No matter what kind of changes you make in a kitchen, the question invariably arises of what to do with the old floor.

Should you take it up or put new flooring down on top? Suppose there are pieces missing, or the floor's uneven: How do you prepare it for a new surface?

A reader wrote in recently asking exactly those kinds of questions. Should she take up the old linoleum, she asked, or leave it there and install new flooring on top?

The answer depends on what kind of flooring is there already.

Real, old-fashioned linoleum is made of linseed oil, pigments, fillers and resin binders bonded to an asphalt-saturated felt backing.

If you're rehabbing an old house, you may find floors with linoleum "rugs," sometimes several layers deep -- and sometimes with really interesting, crumbly old newspapers between layers. Old linoleum is generally pretty battered, especially around the edges, and needs to come up before you try to install any other kind of flooring. Most often it's just tacked down and can simply be yanked up and the tacks removed with pliers.

In rare cases, the linoleum may be glued down. In such cases, it's better to leave it alone. It's possible that the adhesive contains asbestos fibers, which are dangerous if inhaled. Nobody recommends that homeowners attempt to remove asbestos-containing materials by themselves.

You may be convinced that even if there is asbestos in the product, it's not enough to hurt you. But fooling with it may be illegal. A variety of government agencies have regulations that prohibit removal of asbestos-containing materials by anyone other than a licensed expert.

If the offending linoleum is covering a wood floor you want to restore, get expert advice about how the removal should be tackled. Otherwise, leaving it alone is probably the best course.

Other types of floors grouped under the category "resilient" are sheet vinyl, vinyl-asbestos tile, and rubber tile. Asbestos may be present in all but the very newest of resilient materials. While manufacturers are not currently using asbestos in their products, products containing asbestos may still be on store shelves. You may want to check to make sure your new floor material doesn't contain asbestos.

Older resilient flooring can contain asbestos in the tiles themselves, in the lining or backing materials of sheet flooring, or in the adhesives used to stick them all down. Unless there's some compelling reason to take it up, it should be left in place and new flooring installed on top.

It's the fibers in asbestos that are dangerous. Generally, only if the floor is especially worn, or if you're trying to remove it, do you come in contact with the particles. You should never, ever, sand or dry-scrape an older resilient floor, because that releases dust that may contain asbestos fibers. You should also never sand or dry-scrape the backing or the glue.

Whatever the condition of your old floor, if you're concerned about asbestos exposure, you may want to install plywood underlayment over the old floor. And if the old floor is in extremely bad condition, it will be easier to install new flooring over new underlayment than to try to patch the old covering to take new flooring.

On the other hand, if the old flooring is not in too bad shape, it can be patched with a "leveler" and new flooring installed on top. Leveler is a paste similar to joint compound that comes premixed or in powder form to be mixed with water. The manufacturer of the new flooring will recommend the best leveler for that product.

Non-resilient flooring is made of brick, ceramic or clay, or stone. None of these contain asbestos. They are usually installed in mortar, a cement-type product that is unlikely to contain asbestos.

While it's safe to remove such materials, you have to be really sure you want to -- they're hard to get up and the mortar residue will make a mess of the subfloor.

If you're putting the new floor down yourself, consider that vinyl sheet goods -- those unwieldy 6- or 12-foot wide rolls of vinyl -- are the hardest resilient covering for amateurs to install without mistakes. Self-stick vinyl tiles, usually 12 inches by 12 inches, are the easiest. And if you get tired of the tile pattern, you can always rip them up and start over.

Next: Bathroom design considerations.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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