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Cork Flooring Buying Guide

How to Find the Best Cork Floor for Every Room in Your House

Your complete buyer's guide for cork flooring pros and cons, available styles, installation methods and maintenance tips.

We're obviously big fans of cork flooring here. It has so many advantages - all the unique qualities of cork make it an ideal choice for flooring. And while many of us have even installed it in our own homes, how do you know if it's a good fit for you? Read on for cork flooring pros and cons, what to look for when buying, and the best installation method for each room.


Basics of Cork Flooring

Where does it come from?

Cork is a plant material derived from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus Suber).  The largest collection of cork oak trees can be found in Western Europe, particularly in Portugal's cork oak forests - or 'Montados'.  Cork bark harvesting is an environmentally friendly process that's done without cutting down or destroying a single tree.  A tree must be at least 20 - 25 years old before the first cut is made to its bark and from then on, the cork can only be extracted once every 9 years. Trees are harvested by experienced, qualified craftsmen who manually strip the outer layer of bark with a small hatchet. Throughout its long lifetime - cork oak trees can be expected to live upwards of 200 to 250 years - the tree is continually regenerating bark, which makes the Montados industry an ideal example of renewable production.

Cork Harvest Season for the Cork Oak Tree in Portugal. These images show the careful, skilled process of removing the cork bark from the trees which only happens once every 9 years between May and August. The cork is stripped by skilled family farmers with an axe and without damaging or harming the tree, which can live to be over 200 years old!  Cork is the ultimate renewable resource and an essential part of the Portuguese culture.

From left to right: A cork oak forest in Portugal (The Portuguese Montado); Craftsmen skillfully stripping the bark of the cork oak tree with an axe which only happens once every nine years between May and August when the tree is at its most active phase of growth. This makes it easier to strip the bark without harming the trunk; The cork is removed in large bulging planks, which are very light and still damp from the tree's sap;  A close-up look at the stripped cork bark; Stacks and stacks of cork planks, recently extracted from the cork oak trees.


And did you know that cork flooring is a recycled by-product of cork bottle stoppers?  The raw material factory's first priority is wine and champagne stoppers.  Once the bark is stripped from the trees, it's washed, dried and then bottle stoppers are punched out. The material that's left over is ground up to make other products like cork floors, shoes and insulation. Essentially every part of the bark is being utilized so there's very little waste. In fact, many wine cork factories even utilize cork dust from the processing plant to co-generate electricity! Cork flooring is a truly sustainable option for homeowners seeking eco-friendly building products.

Quote: "Even cork dust is vacuumed up and burned to generate 65% of the energy that supplies their production facilities." - Amorim's Green Production Facilities

From left to right: Amorim cork factory in Portugal where the first priority is wine and champagne cork bottle stoppers (the highest quality in the world). It's a tremendous amount of work, and it's all done by hand!  The material that's left over is ground up to make cork flooring. The cork from every process has a purpose so there's very little waste.

From left to right: Amorim cork factory in Portugal where the first priority is wine and champagne cork bottle stoppers - the highest quality in the world. It's a tremendous amount of work, and it's all done by hand!  The material that's left over is ground up and compressed to make cork flooring. All of the bark stripped from the cork oak trees has a purpose so there's very little waste.


How is it made?

Cork flooring is made when the ground cork is mixed with resin binders, compressed, and then cut into large sheets.  There are two main types: solid cork tiles and engineered planks.  Originally cork flooring was only offered in a solid square tile that was designed for glue-down applications.  But cork flooring has come a long way since then!  Now, you can find cork in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and patterns in engineered flooring products designed for floating floor applications. The engineered "planks" are made with at least 3 basic layers: a bottom layer of compressed cork, a core layer of high-density fiberboard (HDF), and a top layer of cork. Planks typically have click-together edges for floating floor installations.

Wicanders engineered cork flooring - this image shows the various layers for floating floor applications: a bottom layer of compressed cork, a core layer of HDF and a top layer of cork.
An engineered cork plank showing the various layers of construction. (Courtesy of Wicanders®)

Even though the majority of cork flooring is available as the engineered floating floor option, glue-down tiles still have their place.  Especially in areas of the home prone to heavy traffic, moisture or the possibility of standing water such as bathrooms. (See below for our room-by-room installation suggestions.)



