Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some

Update! 2/12/13

Its been over a year since we put or cork floors in. This post has been getting quite a lot of traffic so I wanted to update readers on how they have held up. In a word- great! We have a floating cork floor that encompass or living room, dining room, kitchen, and hallway. Its all connected. There really isnt any signs of wear anywhere on the floor. No scratches or dents that I can find. I tended to baby the floor when we first put it in because I was worried about how it would hold up. Now I dont baby it at all.

The only thing I can see that might be a negative for some is that there is some fading near the our sliding glass door. This is an area that gets afternoon sun directly. Its not very noticeable. You wouldnt notice it at all even if you are standing right at the faded area. It just blends right into the darker area smoothly. If I point it out and you look for a while you can see it. It doesnt bother us at all. Many species of hard wood such as cherry do this as well. You can see some pictures of it below.

As far as maintenance goes I sweep and mop it every other week. More often when needed but it usually doesnt need it. It never looks dirty. The cork really does hide any dirt on its surface. Its been the easiest floor to maintain that Ive ever owned. I do keep felt pads on the feet of all our furniture. I replace them when they fall off or go missing. Not sure if this is really necessary but it makes me feel better. Thats been it for maintenance. I may look at the Bona brand floor polish once a year to keep the finish looking as good as it does now. The Bona floor polish for wood floors is perfect for cork floors. They are wood after all.

In our bathroom we put down glue down cork tiles. These are thick flexible cork tiles that come unfinished. They went down really easy. I used a contact adhesive meant for sheet vinyl floors to stick them down. It worked great. I finished the cork with 4 coats of Polyurethane. So far so good. They feel great in the bathroom. The floors are never cold and are nice to walk on with bare feet. I dont worry at all about water on them as they are impervious to water. They should be very durable.

We are thinking about a few more locations in the house for cork. Our bedroom will probably be next. We cant wait to take out the carpet. We are not carpet people and the carpet in our bedroom is gross. Were not quite ready to do it so we havent decided if were going to go with floating or glue down. My experience is that one isnt that much more difficult than the other. They offer different benefits. It might come down to a matter of cost. Well price out both options and see which one is more economical.

Would we do it again? Yes we would. We cant imagine a floor wed like better. The look has really grown on us. The warmth of the cork really works in our family room. Its our favorite place in the house in part because of the floors. They have the look of hardwood floors but are softer, warmer, and in some ways more durable. We cant wait to put more in.

Below are a few updated pictures of our floors after a year of wear:

You can see the sliding glass door here. The cork has faded a bit in this area. Its hard to notice though because it blends in as you move farther away from the door.

This is a close up of the faded cork.

Cork Flooring Resources and Information

Quick Jump Links:

Heres our living room before we bought the house. Im over on the chair already calculating how much flooring wed need to get rid of this carpet!

Why Cork?

We have 3 kids who dont like to wipe their feet and 2 wiener dogs who cant manage to stay potty trained. Light carpet was a non-starter for us. Luckily we were able to get the house for a price that would allow us to squeeze just enough money out for replacing the carpet.

As we thought about what we wanted in a floor we both knew we did not want new carpet. We both love the look and feel of hardwood floors and started out in that direction. Our needs were simple:

1. Durability — We know that whatever we decide well have to live with for a long time. We dont want a cheap temporary fix.

2. Dog proof- Well, we have those 2 wieners. They are neurotic and any big changes to their schedule and they are pooping on the floor. Im sure if we were better pet owners this might not happen, but I dont think were likely to change that very much.

3. Looks- We want something that is welcoming, informal, warm and natural. We dont like formal dining rooms or rooms that look too designed. We dont like furniture thats too pretty to sit on. We are much more form follows function than high design.

4. Resale- We arent necessarily thinking of this as our forever house. Im sure well be in it 5-10 years or so. We want to make sure the floors we lay down wont be an impediment to selling later. Wed like it if they actually add to the resale value. We were both willing to fudge on this a bit though if we find something we love that isnt exactly resale value friendly.

Thats a pretty simple list. After checking out the sub floor during the home inspection we found out that the sub floor is particle board. That means that we had 4 options:

1. Use a floating engineered floor. The glue-less snap lock variety would work fine. It just lays on top of the sub floor. Doesnt attach to it in any way.

2. Use a glue down floor. This is more work and messy. It also requires a more level and flat sub floor. The floating floor is more forgiving for imperfections in the sub floor.

3. Lay down plywood over the particle board and then put nail down hardwood. This is expensive, and since we were also doing the kitchen presented problems with clearance for the kick space on the lower cabinets.

4. Tear out all the particle board to see if there is a suitable substrate below and then nail down hardwood. This is also expensive and seemed like a lot of mess and time.

