Although cork flooring has been around for many decades, it has recently come into vogue in a major way, due mostly to the fact that it is a "green" renewable resource that can be used without the guilt associated with using fine hardwoods from old-growth forests or tropical rainforests. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) and is periodically harvested from the living trees. For flooring products, cork is ground up, compressed, and formed into sheets bonded with resins.
Cork flooring has many merits, to be sure, and its trendy popularity has led to cork being used almost everywhere in the home—including some places where it may not be the best choice. It is important to understand the underlying characteristics of cork so that you can make an informed decision when choosing whether or not to use it in a specific space.
- Cork has a soft, cushiony surface. One of the best things about this material is how soft and yielding it feels beneath your feet. When people first step on a cork flooring installation their eyes often light up with delight with the recognition that this is neither wood nor vinyl but something completely different. Because of this, cork is popular in rooms where you will be standing for long periods of time, such as kitchens. The soft surface of a cork floor can act as a kind of cushion that provides a certain amount of protection when someone accidentally trips and falls. This makes it a great choice for children’s rooms and for older residents prone to falling.
- It's a good insulator. The inside of a piece of cork is made up of millions of tiny air-filled chambers. These act as barriers against the transmission of noise, effectively insulating any room. Any room floored with cork will reduce noise from being transmitted through the floor to the ceiling below. Cork flooring can also help you save money on heating and cooling bills. That same property that insulates the floor against noise will reduce transmission of heat into a room in the summer or out of a room in the winter. In one study, a standard cork floor had an R-value of 1.125, compared to a value of only 0.250 for ceramic tile and 0.638 for oak. Only wool carpet offers an R-value greater than cork.
- Cork can be refinished. One of the best things about a cork floor is that you can refinish its surface periodically, just as you can with hardwood, to give it a fresh new look. This involves sanding the cork down past the point of any imperfections, and then staining and or re-applying the finish sealer to the surface. This can be done several times, depending on the thickness of the material.
- It is hypoallergenic. Unlike carpet, cork tends to repel dust, hair, and other small particles from its surface. The material is also easier to get completely clean. Because of this, cork floors tend to promote higher indoor air quality.
- Cork has antimicrobial properties. Cork contains a waxy substance called suberin. This material has the property of naturally repelling small vermin and insects. This makes cork floors resistant to the growth and colonization of these organisms, and can, therefore, help to promote the healthiness of an environment.
- Cork is environmentally friendly. Cork is a completely natural, recurring, and easily replenishable material. It is made from the bark of the cork oak and is harvested without harming the tree. The cork bark grows back every few years. Cork is also biodegradable and will break down into the environment at the end of its life cycle.
- Installing tiles is easy. Installing cork tiles is quite simple since most tile products have a self-adhesive back—installation is a simple peel-and-stick operation. Other products are installed with a standard thin-set mortar adhesive. Finishing is a matter of applying several layers of sealer. When individual tiles become damaged, you can simply lift them up and replace them.
- Cork is easy to maintain. When installed correctly with multiple layers of a quality water barrier sealer applied to the surface, cork flooring is relatively simple to take care of. It requires only regular sweeping or vacuuming to remove small grit and dirt particles. In addition, spills need to be wiped up to prevent staining.
- Cork is susceptible to damage. This is not the right material if you are looking for a perfectly pristine floor. Cork is a very soft material. While this might be delightful on bare feet, it also makes these floors relatively easy to damage. If any sharp object is dropped it can puncture the floor. Chair and furniture legs can pierce and scrape the material. High heels, if not properly padded, can cause punctures in the surface of a cork floor. Even small dirt particles can act like sandpaper grits, tearing across the surface of the material.
- Cork can have permanent indentions. If you have very heavy appliances or furniture pieces, then you may have a problem with them sinking permanently down into the cork. This can not only cause permanent divots in the material but can also make it very difficult to move those pieces later on for cleaning or furniture rearrangement. However, this can be offset to some extent by using furniture coasters and placing larger pieces on flat wooden boards or other support pieces. In a kitchen, for example, you may want to rest the refrigerator on a plywood platform over the cork.
- Cat and dog nail scratches are a particular problem with cork flooring. These can start showing up almost instantly, especially with larger, heavier dogs. Keeping their nails trimmed can help this, but pets will invariably damage a cork floor.
- Water can be a problem. The finishing process involves sealing cork in order to create an invisible barrier over its surface, and this offers some protection against water stains and damage. However, this seal is not perfect, and if the room is flooded, the flooring material will probably warp and discolor. High humidity can also cause the cork to curl or plump, which may lead to tiles popping out.
- Sunlight can cause the cork to fade. If direct sunlight is allowed to beam down on cork materials every day, then discoloration may occur and a patch of the floor can end up taking on a different hue than surrounding areas. This can be prevented by blocking sunlight with curtains or blinds, but it will require constant vigilance and care.