The Definitive Guide to Cork Flooring

Cork flooring has many specialized attributes — but is it the right choice for you?

By: John Riha


Kitchen with cork floors

Photo by: Jonathan Bielaski

Jonathan Bielaski

Although it’s beautiful and durable, cork flooring isn’t that popular, and makes up only about 1 percent of the total flooring market, Nevertheless, it has many qualities that other flooring types can’t match.

For one, cork is a rapidly renewable resource. It’s made from the bark of cork oak trees that grow in Mediterranean countries. After the thick bark is harvested it grows back in a decade or so, giving cork a well-earned reputation as a sustainable building material. The bark is sliced into veneers to make flooring products, or is used for products such as wine corks and bulletin boards. Not much goes to waste, either. Leftover scraps are ground up and mixed with resins to make more flooring products.

Besides being a green choice, cork flooring has sound insulating properties, so it helps silence footfalls. It’s compressible yet resilient, and is comfortable underfoot — the cushioning helps fight fatigue, so it’s a good choice for a kitchen if you like to spend hours preparing meals. It’s naturally resistant to mildew, mold and insects, too.

Cork flooring is made as engineered planks or solid glue-down tiles.

Engineered planks have a laminate construction featuring a core of fiberboard sandwiched between two layers of cork. The planks have interlocking edges that snap together and are installed over a thin cushion underlayment to create a floating floor system. There’s no nailing, so an engineered cork floor is a good DIY project. Floating floor systems can go over many types of existing flooring.

Solid cork tiles must be installed over a smooth wood or concrete surface. Strong adhesives ensure that the edges of the tiles don’t curl over time. A competent DIYer can install cork tiles, but the process is less forgiving than a floating floor system. Use a water-based adhesive to limit fumes and VOCs.

Both laminated planks and solid tiles come prefinished or unfinished and ready for custom staining. Prefinished cork flooring is available in dozens of colors and grain patterns ranging from subtle to wildly expressive.

Cork flooring is not without a few drawbacks. The laminated planks and water-based glues and finishes are sensitive to high humidity and splashes, so cork flooring isn’t recommended for bathrooms or damp basements. Cork kitchen flooring is fine as long as any spills are wiped up immediately.

Cork is naturally tough and resilient, but it can be dinged by high heels and dog claws. Heavy furniture left in place for long periods can dent cork — use pads under legs to distribute the weight, and shift furniture occasionally.

Cork is more susceptible to fading from sunlight than hardwoods. To keep cork flooring from getting discolored, areas that receive direct sunlight should be shaded with curtains or blinds.

Cork flooring cleans up easily with occasional vacuuming and sweeping to remove grit and dust. Cork flooring can be sanded and refinished periodically, just like hardwood, depending on the thickness of the cork top layer.

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