A site-finished vertical grain bamboo floor with carmelized finish. Photo by Steven Young. All photos courtesy of Timbergrass LLC.

The phrase “turning over a new leaf in life” very aptly describes the hardwood flooring industry’s growing interest in “pasture-grown” bamboo. Once again, manufacturers are experimenting with an alternative to the oak tree — our industry’s traditional source of raw material. Although oak still reigns supreme for most manufacturers, distributors and retailers/contractors, products that are individually unique, relatively available and, most of all, consistent in yield and capacity for renewal cannot be ignored.

Imagine, if you will, an expansive stand of 20-foot-tall trees with “shoots” that measure an inch thick. This thicket has no other species of trees within its midst and is contained in a swath of pasture that’s one-quarter mile wide and four miles long. Large patches of lush bamboo, like the one I just described, frequently could be found in the Midwest and South regions of the United States. Sparse populations of bamboo were also present in upper portions of North America but, due to the region’s colder winters, their growth potential was always limited.

You might find that surprising, considering that most people in our industry associate bamboo flooring with foreign manufacturers. Once-abundant fields of bamboo in North America were a neglected resource, however. So-called “Giant Cane” (Arundinaria Gigantea) is unusual in that it is our largest grass species and it also is quite “woody.”

Bamboo was nicknamed “canebrakes.” Researchers say that cane, which is rich in phosphorus, calcium and crude protein, is the most nutritious native grass forage available in the southern United States. Cattle that graze on cane show significant weight gains and are said to produce superior milk and butter.

There was a truly harmonious relationship between cattle and cane. The cattle grazed on this superior feed and then were relocated to alternate pastures, which allowed the fast-growing cane fields to regenerate.

Examples of bamboo in vertical and flat grains, in both natural and carmelized colors. Photo by Brett Drury.
The presence of naturally occurring cane fields also indicated to early settlers of the region that the soil was extremely rich. They quickly found that the soil was fertile enough to support other crops as well. Cane fields were easier to clear than lands heavily populated by trees. Thus, cane habitat was converted to farm fields.

Clear cutting, combined with overgrazing, spelled the demise of the canebrakes. And in the few places where cane was left to stand, it was grazed down faster than it could grow back. Typically, once a canebrake was no longer useful for grazing, it was cleared for farmland. As a result, North American canebrakes became virtually extinct.

Ironically, because most products made of bamboo today are imported from foreign lands, the species is considered exotic in the U.S. marketplace.

In recent years, consumer interest in exotic hardwood flooring products has significantly increased. Bamboo has not escaped their notice, and wood floors fashioned out of this material have made their way back home to North America. By touting the uniqueness and versatility of this renewable flooring product, the design community also has influenced consumer demand for bamboo.

Bamboo floors are available in two distinct versions: natural and carmelized. As with all hardwood flooring products in today’s market, the natural look still prevails as the primary color of choice. Carmelized products add another dimension to the product by adding a desirable touch of amber.

The industry seems confident that bamboo will enjoy broad acceptance in the U.S. market. Sundry manufacturers have demonstrated that they are already on board by supplying air vents, baseboard and miscellaneous trims to enhance every bamboo flooring installation. Inset medallions composed of bamboo are now available as well. Bamboo flooring itself is predominantly manufactured in 3/8- and 5/8-inch thicknesses. Widths can range from a modest 3 5/8 inches to bold 6-inch planks.

Another positive aspect of bamboo flooring is its installation versatility. Obviously, the criteria and specifications of the manufacturer must be strictly observed to obtain an installation that stands the test of time. Relative humidity, moisture content and the jobsite conditions can alter the results of the installation and determine how long the floor lasts.

This bamboo installation graces the floor of the 2001 Sunset Magazine Idea House. Photo by Steven Young.
Bamboo floors can be floated or installed with mechanical fasteners or adhesive. Depending upon your region of operation, bamboo flooring offers any consumer and dealer/contractor a variety of options for a competent installation. The product is available in both prefinished and unfinished varieties. Following today’s industry standards, prefinished bamboo is manufactured with UV-cured polyurethane that contains aluminum oxide for improved finish durability. Another plus for bamboo is the availability of both vertical and horizontal grain.

Surprisingly, for a flooring product that has become associated with wood even though it originates from pastures of grass in its infancy, bamboo offers additional benefits compared to more traditional hardwood flooring species. For instance, bamboo and maple are relatively equivalent in terms of hardness. However, the tight grain and color consistency associated with 1st grade maple may just have to take a back seat to bamboo.

The company I represent recently installed our first bamboo flooring job. The 4,500 square foot installation is stunning. The uniformity and color consistency on this 6-inch wide bamboo plank has definitely created a buzz among all the trades that were involved with this residential remodeling project. Even our initial anxiety about the stability of a wide-plank bamboo installation has proven to be unfounded.

How can you say “no” to a product that re-grows to full maturity, and is ready for harvesting, in less than five years? Wood or Wood Knot invites you to accept the challenge of bamboo flooring. If you do, you’ll have one more terrific resource at your disposal for “stalking” your competition. Besides, wouldn’t you agree that it’s about time we “raised a little cane”?