Cork Flooring Pros and Cons

Benefits of Cork Flooring

Cork's unique honeycomb structure and unique features provide cork flooring with many benefits including: warmth, thermal insulation, walking comfort, impact resistance, sound absorption, sustainability, allergen resistance, and durability.

    • INSULATING / WARM - Cork's unique honeycomb structure is composed of millions of air-filled cells which provides insulation against both heat and cold. The thermal insulation properties keep an optimal floor temperature all year long. So your floors feel warm even when you install them over a concrete subfloor - much warmer than a hardwood or ceramic tile floor. They're ideal for bare feet, which is why you'll often find cork floors in yoga studios. Cork helps to maintain that comfy indoor climate better than other flooring, and we've noticed the added benefit of energy cost savings.
       
    • WALKING COMFORT -Cork flooring is pleasant to the touch and easy to walk on. Those same air-filled cells that provide insulation also allows the surface of the flooring to compress and then expand again, without damaging the structure. In other words, it "gives". Because of that, cork flooring is the perfect balance between too soft, which can cause leg fatigue, and too hard, which can cause muscle tension. The softer and more flexible floors are very forgiving on your legs and back. We like to put cork flooring in rooms like kitchens and offices where you're often standing for longer periods of time.  

    • IMPACT RESISTANCE - We keep talking about cork's honeycomb structure because of the unique features it provides. Elasticity and compressibility allows cork to adapt more easily to pressure - whether that be walking pressure (impacts from heels) or pressure from falling items like breakable dishes.  Cork outperforms ceramic tile, laminate, and even linoluem when it comes to shock absorbtion. Your dishes have a better chance of staying intact when dropped, without damaging your floor.  This same benefit applies to children's and older resident's rooms where falling injuries tend to be a concern.
       
    • QUIET - Cork muffles noisy foot traffic sound between rooms by up to 53% because of its acoustically insulating properties that allow it to absorb sound. And cork easily cuts noise within a room as well. This is especially beneficial in apartments or commercial areas that are more susceptible to outside noise.
       
    • EASY TO INSTALL - Because cork is available in floating panels that simply lock together using a tongue-and-groove installation system, many homeowners choose to put it in themselves rather than hire an installer. The floating application sits right on top of virtually any smooth surface, which makes it ideal for DIY renovation projects.
       
    • RENEWABLE & SUSTAINABLE -  Cork is essentially the bark of the cork oak tree, which is extracted using an environmentally friendly process that's done without harming the tree.  The trees can live up to 250 years and outside of the harvesting (which can only be done once every 9 years), the tree is continually regenerating bark. It's the ultimate renewable resource and an essential part of both the culture and economy of the forests' surrounding communities.
       
Quote: "Above all, flooring should be absolutely sustainable, good for your health, providing the best comfort, and positively impacting the future of the planet." - Wicanders Cork Flooring

  • HYPOALLERGENIC - If you're looking for an alternative to allergen-collecting synthetic carpet, cork is a great option.  It's naturally mold, mildew and insect resistant due to the waxy substance inherent in cork called suberin. And it's anti-microbial. 
     
  • DURABLE and EASY TO MAINTAIN - Cork is a centuries-old material that's been embraced for flooring world-wide since early in the last century, particularly in Europe. From older examples in U.S. buildings like the Harvard Law Library and the Library of Congress, to modern homes, hotels, restaurants, museums and hospitals. When properly maintained, cork flooring can last 40 years or more. Cork floors have the ability to bounce back from hard impacts, due to its resilient qualities which results in a very robust flooring with a long life span. And unlike other flooring materials, the pattern and color of many solid cork products can penetrate through and through so you can sand it and refinish it as necessary.

    As far as day-to-day maintenance goes, cork floors are quite easy to maintain. With a broom or vacuum (on the bare floor setting), sweep up any debris or loose dirt. For general spills, wipe up with a damp (not soaking wet) microfiber towel or mop. For deep cleaning, use a non-toxic pH Neutral cleaner.
     
