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Advantages & Disadvantages of Cork Flooring

September 29, 2020

If you’re looking into the advantages and disadvantages of cork flooring, we’re guessing you have a good reason (beyond the fact that cork is absolutely gorgeous).   

Maybe you have tile in your bedroom, and rolling out of bed in the morning feels like stepping into a pool of ice water. 

Maybe you have laminate, and wearing socks is like sliding around on ice with sneakers on (and everyone in your house is sick of you clomping around the house in your UGG boots).

Or maybe your carpet is causing your allergies to go berserk no matter how many times a week you vacuum. Sound familiar?

Whatever the case, we’re happy to report that cork flooring could be the answer to your problems! 

That’s why below, we’re going to go over absolutely everything you need to know about the advantages and disadvantages of cork flooring. 

We’re going to talk about the different types of cork flooring you can buy, the pros and cons of each one, and walk you through some of the best cork flooring brands on the market today.

And once you’ve learned all there is to know about the advantages and disadvantages of cork flooring, if you’re still keen on buying it (and we *definitely* think you will be), we’ll even show you how to find it at a flooring store near you!

Table of Contents

So First of All: What Exactly Is Cork Flooring?

Cork floored living room

Cork floors are made from—you guessed it—cork. More specifically, cork bark! The bark comes from cork oak trees, or Quercus suber

How is cork flooring made? Generally, leftover material from wine cork production is ground up, bonded with resin, and then pressed into sheets, planks, and tiles. 

Yes, you heard that right—cork flooring is made from leftover waste materials. Does that make cork one of the most eco-friendly types of flooring around? You betcha. We’ll get into that later, though.

What Are the Different Types of Cork Flooring You Can Buy?

As you probably know already, there are a ton of cork flooring varieties to choose from. Some are easier to install, others are better for the environment, and so on and so forth. 

Of course, some disadvantages of cork flooring pertain to certain products more than others. And while weighing the myriad of options can be overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Basically, cork flooring falls into two major categories: 

1. Traditional “Natural”, or “Solid” Cork Flooring

Traditional cork floors have been around forever. The terms “natural” and “solid” get bandied about quite a bit in the cork world (after all, isn’t all cork natural?) But we’re not here to judge—we’re here to help!

To simplify things, think of traditional, natural, or solid cork flooring as cork that doesn’t have a special HDF or plywood base layer. It’s pure cork!

Because these floors are made only from cork (often with the addition of resins and finishes, of course), they’re most often sold in the form of glue-down tiles. Sometimes, natural cork strips are cut directly from the tree, seasoned, and glued right onto the subfloor. 

Bonus: depending on how finely cork is ground up before being pressed into tiles, it can be molded into alternating patterns and textures (similar to those gorgeous wood floor patterns you see in older homes). And with the abundance of stains available, it can even mimic traditional wood floor colors, too.

2. Engineered Cork Flooring

Engineered cork flooring is the new kid on the block. Typically, it’s composed of an HDF or plywood base layer (just like all of the best engineered wood flooring on the market) with a high-quality cork veneer on top.

And just like almost all other hardwood floor alternatives, engineered cork planks are often sold as click-together flooring to help with easy installation. That being said, glue-down, tongue and groove, and even peel-and-stick installation options are also available.  

Corkoleum

Which brings us to our next topic: Corkoleum

Corkoleum is the Model 3 Tesla of engineered cork flooring. It’s similar in looks and cost to other engineered cork floors, but with an amazing innovation under the hood. 

Unlike other engineered cork products, Corkoleum’s base layer is composed of recycled rubber with a polyurethane core (rather than HDF or plywood). This fixes one of the biggest disadvantages of cork flooring: its tendency to absorb water.

Plus, Corkoleum is only 3mm thick, so you can glue it over existing floors without losing vertical space. It’s basically an ultra-thin, high-tech version of engineered cork flooring. And it does away with the most obnoxious disadvantage of cork flooring! Corkoleum is made by WE Cork—check out their site to learn more. 

A Note on Peel-and-Stick Cork Tiles

Peel-and-stick cork tiles are relatively common, and they can often be purchased as natural or engineered products.

How do you install them? Just like those peel-and-stick carpet tiles you get at Home Depot. They often come in 12×12 tiles around 10mm thick (but of course, it depends on the product). If you do go with peel-and-stick tiles, just be aware that one of the main disadvantages of cork flooring of this type is its tendency to peel up from the adhesive.

That said, repairs are super easy—just replace damaged tiles with new ones! 

What is Cork Underlayment? 

Along with solid and engineered cork flooring, you also have cork underlayment. This is the material that goes between your subfloor and your finished surface. And what is subflooring, you ask? It’s the base that your finished floor rests on that’s usually made of concrete, plywood, or something similar.

