Resilient flooring cork (C) Daniel FriedmanCork Flooring Guide
Resilient floor coverings using cork tiles or sheets

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Guide to historic & modern cork floors & cork resilient flooring. This article describes the properties of cork floor tiles & cork sheets installed to provide a quiet resilient floor covering. We give sources for current cork floor covering products.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

This article series discusses and provides a best construction practices guide to the selection and installation of building interior surface materials, carpeting, doors, drywall, trim, flooring, lighting, plaster, materials, finishes, and sound control materials.

This article includes excerpts or adaptations from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction, by Steven Bliss, courtesy of Wiley & Sons. Our page top photo shows a cork tile floor installed in the Vassar College Library, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Cork Floors - a Resilient Floor Natural Alternative to Vinyl

Cork floor, Vassar College (C) Daniel FriedmanHomeowners who want a resilient floor covering but are looking for an alternative to vinyl should consider the new cork products as well as traditional linoleum, which is enjoying a comeback in residential applications.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Cork Floor Properties, Selection & Installation Procedures

Cork is a renewable resource that is harvested every 9 or 10 years from the outer bark layer of cork oak trees in Portugal and other Mediterranean countries.

Cork has a number of desirable attributes for a flooring material: its air-filled, watertight cells are strong, soft to walk on, and insulating, making it a good choice over a concrete slab.

To make it into flooring, manufacturers grind up the cork, mix it with a chemical binder, bake the material, and slice it into sheets. Cork flooring products range in thickness from 3/16 to 7/16- inch for some laminated products.

Most cork flooring is sold as tiles and installed with adhesive, similarly to other resilient tiles. Tiles are available either unfinished or prefinished with carnauba wax or a more durable polyurethane or acrylic coating. Tiles tend to have natural color variation and can be purchased in light, medium, or dark tones.

As with wood floors, wax finishes need regular buffing and periodic rewaxing, depending on use. Polyurethane-finished cork typically needs recoating in four to eight years. One advantage of purchasing unfinished tiles and finishing in place is better protection against moisture penetration between tiles. The cork itself is moderately water-resistant.

A variety of other cork and cork composite products are now on the market, including tongue-and-groove (T&G) floating floors and cork and vinyl laminates.

A number of manufacturers now offer 12x36-inch floating T&G planks with an MDF core sandwiched between a cork underlayment and aggregate cork wear layer.

Cork Floor Tiles or Cork Planks

Cork floors, real cork flooring, were and are a wood product made out of cork from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) native to Mediterranean countries, primarily Spain and Portugal. The bark of the cork oak is or was harvested once every nine or ten years, without injuring the tree. The epitome of a resilient floor, cork flooring can compress up to 40% and still return to its original shape.

Early cork flooring product names found in North America included Kencork™, Linotile™, and Corkoustic™, and modern cork floor products continue to be widely available, as we describe below.

Cork flooring is a resilient relative of linoleum made with cork chips. The chips, ground less finely than the cork used in linoleum, were pressed into molds and baked. This process melted the cork’s natural resins and created a homogenous material. After World War II, manufacturers commonly added resins to strengthen cork tiles. - Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007)

Armstrong Cork Floor Tiles

In the U.S. Thomas Armstrong, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, began his business as a cork cutter in 1860, delivering hand-carved bottle corks by wheelbarrow. The use of cork expanded to the construction of corkboards (bulletin boards) and cork-insulated brick.

By 1909 Armstrong had begun producing linoleum. "Corkboard led to fiberboard, fiberboard led to ceiling board, cork floor tile led to linoleum that ultimately led to vinyl floor coverings, in both tile and sheet vinyl forms. Armstrong's familiarity with cork grew into today's Armstrong Corporation worldwide as one of the largest flooring producers. See Armstrong flooring history.

Dodge Cork Floor Tiles

The Dodge Cork Company, a second Lancaster PA flooring company, also has a long history in floor covering production, dating from its founding in 1926.

Dodge Cork notes that their cork floors were used by Frank lloyd Wright at Falling Waters and of course in many other buildings and that the company was producing a million square feet of cork floor tiles a month by 1962, probably a peak in the cork floor market.

As our photograph below indicates (Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY new cork flooring), cork flooring installations from various manufacturers continue to be placed today. But as the company indicates at their webgsite, "Dodge Cork Products are manufactured in Portugal in accordance with USA specifications and regulations."