  • AFFORDABLE - For the added value you get with cork flooring, including reduced costs in energy heating, cork is very reasonably priced. Cork flooring prices can range anywhere from $3 per square foot on up to $20 for specialty or custom styles. However, most of the cork we offer is in the $3 - $6 range, so it's quite affordable. And even if you decide not to install it yourself, installation only adds $3 - $4/square foot.

Disadvantages of Cork Flooring

As with any flooring option, especially flooring made from natural material, cork has some drawbacks to consider.

  • SUSCEPTIBLE TO DENTS AND SCRATCHES - We haven't come across a scratch-proof flooring material, but it's still worth noting that similar to hardwood flooring, cork can dent and scratch. Softer than wood and harder than carpets, cork's flexibility and "memory" is the perfect mix to absorb small impacts and dings. But it's also dense enough to withstand heavy traffic and weight. That's why you'll find it in museums, government buildings and libraries. And don't forget that cork has been used as the soles of shoes (hello, Birkenstocks!). While cork can spring back, it's not invincible. Heavy furniture can leave permanent dents, especially furniture with narrow legs, like the incredibly popular Mid-Century Modern styles.
    Recommendation:  Be sure to use floor protectors to prevent damage.  You can also move furniture around every so often to allow those dents to spring back from compression damage.

    What about pets, you ask?  As we like to say, you have to love your pets more than your floor.  But the reality is that pet nails can leave scratches or pierce the cork. 
    Recommendation: To combat this, keep your pet's nails trimmed and clean up any accidents as quickly as possible.  The good news is that many of the engineered cork products come pre-finished with an environmentally friendly (and non-toxic) varnish that adds strength and longevity to your flooring. 
     
  • SUSCEPTIBLE TO WATER DAMAGE - Yes, water can be a problem. However, the issue is not with the cork itself, but rather with the high-density fiberboard (HDF) layer that securely clicks the panels or tiles together in engineered floating floors. It's the HDF that's vulnerable. Standing water can permeate those joints and cause warping of the core.
    Recommendation: In potentially wet rooms like bathrooms and laundry rooms, where water spillage and heavy moisture is a higher risk, a floating floor is not advised – we recommend using a solid, glue-down cork flooring option despite the trickier (and possibly professional) installation.
    UPDATE - Waterproof Cork Flooring:  It's a thing.  And it's awesome! Amorim now makes an engineered cork floor with a waterproof rigid core so now there's no limit to where you can install cork flooring. And even better, it comes in both cork and wood looks. LEARN MORE HERE.
     
  • CLIMATE CONSIDERATION - Just as water can be damaging to the HDF layer of your engineered cork flooring, so can extreme changes in in your climate such as temperature and humidity.  Like hardwoods, cork will expand and contract somewhat, based on the moisture level in your home. 
    Recommendation: To combat this issue and to regulate humidity, consider using a humidifier in drier climates, and a dehumidifier in muggy or humid climates.  And you should always allow your flooring materials to acclimate prior to installation (the amount of time will vary depending upon the manufacturer so be sure to check their specific instructions).
     
  • FADING DUE TO SUNLIGHT EXPOSURE - Fading in particular areas exposed to direct sunlight (and UV light) is a possibility, and will be especially noticeable with the more natural cork colors (as opposed to the stained styles). 
    Recommendation: In addition to blocking sunlight with high-quality blinds or curtains, this is another case where occasionally shifting your furniture around will work to your advantage! 


Despite these drawbacks, when it comes to resilience and durability, cork is still our favorite flooring for how forgiving it is.  Now that you've read up on our cork flooring pros and cons, check out our room-by-room installation suggestions below.

Best Installation Method for Each Room - Floating or "Click" vs. Glue-Down

Cork's unique properties make it an ideal flooring choice for any room in your home.  But there are a few factors that will determine which installation method is best for each room, including:

  • location of the room in your home
  • the amount of foot traffic in the room
  • the amount of moisture or risk of water spillage in the room

Floating cork flooring does not need to be nailed or glued to the subfloor. The floating installation method is used to install engineered cork planks and panels that simply lock or click together using a tongue-and-groove system. You may have heard floating floors referred to as "click" flooring for that very reason. Because they're easy to install, many homeowners choose to put it in themselves rather than hire a professional installer. The floating application sits right on top of virtually any smooth surface, which makes it ideal for do-it-yourself renovation projects.

