Authentic Mid-Century style building materials and DIY kits for your home.

What Floor Should I Choose? (Part 7 – Vinyl Tile)

March 26, 2024

Vinyl Composition Tile, commonly referred to as VCT, was a boon to the exploding housing market after World War II. The tiles were easy to install, came in all sorts of colors and patterns, and were well-wearing, especially in high-traffic areas like kitchens and baths. VCT is still manufactured today, and at $1-$2 per square foot, is one of the least expensive options for achieving a mid-century appropriate floor for your home.

History

Polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as PVC, is the basis for VCT flooring. While we see PVC in many places today (think pipes and windows), it was slow to hit the market when it was originally discovered.

Polyvinyl Chloride was created in the late 1800s in Germany, where it sat as just another chemical for many years. In the 1930s, a Goodyear scientist who was researching adhesives for adhering rubber to metal found that through polymerization, the product had more malleability while maintaining strength. The new polymerized PVC was first shown to the public at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Through the war, vinyl was in demand for wiring in machinery, so it wasn't until after World War II and the housing boom that PVC hit its stride as a relative of the VCT tiles we know today.

They were only relatives because tiles of the 1950s - 1970s often had additional additives to make them even stronger - asphalt was one additive, and the most talked about was the addition of asbestos. The asbestos fibers made the tiles tougher and more resistant to cracking, but today, they are expensive and time-consuming to remove, given that they need to be removed and remediated by a professional.

Today's VCT is made of PVC, limestone, fillers, plasticizers, and additives. The fillers and additives will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but rest assured, none of these are asphalt or asbestos!

Types

The general term, vinyl tile, may conjure up the image of peel-and-stick floor tiles. While those types of tiles have come a long way, they are not as mid-century as a standard VCT tile. Peel-and-stick floor tiles emerged in the late 1960s and had several benefits over VCT: they didn't require mastic for installation, they were often somewhat padded or embossed, so they lent even more comfort underfoot, and they were sold as "no wax" floor, unlike VCT tiles that require regular cleaning and waxing. However, early peel-and-stick tiles had the propensity to tear as they were not as thick as VCT tiles, and some might even slide around on the subfloor if they were installed incorrectly. True PVC vinyl floors also came in roll form, such as the much-coveted #5352 from Armstrong.

However, the type we're focusing on in this article, and the most often seen in mid-century homes starting in the 1950s, is the humble VCT, vinyl composition tile.

Installation

VCT tile installation is pretty straightforward for the handy homeowner. The most important step is to have a completely flat and smooth subfloor. VCT can be laid on a wood subfloor or even directly on concrete, which makes it a great player in the basement flooring market. Make sure that the subfloor is completely swept and vacuumed clean, as any small bits caught underneath can telegraph to the surface of a tile.

As with any square application, find the middle of your room and create an X and Y line that are at 90 degrees to one another and as plumb and true to the outside walls of the room as possible. (We all know that this is always a task with old homes!) Start by applying mastic created for your tile brand and, using a notched trowel, lay the mastic down in overlapping swathes. Do not lay down too much mastic, or it will squeeze up between the tiles. (Ask me how I know). Working in small sections, apply the mastic, let it dry to a full tack as specified by the manufacturer, and begin laying at the center point you created with the X and Y lines. Modern VCT tiles are very true to size, and you should not have any issues creating straight lines. Working your way out from the middle, you will eventually get to the edge and have to cut your tiles. Tiles can be scored with a knife and then snapped pretty easily. There are also special tools for cutting VCT tiles, but for the homeowner, a score and snap method will mostly suffice.

True vintage VCT floors were 9" x 9" tiles, and modern VCT comes in 12" x 12". You can happily score and snap your way to a 9"x 9" size using the snapped-off pieces for patterns if you don't wish to waste the excess. Speaking of patterns, given the massive colorways that VCT comes in, you can dream up patterns galore! Also, given the ease of cutting the product, curves are not out of the question with VCT. You can even go full retro and install a shuffleboard court in your basement if you wish! Detailed cutting is best handled by a pro, but many communities have a local company or two that do waterjet cutting, which is perfect for fine details in VCT flooring.

Once your floor is laid, clean the floor with soap and water and apply a finish. Many manufacturers have their own line of products for washing and finishing floors, or you can find other brands at your local home center specific for VCT.

Where to Buy

VCT Flooring is easily obtainable at your local big box store or smaller flooring suppliers in your community. Don't feel that you need to purchase only the off-the-shelf colors! Most manufacturers have a really large color range, and you can easily place a special order for any color you wish at either the big box or specialty stores. Specialty flooring stores may even have a sample book of colors that you can borrow to take home and peruse. Happy color decisions!

The main players in the VCT market are Tarkett and Armstrong, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Armstrong offers the most variety and is the most available product on the market. It comes in multiple textures, as shown below. You can order samples directly from Armstrong here and Tarkett here.

Armstrong Premium Excelon

Crown Texture

Shown here in 5C866 Little Green Apple

Armstrong Premium Excelon

StoneTex

Shown here in 52122 Pebble Gray

Armstrong Standard Excelon

Imperial Texture

Shown here in 5C880 Marachino

Armstrong Excelon

Feature Strip

Shown here in 50790 Black I
(Feature strips come in 2"x24", 4" x 24", and 6"x24")

Tarkett

VCT II

Shown here in 594 Turquoise

Have you installed VCT floors, or have you had them installed? How do you like them? Did you create any fancy colored patterns? We'd love to hear from you.

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Image Credits:

KenTile ad uploaded by Mid-Century Press on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED.
VCT Floor with pattern by Make it Mid-Century. All rights reserved.
Installation photo by Zombie Stomp on Instructables. Fair Use.
Images of products by the individual manufacturers. Fair use.

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