Kitchen Flooring Options: Pros & Cons
There are so many flooring choices today, so what’s best for a kitchen? Consider appearance, practicality, comfort, “green-ness,” anti-allergen properties, resale value, maintenance, individuality, ease of installation, ease of removal, longevity, historical suitability and price. This summary of five categories of flooring products, wood, laminates, vinyl, tile and cork, is sure to come in handy the next time you’re renovating or building a kitchen.
The wood category has grown to include flooring products referred to as engineered wood and pre-finished flooring. The cost is moderate, and a wood floor is a resale plus. However, be aware that wood flooring in high traffic areas requires more frequent refinishing than would be necessary in a lower traffic area, which could be problematic over time. If you do go for a wood floor in the kitchen, make sure you choose the correct one for your needs.
Solid means the same piece of wood, and nothing but that wood, for the entire thickness of the floorboard. A typical wood floorboard is 3/4″ thick and 2 1/4″ wide, with a tongue-and-groove profile to make it interlock. Red and white oak still rule, together comprising more than 90% of all of the solid hardwood flooring installed nowadays. But plenty of other species are well suited to kitchen flooring, such as ash, maple, beech and cherry.
If you live in an older home with wood floors, they might not be hardwood at all. Many older homes have wide-plank pine floors, which you may want to choose if you’re creating a vintage look.
Beyond regular sweeping and vacuuming, the floor’s finish dictates maintenance specifics. A practical choice for this hard-traveled floor is multiple coats of a water-based urethane finish. A solid-wood floor can last the life of the structure.
Pre-finished means that a multistep surface-finishing program was completed prior to the flooring’s trip to the retailer. The finish on some engineered flooring, for example, is an acrylic urethane formulation containing aluminum-oxide granules, which have been added to toughen the finish. Others add ceramic material to strengthen the engineered flooring finish.
Engineered wood flooring is a laminated product with three to five layers. The top layer is clear, top-quality wood. It represents a growing percentage of the flooring market, and it often is sold prefinished. Every major manufacturer has several product offerings, combining different features, price points and warranties. Engineered wood is more dimensionally stable than solid wood. So if your kitchen is in a potentially damp location, such as a room below grade, consider using engineered instead of solid-wood flooring.
PROS: Warmth, beauty, relatively comfortable underfoot, enormous range of species and price, good resale value, new finishes require less maintenance, can be refinished many times (solid), dimensional stability (engineered), speed of installation, immediate use of room (prefinished)
CONS: Finish maintenance required, subject to dents, expands/contracts with humidity (solid), limited choice of stain colors/sheens (prefinished), no overall finish coat applied to “seal” seams (prefinished), limited number of refinishings (engineered)
Like engineered woods, laminates are multiple sandwiches. The visible layer is a photographic image topped with a tough, clear layer of melamine that takes the wear. Products range from 9/32 in. to 1/2 in. thick. Laminate should be installed over a flat subfloor, which can be either a layer of plywood or even an existing vinyl or tile floor, as long as it is in sound condition. Laminate flooring is a rising star. It has loads of positive features and few minuses. In just five years, it has captured 4% of the entire flooring industry. As interest and demand grow, so too do the number and quality of products. Most laminate floors mimic wood or tile. But other patterns and textures are emerging.
Installations used to require that planks be glued together. Now 20% of the laminate-flooring products in this market are glueless: They snap together with clever locking mechanisms tight enough to keep out liquids.
Even systems requiring glue use it only to adhere one tongue-and-groove plank to another, never to the subfloor. A laminate kitchen floor is meant to float atop the subfloor, not be glued or nailed to it. Some manufacturers produce several quality levels. Get the best you can for your kitchen.
PROS: Easy, quick installation, portable, no damage to substrate, low to moderate cost, comfortable underfoot, no fading or yellowing, scratch resistant, simple maintenance, damaged planks can be replaced
CONS: Limited style choices, no refinishing, can dent, fiberboard core problematic for some allergies
Vinyl flooring, which bounded into homes in the 1960s, works great in the kitchen and remains a popular choice today. Inlaid patterns are consistent throughout the thickness of the material. They last longer than those patterns printed on the top surface only (rotogravure), which can wear off. So inlaid costs more.
