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

Update! 2/12/13

It’s 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. It’s all connected. There really isn’t 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 don’t 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. It’s not very noticeable. You wouldn’t 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t need it. It never looks dirty. The cork really does hide any dirt on it’s surface. It’s been the easiest floor to maintain that I’ve 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. That’s 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 don’t 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 can’t wait to take out the carpet. We are not carpet people and the carpet in our bedroom is gross. We’re not quite ready to do it so we haven’t decided if we’re going to go with floating or glue down. My experience is that one isn’t that much more difficult than the other. They offer different benefits. It might come down to a matter of cost. We’ll price out both options and see which one is more economical.

Would we do it again? Yes we would. We can’t imagine a floor we’d like better. The look has really grown on us. The warmth of the cork really works in our family room. It’s 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 can’t wait to put more in.

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

PEN08643 940x705 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
You can see the sliding glass door here. The cork has faded a bit in this area. It’s hard to notice though because it blends in as you move farther away from the door.
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This is a close up of the faded cork.

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Cork Flooring Resources and Information

In my quest to know everything there is to know about cork floors before we made a commitment to them, I did a lot of research. I didn’t find any one resource that had everything I needed to know, so I decided to make one. I tend to over research things so you can benifit from my over-zealousness here. I’ve broken the post up with the jump links below so you can skip to the part that interests you most.

If you want a shorter (and she thinks sweeter) version, you can read Rita’s post about why we picked cork.

Quick Jump Links:

house 576x383 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
Here’s our living room before we bought the house. I’m over on the chair already calculating how much flooring we’d need to get rid of this carpet!

 

Why Cork?

We have 3 kids who don’t like to wipe their feet and 2 wiener dogs who can’t 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.trans Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some

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 we’ll have to live with for a long time. We don’t 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. I’m sure if we were better pet owners this might not happen, but I don’t think we’re likely to change that very much.

3. Looks- We want something that is welcoming, informal, warm and natural. We don’t like formal dining rooms or rooms that look too “designed.” We don’t like furniture that’s too pretty to sit on. We are much more form follows function than high design.

4. Resale- We aren’t necessarily thinking of this as our forever house. I’m sure we’ll be in it 5-10 years or so. We want to make sure the floors we lay down won’t be an impediment to selling later. We’d 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 isn’t exactly resale value friendly.

That’s 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. Doesn’t 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. I’m certainly no expert now, but I do know a lot more than I did going in.

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Cork Flooring- What is it?

corktree Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
image courtesy of WE Cork, http://www.wecork.com/about-cork/

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 tree–and 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 doesn’t always work well in bathrooms because the substrate (HDF) swells and buckles when immersed in water for prolonged periods.

Uniclic Cork Flooring Cork Glue down Floor and Cork Floor Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
Click lock tile. No glue needed. This floor “floats” over your subfloor. Image courtesy of- http://corkkevin.en.ec21.com/

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 you’d 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 you’ll 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 won’t affect the cork itself as it’s impervious to moisture but it could affect glue adhesion.

tiles 383x383 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
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 pro’s and cons. You will see stories of people having horrible results with floating floors in kitchens and bathrooms and other stories of people who’ve 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 don’t see any reason  floating cork shouldn’t last a long time in that area.

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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. It’s 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 it’s 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 it’s insulating qualities. Cork will compress with force but it has a memory and will spring back to it’s original shape when the force is removed.

What are some of the advantages of a cork floor?

There are many. As mentioned above it’s a very comfortable floor. Bare feet just love it! It’s soft and cushiony. It’s 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 that’s needed. No cleaning materials at all. Just plain water.

Cork floors are also durable. It doesn’t 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 won’t 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 isn’t 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 that’s needed. I’d 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 don’t cut as fast or as deep.

buff sander Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
Home Depot Floor Sander

There seems to be some controversy around refinishing floating cork floors. Some reference material says no way–that 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 maker’s quality of finish or the expertise of the re finisher. Unfortunately the floating cork hasn’t been around long enough for many of them to need refinishing yet. I have a few scrap pieces that I’ll use to test refinishing when the time comes. I’m 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.

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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. We’ll look at the first type because it’s 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.

Here’s 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 doesn’t 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. You’d find it on old glue down tiles. If you have an old house and find cork hiding under carpet you can bet that it’s probably got a wax finish. You won’t find this type of finish being done much anymore on new products as it isn’t 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.

UV Cured Acrylic

This finish is cured by UV light instead of heat. I haven’t 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.

 

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Brands to look at:

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. It’s just the ones that seemed to pop up over and over again during my research.

Wicanders- http://www.wicanders.com/client/skins/geral.asp

WE Cork- http://www.wecork.com/ 

Torly’s- http://www.torlys.com/cork

Globus Cork- http://www.corkfloor.com/

I did run over to Home Depot and looked at the cork they had there. Don’t 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. It’s 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t tell at all that I had placed a heavy table leg on it.

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 Installation

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 that’s 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 it’s all included in the plank.

cork 512x383 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
Our cork floors going in! View from the top of the stairs into the living room.

Want to see how installation’s done?  Check out these videos:

 Glue Down Tiles

Click Together Floor

Not cork but the install is exactly the same.

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Colorfastness?

Cork does fade in direct sunlight. The lighter colors seem to fade less than the dark. Some manufacturers are adding UV protectants to the finish to minimize the effect, but you will get some fading regardless. It’s no different than hardwood floors, really. They also react to UV light. It’s not a defect of the material as much as it’s a natural process of an organic compound.

