Touted as tough and environmentally friendly, with the stylishness of timber at a cheaper price, bamboo flooring is all the rage.
Considered the “new timber”, bamboo is relatively new to the Australian scene, and not so well understood by consumers.
How well do the claims about bamboo stack up?
The fast facts
Bamboo’s increasing popularity over the last ten to twelve years is due to the fact bamboo has come down in price.
While there’s over 1200 different species of bamboo, bamboo flooring is generally constructed from moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis).
Bamboo is technically a grass. Don’t let that fool you. According to the Janka test – a rating that measures the resistance of wood to indentation – the strand-woven bamboo is “as hard as ironbark, one of the hardest species in the world,” Lock says.
Compared to European oak, which takes 200 years to grow, bamboo can be harvested every four to six years, he says. “It’s a forest that is pruned, rather than clear-felled. Compared to a plantation pine forest it has seven times the biomass.”
How are bamboo floorboards made?
Unlike traditional timbers, there’s no such thing as a solid bamboo floor plank. Bamboo floorboards are constructed by fusing together strands or strips of bamboo using high pressure, heat and adhesives.
According to David Hayward, technical manager at the Australian Timber Flooring Association (ATFA), there are essentially two types of bamboo flooring (strand-woven or laminated) based on different manufacturing techniques.
Laminated – vertical, horizontal
According to the 2012 ATFA publication Bamboo Flooring Industry Standards, “laminated product initially requires small sections about 30 mm wide to be machined in rectangular shapes.” This is then treated against insects and kiln dried prior to being made into boards. “The dry rectangular pieces are then either glued horizontally or vertically to provide the desired style of product.”
As the name suggests, strand-woven bamboo uses bamboo cut into finer strands. “These strands are then glued back together to form a sheet or beam from which raw boards are cut,” ATFA states.
“For internal flooring each of these processes can provide quality product,” says the ATFA. “Due to the pressing processes with strand woven products they are denser and harder than laminated flooring.”
According to Richard Lock, strand-woven boards are more popular. “It has a lot more different colour variations, because we dye it and we stain it and we hand-scrape it and we antique it.”
Engineered bamboo consists of a layer or veneer of bamboo on top of several layers of wood such as plywood or high density fibreboards (HDF) that have been bonded together with adhesives, heat and pressure.
Coatings and colours
Bamboo flooring is mostly supplied pre-finished, Hayward says. “With many products the coating to the exposed face consists of a multi layer system including fillers, sealers and final coats with additives such as aluminium oxide to provide a tough wear-resistant surface,” ATFA state. “This is where coloured stains may be used in the coating system to add different colours or tones to the boards. The coating is done in a controlled environment with UV curing that provides a fully cured board at the end of the process.”
Bamboo flooring is installed by one of two methods: as a floating floor or by direct adhesion (with glue or nails) to the subfloor.
Most bamboo flooring is now laid as a floated floor,” Hayward explains. “This means that boards are joined one to another but that they are not fixed to the subfloor beneath.”
The pros and cons
According to Tom Godfrey, spokesman for consumer organisation CHOICE, bamboo is “hard-wearing, durable, easy to clean, and uses low embodied energy.” The latter refers to the total energy used to produce the flooring.
Of course, one of the main attractions of bamboo is price. Bamboo flooring typically ranges from $90 to $135 per square metre including installation, Lock reports.
Some bamboo floorboards are manufactured with toxic, formaldehyde containing glues, Godfrey says. These can outgas VOC’s (volatile organic compounds).
Godfrey suggests, “purchasing bamboo floorboards manufactured with low-emission glues (rated E0 or E1 under the Australian Standard for formaldehyde emissions).”
And, while bamboo is tough, it can scratch.
Godfrey says, “high traffic areas will need stripping and sanding every three to four years. This isn’t just about keeping it looking good – it’s about maintaining moisture resistance to prevent warping and other problems.” This is best done by an experienced professional.
When it comes to choosing a bamboo product and installer, don’t jump for the cheapest quote. According to Hayward, most problems that occur with bamboo floors are due to incorrect installation. This can include lack of allowance for expansion, lack of a level subfloor or inadequate moisture prevention strategies.
Greater care needs to be taken in humid areas. Bamboo flooring should also not be used in wet areas such as bathrooms.
Within Australia there is an industry standard provided by the Australian Timber Flooring Association that covers installation.
For more information, or to find an accredited association installer, Hayward suggests contacting ATFA.
Read more about sustainable flooring on the CHOICE website.
US-based website Green Building Supply also has useful information about how to avoid issues with bamboo floors.