Starting with the essentials, kitchens must have durable, washable, water-resistant, and stain-resistant flooring. Period. Does cork fit the bill? Yes, it does. And while it's certainly not as durable or water-resistant as tile, it offers some clear benefits over tile. When it comes to washability, stain-resistance, and ease-of-care, cork flooring is similar to hardwood, making it a little more high-maintenance than vinyl and linoleum. Cork also offers DIY-friendly installation options. The rest of your decision comes down to looks and how you want the floor to feel underfoot. Cork scores pretty highly in both of those categories.
Cork tiles can be installed over wood or dry concrete subfloors or even over old flooring if properly prepared. The surface of the subfloor must be completely smooth. Any bumps, indentations, or voids in the subfloor will show through the cork material.
Cork tiles are typically installed with an adhesive that bonds them to the subfloor. After the tiles are laid, they are lightly sanded to smooth over any inconsistencies in tile height. Then, the tiles are sealed with polyurethane or similar floor finish material. This gives the flooring a moderate degree of moisture-resistance. However, as with sealed hardwood, it is recommended that spills and water be wiped up quickly and never to let water pool on the surface.
The alternative to glue-down cork tiles is a floating floor made of click-together cork planks. While cork tiles typically are solid cork, cork planks are a layered product containing a wood base or core layer and a cork top layer. The wood layer is actually high-density fiberboard (HDF), which is highly susceptible to moisture damage. It is possible to seal over a floating floor to improve moisture-resistance, but the seams between the flooring planks may not be fully sealed and thus remain vulnerable to moisture. As a result, cork planks in the kitchen must be maintained more carefully than cork tiles.
Cork is a natural product, which means that the colors, patterns, and features found in each individual piece are one-of-a-kind. Background colors can be applied to the material, using pigments added during the manufacturing process. Generally, darker materials are processed at a higher temperature than lighter materials. Cork can also be stained and or dyed to virtually any color, allowing you to choose from a wide variety of design options for your kitchen.
When installing cork in a kitchen it is often a good idea to do a dry run, laying out the individual tiles without adhesive so that you can create an attractive pattern from the natural variations in each piece.
It's important to note is that cork flooring can fade with sun exposure and can be damaged by pet claws, heavy furniture or appliances, and sharp heels. If the kitchen floor receives direct sunlight, consult flooring suppliers or manufacturers for help with choosing the best cork product and color to resist fading. To prevent scratches and scuffs to the flooring, sweep it regularly and protect it from heavy furniture and appliances with furniture coasters or pads.
Stains, Spills, and Cleaning
Polyurethane and similar sealants help make kitchen cork tiles as impervious as a natural flooring material can get. Sealants should be reapplied every 5 years to maintain a protective barrier against moisture and stains. However, when spills do happen they should be wiped up quickly. Never allow liquids to rest on the surface of a cork tile floor, as they can penetrate the material and damage the subfloor or the adhesive layer.
Basic maintenance involves vacuuming or sweeping a cork kitchen floor every day. It is important to keep the floor free of dirt particles, which can scrape the surface, biting through the sealant and damaging the tile. For deeper cleaning, you can mop the floor with a slightly damp mop or, preferably, a slightly damp towel. Wet-mopping introduces too much moisture and is asking for trouble.
There is a variety of cleaning agents made specifically for use with cork flooring tiles. But keep in mind that with sealed floors, the surface is the sealant, not the cork. If your cork tiles are sealed with polyurethane, for example, choose a cleaner suitable for polyurethane and cork. Most wood flooring installers discourage the use of commercial cleaning agents on polyurethaned floors. Any cleaner containing oils or wax of any kind will make it difficult to re-coat the floor in the future.
Comfort and Warmth
Cork is arguably the most comfortable hard-surface flooring material. Its natural sponginess is easy on your feet, legs, and back, making long cooking and cleaning sessions much less punishing. The floor's elasticity also cushions objects that accidentally fall. This can save even delicate glass and cookware from breaking when it hits the floor.
Cork is also warmer underfoot than many other hard-surface materials, especially ceramic and stone tile. This is because it is wood filled with tiny air pockets, and both wood and air are not good heat—or cold—conductors. Cork flooring can be used for radiant heating systems, but its resistance to heat transfer makes it less than ideal for this application.