- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The bamboo used for flooring isn’t the same as the plant a panda loves to chew. Nor does flooring made from bamboo have ridges.

These are two common misconceptions regarding consumer use of this hardy plant, one of the fastest-growing on the planet. When cultivated and processed for commercial and domestic interior flooring, it can be just as versatile and long-lived as conventional hardwood choices.

One problem is that relatively few homeowners know about its availability, and, upon hearing it is a member of the grass family, many are likely to question its durability.

Fortunately, interior designers know better — some of them. Proof of bamboo’s acceptance among professionals is the decade-old bamboo reception area of the American Association of Interior Designers in Northeast.

“I think bamboo flooring is beautiful and practical. Plus, it is good for the environment,” is the enthusiastic opinion of Carolyn Schebish of the firm Design Exchange in Fairfax. “It holds up beautifully and is very sophisticated. And you now can get it stained in colors.”

An added enticement, she notes, is the idea of employing bamboo next to routine hardwood choices “because there is no competition with the different grains. They blend together in subtle ways.”

Bamboo flooring comes in two basic patterns — vertical and horizontal — based on how the boards are cut. Both have long shaft lines, but the horizontal pattern contains repeated knotlike elements. To date, two basic tones have been widely available: natural and carbonized. Natural is a light tone — resembling a blond birch in color. Carbonized is stained brown from a heating process during manufacturing.

The bamboo used for flooring comes almost exclusively from China, says Cory Paxton of GreenWood Products Co., an importer and distributor with warehouses in Pennsylvania, California and Colorado. In China, many manufacturers are competing in the marketplace, and there are about 250 importers of bamboo here.

Boards come in 4- and 6-foot lengths with a thin polyurethane sealer that requires no special cleaning agent, according to Keith Ware, owner of Future Green in Northwest. The store, which is dedicated to organic and sustainable products and designs, sells and installs several types of environmentally friendly flooring.

Because of its cut, bamboo’s vertical pattern is slightly more sturdy, Mr. Ware says, but any kind of bamboo is less susceptible to moisture than yellow pine. Pricing depends on quality but generally is in the same range as hardwoods such as oak, he maintains.

When JoAnne Friedenthal of McLean remodeled her kitchen last year, she wanted to have a hardwood floor. She had heard bamboo was “the newest kind and was hard and resilient.” She first saw the product at Nash Floor Co. in the Washington Design Center and then researched it on the Web. She decided on bamboo not for environmental reasons, she says, but because it offered a contrast with the dark redwood floor in an adjacent room.

The Nash company has handled bamboo for nearly 10 years, according to Chris Nash, company vice president. “A segment of the market looks for what is considered a renewable resource — not destroying the rain forest,” he says. “The other thing about bamboo is its contemporary, modern look that fits in well with condos and lofts and office spaces. Washington’s traditional homes are more oak and pine.”

Mr. Nash knows certain manufacturers are doing inlaid designs such as parquet, but he has yet to have a customer request that style, he says.

Mr. Paxton warns consumers against buying bamboo that is harvested too young but acknowledges that most consumers might not know the difference.

“Young bamboo is much cheaper than older, but it is softer. Unlike an oak or maple, the plant gets denser and harder with age,” meaning , he says, that good-quality bamboo is better than red oak, and poor quality will be softer than walnut. Retail pricing averages $10 a square foot.

GreenWood’s Web site (www.greenwoodbamboo.com) gives examples of what is considered good and bad bamboo flooring along with other valuable technical information. For example, among some 1,200 species of bamboo, the Mao or “hairy” bamboo from southeastern China is best for flooring.

Unlike slow-growing trees, bamboo has an extensive root system that allows it to propagate new sprouts after every rainy season. Traditional hardwoods found in fast-disappearing forests are cut every 40 to 60 years. The Mao is cut every four and eight years. It can’t be grown in the United States because of the amount of rain and kind of soil needed for this particular species.

“Mao is basically harder than what is seen in this country domestically,” Mr. Paxton says. To obtain premium quality, the best time for cutting is between six and eight years, he adds.

Squash courts in a secure area of the Pentagon are made of bamboo, he says, as is a portion of the flooring at St. John’s College in Annapolis.

“It is working its way across America,” he notes, but overall, the East Coast to date is a strong oak and maple market. Oak is the top seller in this country, but hundreds of species of wood are being turned into flooring. What helps bamboo sales, he points out, is having architects who know the value of using building products friendly to the environment.

Another good source for learning how bamboo is harvested and manufactured is the Web site for the Bamtex Collection of Wood Flooring International, an Iowa-based importer that sells only to dealers and distributors but invites consumers to buy 50-cent samples of the company’s product (www.bamtex.com).

“Sales currently are predominantly for homes in the West Coast and Florida,” says Bamtex customer service specialist Sheila Phillips.

Care and upkeep of bamboo floors is relatively simple. A mild detergent will take off grease, but Mr. Paxton advises mopping up water as quickly as possible because even spots of water can affect the finish. “Do not treat bamboo like vinyl. I’ve come to recommend an all-purpose cleaner called Zep sold at Home Depot for about $3 a bottle,” he says.

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