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Linoleum vs. Vinyl Flooring – What Are the Key Differences?

A roll of linoleum isolated on white background.

Linoleum and vinyl are popular choices for homeowners who want some retro vibes or the look of real wood on their floor with just a fraction of the cost of the real thing. Let's learn more about these two man-made flooring options and find out which of the two best fits your needs.

Linoleum and vinyl flooring made a big splash in the architectural scene when they debuted. These manmade floors remain popular to this day. Some people lean in to the history, choosing retro color palettes for their linoleum floors or getting vinyl that mimics iconic movies like The Shining’s psychedelic geometric carpet. Other homeowners opt for sophisticated patterns that mimic high-end flooring like marble or wood grain. So what are these floorings, and who are they right for?

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What is Linoleum?

Kitchen with linoleum flooring.

People often use ‘linoleum’ and ‘vinyl flooring’ interchangeably, but they are actually quite different. Linoleum is an all-natural product. It is a mix of biodegradable materials like limestone, powdered cork and other wood, jute, rosin, and pigments. These are blended with the linseed oil that inspires its name and gives this floor its unique properties.

History of Linoleum

This flooring was first patented 150 years ago. Its inventor, Frederick Walton, noticed that paint made from linseed oil formed a solid yet flexible film. With some trial and error, he created an early version of the linoleum we know today. Linseed oil is still a primary component of this flooring.

The material was exotic, durable, and the pinnacle of high-tech when it debuted. It quickly became a status symbol for the elite. In fact, it was used to tile opulent areas of the Titanic.

However, linoleum hasn’t just been an architectural mainstay. It also played an important part in the art world. Innovators like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso set aside their wooden blocks and carved prints into squares of linoleum instead. They found that this material didn’t split or turn ragged like wood, which resulted in cleaner art. Linocut printmaking is still a popular art form today.

What Kinds of Linoleum Are Available?

Linoleum is most commonly available in tiles and sheets. However, some companies also produce it in floating tiles.

What is Vinyl Flooring?

Modern kitchen with vinyl flooring.

Unlike linoleum, vinyl is a synthetic product. It is primarily a mix of colored chips of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resin. Other chemicals may be added to the mix to give it more durability or flexibility. These chips are bonded together with heat and pressure, creating flat sheets. The topmost layer is typically clear. Sandwiched between the top and the rest of the tile is a print with the desired color or pattern.

History of Vinyl Flooring

The PVC that forms the base of vinyl flooring was first created in 1928 by Waldo Semon. Flooring made from this innovative material was featured in Chicago’s 1934 Expo, “A Century of Progress.” However, it didn’t come into popular use until after World War II.

This flooring surged in popularity during the housing boom of the 1950s. It was easy to install, durable, easily cleaned, and flame retardant thanks to its asbestos content. When news of the health dangers of asbestos broke in the 1980s, a new formula had to be created while the old flooring was removed and safely disposed of. Now vinyl remains a popular option for budget-conscious homeowners looking for something durable.

What Kinds of Vinyl Flooring are Available?

Vinyl flooring is available in 6 to 12 feet wide rolls, tiles, and planks. You can also choose between the typically printed vinyl and the harder to find inlaid vinyl, which has colored particles mixed in with deeper layers of the PVC.

Flooring vs Flooring: Linoleum and Vinyl

These two flooring options are made in very different ways. This lets them bring different things to the table for homeowners.

Durability and Maintenance

Linoleum coating

With the right care, linoleum can last an impressive 40 years. However, you’ll need to reapply floor sealant to reach that finish line. Otherwise, the linoleum’s moisture seal will slowly wear away and the flooring will be vulnerable to water damage and staining.

Linoleum is resilient and generally durable to the incidental damage. For instance, the flooring may pop back into shape if something heavy is dropped onto it. Note that it is vulnerable to puncturing from things like high heels or table legs.

Because pigment is blended into the flooring during manufacture, linoleum does not show white scratches when scuffed. This makes incidental damage less obvious than with vinyl flooring. In cases of more extensive damage, it may be repairable. A scrap of matching tile can be sanded into a powder, blended with glue, and used to patch a broken area.

Vinyl can last up to 20 years, which is about half the potential lifespan of linoleum. However, once installed vinyl requires little care. It is naturally water-resistant with no resealing needed.

This kind of flooring can be dented, scuffed, or otherwise marred by heavy and sharp items. Some vinyl tiles are more resistant to wear and tear than others. The big difference lies with the clear top layer, known as the ‘wear layer.’ More expensive and durable options use urethanes and aluminum oxide in the finish, creating a stronger and more expensive product.