I was really set on nail down solid hardwood but after looking at the options I conceded that it was probably just too expensive and time-consuming an option. Especially if we could get similar benefits from a quicker, cheaper option. (As we wrote earlier, one of our guiding principles is Good enough is good enough .)  With that in mind we decided to look at engineered glue-less floating floors.

This led us to examining cork as an option. We both liked the look and all the variety of colors and textures available. It did come in an engineered snap lock variety and the price point was right. As I wrote above, I tend to over-research things, so I went online and read everything there was about cork flooring. Im certainly no expert now, but I do know a lot more than I did going in.

Cork Flooring- What is it?


Cork flooring is actually made from the bark of the Cork Oak tree. The cork is sustainably harvested. About every 10 years or so the bark can be harvested from the treeand then it grows back. The harvesting does not harm the tree. Most cork is grown in the area around the Mediterranean sea. The trees can be harvested after they are about 25 years old.

Click Together Floating Floor

Floating cork floors are a new product. They work much the same as other floating floors. They have an HDF (high density fiberboard) back and a thin layer of cork glued to the top. They click together with a snap together tongue and groove joint. No glue is required. More often than not they also have a thin layer of cork on the bottom that acts as an insulator. The floating cork doesnt always work well in bathrooms because the substrate (HDF) swells and buckles when immersed in water for prolonged periods.


Glue Down Tiles

The glue down tiles are often used in areas that get a lot of water intrusion. Glue down tiles have been around for a long time. You can often find it in turn-of-the-century libraries and churches. In fact, the Library of Congress has a tile cork floor.Bathrooms would be a place that glue down cork would work well. Cork is naturally impervious to water so it holds up well in this environment.

These tiles glue down with the same contact adhesive youd use to lay vinyl tile. They go in fairly easy and can be easily cut with a pair of scissors or mat knife. These tiles usually come unfinished so youll have to put a coat of polyurethane on them after they go in. Water based poly works fine. 3 or more coats. Even the tiles that come pre-finished require an extra coat after they go in to make them waterproof. The finish seeps into the gaps and seals everything nicely.

Most specs indicate that glue down is not recommended below grade so install in basements may not work unless you get the floor tested for moisture content first. The moisture content wont affect the cork itself as its impervious to moisture but it could affect glue adhesion.

Cork glue down tiles. These require an adhesive to attach to sub-floor. They are better suited to bathrooms and other wet areas than the floating floor. They often come unfinished and need a polyurethane coating when installed.

Whether or not to use cork in bathrooms and kitchens has been a matter of controversy. A search of the web will yield many pros and cons. You will see stories of people having horrible results with floating floors in kitchens and bathrooms and other stories of people whove had them for years with no issues at all. I think it probably largely comes down to the quality of the product and how you use your floor. If you use bath mats and wipe up water from your floors after a bath I dont see any reason  floating cork shouldnt last a long time in that area.

What are the properties of cork?

Antimicrobial- Cork resists growth of bacteria and other microorganisms. This makes it a healthy choice if there are allergy sufferers in the home.

Insulation- Cork offers insulation qualities. Its a great sound insulator. This makes it a good choice in an upstairs room. No more sound of feet walking on  floor. It also has some heat insulating properties. It stays warm in the winter. Unlike hardwood floors that can be cold on bare feet cork is wonderfully warm.

Ergonomics- Cork is great for your back! It has enough cushion that its like wearing cushiony sole shoes even when barefoot. This is great in a kitchen if you spend a lot of time there.

Much of these properties are due to the structure of the material. Cork has a very open cell pattern with micro air pockets. These pockets make the material spongy. This is also what gives it its insulating qualities. Cork will compress with force but it has a memory and will spring back to its original shape when the force is removed.

What are some of the advantages of a cork floor?

There are many. As mentioned above its a very comfortable floor. Bare feet just love it! Its soft and cushiony. Its also warm.It insulates both heat and noise. Cork floors are also very easy to clean. Once a week sweeping and a slightly damp mop every couple of weeks is really all thats needed. No cleaning materials at all. Just plain water.

Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some

Cork floors are also durable. It doesnt seem likely that something as soft as cork would be durable but a quality cork product is extremely durable. The material tends to give instead of scratch like hardwood. Also because of the nature of the material you wont see the small scratches and nicks that will happen over time. They blend in with the material in such a way as to make them largely invisible.

While pricing used to be a concern with cork floors it isnt any longer. Cork has really come down in price  the last few years and is comparable to hardwood or bamboo in terms of price. The floating floor can be a do it yourself project so you can save the big expense of installation. No fancy tools are needed and the skills can be quickly learned and mastered.

Cork flooring can be refinished! Even the floating floors can be refinished. Because the material is so soft extra care has to be taken if using a commercial drum sander. Too much pressure can sand right through the cork layer. If you are a bit more diligent you can put a fresh layer of urethane on the floors before there is a need for a heavy sanding. A light screening to rough up the surface and brushing on the new layer of urethane is all thats needed. Id recommend using the square sanders that take the big pads. You can find these at the big orange and blue home stores, in the rental section. They dont cut as fast or as deep.

