Wood Flooring In The Bathroom? How To Get The Look And Guard Against Water Damage

Water and wood don’t play well together. We’ve all known that since the first time our mothers scolded us for not using a coaster. So it might seem counter intuitive that homeowners are going gaga for wood floors in one of the wettest rooms in the home: the bathroom. Sure, wood floors have a warm, inviting appearance that pairs perfectly with the rustic, relaxed spa style that’s so popular this year, but is it really worth the hassle? We’ve got a few ways to make this gorgeous look work for you while reducing the worry about water damage.

Natural wood floors have beautiful warmth, texture, and natural character, but require vigilant upkeep in a wet space like a bathroom (by Palm Design Group)
Natural wood floors have beautiful warmth, texture, and natural character, but require vigilant upkeep in a wet space like a bathroom (by Palm Design Group)

Real hardwood is what this trend is all about: it’s natural, it’s rugged, it feels great underfoot, visually warms the space, and can help connect your bathroom with the rest of your home, especially in an older house with continuous wood floors. But natural hardwood flooring is also highly susceptible to moisture damage: it can warp or discolor, or even mold or mildew. That said, most water damage comes from leaving puddles of water or wet towels directly on the surface of the floor for long periods of time, which causes the wood to absorb the water and gives it time to seep down into the cracks between the floorboards. 

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Attentive cleanup and good ventilation can keep hardwood bathroom floors looking beautiful (by Griffin Enright Architects)
Attentive cleanup and good ventilation can keep hardwood bathroom floors looking beautiful (by Griffin Enright Architects)

A little fastidiousness about making sure splashes and drips around the bathtub, shower, sink, and toilet get cleaned up quickly will go a long way towards ensuring a natural hardwood floor will stay in great condition, even with regular water exposure. Be sure to consider humidity levels in the bathroom, too; airborne moisture can have similar negative effects on wood flooring, so make sure your space is thoroughly ventilated, especially if you have a heavily steam-producing feature like a steam shower or extensive custom shower.

Engineered hardwood floors offer slightly more moisture resistance without sacrificing the look and feel of natural hardwood (by Matarozzi Pelsinger Builders, photo by Mariko Reed, architect Ian Moller)
Engineered hardwood floors offer slightly more moisture resistance without sacrificing the look and feel of natural hardwood (by Matarozzi Pelsinger Builders, photo by Mariko Reed, architect Ian Moller)

The type of wood you choose and how you finish it can make a big difference, too. All wood floors are varnished and sealed, but using a heavy duty marine quality finish will significantly enhance the floor’s water protection without altering its appearance. Engineered woods, which are made of a wood veneer over thin, compressed layers of wood and plywood, are a bit more water resistant than solid hardwood (though you still shouldn’t leave water standing on them), and many species of wood have a greater natural resistance to mold, mildew, and moisture.

Bamboo floors are more water resistant than most other hardwoods, and they work especially well with the Asian-influenced bathrooms that are so popular this year (Projects by Giffin & Crane, photo by Jim Bartsch)
Bamboo floors are more water resistant than most other hardwoods, and they work especially well with the Asian-influenced bathrooms that are so popular this year (Projects by Giffin & Crane, photo by Jim Bartsch)

Bamboo, which is a darling of the green home movement for its sustainability, also happens to be harder, more durable, and more water resistant than many common hardwoods. Bamboo is actually technically a grass rather than a tree, but produces a light golden, honey, or natural colored flooring that will hold up better in moist conditions. Other tropical woods like teak are good options as well and leave a little more leeway in terms of moisture, so be sure to look into the specific qualities of the woods you’re considering before you make a decision.

Non-wood materials like laminate, linoleum, vinyl, and tile can all be patterned and textured to look like hardwood, but offer greater water resistance (by The Neil Kelly Company)
Non-wood materials like laminate, linoleum, vinyl, and tile can all be patterned and textured to look like hardwood, but offer greater water resistance (by The Neil Kelly Company)

All that said, if you want to get this look in a very high traffic bathroom that’s used by people (especially kids) that are prone to leaving puddles or wet clothes in their wake, even the best and best sealed woods probably aren’t a good choice. But that doesn’t have to mean having a “wood” bathroom floor is entirely out of question – there are many faux wood alternatives out there that are much more water resistant. For light puddles, laminate planks are a good option. While these don’t hold up in very wet spaces (like flood prone basements), their synthetic surface won’t readily absorb water the way wood does. Water can get in the cracks between planks, though, so approach this option with caution.

The appearance of vinyl flooring has greatly improved in recent years, and now feature embossed high definition images that can believably replicate the appearance and texture of real wood (by Cablik Enterprises, photo by AWH Photo and Design)
The appearance of vinyl flooring has greatly improved in recent years, and now feature embossed high definition images that can believably replicate the appearance and texture of real wood (by Cablik Enterprises, photo by AWH Photo and Design)

Vinyl sheet flooring and linoleum, on the other hand, can be installed in large sheets with few or no small cracks for water to seep through. Though vinyl is synthetic and linoleum made from natural compounds, both are naturally resistant to mold and mildew. Vinyl is slightly more waterproof, but can’t be recycled, while linoleum is totally recyclable and even biodegradable, but slightly more susceptible to water damage. Both are a great, affordable option for busy bathrooms, as they can be printed to look just like real wood without the same need for constant maintenance. Unlike the vinyl flooring of yesteryear, today’s luxury vinyl actually has a really high quality appearance and is starting to become a more desirable option, while linoleum is becoming a staple of green home design. That said, if any part of either type of flooring is damaged, because it’s all a single piece, the whole floor will likely need to be replaced.

Wood print tiles combine the appearance of hardwood with the durability and water resistance of porcelain tile (by International Custom Designs, photo by Jeri Koegel)
Wood print tiles combine the appearance of hardwood with the durability and water resistance of porcelain tile (by International Custom Designs, photo by Jeri Koegel)

Last but not least, the very most water resistant option is wood printed porcelain tile. Porcelain and ceramic tile are the top choices for a bathroom for a reason: they’re impervious to water. With the growing popularity of wood floors in the bathroom, manufacturers have started producing tile that’s the size and shape of wood planks, printed and sometimes embossed with high definition images of real wood. They won’t have the same physical warmth underfoot that real wood (or even laminate or vinyl) does, but the appearance is very close to the real thing, and the tiles can easily be replaced if damaged. Because you don’t have to worry about water damage at all, though, you can do a lot of interesting things with wood tile – you can even use it to tile your shower floor. And while the material itself might be cool to the touch, it’s also the only one on this list that can be paired with heated floors, which can help make up the difference.

Do you like the look of wood floors in the bathroom? Would you rather have the real thing, or flooring that’s little more water resistant? Let me know in the comments!