Introduction: How Vinyl Flooring Is Made

About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

Who isn’t charmed by the rich warmth of a polished hardwood floor? And when it comes to bathroom elegance, it’s difficult to pass up real ceramic tile. Living room luxu-ry? It’s wall-to-wall for most. All of these flooring solutions have their place. But, if you want to be practical too, there’s an essential alternative you shouldn’t leave out—plastic.

That’s right. Covering your floor with plastic—just like homeowners have been doing for the past 40 years—is the low-maintenance, high-performance solution to just about any well-trodden area. Of course, we don’t call it plastic flooring, we call it vinyl flooring. And if you think it sounds bland, utilitar-ian and just a little too industrial, it’s time to take a closer look. Today, there are vinyl flooring options for every budget, every decor and every taste. The key to all the variation is in the manufacturing process.

The great thing about vinyl flooring is that it provides a relatively continuous covering without the gaping seams and natural absorbency of wood or the grout lines of ceramic tile. It’s this skinlike quality that makes vinyl flooring so attractive from a maintenance standpoint. However, vinyl wasn’t the first material to come to the rescue. Another solution had been around since the mid-19th century—linoleum, and it’s making a bit of a comeback today. Made from linseed oil, powdered cork and wood, resins, limestone and pigments, linoleum was produced in both sheets and tiles, and was a popular solution for kitchens and baths up until the ’60s. The downside to linoleum was that it needed to be waxed periodically—the major reason it gave way to the more maintenance-free vinyl coverings.

This project was originally published in the December 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.

Step 1: Vinyl Basics

Vinyl flooring is made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), with various compounds added to tailor the material’s characteristics such as color, flexibil-ity, hardness and sheen.

The primary element in vinyl flooring is a simple vinyl sheet. To produce this, manufacturers suspend the vinyl in a liquid, creating a mixture that can be spread into a thin layer by a rolling process. From here this plastisol, or liquid plastic, coat is dried through an application of heat and air that fuses the material into a tough, durable sheet.

Vinyl sheets produced in this manner can then be cut into 6-, 9- or 12-in. squares to create solid vinyl tile. This type of vinyl flooring is called homogeneous because the material and any decorative elements are the same from top to bottom. Vinyl composition tile (VCT) is a variation of solid vinyl tile with synthetic fillers and binders. Solid tile typically has a satin finish that requires periodic buffing or waxing to keep it looking new. Because the color and decorative elements extend through the tile, they don’t wear away with heavy use.

Step 2: Sandwich Constructor

While solid vinyl and VCT have the long-wearing advantage of homogeneous composition, decorative appearance is limited to block colors or patterns created through the introduction of coloring agents at the liquid-plastic stage. To produce the variation of design that vinyl flooring is noted for, manufacturers turn to modern printing technology and a layered, heterogeneous construction. In layered construction, flooring makers typically create a foam plastisol layer that’s about 25 mils thick.

To support this vinyl core, it’s bonded to a 25-mil felt backing that’s made from fibrous components used in the papermaking industry, limestone and clay, all held together with a plastic binder. Next, the decorative pattern is printed on a very thin vinyl coating that covers the core layer. Of course, without some protection, this thin printed layer would soon disappear through normal abrasion. To solve the problem, manufacturers add a top vinyl layer that’s about 10 mils thick. When dry, this layer of clear PVC, called the wear layer, protects the printed pattern and also provides a relatively maintenance-free surface that doesn’t require waxing.

Because the wear layer is so crucial to the durability and appearance of the floor, developing tougher and harder coatings is a priority. Some premium vinyl floorings have wear layers based on urethane-modified plastic for greater resistance to abrasion that could eventually dull the finish. To enhance the tear resistance and toughness of layered flooring, some makers add an additional laminated layer between the core layer and the backing. Layered vinyl flooring is available both in tile and sheet form.

Tiles are a little easier to install and are often the choice for do-it-yourself projects. However, the pattern selection for tiles is more limited than for sheet flooring simply because the size of the repeatable pattern is confined to the size of the tile. A sheet flooring installation also has the advantage of few, if any, seams to collect dirt and moisture.

Step 3: The Great Pretender

From a visual standpoint, vinyl flooring’s edge over any other material is that it can be made to look like almost any other material. One of the keys to this is the printing technology. Rotogravure printing is a rotary process that utilizes photoengraved plates to reproduce realistic images below the wear layer of the composite sheet. Images of stone, tile and brick, masonry textures and wood are all used to produce startlingly realistic floor coverings. To increase the sense of visual depth, some makers add color to the wear layer coating—color that runs the depth of the coating so it doesn’t wear away. Armstrong Flooring has developed a product, called Inlaid Color, that replaces the printed layer with a core layer that has full-depth colors and patterns. In addition to designs and images, embossing techniques add realistic texture to the surface. Overall texture can be imparted to a vinyl film by manipulating the drying process. Mechanical embossing can enhance a flat pattern of brick or stone with a true three- dimensional quality.