To that end, underlayment is usually soft, sound-dampening, or with other perks that increase the comfort of your floor. Cork underlayment is an especially great solution for adding some cushion to cement subfloors or ironing out minor imperfections. 

Laying cork sheets under hardwood, stone, or tile will infuse your flooring of choice with all the advantages (but none of the disadvantages) of cork flooring described below.  

The Advantages of Cork Flooring

kitchen with cork surfaces

Before we get into the disadvantages of cork flooring, let’s highlight all the ways cork can save you money and improve the comfort of your home. (We get it. That’s why you’re here!)  

Cork Floors Are Insulating (and Can Lower Your Utility Bills!)

The natural thermal properties of cork create an inexpensive alternative to heating wood floors. Cork has a 3.0 R-Value per inch of thickness—meaning it’s about as warm as a mid-weight puffy jacket! Translation: you can have toasty feet without paying a fortune to install radiant floor heating systems.    

Engineered Cork Flooring is Easy to Install (and Perfect For The DIY Crowd)

Like many DIY wood floors, engineered cork flooring planks are often fitted with click-lock installation grooves—making them just as easy to install as fake wood flooring options like vinyl and laminate. And since click-lock planks create a floating floor, you can install them over existing floors just like with snap-together tile flooring. Win-win!

Most Cork is Sustainable, Biodegradable, and Eco-Friendly

Cork is one of the most eco-friendly flooring options you can buy. Following a 20 year maturation period, cork oak trees can be harvested every nine or ten years for up to two centuries

Hardwood trees, on the other hand, can take decades to reach maturity. And once they’re cut down, that’s that. There’s no repeated harvesting. Basically, this makes cork a sustainable and ultra-green building material. Even fast-growing softwood surfaces like pine flooring or Douglas fir flooring can’t hold a candle to cork when it comes to sustainability!

Pro tip: many of the most eco-friendly types of flooring will boast a FloorScore Certification

Cork Flooring is Sound-Dampening and Super Quiet 

Cork gets its sound-dampening acoustic properties from the mind-bending quantity of tiny little air pockets within the material. How many tiny little air pockets constitute “mind-bending”? Approximately 40 million per cubic centimeter.  

Cork’s quiet nature pairs perfectly with bedrooms, living rooms, dens, offices, children’s playrooms, gyms, music studios, dance studios, you name it—pretty much anywhere you want to keep noise in or out. If you’re stuck trying to choose between carpet or hardwood in the bedroom, cork can be a great middle ground!

Cork’s Springy Nature Makes it Easy on Your Joints

Those same tiny little air bubbles that make cork floors so quiet also make them kind to your body. Cork’s spongy-but-firm quality is easy on your joints. 

This additional support is proven to ease back and joint pain, making cork a smart option if you spend a lot of time on your feet. Cork flooring also functions as an extra safety precaution for the elderly or disabled who may have an increased risk of injury in the event of a fall. 

Are there disadvantages of cork flooring? Sure—but comfort is definitely not one of them!

Cork Flooring Contains Suberin—a Naturally Fire-Retardant Substance

One of the greatest advantages of cork flooring lies in a naturally occurring, waxy substance it contains called suberin. Suberin is actually named after the cork tree (Quercus suber) because there’s tons of suberin in cork.  

Why is suberin so amazing? Because it’s a natural fire retardant! Sure, cork will burn—but thanks to its suberin, it’ll do so slowly (and it won’t produce flames, so it won’t spread fire as quickly). Fire-retardant? Take that, cork flooring disadvantages.  

Cork is Antimicrobial and Hypoallergenic

Suberin also makes cork naturally antimicrobial and hypoallergenic. Bacteria, small insects (think dust mites), mold, mildew, pet dander, and small rodents hate this stuff. That’s why we love it.  

If anyone in your family has allergies, stop debating between carpet vs. laminate and go with a cork product instead. If you have asthma or other respiratory issues, cork will give you both comfort and durability without aggravating your symptoms. Very cool.

You Can Refinish Cork Flooring As Long As It’s at Least 4mm Thick

Traditional cork and engineered cork with a thick veneer can be refinished just the same as hardwood can. Just sand, re-stain if necessary, and apply a new coat of varnish! 

Cork Floor Patterns Disguise Flaws (and Some Products are Self-Repairing)

Cork floors have a busy pattern that hides minor scuffs and scratches. Even better, cork is self-repairing and fills in dents over time.  

