For years cork has had a rough reputation in the flooring design world. Old installations often employed low-quality materials that were not properly maintained and cared for, resulting in shabby surfaces that quickly degraded over time.
However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of cork flooring, as advances in manufacture have made maintenance and care easier than ever.
Today you’ll find cork being used in every room in the home, as well as in some commercial spaces.
How Cork Flooring is Made
Cork is one of the most renewable resources on the planet. It is manufactured from the bark of the cork oak (Quercus Suber) which is an evergreen that grows in the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe and Northern Africa.
Cork Oak trees are grown specifically for the harvesting of their bark, which is done in the summer when it becomes loose against the trunk of the trees. The harvesting of the bark is a process that does NO HARM to the trees. Rather the bark naturally grows back every 9-10 years, allowing a single crop of Cork Oaks to continue producing for decades.
Once the bark is harvested it is granulated, and then pressed flat with binding agents such as resin. It is then baked into the sheets that are used in flooring installations.
Benefits of Cork Flooring
Cork flooring can be installed in virtually any room in the house.
However, it will require special care in moist, damp areas, or spaces that get a high level of traffic.
- Soft: If you have ever pulled a cork from a wine bottle then you know how soft and pliable this material can be. It has a yielding surface beneath the feet that is very comfortable to stand on even for long periods of time.
- Sound: An installation of cork flooring will act as natural insulation for a space, blocking out ambient noise that can come from rooms below. This is due to the fact that its surface is made up of millions of cells filled with air, acting as tiny sound cushions.
- Impact: Cork also cushions impact sounds that can come from rolling or sliding furnishings across the floor, an important feature in schools and hospitals.
- Green: Cork flooring is all natural, biodegradable, and very renewable.
- Resilient: Cork’s ability to bounce back from impressions means that most objects will not leave dents in its surface.
- Non-Slip: Even when wet cork can provide a good level of traction for your feet.
Drawbacks to Cork Flooring
- Maintenance: In order to keep an installation looking attractive you will have to perform regular cleaning and maintenance on it.
- Stains: If not sealed properly cork can be stained very easily by dirt, spills, or other contaminants.
- Moisture: Cork flooring is generally not recommended in very moist environments unless it is properly sealed several times in order to protect the material. This seal will have to be reapplied periodically to prevent moisture from penetrating the surface of the floor.
- Dents: You will need to place protective mats underneath the legs of particularly heavy furniture to prevent permanent divots from forming.
- Replacement: With proper maintenance, a cork floor can last for years however eventually it will begin to show signs of wear and need to be replaced.
Since cork is a natural material the exact look of each piece will vary slightly, although in its natural unstained state it tends to be a pale tan or brownish color.
Cork can come stained in a variety of hues ranging from dark chocolate to pale honey, with almost every shade imaginable in between. You can also get cork flooring stained green, blue, red, or virtually any color you desire.
Cork most commonly comes in tile form and is usually sold in standard 12” X 12” or 12” X 24” sizes. There are also cork planks that come in standard 12” X 36” boards.
In an application where you want there to be a minimum number of seams, cork flooring can be installed using sheet material. However, it represents a significantly more difficult and complicated installation process.
Standard residential cork flooring should be at least 3/16” in thickness. In a commercial application, you want at least a 5/16” thickness.
Cork needs to be installed on a dry, smooth surface that has a maximum variance of plus or minus 1/8”. Generally, masonite or plywood is recommended for the underlayment. If installing directly on a ground level concrete slab you will need to install a vapor barrier to prevent moisture from leaking up from below.
A cement based patching compound can be used to smooth out irregularities in the surface of the underlayment or subfloor or to cover over nail holes in plywood and masonite. Paper felt can also be placed over sub surfaces to ensure that nail heads do not stick up in the cork installation.
Cork flooring should not be installed over underfloor heating systems as they can cause the tiles to curl or the adhesive to become loose.
Use a manufacturer recommended adhesive to install the tiles, planks or sheets. In some cases, the cork will come with the adhesive already applied to its underside.
A 1/4” - 1/8” expansion space should be left around the perimeter of the room to allow for shifts in size due to temperature.
After installation, you may need to weigh down individual tiles to ensure that you get a secure bond. Allow the floor to dry for 24-48 hours after installing it.
Once the adhesive is set, a sealant such as polyurethane should be applied to the surface of the cork to protect the material. Pre-sealed cork will only need one or two coats to protect seams, while untreated material will require several coats to create a protective layer over the material. In low traffic areas, you can use wax to seal the surface of the flooring installation.
Taking Care of Cork Flooring
An installation of cork can look beautiful and last for many years, but only if you are willing to spend time properly caring for and maintaining it.
The most important thing you can do to keep a cork flooring installation looking its best is to keep it completely free of dirt and grit. This requires a regular schedule of sweeping and or vacuuming. Failure to do so can cause the tiny particles that collect on the floor to grate against the cork, wearing down the protective sealant and causing scars in the material.
When necessary you can dry mop a cork flooring installation, and can even use a damp mop on it on occasion.
On top of this, a manufacturer recommended water based polish should be applied to the surface of the material on a regular basis several times a year.
Your surface sealant of choice should also be reapplied to the floor whenever it begins to show signs of wear.
More About Cork Flooring
- All About Cork Flooring
- Cork Bedroom Flooring
- Cork Floor Tiles in the Kitchen
- Cork Flooring for the Bathroom