Story and photos by Steve Jordan
When my wife, Lisa, and I shopped for a floor covering to complement the newly remodeled kitchen in our 75-year-old house, we discovered that linoleum was the perfect fit. While some people might dismiss this old-fashioned material as quaint, I knew that history had proven its durability. Because the color in linoleum goes all the way through the material, the design won’t wear off. Also, linoleum is neither brutally hard like the commercial vinyl tiles in our last kitchen nor soft enough to be cut by falling utensils (like our parents’ padded vinyl floors, which ruptured into wounds at the drop of a knife). Linoleum has other pluses, too. It didn’t remind us of the cheesy sheet flooring we had grown up with, it isn’t prohibitively expensive, and it provided the historic appearance we were looking for. Maybe best of all, linoleum is a green product, both hypoallergenic and biodegradable. It even smells good, like the linseed oil from which it is made. While manufacturers suggest that linoleum be installed professionally, we decided to tackle the job ourselves. It proved to be a manageable undertaking, without any major snafus. Here’s how we did it.
We knew that we wanted our floor to look historically accurate, with tiles as close as possible to 9″ square, the size that prevailed the first half of the last century and which were more in proportion to the room’s size. Because our supplier only offered linoleum in sheets and 20″ squares, we had to start with a special order, asking the company to cut each 20 square to yield four 10″ tiles.
Our next task was to prepare the floor. For any resilient flooring installation, the substrate must be as secure, seamless, and smooth as possible to avoid joints or moving boards that will show up as blemishes in the finished floor over time, and this rule is doubly true for a material as soft and conforming as linoleum. The standard practice is to lay smooth-faced 1/4″ Lauan plywood over the subfloor, fastening the sheets every 6″ or so with ring-shank nails with all joints staggered. Because our subfloor was new tongue-and-groove plywood that had been carefully glued and screwed to our old floor, I decided this surface would be smooth enough if we went over any imperfections with polyester filler and a good sanding.
Experience had taught me a few preparation tricks to help with edges later. I knew to leave the kick boards off the cabinets so that we could extend the linoleum slightly beneath them for a seamless finish. I also undercut the door casings at the floor, so that we could slip the tiles under the trim for a perfect fit. At the walls, my 1/2″ shoe molding gave me 3/8″ or so of wiggle room for any less-than-perfect measurements.
Choosing a Pattern
Linoleum tiles offer many patterns to choose from to create a floor design. For example, you can lay tiles in even rows that are square to the walls, set them diagonally to create a diamond design, alternate the grain—that slight marbling characteristic of linoleum—from tile to tile for a basketweave effect, or alternate it in rows of tiles to mix things up a bit. You can zigzag tiles in different colors or form a solid field bordered by a contrasting shade. It’s even possible to inlay a hand-cut design for an infinite variety of original floors.
We chose to lay our tiles in two contrasting colors, blue and green, alternating them in a diagonal pattern across the kitchen. Though a diagonal plan is a bit more demanding for laying out and for cutting materials, it tends to be more interesting and makes the room appear larger, at least to our eyes.
Before committing to the pattern, we mocked it up first by cutting construction paper to the approximate size and color of the tiles and laying it across about a quarter of the floor. This exercise helped us 1) judge whether our color choices were too bold or just right, 2) compare the diagonal plan to laying tiles square to the walls, and 3) see how the tiles could be laid most efficiently, especially where they met walls and cabinets. Making the best use of every tile was important because we did not want to have to order another $250 worth of materials simply to gain a few more tiles in each color.
Setting to Work
With the floor as clean as possible and our supplies-adhesive, notched trowels, straight edges, razor knives, rubber hammer, duster brush, and rags-right at hand, we got to work. First we laid out the installation by popping a few carpenter’s chalk lines to guide us. We began the layout by calculating the center point of the pattern in the room, which was important for two reasons. In our case, we wanted to bisect the door opening from the dining room to create a pleasing appearance with the tiles, and evenly proportioning the pattern in the room would allow us to employ the tile cut-offs (half pieces) on the opposite side of the room, or in every other row on the same side.
Once we were satisfied with our layout lines, we began setting tiles. First we spread about two square feet of special linoleum adhesive with a notched trowel, then carefully placed about four tiles, lining them up as straight as possible while trying to keep the mastic off their surface. If we did get adhesive on a tile, we quickly wiped it off with a cloth and a little water. (You can remove mastic after it’s dry with mineral spirits.) When we had four tiles laid to our liking, we pounded them down soundly with our rubber hammer to set them and moved on. Occasionally, we turned a pattern in the wrong direction-it’s easy to do this after staring at tiles for awhile-but they were easy to pull up and reset. If, however, you have to remove tiles the next day, insert a stiff putty knife under the tile and slowly work it loose.
Our biggest challenge was keeping the lines straight. Because our specially cut tiles didn’t come from the factory, they had slight variations in their dimensions. Consequently, we sometimes had to fudge the alignment of individual tiles in order to keep the row looking straight. Overall, laying the field tiles was simple and fast, which is a good thing because you want to work expediently once you apply the adhesive, or it will begin to set up.
We took extra care cutting the edge tiles because we had ordered only enough linoleum to finish the floor. If we made too many mistakes, we’d have to buy two more boxes of materials, one in each color. We had only one out-of-square wall in our kitchen, and here we used a carpenter’s bevel gauge to copy the angles. A bevel gauge is useful for all cuts if the room is slightly or significantly out-of-square.
As for pipes, we measured, cut the hole, and then made another cut to the edge of the tile so it could be carefully maneuvered around the pipe. We cut the tiles with a sharp razor knife while they were placed on a board, using a carpenter’s speed square or framing square as a straightedge. You could use a carpenter’s profile gauge to measure weird or unusually shaped (not straight) areas. A sharp rasp was fine for cleaning up minor imperfections on tile edges and for making minor adjustments. Knee pads are handy to have too, but we used a gardener’s foam knee pad.
In the end, we ran out of tiles as the project neared completion and had to use various scraps under our refrigerator. Manufacturers recommend not walking on the floor for about three days to allow it to set completely, but you can lay plywood over the floor and walk carefully. Our floor has held up great. After five years of extreme wear with two young children, two sloppy adults, and an 80-pound dog, we’re still pleased with linoleum’s durability and patina. Whether it is dull with wear or shiny from a fresh cleaning, our floor is always beautiful and a delight to walk on. Sometimes, it’s the tried-and-true, low-tech solutions that are the best fit for old houses, and sometimes, the answers are right under our feet.Published in: Old-House Journal March/April 2006