How Bamboo Works - nature's miracle grass creates strong stuff

by | Aug 24, 2010 04:52 AM ET

Bamboo is appearing in everything from flooring to paneling, and there are even people riding around on bamboo bicycles now. In the not too distant future it is possible to imagine bamboo replacing wood in a number of furniture and fencing products as well.

Bamboo use is growing because bamboo has several advantages over traditional woods like pine and oak. The first advantage is the fact that bamboo grows fast. Bamboo is not a tree - it is actually a very, very large type of grass with an extremely strong stem. This grass heritage means that bamboo does not have bark, and it doesn't have dead wood in the center of the trunk. It also grows more as a long, straight column rather than being tapered like most tree trunks.

Like many other grasses, bamboo can grow quickly. Given the right soil and the right weather, some varieties of bamboo can grow more than a foot in a day. This speed means that it takes much less time to get a usable crop of bamboo than it does to get, say, a usable crop of pine trees. An acre of pine trees takes three or four decades to reach a usable size. Bamboo grows more densely and can be harvested many times in that same span of time. This means that an acre of bamboo forest is far more productive than an acre of pine trees or oak trees.

Another advantage of bamboo is its strength. Bamboo is surprisingly strong, and pound for pound certain species are as strong as steel. Heat-treating the bamboo stalks maximizes the strength. Bamboo is so strong that it is being used in place of steel to make bicycle frames. You can buy bamboo bicycle frames pre-made or you can look on the Internet and find instructions for building your own. It may surprise you that these frames are not made of any kind of specially engineered bamboo composite material. It is just normal bamboo stalks that have been heat treated with a blow torch to strengthen the fibers.

Using bamboo in the garden:

Bamboo flooring is a composite. To understand bamboo flooring, think about a typical bamboo stalk. It is a hollow cylinder, and the walls of the cylinder are not very thick. The cylinder can be cut into long strips. These strips will have a slight curve to them because they were cut from a cylinder, but if the cylinder is large (3 inches in diameter or greater) the curve is very minor. It is easily removed by running the strip through a planer that makes it square.

Now you have a thin, square strip of bamboo that looks a lot like the wood for making a yard stick. These strips are turned into flooring in very much the same way that pine is turned into plywood. Strips are laid down in alternating layers with a heat-activated glue added between the layers. A heated press them compresses the layers and activates the glue to bind everything together. When the process is complete, you have a laminated bamboo panel that is incredibly strong and relatively lightweight. It can then be cut into strips or squares to make either traditional tongue-and-groove flooring or parquet flooring.

Bamboo flooring that is made in this way has several advantages over traditional hardwood flooring. The lamination process makes it extremely strong, and natural bamboo tends to resist dents better than hardwood floors (see below). Bamboo flooring tends to be less expensive because bamboo grows so much faster than oak or pine.

Best of all for many people is the fact that bamboo feels greener than wood. When loggers clearcut a forest for the lumber, it leaves a scar that lasts for many years. With a bamboo forest, the roots are still alive and they regenerate the bamboo stalks with surprising speed. That plus the fact that bamboo can be harvested so often means that it takes far less land to grow bamboo than to grow the same amount of wood.

If you have ever wanted to see the details that go into making bamboo flooring, this video is fascinating (you can skip the intro in the first 2 minutes if you like):

The only thing you need to keep in mind with bamboo flooring and other bamboo products is the source. You want to purchase your flooring from a reputable manufacturer to ensure uniform quality, appearance, strength, dent-resistance and chemical composition.

How hard is bamboo flooring?

See also:

- How Bamboo Flooring Works

- Man vs Wild: Ecuador Bamboo Ladder

- Renovation Nation: Build Green, Use Bamboo

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