How to Install Cork Floors: The Complete Guide

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how to install cork floors

Cork flooring has been around for over a century. However, it fell out of fashion for many reasons after the big laminate craze of the 1970s. Today, though, cork is making a comeback.

Cork is a flooring that is easy to install, highly affordable and aside from bamboo flooring is the most sustainable flooring resource we have.

This article will explore cork flooring and take you step by step through the installation process. We will also look at the benefits of cork and how to find the right cork flooring for your needs.

Benefits of Installing Cork Flooring

Cork has a lot of benefits going for it. It can be the ideal floor for many homes. This list of the best cork features will help you decide if cork belongs in your home.

  • Highly sustainable. Cork is made from the bark of Portuguese Oak trees. The trees are harvested year after year for up to 150 years each.
  • Multiple style options. You can opt for natural cork, vinyl-clad cork or urethane-topped cork.
  • Easy installation. Whether you decide on floating floor cork that locks together or glue-down options, cork can accommodate you.
  • Natural insulation. Cork absorbs vibrations and sounds making your floors quieter and softer to walk on.
  • Easy on the wallet. Cork flooring is extremely affordable and fits almost every budget.

Buyer’s Guide: Selecting the Right Cork Flooring to Install

buyers guide cork flooring
Cork is a simple flooring solution, but it does have some complex natures. From styles and sizes to installation and subfloor concerns, there is a lot to consider before you buy.

Coverage Area/Project Size

Obviously, you will need to know how much cork is needed to convert your floor. Whether you are installing in a kitchen, entry way or the entire home, you need to know the square foot of the project space.

Cork Type

Cork comes in two basic forms, natural and clad. Natural cork, as it sounds, is cork that has been constructed without any other materials (minus the adhesives, of course). This is the least expensive option and is also the least durable.

Clad cork is natural cork with a top layer of vinyl or urethane. These styles are more expensive, but are also quite durable. They also have the ability to use photo layers that can help your floor look like hardwood, stone or tile.

New Install Location

Cork is quite versatile, but it isn’t ideal for every room in the home. Because it is soft, rooms with heavy furniture that move (such as dining rooms) will leave dents and scratches. However, cork is mold and mildew resistant making it ideal for kitchens, bathrooms and entry ways.

Subfloor Condition

One of the big drawbacks of cork flooring is that it carries through imperfections from the subfloor. This means if you have one screw that is protruding from the subfloor, that screw will be felt on the top layer of the cork.

You will need to ensure your subfloor is in perfect condition prior to laying the cork. Failure to take the time and effort to ensure the subfloor is near perfect will result in a cork flooring that is also imperfect.

Additional Materials

As mentioned several times, cork is one of the easiest floors to install. However, you will need additional materials to complete the installation project. Adhesives, underlayment and moisture barriers may all be required depending on your conditions and install location.

Tools & Equipment

As with any flooring, you will require tools to install the cork floors. However, you won’t need power saws or drills here. A good quality utility knife, a few straight edges and a tape measure should be plenty to get going with the project.

Cost & Warranty

Cork is affordable, but larger projects and higher quality materials will cost you more. Clad cork is the popular choice but will average between $2 and $4 per square foot. However, because it is a great DIY project, you can save on installation labor fees.

Cork isn’t going to impress you with massive warranty coverage, either. It is fairly high maintenance and susceptible to dings, dents and scratches. Don’t be surprised if you can’t find a warranty on cork flooring materials that lasts longer than 10 to 20 years, if they go that long.

Some brands will offer a 10-year structural warranty but also mention a lifetime warranty. Pay close attention to these types of warranties. In most cases the limited lifetime warranty only protects against manufacturer’s defects. This means once you open the package and install the floor, that warranty ends.

Step by Step: How to Install Cork Floors

step by step installing cork floor

In this section we will take you step by step for installing vinyl clad cork tiles. Because almost all vinyl clad is click-lock, that is the process we will cover. However, if you have urethane clad or natural cork, the process is the same.

Also note, if your cork flooring is the glue-down style, all of the steps are the same with the obvious difference that you are adhering each tile in place instead of locking the tiles together. 

Old Floor Removal

The first step is to remove your old flooring. For new construction, you can skip to the next step, “subfloor inspection,” for everyone else you need to thoroughly and completely remove all traces of the old flooring.

In most cases, this will require you to remove everything to the subfloor. However, if you already have a permanent flooring installed (such as ceramic tile) you can place the cork on top. This is providing that the old floor is clean, smooth and level.

If you are leaving the old floor, do not skip the next section. Instead, use it to verify the integrity of the old flooring as if it were a subfloor.

Subfloor Inspection

Once you have exposed the subfloor (or installed it for new construction applications) you need to inspect every inch of the subfloor.

You are looking for cracks, gaps, damage, nail or screw heads protruding and even splintering. Remember that cork is not giving, so anything that is not smooth and level will come through the cork to the top layer.

You will want to use a cement based floor filler, such as Henry Patch ‘n Level, or DAP filler. Once the filler has hardened, you will need to use a pole sander with 100-grit sandpaper and remove any uneven places, burrs or ridges.