The floating method of installation will work in many rooms in your home, with the exception of really wet locations (bathrooms, mudrooms, laundry rooms or possibly entry ways).  We recommend floating cork as a healthy alternative to lower-end, toxic flooring materials such as luxury vinyl tiles (LVT), vinyl planks or laminate.  Another way to think about where you would install a floating cork floor is to ask, "where would you put carpet?".  Cork is very similar to wool carpet in that both are made from organic materials and are quiet, soft, warm and provide sound dampening.  You wouldn't install carpeting in your bathroom, so it's best not to install a floating floor with an HDF core that could potentially sustain damage from too much contact with water, either. 

Floating cork planks are recommended for:
  • Bedrooms
  • Offices
  • Kitchens
  • Living Rooms
  • Dining Rooms
  • Dens
  • Basements
  • Gyms, yoga or workout rooms


On the other hand, glue-down cork tiles are recommended for commercial and residential areas with higher traffic, potentially wetter areas like bathrooms with showers, kitchens, or laundry rooms.  That's why you'll often see the glue-down cork tiles in the galleys of ships or high traffic commercial spaces such as bank lobbies, libraries and museums. There's a lot of misinformation out there about cork flooring and moisture. Some pros advise against installing cork in wetter areas.  However, if installed correctly, glue-down cork tiles are ideal for such rooms.  Though cork looks like it has a spongy consistency, cork does not absorb water like a sponge. Cork floats! It's considered impermeable yet breathable which is why it's water resistant and oh-so buoyant. Think buoys, fishing net floats, wine corks, etc.  Also consider that cork is used in engine gaskets to hold back liquid and pressure. 

Glue-down cork tiles are recommended for:
  • Bathrooms with showers
  • Laundry Rooms
  • Kitchens
  • Mudrooms / Entry Ways in wet climates

Cork Flooring in Kitchens

For the most part, glue-down cork floors can be installed in every room of your home. The decision is more about where floating floors can be installed.  For instance, you probably noticed that we listed the kitchen as a room where both floating and glue-down cork can be installed.  Even though kitchens are potentially wetter areas, we like floating cork in the kitchen because it often provides more cushioning than solid, glue-down cork. This is most likely due to the difference in thickness between the two products as well as the additional layers inherent in the construction of engineered flooring. Also, solid cork tiles aren't as thick as they once were. The original cork tiles in some of the older libraries and museums were 1/2" to 1" thick. Today's solid cork tiles are either 3/16" or 5/16" thick.

Cork Flooring in Basements (floors below ground level)

Special consideration should be made for basements, due to the possibility of below-grade (or below ground level) moisture. Before installing any floor covering in a basement, consider doing a moisture test, such as a calcium chloride or relative humidity test, on your concrete slab. If the concrete subfloor moisture content is considered acceptable for the cork flooring you want to install, including a floating cork floor, then go for it.  If it's determined that the moisture level is too high, don't despair!  You have options for healthy, efficient moisture mitigation products like vapor retarders, barriers, as well as non-toxic sealers and adhesives.  Measuring and planning for potential moisture problems before installing any flooring can eliminate future flooring failure and ensure your new cork floor lasts a lifetime. 

In general, it's a good idea to proceed with caution when installing any type of flooring in rooms prone to heavy moisture or water spillage.  And always follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure your warranty is not voided.  We're happy to discuss cork installation, suggestions and tips for any room - just contact us!

A room by room installation guide for cork flooring.  Engineered (or floating) panels of cork click together for an easy install and is ideal for the living room, bedrooms, offices, basements, as well as gyms or workout rooms. Glue down cork flooring can be installed in any room with an even subfloor and is perfect for kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and entry ways. This image shows every room in a typical house with cork flooring installation recommendations for each.

Look and Feel of Today's Cork Flooring

Cork has come a long way since the classic visual of the bulletin board - the light tan color of natural cork with darker abstract segments throughout.  Although you can still find plenty of natural tones, there are also more trending and contemporary styles available, especially in the engineered floating varieties.

