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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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Linoleum was invented in 1860 by Frederick Walton and was intended for use first as a ship deck covering (battleship linoleum up to 1/2" thick). 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.
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 LINCRUSTA CEILINGS & WALLS, while Thomas Palmer, who had worked for Walton, soon produced a similar but lighter product ANAGLYPTA CEILINGS & WALLS.
Asbestos in "Linoleum"?
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.
Modern Linoleum Products
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 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 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).
Identify Older Linoleum Rug or Black-Asphalt-Backed (dark felt underlayment-backed) Sheet Flooring
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.
Reader Question: 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
Reply: forms of "linoleum" may include products glued to felt underlayment vs. glued to a jute backing
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 of 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.
Reader Question: what is this sheet flooring from my home that was built in 1865?
This one is the last on top of tongue and groove.
Thank you. - L.P. 6/3/2014
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