At first glance, bamboo flooring can be mistaken for another form of hardwood flooring. And they are, in fact, often grouped together under the general category of “solid-hardwood” flooring. Bamboo and hardwood do have a similar look and feel, and both materials are available both in 3/4-inch-thick solid planks and in engineered versions in which a finish-quality natural veneer is laminated over man-made core layers. But amid these similarities are some key differences that set these two flooring choices apart.
Bamboo Is Not Wood
Although it is commonly grouped with hardwood flooring, bamboo is not actually a wood, but rather a woody grass. Bamboo, a native plant to tropical regions with heavy rainfalls, grows much faster than hardwood and has a different cellular structure. You might think this makes bamboo flooring impervious to water, but that’s not the case. Unsealed bamboo can be discolored and damaged by water, just like hardwood.
Bamboo Is Sometimes Harder Than Hardwood
Just because it carries the label “hardwood,” this does not always indicate that a wood species is a very hard material. Technically, the term actually refers to the wood of any tree reproduced from angiosperm seeds—a form of seed that is surrounded by some form of ovum, or fruit. This group includes many popular species, such as oak, maple, cherry, hickory, and walnut, among many others. The other main category of tree is the softwoods, which grow from gymnosperm seeds—”naked” seeds that are not enclosed within an ovum or fruit. This includes most conifer trees with seed cones in which the seeds are fully exposed.
But when different types of woods are measured for their actual resilience to impact or scratching, hardwoods are not always harder than all softwoods. Wood is commonly measured by test known as the Janka Hardness Test. This involves pressing a steel ball into the wood and measuring how deeply the ball dents the wood. When measured by the Janka Hardness Test, some hardwoods are softer than some softwoods, and they may also be softer than bamboo.
Among the common hardwoods woods used for flooring and woodworking, measured hardness ratings include:
Red walnut and Brazilian teak: 2,500 to 3,500
Hard maple: 1,450
Red Oak: 1,220
There are, however, some softwoods that are harder than some hardwoods—for example, Eastern red cedar (900 hardness rating), and Douglas fir (660 hardness rating).
Typically, bamboo in its natural state carries a Janka hardness rating of around 1,300 to 1,400, making it harder than most oak flooring, and comparable to hard maple. However, some bamboo flooring products are carbonized to darken it. This process involves placing the bamboo under extreme heat and pressure, which causes the color to change but also somewhat weakens the material. Carbonized bamboo carries a Janka Hardness rating of around 1,000 to 1,100, which is still considerably harder than some hardwoods.