So Many Styles, Colors, and Patterns!

Cork is super versatile. If you’re not a fan of cork’s natural tone variations or texture as-is, it’s available in many other styles, colors, patterns and sizes. It comes in tiles and planks, as well as roll-out sheets. Planks can offer a seamless look, while tiles of different colors can be placed in patterns of your choosing. There are tiles that feature a variety of innovative patterns and colors in both solid and veneer (or engineered) constructions.  As with most floor coverings, the really light colors will show dirt as well as seams more easily than a natural or darker color or pattern.  The more abstract patterns tend to hide both dirt and seams the best.

Solid vs. Veneer Colorways

The color or pattern on the surface of a solid cork tile, also known as homogenous cork, goes through the entire thickness of the tile, which allows for sanding and refinishing as needed. Keep in mind that although the veneer cork styles offer highly decorative patterns that you won’t find in solid construction, they cannot be sanded and refinished because the veneer is simply a thin layer of color affixed to the top of a solid cork tile. So, there may be a bit of a trade-off for the wilder patterns. Also note that solid unfinished cork can be stained or painted any color you like, or even stenciled if you prefer!

Today's cork flooring is available in so many styles, colors, and patterns.  This image shows a collage of light-colored cork, striped cork laid in a herringbone pattern, dark patterns in both solid and veneer constructions.

From left to right: Engineered cork planks in Fashionable Cement (Courtesy of Wicanders); Engineered cork planks in Small Strips laid in a herringbone pattern (Courtesy of Capri Collections); A mix of light and dark-colored solid cork tiles and veneer cork tiles in Small Strips (Courtesy of Capri Collections); Engineered cork planks in Novel Edge Lace (Courtesy of Wicanders); Engineered cork planks in Fashionable Macchiato (Courtesy of Wicanders).


Cork Flooring Construction - Solid vs. Engineered

Like hardwood flooring, cork is available in two different construction styles: Solid and Engineered.  Neither is considered "better" than the other, as each has its pros and cons, although engineered cork comprises the majority share of the market due to its ease of installation.  All cork flooring is initially processed the same way: the cork raw material is ground up, mixed with resin binders, compressed, and then cut into large sheets or blocks. Those sheets are then baked at varying temperatures to produce different shades of color, and then cut into either planks or tiles. What happens next determines whether it remains a solid piece of cork or is engineered into a floating floor.

Solid Cork Flooring

SOLID CORK - also known as Homogenous cork. Solid cork comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and most often referred to as tiles. They are installed by glueing them down directly to concrete floors or wood sub-floors with an adhesive. The colors and patterns on the surface of solid cork go through the entire thickness of the tile or plank, which allows for sanding and refinishing as needed, for the lifetime of the installation.  Sanding is one of the biggest differences between solid and engineered cork flooring. Solid construction allows for a repairable, long lasting floor or wall covering that, when properly maintained, can be a permanent flooring solution. 

Engineered Cork Flooring

ENGINEERED CORK - also known as Click or Floating, is a multilayered plank product that combines modern technology with the natural properties of cork to create a mechanically strong and durable flooring solution.  The engineered planks are made of a solid homogeneous cork face or a homogenous cork backing with a cork veneer face. This is then adhered to an HDF core (high density fiberboard) and backed with an under layer of compressed cork granules. Finally a durable, protective finish is applied over the top of the cork face. Primarily available pre-finished, engineered cork is suitable for both commercial and residential applications. 

Engineered cork floors are made to click and lock together for an easy and fast install (which is why they're often referred to as click floors).  Also known as floating floors, engineered cork floors are made to be floated over an existing subfloor, or in some cases like commercial and larger spaces, glued down.

Engineered cork floors come in a huge selection of colors and styles suitable for just about every room in the house.  Like solid cork, engineered planks can be repaired or refinished.  While you won't want to sand more than once or twice on that top layer of cork, engineered cork can be sanded lightly and re-varnished if necessary. If heavy damage occurs, the individual planks can even be cut out and completely replaced.  In this way, engineered cork flooring can also be a very long lasting flooring solution.