Home Depot Floor Sander

There seems to be some controversy around refinishing floating cork floors. Some reference material says no waythat the wear layer is too thin and that cork is too soft. Others have said that they did it no problem. This could be due to the variation in makers quality of finish or the expertise of the re finisher. Unfortunately the floating cork hasnt been around long enough for many of them to need refinishing yet. I have a few scrap pieces that Ill use to test refinishing when the time comes. Im thinking a light sanding to rough up the top coat and then a few thin coats of a water based poly should work just fine.

Types of Finish

There are a few different types of finish available on the market. Most seem to fall into one of two broad categories. The finish either sits on top of the floor and bonds to it, or the finish penetrates the cork.  A stain would be an example of this second type. Well look at the first type because its the most common.

Surface finishes are basically a combination of some type of resin suspended in a solvent. When you apply the finish to the floor the solvent evaporates and leaves the resin behind. The water based surface finishes work largely the same. The water evaporates leaving the resin. As the finish dries there is a chemical reaction that takes place that makes the finish impervious to the original solvent. This means that the water based finish is impervious to water once dry. The oil based finish is impervious to solvents.

Heres a link to a great article that details the differences in finish by manufacturer. If you are looking at different manufacturers and are wondering how their finishes compare then this is a great read.

Manufacturers finishes compared.

Polyurethane Finish

Polyurethane finishes are the most common. They are usually a water based finish usually applied in layers. The more layers the more durable the finish. This is often the mark of a quality cork vs economy. The economy cork just doesnt have enough layers of poly. Polyurethane come is both water based and oil based finish. It seems that the oil is easier to apply for a DIY person but the harsh chemical smell and off gassing may be a no go for some. The water based is easy to clean up and has no harmful fumes. Which is more durable is up for debate. The conventional wisdom used to be that water based poly was inferior but this may not be the case with newer technologies. My personal experience applying a water based poly on cork was that it was fairly easy. My advice would be to apply more thin coats instead of a few thick ones.

Wax Finish

This finish is not as common. Youd find it on old glue down tiles. If you have an old house and find cork hiding under carpet you can bet that its probably got a wax finish. You wont find this type of finish being done much anymore on new products as it isnt as durable and easy as modern polyurethane.  Some advantages of a wax finish include: Wax finishes can be rebuffed and re-waxed without removing the existing layer of wax. Scratches in the wax surface can be easily removed by re-waxing the affected tile, without having to refinish the entire floor. Wax floors do however have to be re-waxed every 6 to 12 months, depending on the amount of foot traffic. Some people are stripping all the old wax off their cork floors and applying a modern polyurethane for ease of care.

This finish is cured by UV light instead of heat. I havent seen any flooring with this type of finish in person. Not sure about refinishing this type of floor either. Here is a resource with some information on acrylic urethane vs polyurethane. My basic understanding is that the low end stuff sometimes uses acrylic finishes.

Several cork brands seem to have a good reputation. We went with Wicanders for price and availability. The WE cork looked and felt almost exactly the same as the Wicanders, and if we could have gotten a better deal on it we would have been happy to go with it. The brands listed below are all good brands and should give you a great product. This is not an exhaustive list. Its just the ones that seemed to pop up over and over again during my research.

I did run over to Home Depot and looked at the cork they had there. Dont remember what the brand was? They offer way more on their website than they do in the store, but at the store you can get free samples to take home. Its a great way to test out the durability of the material. Grab a few and put them through the paces I did:

  1. Try soaking one in water to see how it holds up.
  2. Take another and put a heavy table leg on it overnight to see if it dents.
  3. Finally take one and drag a quarter across the surface hard to see if you can scratch it.

I did all this with the Home Depot brand and frankly wasnt impressed. I found the cork and the finish to be thin. It was easy to scratch and I could damage it with my fingernail.

This was not the case with the samples from Wicanders and WE cork, which really made me realize the importance of both cork density and quality of finish. It felt like a completely different material. The Wicanders cork did not scratch. Not even when I drug a quarter across the surface VERY hard. A table leg on the sample left a tiny indention that bounced back in about 30 minutes. After that you couldnt tell at all that I had placed a heavy table leg on it.


Plank cork is easy to install. It goes together much the same way the snap together floating hardwood floors do. One nice difference is that most cork planks have an underlayment built in. There is a layer of cork on the bottom of the HDF substrate that acts as an underlayment. This is often all thats needed unless the floors are going in an area where moisture may be an issue such as a concrete floor below grade. In these circumstances a water resistant underlayment may be put down before the cork. Otherwise its all included in the plank.

Our cork floors going in! View from the top of the stairs into the living room.

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