If the vinyl floor is scratched or nicked, it tends to be obvious. The printed design is scraped away, revealing white PVC underneath. However, inlaid vinyl is a little different. It is as vulnerable to damage as the other style, but due to the colored particles within it, the damage is less obvious.

Color and Design

Vinyl floor tiles collection

Linoleum tends to be solid or a speckled blend of colors due to the fact that the pigments are blended into the tile mix. It is available in a wide selection of shades, but not patterns. Homeowners who don’t want a solid colored floor can experiment with stripes of tiles, checkerboard patterns, and other details to achieve a more varied look.

Meanwhile, vinyl flooring is available in an almost unlimited range of colors and patterns. If you can dream it, it can be printed. You can find vinyl in bright colors, bold trendy prints, and classic patterns that mimic hardwoods and stone. Plank-style vinyl flooring can look very close to real wood.

Note that these printed patterns often repeat. You’ll want to stagger tiles and look at the overall effect to make sure that the repeats aren’t next to each other.

Installation

Both flooring types are typically installed to a level subfloor with an adhesive. They may then be rolled with a heavy roller to achieve a perfect seal. These floorings can also be purchased as floating tiles that interlock together instead of glue down. However, floating tiles can sound slightly hollow when walked across. Also, if the flooring is incorrectly installed or the room wasn’t properly measured, the interlocking tiles may shift apart.

Where these floorings differ is in ease of installation. Linoleum is thick and relatively rigid. That makes it difficult to cut and handle. It also must be applied over moisture-proof subfloor as trapped water vapor will break down the tiles. Finally, the tiles need to be sealed, creating another step before the floor can be used. All of these factors make linoleum a tricky thing for DIY installation.

Vinyl, meanwhile, is both easier and more difficult for handy homeowners to work with. It’s thinner than linoleum and more flexible, which makes it easier to cut and handle. However, poor or uneven cuts and scratches are immediately obvious and cannot be repaired. Some vinyl tiles are self-adhesive, simply peel off the backing and stick them into place. On the other extreme, large sheets of vinyl can be challenging to cut and glue into place. However, these have the advantage of minimal seams to peel up during use. Homeowners who are interested in sheet-style vinyl flooring may want to leave that job to the professionals.

Cost

Linoleum has a base cost of about $2 to $5 per square foot. The installation runs at about $36 per hour. However, labor hours also include disposing of old flooring, replacing damaged under layers, and working around oddly shaped areas. This can increase the total installation cost.

Vinyl costs from 50 cents up to $5 dollars for luxury options with advanced coatings. Its installation fees are also around $36 per hour. Homeowners may be able to DIY some of this process to trim costs.

Advantages of Linoleum

Linoleum floor

This is an all-natural, eco-friendly material that can be recycled. The linseed oil within it oxidizes, making this flooring anti-microbial. It’s also anti-static and doesn’t attract dust.

As a resilient flooring, linoleum is cushiony and comfortable to walk on. This makes it a good choice for high-traffic areas. The material doesn’t melt and is difficult to burn. It’s durable in other ways, too, bouncing back from minor damage and compression. If it does get damaged, the pigment running all the way through the tile naturally disguises the marks.

Challenges of Linoleum

This material can hard to DIY install. When first installed, the tiles smell of linseed oil. This scent wears off over time. It’s protective top coating also wears off and requires re-sealing. If not re-sealed, the linoleum will begin to stain and break down. This flooring is not suitable for humid areas of the house like the bathroom or laundry room.

Linoleum is not available in patterns, realistic wooden finishes, etc. The flooring can be punctured by pinpoint pressure, so some care must be taken with it.

Advantages of Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl bathroom tiles

Vinyl flooring is an affordable and widely available option. It is highly water-resistant, stain-resistant, and easy to clean. This makes vinyl suitable for wetter areas of the house like the bathroom or kitchen. Higher grades of this flooring are very durable and a good match for high traffic areas like hallways and kitchens.

Unlike linoleum, vinyl is low maintenance and doesn’t require periodic resealing. It comes in a huge array of patterns and colors, letting homeowners build a truly customized space. People who like to work with their hands may find vinyl easy to DIY install.

Challenges of Vinyl Flooring

This style of flooring can fade in direct sunlight. Scratches tend to be obvious. Damaged tiles cannot be repaired, only replaced. Tile appearance can vary between print runs, making it tricky to match tiles when you order replacements.

Vinyl flooring is not considered ‘green’ as it is made from petrochemicals. It is also not biodegradable and can be difficult to recycle.

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