Decorating & Design
January 9, 2009
Eco-Friendly Cork Floors
Cork is becoming more and more popular as a flooring choice at home. The patterns available are increasingly diverse and the shades, whether baked in the manufacturing process or stained afterwards, can be a beautiful change from the hardwood flooring we’ve become so accustomed to. Not just for bulletin boards anymore, cork has become a warm, resilient and eco-friendly alternative.
Cork is the bark of the cork oak tree, found predominantly in the southern half of Portugal. Also found in North Africa and Spain, the cork oak has a life span of 200-250 years. Once the tree has reached an age of 25 years, its bark is hand stripped (also called “cork harvesting”) and the process is repeated every nine years. The tree is never without 50% of its bark and the harvesting does not harm the tree. The bark is then cut into strips and cured in the forest for approximately seven months.
The cured raw cork bark is processed through a grinder, resulting in granules that are baked in moulds at varying temperatures. The beautiful shade variations are the result of how long the bark is baked for. The baked moulds are then cut into slabs, sanded, varnished and hand-sorted by shade. Cork can also be stained, depending on the manufacturer.
Cork is widely available in standard 12” by 12” tiles or larger 24” by 24” tiles, with a choice of a straight or beveled edge. Custom sizing is available, depending on the distributor. 3/16” and 5/16” are the standard thicknesses of cork tiles.
Remains from the cutting and manufacturing of cork are used as fuel for the production process, limiting the amount of waste. The cork oak is not subjected to chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and in most areas, new trees are planted with the help of government assistance every year to promote cork production.
Cork flooring is one of the most durable, comfortable and environmentally sensitive finishes. If installed correctly, a cork floor will not only retain its beauty for many years, but will rebound to 90% of its original dimension from table leg or chair pressure. While hardwood will scratch from abrasion, cork tends to give, therefore decreasing the need for refinishing over time.
While cork is an impermeable material, it can be sealed with a wax or polyurethane finish that will reinforce the tiles’ resistance to abrasion and scratches. Because of its acoustic and thermal properties, cork acts as a sound insulator and is warm underfoot, compared to ceramic or natural stone tile.
Cork is a low-maintenance material. If tiles have a polyurethane finish, they will require regular mopping with mild soap and water. A wax finish requires wax application and buffing every twelve months or so. Both of these finishes can be redone a number of times throughout the life of a cork floor by either an experienced do-it-yourselfer or a hardwood flooring installer. And finally, cork, like any other flooring, should be protected from exposure to UV rays.