn more. Our team of experts will ask you questions such as which design style you prefer, what room the flooring will be installed in, and how much traffic your home gets to help determine the flooring material that will best fit your style, budget, and needs.
Our passion lies in helping our customers find flooring they will love for years and years to come. Whether you have one room or an entire house, whether you are just beginning the research process or have a good idea of what you are looking for, we would be honoured to help you find the best flooring material for you.