There are a few things you can do to minimize fading:

Install a lighter colored cork. Lighter colors don’t fade as much as dark colors. (I have heard just the opposite. One rep suggested that the darker colors have a UV protection built in that make them more light-fast. Best check the particular product for that information.)

Install UV film on your windows. You can find UV film at Home Depot fairly cheaply. It has the added benefit of reducing your cooling costs.

Install drapes and blinds to cut the direct sunlight.

Move furniture and rugs periodically to prevent hard lines and edges from forming where furniture protects the floor below.

Not much else to do other than pick a cork that has a UV protection built in. I’m not going to worry too much about fading. I consider it a natural process and will live with the color change as the floor ages. We did pick a lighter color that won’t look too bad if it fades.

Care

How do you care for your floors? It’s fairly easy.

Sweep once a week or so. Make sure that sand, dirt, and other substances that could cause scratches and abrasions are removed from the floor promptly. This will protect the finish and make it last longer. Wipe up all spills right away. The cork itself is fairly impervious to spills but the HDF substrate is not. It can swell if exposed to water. You can mop the floors periodically with a slightly damp mop. Don’t flood the floor with water though. Again this could damage the substrate. A mild detergent or soap in the mop water won’t harm the floor at all. Some people use the Bona floor products designed for wood floors. This is appropriate as the cork has the same finish as wood floors.

rocky 764x1024 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
This is the perfect floor for our wiener dogs! Their nails don’t damage the floor at all and clean up of accidents is a snap.

Rugs and runners are a good idea, especially in high traffic areas. We have a runner in the kitchen near the sink and rugs in the high traffic areas of the dining room and living room. We also have a small rug in front of the sliding glass door to the deck.

It’s recommended to not use latex or rubber backed rugs. Check the back side of the rug. Is it scratchy? If it is then you don’t want it on your cork floors. Soft natural fibers work best.

Also, felt pads under furniture legs are a great idea. This gives your floor some protection from furniture sliding across the surface and causing scratches. I haven’t found the weight of my furniture to be a problem but some people suggest circular discs under heavy furniture to dissipate the load a bit.

I’d certainly put a catch pan under potted plants to prevent moisture from sitting on the surface of the floor for an extended period of time. Other than that there isn’t much to do! I’ve heard some people describing high heels putting divits in their cork flooring. My cork floors would not have that issue at all. I suspect this might cause issues with a lower quality product but if you bought your flooring from a reputable manufacturer you should be able to wear your heels around the house no problem.

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Bathrooms and Kitchens?

There is lots of controversy about cork in kitchens and bathrooms. It seems that glue down tiles in a bathroom are a great idea all around. They are warm and impervious to water. The click down floating floors in bathrooms may not be a good idea? My big concern besides the water intrusion is how to float the floor. The toilet will be bolted down to the floating floor and will impede the ability of the floor to expand and contract. Any leakage in the wax ring under the toilet could send water into the HDF substrate that the cork is glued to. This could cause it to swell and crack. I think you could possibly get away with floating cork in a bathroom if you are good about keeping your floors dry and wiping up water right away. Otherwise they may not be a good choice.

oldkitchen 576x383 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
Here’s a view of the kitchen before we bought the house. Cork went right over the top of these. You can see the bad carpet in the dining room beyond.
kitchen 572x383 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
We LOVE the cork floors in our kitchen. We needed something to break up the white cabinets/white tile/white walls.  (Paint is high on our to-do list!) Very comfortable to walk on and easy to clean.

In a kitchen I think it’s an easier choice. The floors really are durable. After ours were installed I had to slide the stove over the floor a few inches to get it back into its place. It did no damage to the floor at all. No scratches or anything. The refrigerator is a big heavy beast and when I move it out to clean there is no indentation in the floor where it sat.

As long as you don’t have standing water sitting on your floors you should be just fine with cork in a kitchen. I did read a few stories of homeowners who had damage to their cork floors caused by a faulty dishwasher. A dishwasher that floods a kitchen floor would ruin most any floor anyway, and I suspect a flood of water on a cork floor left overnight would be disastrous. It certainly is something to consider, but I love the cork floors in our kitchen. They are super comfortable to walk on and clean up easily. I’d install them in my kitchen again in a heartbeat.

The manufacturer we chose does make a product to be used with the click together floors to seal the joints. It’s almost like rubber cement. You put it on the joint and then click the planks together. It’s supposed to improve the water tight seal. We didn’t bother. The tiles click together incredibly tight already. I didn’t think we’d need the extra protection. If someone wanted the extra peace of mind though, it’s available.

You can get it here.

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livingroom 572x383 Everything you ever wanted to know about cork flooring, and then some
Living room all done. Walls need to be painted and new window coverings are also in the works.

That’s it. If not everything you need to know about cork flooring, it’s got to be most of what you need to know. See the links below for interesting online discussions about cork flooring. Sometimes it’s nice to hear other people’s real life experiences with a product instead of relying on the manufacturer’s claims.  (And speaking of manufacturers and such, we don’t have any connections to any suppliers mentioned in this post.  We aren’t big-time enough for perks or payment. Just trying to spread the wealth of everything we learned.)

Online discussions of cork floors

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/362702

http://ths.gardenweb.com/forums/load/flooring/msg0517211128399.html?12

http://www.viewpoints.com/Cork-Flooring-reviews

http://www.disboards.com/archive/index.php/t-1088685.html

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