Warning: cheaply manufactured cork from big box stores is usually printed with a cork image. This stuff won’t hide flaws like real cork will, so we can not stress this enough: make sure to buy your cork flooring from a reputable manufacturer. After all, you wouldn’t expect to get low-quality material from the best hardwood floor brand, would you? Of course not—and cork is no different! 

The Disadvantages of Cork Flooring

cork dining room

There are some disadvantages of cork flooring, but if you ask us, they aren’t dealbreakers. That being said, it’s important to be aware of potential pitfalls so you can avoid unnecessary headaches in the future. Let’s have a look at some ways you can navigate the disadvantages of cork floors.

Cork Floors Can Fade From The Sun

One of the most common disadvantages of cork flooring is its propensity for UV damage. And it’s true: long term exposure to direct sunlight can cause cork to turn yellow and fade. UV lamps used for indoor gardening, disinfection, and skin treatment also have this effect. Consequently, cork may not be the best choice for tanning salons, greenhouses, or sunroom flooring.  

That being said, this particular cork flooring disadvantage is super easy to avoid by simply purchasing products with UV-resistant finishes! If you don’t, you could end up with a patchwork of furniture ghosts when you rearrange the room.  

Cork Flooring Doesn’t Love Big Changes In Relative Humidity

Unlike hardwood flooring that expands with its grain in one direction, cork flooring expands and contracts in every direction. And that means cork floors don’t love big changes in humidity. 

Translation: if you live where winters are parched and summers are soaked, cork might not be quite as perfect of a choice as fake hardwood flooring options like vinyl plank. 

Plus, susceptibility to humidity is often thought of as one of the biggest disadvantages of floating floors—so if you do go with cork, you’ll probably want to opt for a glue-down option. 

However, this cork flooring disadvantage doesn’t have to ruin your dreams of cork surfaces. Our advice: invest in a humidistat, which functions like a thermostat but for moisture. You can hook it up to your HVAC system with a humidifier, then set it and forget it! 

Engineered Cork Floors Aren’t Quite as Eco-Friendly

If you’ve read up on engineered wood disadvantages, you’ll already know that some downsides to engineered wood have to do with eco-friendliness. The same is true when it comes to the disadvantages of cork flooring too.  

As we said before, engineered cork is layered with fiberboard and bonded with adhesives. Fiberboard comes in medium density and high density, which is most commonly used in engineered cork manufacturing. High-density fiberboard is wood pulp pressed into sheets under high pressure. Adhesives—either organic or synthetic—are often used in this process.  

Burrow down the synthetic adhesive rabbit hole far enough and you discover plastic, the inclusion of which will partially decrease your floor’s ability to break down at the end of its life cycle.  

One Of The Biggest Disadvantages of Cork Flooring: It Can Absorb Water

There are plenty of alarmist theories on the web about cork floors soaking up water like a sponge. The reality is that cork actually ranks alongside some of the more water-resistant wood flooring options out there.

Look, we’re not going to sit here and tell you that all cork flooring is waterproof. We’re not even going to tell you that all cork flooring is water-resistant. We’re just going to give you the facts.

And the fact is that solid and engineered cork floors have varying degrees of water-resistance depending on the product, manufacturer, varnish, and installation method. Overall, cork is relatively water-resistant, but not the best for mudroom flooring or as a wood floor bathroom alternative.  

To put things in perspective, cork is as water-resistant as some fake hardwood floors like traditional laminate, but it’s not nearly as waterproof as specialty products like Mohawk’s RevWood.

Side note: WE Cork (the company we mentioned earlier) claims that their Corkoleum product is completely waterproof. We called them to confirm, and they told us that the Corkoleum itself is waterproof, but the finish is not. So if you’re planning on using Corkoleum in a damp environment, or over wood, it’s a good idea to consider a moisture barrier.  

Blunt or Sharp Objects Can Dent or Scratch Cork Floors

As we said before, cork is a relatively reliable scratch-resistant flooring option. Dents and scratches aren’t a huge issue, but sharp objects can leave gashes. Worse, blunt objects like heavy appliances can break through the finish and cause permanent damage. So if you’re looking for the best wood flooring for dogs, cork may not be your best bet.

On the other hand, the same is true of many faux wood flooring options. And when it comes to repairability, cork can stack up to some of the most durable wood flooring products out there. It’s all relative!

When it Comes to Cork, Glue-Down Installation Can Be Tricky…

Glue-down cork is not the easiest flooring to install. Considerations like level subfloors and underlayment can be daunting. Working with adhesives and varnish can be messy and frustrating. And mistakes can be costly.

…And Professional installation Can Be Pricey (But Worth It)

But if you decide to go with professional installation (and we would certainly recommend it), you can end up paying a bit more. 