Remember, the subfloor needs to be level, smooth and have no protrusions. Any irregularities will show through to the top layer of the cork.

Preparation

Now, you need to prep the subfloor surface for the installation. This means cleaning. You will want to clean completely and carefully. Removing all dirt, dust, debris and chemicals. Vacuum, mop, sweep and vacuum again.

It is also recommended that you have a hand held vacuum nearby during install to re-clean the area you are about to tile over. With the floating floor style cork boards, this is less important than with permanent glued flooring, but a clean subfloor will save a lot of headaches down the road in either case.

If your subfloor is concrete, you will need a moisture barrier. For plywood subfloors, no moisture barrier is needed. However, it won’t hurt to have one, especially if you are installing in a damp area or wet room like a kitchen or bath. Humidity can get between the cork and subfloor in some cases.

Installation

Now it is time for the fun part. If you are using glue-down cork tiles, you will want to use either a mastic that is laid with a scalloped trowel, or a water-based contact adhesive. For the latter you need to apply the adhesive to both the subfloor and bottom of the cork tile. Once dry to the touch you simply place the tiles in position.

Once the adhesive areas contact each other, they seal in place (it is almost instant). You will need to play quickly, but carefully. Use a grid pattern for laying your floor, separated into quadrants.

For click-lock boards and tiles, you don’t need adhesive. Instead, you want to start on the longest edge of the room that runs parallel with your tiles and install the first row.

Next, you will cut a board or tile by about 6-inches to offset the end joints. Place the second row a board at a time, locking it into place with the first row boards.

Simply repeat the rows, keeping the end joints off set by about 6 inches, locking each row into place as you go. You may need to use a rubber mallet and knocking block to get the boards to click into place.

Finishing Touches

After all boards or tiles are laid, you are essentially done. However, it is recommended that you wait at least 24 hours before using the floor. This will allow the cork to fully expand and contract and settle in place.

After the 24 hour wait period, clean the floor once again and then move your furniture back into the room. All that is left is standard cleaning and maintenance and enjoyment of your new floor.

Video Tutorial

Care and Maintenance of Cork Floors

care and maintenance cork floors

One thing to note about cork flooring is that it is vulnerable to different negative aspects. Direct sunlight can fade the coloring, water stains can discolor the cork and even small messes like sand or dirt can scratch deeply.

The good news is that because cork is naturally sponge-like, most surface imperfections heal themselves. The cork acts much like memory foam and will push out any small dents, or scratches.

However, deeper gouges won’t heal at all. To prevent this you will need to clean on a regular basis. A good sweep and vacuum at least 2 – 3 times per week is recommended. Spot cleaning with a damp or dust mop is also highly advised.

If you are putting furniture on the floor you should use felt pads under the legs or feet to prevent damage as well. For areas where direct sunlight will be an issue, you can use a UV film over the windows.

For natural cork, you will also need to use a sealant. Polyurethane sealants are more expensive and more difficult to apply, but last over 5 years. Wax sealants are cheaper and easier, but need to be reapplied every 12 to 24 months.

Beyond the sealant and protection methods, regular floor cleaning is all that is needed. Cork floors do require more diligence to keep from scratching or damage, but the effort required to do so is minimal.

Frequently Asked Questions about Installing Cork

faq how to install cork floors

In this section we will look at cork flooring by answering the most common questions. If you have questions of your own that are not listed here, please use the comment section below.

Q. Do you need an underlayment for cork flooring?

  1. Almost all cork flooring is made to attach directly to the subfloor or float on top of it. Underlayment materials are not generally needed. However, there are a few brands that make mid-range and low-end cork tiles that will require an underlayment of some sort. Make sure you check with the vendor or manufacturer before you buy so that you know if an underlayment is needed or not.

Q. What is one major drawback to cork flooring?

  1. Cork is soft. While it feels great underfoot and looks good when installed, it can scratch easily (easier than even hardwood). While it can repair itself with minor imperfections the scratches come quickly and easily if you aren’t diligent in your maintenance.

Q. Can you paint cork floors?

  1. Cork can be painted. It is one of the few floating floors that can be painted. It does require a lot of prep work and cleaning, though. When you do paint, you will want to use thinner coats, but more of them. This will ensure a more even and smooth finish. You also want to ensure each coat dries thoroughly before applying the next one to keep everything even and level.

Installing Cork Flooring – Final Words

Cork floors are a nice and simple DIY install project. There is a lot of prep work and cleaning to be done, but there is generally not a need for professional installation, unless you don’t have the time or desire to perform the project yourself.

Aside from LVP, cork is considered one of the easiest floors to install. As a DIY project it uses the fewest tools and requires the least amount of experience.

Hopefully this guide has given you a better insight into cork flooring and how to install cork as your new flooring choice.

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AUTHOR

Nora has more than 5 years experience in the floor covering industry, acquiring vast knowledge about installation and material selection. She now enjoys working as a writer and an interior decorator. Her work has been featured in The Spruce, Homes & Gardens, Southern Living and Real Homes. See full biography here.

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