“It’s not bamboo’s fault; it’s people’s fault,” said Dan Harrington, senior product specialist at Galleher Hardwood and chair of the newly formed National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) bamboo standards committee.
Harrington’s statement is a firmly held belief among bamboo manufacturers when defending the misunderstood category. It quickly gained popularity in the early 2000s but has since been blemished by years of claims, complaints and confusion. Most consumers don’t understand it, retailers are afraid to sell it, installers don’t know how to install it, and questionable manufacturers and low-quality products have inundated the industry as a whole. But the reputable bamboo manufacturers that have been around since the beginning are far from giving up.
The early days
Many believe bamboo’s current problems are due partially to the fact it came into popularity too quickly, causing a flood of material on the market and resulting in price pressure from American buyers on Chinese manufacturers. But industry leaders stress that it is impossible to make a high quality strand bamboo product cheaply.
“The fact is that it costs a lot of money to manufacture a quality bamboo flooring product,” explained Tom Goodham, vice president of manufacturing and operations for Teragren and member of the NWFA bamboo standards committee. “If the product you are purchasing is inexpensive, one or more of the essential components or steps have been compromised. While you may get lucky, the costs of failure are high.”
Because of bamboo’s rapid rise, many entrepreneurs were starting bamboo factories without any technical product knowledge. “They were buying poor machinery, poor kilns; they were doing everything the cheap way,” said David Keegan, COO of Bamboo Hardwoods, also a member of the NWFA bamboo standards committee.
Myths and misconceptions
The misconceptions about bamboo began as soon as it rose to popularity. Keegan recalled a particular article published around 2000. “Bamboo was touted as being bulletproof, that you couldn’t dent it, but that wasn’t true because there wasn’t strand-woven bamboo yet. So [consumers] were disappointed because expectations were set too high.”
Today’s high quality strand products can be extremely durable and up to three times harder than oak. But Harrington made it clear that Janka hardness tests can be misleading as they were designed for wood, not bamboo.
Another misconception about bamboo is that it cannot be environmentally friendly if it is coming from China. However, companies like Teragren have proven that bamboo can be one of the most environmentally sound flooring options by partnering with the Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as freight and other transit groups, to prove that all Teragren products are carbon negative at the time of delivery in North America.
Many consumers are also under the impression that bamboo simply does not perform well in certain areas of the country with extreme swings in humidity. But manufacturers are confident that quality bamboo that has been acclimated and installed properly should not have any issues.
Acclimation and installation
Due to the nature of the process of making strand bamboo, as well as the fact it is difficult to measure its moisture because of its density, bamboo floors are often not acclimated enough upon installation.
“When we come up against acclimation issues, it’s almost always strand, and it’s because of the density of the material,” said Caitlyn Kari, Teragren’s director of marketing. “Acclimation is all about bringing temperature and moisture content to equilibrium between the product and environment, and when you’re working with such a dense material the process just takes longer.”
Another issue is that many installers don’t know how to install bamboo correctly, and there have been no formal guidelines established. “Right now there are different standards depending on which manufacturer you buy from, and that creates confusion with both consumers and dealers,” said Gary Keeble, marketing manager, USFloors.
In June 2014, the NWFA established its bamboo standards committee, and manufacturers continue to sing the praises of this decision.
“There’s no right or wrong; there’s just the truth,” Goodham noted. “There are some things that are not open to interpretation—the flatness of a plank, the amount of gap that should be left during installation. We need a common language because if we don’t [have one], it hurts everybody.”
Kari added, “[The committee is] game changing. It clarifies the rules, and if everyone is playing by the same rules it makes it so much easier for everyone to do their jobs. And it guarantees the end consumer a higher quality, more reliable product.”
The future of the category
The general consensus among manufacturers is the bamboo industry has already started cleaning itself up. Through all the negative connotation manufacturers continue to laud bamboo’s endearing attributes. “Bamboo is among the most versatile, rapidly renewable and environmentally friendly natural resources on the planet,” said Steve Wagner, director of sales and marketing for Wellmade. “In the end, reputable manufacturers will regulate their own quality control and stand behind their products.”
Goodham also noted the strength of knowledgable, committed manufacturers helping bamboo prevail. “Through attrition we have already seen many small manufacturers drop out who were not able to uphold basic quality level standards. We are all learning from mistakes that have been made by others, and we are rising as a group.”