Products differ mostly in the composition of the top, or wear, layer. The tougher and more resistant, the longer the life expectancy of the product; also, the better the warranty. Many wear layers now are impregnated with aluminum oxide and nylon. At least a dozen companies with high brand recognition provide top products.
Maintenance: There is some, but not much. As with wood floors, the culprits are outdoor grit and pebbles that are likely to scratch the finish or to become embedded. Sweep, damp mop, and follow manufacturers’ recommendations about cleaning products.
PROS: Resilient, comfortable, enormous variety, tough, wears well, low cost, works in most site conditions, good warranties, simple maintenance, non-absorptive
CONS: Can fade or yellow, pattern can wear off, seams can lift or intrude visually
Tile: Ceramic & Stone
The Porcelain Enamel Institute groups tiles in categories (I to IV+), indicating increasing durability. Durability is a function of a tile’s hardness, and of the sheen and color of any glaze. (Light-color glazes are more durable than dark, for example.) Kitchens usually need a group III or higher tile. Choose a tile with good slip resistance. Unglazed tiles are less slippery than glazed tiles. Any tile with a slightly textured surface provides greater traction than a smooth tile. The texture shows dirt less; too much texture, however, inhibits cleaning.
Tiles that mimic stone in their texture and have mottled coloration are popular now. Many of these tiles are porcelain products, fired at temperatures so high that they are vitreous. This process renders them harder than the slate, granite, marble or limestone they resemble. They are extremely dense and absorb little water, meaning you can continue your kitchen flooring outside the house. And these tiles are made in sizes larger than previous standards, up to 18 in. sq. The larger the tile, the more expansive your kitchen space reads.
Care/maintenance: Follow the manufacturers’ specs regarding sealer (type and frequency of application) on the tile you select. Use the recommended grout and seal it. Clean with diluted household cleanser and hot water; rinse thoroughly.
If you value an original more than a copy, consider stone: granite, limestone, slate, soapstone. Stone retains heat, making a stone floor a fine installation over radiant heat or in passive-solar situations. We know it’s durable, and it is low maintenance.
Soapstone sends a worn, venerable message; black absolute granite sends a polished, sophisticated one. Rustic stone tiles with slightly irregular dimensions will look their best with wider grout lines. Crisply machined stone tiles, such as the soapstone floors from Green Mountain Soapstone, have edges accurate enough to require no grout. Just butt them together.
Seal any stone except soapstone. A stone supplier can recommend the best sealer. Maintain your floor with a pH-neutral cleaner but nothing that leaves a soap film, which traps dirt.
PROS: Durability and hardness, enormous variety, simple care, environmentally friendly, no staining or fading, good over radiant heat, moderate cost
CONS: Less comfortable underfoot, hardness means breakage of dropped items, cold, noisy, grout can stain or crack
Cork originates from a natural source not endangered by its harvesting. Cork tiles are made of the bark of the cork oak tree, bark that can be peeled off every decade (the trees live to be 150 years old). Frank Lloyd Wright liked cork, and he installed it in houses where it endures today. Contemporary cork floors now are sealed with UV-cured acrylic or water-based urethane sealers. Neither water nor oil penetrates the sealer. What’s more, you literally are walking on air: Cork tiles contain 200 million air cells per cu. in. Traditionally, cork floors have been made from 12-in. sq. tiles, up to 5/16 in. thick, in the familiar honey color. Those tiles are still available, but manufacturers have broadened their offerings. Because of cork’s thirsty, expansionist tendencies, moisture is the crucial concern. In areas with wide variations in humidity, experts recommend installing cork floors at the driest time of year. After installation, cork floors should be finished with the manufacturer’s recommended sealer to ensure that the edges of the tiles or planks are sealed thoroughly. To keep them clean, damp-mop water-based urethane finishes with a water-and-vinegar solution.
PROS: Resilient, less breakage of dropped items, comfortable underfoot, warm, “green” material, durable, moderate cost, sound and thermal insulator, hypoallergenic, simple care
CONS: Limited color/style selection, can fade, can dent, finish maintenance required, characteristic odor
Excerpts from Fine HomeBuilding Magazine/Kitchens & Baths 2002