Few Westerners think of bamboo as anything but a houseplant, garden accent, or snack for a panda. But throughout much of the world, bamboo provides durable building material. Soon, more of us in the United States may find bamboo right under our feet, literally, as bamboo flooring is a hot new trend.
Surprisingly, bamboo isn't even wood-it's grass, and an amazing grass at that. These prolific, tree-like plants (hundreds of varieties exist) grow incredibly fast. Plants reach harvesting size (around 20') in 3-5 years, then regrow after cutting.
Bamboo flooring, above, consists of stalks (called culms) cut into strips, planed to about 3⁄16 " thick, and glued into planks. In the "horizontal" style, strips about 1" wide are laminated in two-or three layers. In "vertical" planks, the strips are face-glued, which exposes the culms' edges. Planks join using tongues and grooves.
The result is a beautiful, even-toned floor without knots or wild grain. Instead, just thin, straight lines remain, interrupted only by subtle markings at the culm joints.
More surprising than bamboo's looks is its strength. A bamboo floor provides 50 percent more dimensional stability than red oak, and rivals maple in hardness.
Bamboo has a light hue, but takes on a caramel tone when the stalks are heated and "carbonized." The color runs throughout, eliminating the need for stain.
Not all flooring retailers stock bamboo, but it is getting more common. Pricing compares to maple, at $5-$7 per square foot, uninstalled.
As bamboo gains popularity, look for more products made from these versatile plants, such as door panels, veneered plywood, and even laminated "boards" for furniture.
Written by David Stone with Peter J. Stephano
Photographs: Marty Baldwin