Cork Floors

Texture, warmth, and beauty: Cork has it all

Spanish cork tree with bark stripped

Cork, the bark harvested from the cork oak (Quercus suber), grows primarily in Western Mediterranean countries. It´s an ancient material with unique properties that make it useful for a variety of purposes including floats for fishing nets, insulation on ships and railcars, as well as for Birkenstocks and bulletin boards.

Cork flooring was first manufactured and installed in the early part of the 20th century. It became quite popular during the 1920s and was used by Frank Lloyd Wright in several of his buildings. Because of its durability, many original cork floors in both residential and commercial structures are still in use. Over the years, cork´s popularity waned as new materials like vinyl provided flooring alternatives. However, as a sustainably harvested product, cork is again re-establishing itself as an interesting, cost-effective flooring material.

As flooring, cork is versatile and can be installed just about anywhere in your home, though it´s important that installations in wet rooms (such as bathrooms) be caulked and thoroughly sealed. To prevent voiding the manufacturer´s warranty, be sure to completely read the product literature.

The cork advantage

Cork is more than 50 percent air, which makes it lightweight and a natural sound absorber. Those characteristics also help to make it resilient. Consequently, cork often doesn´t show dents or grooves the same way wood flooring can. It has excellent insulating properties and is almost as warm under foot as carpet. It´s also allergy free and easy to maintain.

The bark from each tree is harvested every nine years. The trees aren´t damaged, so they continue to create the next crop of bark for future harvest. In addition to being environmentally friendly, cork is durable, moisture-resistant, and impervious to pests and rot.

New textural effects available provide interest for the "fifth wall" of your home. Shades range from light to dark natural cork tiles as well as tiles colored with dyes for extra design punch. Depending on the manufacturer, dyes may be water-based, fade resistant, and all natural, or not.

Most of all, cork is beautiful.

Disadvantages of cork

Cork has relatively few disadvantages. It is possible that darker shades may fade when it´s exposed to light over time. As with other natural, resilient flooring, cork is easily damaged by strong solvents, and it may be gouged. Unsealed cork may stain.

Cork tile installation

Cork tiles are readily available from a variety of manufacturers. Knowledgeable do-it-yourselfers can install a floor with a minimum of fuss. Depending on your project, more detail can be found in the manufacturer´s literature. Product literature also includes recommendations for adhesives or appropriate moisture barriers if required. The following steps are an outline, and shouldn´t be considered a comprehensive guide for your cork tile installation.

  1. Read manufacturer´s installation instructions and assemble all required tools and materials.
  2. Prep the floor. The floor surface must be smooth, clean, and dry without any bumps, dirt, oil, or paint that could prevent a tight fit.
    • For interlocking, glueless cork tiles, some manufacturers recommend using a cork underlayment to smooth out flaws.
    • For tiles requiring adhesives, use a water-resistant Portland-cement filler to create a smooth surface.
  3. While working on the floor preparation, put the cork tile in the room for a couple days to acclimatize to room temperature.
  4. Take cork out of the box for a dry fit. Tiles are somewhat different so you can create a pattern or mix that suits your taste.
  5. Install according to the manufacturer´s instructions.

Removing old cork floors

Removing old flooring is hard, dirty work no matter how you cut it. There are a few things to keep in mind before you start.

If the current tile is is firmly attached to the floor, your simplest course may be to put down an underlayment and not bother with taking out the old flooring. Just screw down 1/4" masonite or cement board, mud the seams, and install your new flooring on top. This works well if you are doing floors in different rooms and the difference in floor heights isn´t apparent.

Methods of removal depend on how well attached the flooring is, the original adhesive, and the flooring itself. Scraping and application of heat usually works. Your local hardware store or home improvement center will have tools and materials that can help once you see how firmly attached your tile is.

Maintaining cork floors

Once it is installed and sealed, you can keep your cork floor looking new for years by just sweeping, an occasional damp mop, and reapplying the sealer once a year or so. The best way to make sure you care correctly for your cork floors is to read the manufacturer´s instructions for maintenance.

To damp mop, use a mop that has been well wrung out. Wet mopping should be avoided as well as allowing any standing water.

To reseal the floors, use the manufacturer´s suggested sealant once a year or so. You may be able to use a wax as recommended, then buff.

Never use harsh solvents or cleaners; many solvents can discolor or damage the floor´s surface.

To find a flooring contractor, check out ContractorNexus.

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