ENGINEERED vs. SOLID CORK FLOORING: An Infographic explaining the differences between Engineered and Solid Cork Flooring and the benefits of each. Like hardwood flooring, cork is available in two construction styles: SOLID and ENGINEERED. Which one should you choose for your home? The answer depends on more than just your budget.  TIP: Asking, "where would I put carpet?" is a helpful way to think about where you should install an engineered floating cork floor.



Cork Flooring Maintenance

One of the many advantages of cork flooring is its ease of maintenance and resilience. Cork floors are easy to clean but we do have tips to keep them looking new for a long time. Here are some general things to keep in mind.

Caring for your Cork Floors
  • Use felt floor protector pads on chairs and furniture legs to prevent denting.
  • Use walk-off mats in front of your outside-facing doors to collect dirt, mud, water or other outside nasties that can collect in shoes. Avoid using latex or rubber backed mats - they may permanently stain your cork floor.
  • When cleaning, use a damp mop (not soaking wet).
  • Cork is a natural material and can fade in direct sunlight. Use blinds or curtains to block sunlight and/or occasionally rearrange your furniture to expose previously covered areas of the floor. This will help to maintain consistency in color throughout the room.

Daily Maintenance

The best thing you can do for your floors is to clean up incidents and spills as they happen. For general spills or grease stains, use a mild, neutral pH cleaner that is designed specifically for regular cleaning. A spray cleaner that you can apply directly on the floor is a quick and easy solution.

Weekly Maintenance

Caring for your cork flooring on a weekly basis is a cinch. Simply sweep up any loose debris with a broom or vacuum on the bare floor setting. If you need to spot clean, use your mild, neutral pH cleaner.

Monthly Maintenance

On a monthly basis, or more often in higher traffic areas if you prefer, use a damp (not soaking wet) mop and a mild cleaner. Microfiber floor mops are great for this purpose because the mop heads have anti-static characteristics, which both cleans up the dirt/dust plus it keeps it from settling back on the floor. You can even use a broom handle with a cloth on the end of it.

Avoid the following when cleaning, sweeping or mopping:

  • abrasives such as wire brushes or cleaners with gritty pieces
  • harsh cleaning products
  • steam mops

Annual or Biannual Maintenance

Cork flooring can be recoated or top-coated with a low-VOC cork floor varnish or water-based acrylic. The timing here is based on your best judgement. It could be every other year or on a yearly basis for high traffic areas of your home, like entry ways. It's often not necessary to recoat your cork floors every year. When they need to be refreshed, you'll know as they start to look dull or perhaps you notice they aren't as resilient as you'd like. The product should provide surface protection and scratch + wear resistance. And it should be suitable for cork floors. Here are a couple of low-VOC products we recommend:


Cork Flooring Accessories

As with most flooring products, there are accessories available that are made to coordinate with your cork flooring. They are typically made by adhering a thin layer of cork veneer around a high-quality hardwood molding.

Cork Flooring Moldings and Accessories
  • QUARTER ROUND - used to blend or transition between the floor gap and the wall.
  • REDUCER OVERLAP - used to transition floors of different heights and/or different materials.
  • STAIR NOSE OVERLAP - placed on the front edge of the step, it adds a finished look to stairs. 
  • T-MOLD - ideal for doorways, T-molds are used to transition between floors of approximately the same height in adjoining room.
  • THRESHOLD - also known as square nose, thresholds are used for many purposes - along a sliding glass door, to cover gaps in style or materials next to a fireplace, and to ease the transition between floors of varying heights. 

Click HERE for an illustrated PDF guide of Cork Flooring profiles.


Cork Flooring Samples!

Now that you've confidently decided that cork flooring is for you, and you know exactly which rooms you want it in and how it's going to be installed, how do you decide between all the colors and styles available? Well, samples of course!

We offer cork flooring samples online, SHIPPED FREE to you with fast 2-3 day priority mail.


Still Undecided or Need Advice?

If you want to learn more or have questions that we haven't answered here, please call one of our cork flooring experts at 800-674-1157 and we'll be happy to assist you in choosing the perfect cork floor for your particular application, while keeping your budget in mind.
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