An easy way to avoid this: buy engineered cork flooring instead. The cost to install engineered cork floors is similar to the cost to install engineered hardwood floors. The national average with installation is about $1000 per 100 square feet—a little more expensive than installing bamboo and a little less than the average cost to replace carpet with hardwood

And aside from being less of a hassle for you, the major benefits of professional installation are clean aesthetics and optimal water-resistance.  

Cork Flooring Requires Regular Maintenance and Sealing 

Cork floors need to be maintained and resealed every few years. Worn out varnish makes cork floors more susceptible to water damage, and without sealant, your cork floors can crumble. A no-shoes policy, regular sweeping, vacuuming, and mopping with a damp (but not wet) rag can usually prolong your sealant’s life, though.  

Cork’s Staining Process Can Create an Uneven Appearance

Variance in cork texture can be accentuated by stain. Of course, this is only an issue if you’re planning on staining your floors after they’re already installed. You can always get around this cork flooring disadvantage by simply purchasing prefinished cork planks! 

A Minor Disadvantage of Cork Floors: Some People Think They’re Trendy  

Yes, some people think of cork flooring as an “overly trendy” option that’s going to be as obsolete as swag carpet in a few years. And yes, cork floors are trendy. But there’s a reason for that—cork floors are amazing!

Of course, if you’re super worried about the long-term resale value on your property, you could always consider putting down one of the endless types of wood flooring that are almost guaranteed to hold their value. Or, just go with a more standard type of fake wood flooring

Some of the Best Cork Flooring Brands to Consider

OK! As promised, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best cork flooring brands around. Like we said before, a floor’s manufacturer can make or break its quality. Not sure who to buy from? Chat with a flooring retailer in your area. They’re the real experts. 

Globus Cork Flooring

Globus Cork specializes in 4mm thick cork tiles. They’re based in New York and ship to all 50 states.

WE Cork

WE Cork is the only US distributor of Corkoleum. They also sell three varieties of planks and tiles in a wide range of patterns, colors, and styles. Based in New Hampshire, WE Cork products are available from local dealers all over the US.  

ICork

As the US branch of Cancork flooring, ICork ships a dizzying array of tiles (4-8mm thick) and planks (10-12mm thick) nationwide. They offer both glue-down and floating floors, and they ship samples for free.

APC Cork

Like ICork, APC sells a wide variety of tiles and planks in glue-down and floating options. They’re well known for their dedication to sustainability, affordability, and excellent customer service.

USFloors

USFloors, as the name suggests, offers products that are 100% US-made. Every tile and plank is milled and finished at their plant in Dalton, Georgia. USFloors’ products are UV cured, GreenGuard-certified, 100% cork, and lifetime-guaranteed for domestic applications. USFloors is now a division of flooring juggernaut Shaw.

Heritage Mill

Heritage Mill targets the DIY crowd. You can buy their dozen-or-so varieties of cork planks at Home Depot stores all over the US.  

Corksribas

Corksribas USA is the US arm of the Corksribas brand sold in 70 countries around the globe. They offer a product called EZCork, which is their line of engineered, click-lock, floating cork flooring. They also offer many other varieties for both commercial and domestic use.  

Jelinek Cork Group

If you thought that the disadvantages of cork flooring included “too new to be true”, think again. Jelinek Cork Group has been in the business for 160 years! Based in Canada, Jelinek distributes to countries all over the world. They make some seriously innovative out-of-the-box cork products like AquaCork (a composite cork boat decking) and Jelinek Cork Spray, a spray-on cork and resin insulation.  

AmCork

AMCork sells Portuguese adhesive cork tiles (12×12) and tongue and groove planks (12×36). All of their products come with built-in underlayment. A real bargain in the cork game, you can get all AMCorks flooring for under $5 a square foot. Again: if you were looking for price-based cork flooring disadvantages, you won’t find them here!

Advantages & Disadvantages of Cork Flooring: The Conclusion 

Whew! That was quite a ride through the advantages and disadvantages of cork flooring. 

We hope you’ve learned everything you need to know about cork and, if you’re ready to take the next step (or if you just want to talk about which flooring is right for you), get started by finding a local flooring store in your area

Local flooring retailers think about floors more than we do. And we think about floors a lot.  

In the meantime, we wish you toasty feet, clear sinuses, full pockets, well-oiled joints, and some hard-earned peace and quiet.

More Useful Info: 

About The Author

Daniel Meeks

Danny is a semi-reformed surf vagrant and beverage nerd. Formerly a fancy-pants waiter in San Francisco, you can now find him tinkering with documents, refreshing the Ocean Beach Surfline Forecast webpage, and excessively doting on his cat.

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