Cork flooring (C) Daniel Friedman

Cork floor tiles were considered a warm, quiet, but less durable (by some sources) resilient floor covering than some of its harder-surfaced competitors.

Actually some early cork floors installed in the U.S. (the 1930's U.S. Department of Commerce building) are still in use today, arguing for its durability.

Cork flooring was sold in both tiles and cork planks, often for use in residential dens, family rooms, or other warm, low-traffic areas, and it may have been popular (research needed) for use in areas where workers had to spend long periods standing - where it would have competed with rubber floor coverings.

Led by flooring producer Armstrong, cork flooring was popular in the U.S. particularly from 1900 to 1945. By 1952 cork flooring sales made up just 2% of total floor tile sales. -- Rosato p88.

Don't mistake actual cork floor tiles for vinyl-asbestos cork pattern flooring. See ASBESTOS FLOOR TILE PHOTO ID GUIDE - detailed photo guide to asphalt asbestos and vinyl asbestos floor tiles, 1900 -1986

Our lab photos, below, show close ups of fragments of cork flooring found in a 1949 home (the flooring may be newer) contributed by reader R.D., Tonawanda, NY.

Cork flooring (C) Daniel Friedman Cork flooring (C) Daniel Friedman

Watch out: vinyl-asbestos flooring was produced by several manufacturers in patterns that closely resemble actual real cork. See ASBESTOS FLOOR TILE PHOTO ID GUIDE for examples. Examination of a flooring sample in cross-section (above) shows the use of cork materials throughout the 5mm (3/16") thickness of this sample that was painted or coated on its upper surface with a light white/beige coating.

Where to Buy Cork Floor Tiles or Cork Floor Coverings

Manufacturers producing modern cork flooring in tile or sheet forms include Korq, Inc., American Cork Products Company, and Nova Distinctive Floors, which offers a unique no-glue option.

Some manufacturers offer a composite product with an inner layer of cork sandwiched between a thick vinyl wear layer and vinyl backing (see Buy Interior Finish Product Resources).

While cork products appeal to healthy-house advocates, the binders and adhesives used with tiles, and the fiberboard or vinyl layers used in laminated products, may not provide the completely nontoxic, non-offgassing material desired. Using solid-cork (aggregate) tiles with a low-VOC adhesive is probably the best choice for those seeking natural, nontoxic materials.

Cork Flooring Manufacturers & Sources

Does Cork Flooring Contain Asbestos?

Reader Question: can you identify these cork pattern floor tiles as probably containing asbestos?

Great website you have, it's been a good resource for me. I suspect that these are asbestos tiles. Any idea? - G.M. 1/1/2013

Vinyl asbestos floor tiles in cork tile pattern (C) InspectAPedia & GM Vinyl asbestos floor tiles in cork tile pattern (C) InspectAPedia & GM

Reply: vinyl asbestos floor tiles in cork pattern compared with true cork flooring materials

Cork flooring sample (C) Daniel Friedman

Your photos (above) look like vinyl-asbestos floor tiles in the cork pattern.

Actual cork floor tiles would be unmistakable as those would be actual cork material. Our photo at left, for comparison, shows the cross-section of an actual true-cork floor tile. It's unmistakably a wood-product material even without microscopic examination.

More photos of true cork flooring are at FLOORING MATERIALS, Age, Types and also at FLOOR, RESILIENT VINYL or CORK (this article in the text above).


Bottom line: real cork flooring does not usually contain asbestos. However there were some cork products including cork bulletin boards, and possibly some cork flooring and cork wall coverings that did include asbestos for fire-resistance and possibly for strength. See ASBESTOS CORK PRODUCTS

Vinyl asbestos tile flooring made in a cork pattern may indeed contain asbestos.

Reader follow-up:

My new plan is to replace the tiles I've already taken up with new tile, then put a floating wood floor over the top. According to everything I've read containment is the best way to go. Seeing as I have three other rooms with tile I think this is the easiest fix for me. What do you think?

Also, my tiles don't seem like vinyl to me. They're not plastic-y...if you know what I mean. Does vinyl get rigid?


You can glue in floor tiles or use a leveling compound to make the floor smooth before installing a floating wood floor atop. Typically the floating floor will use a rosin paper or other underlayment as well. Makes sense to me.

Yes vinyl floor tiles can get very rigid and brittle; if the tiles are thick, say 1/8" and dark inside they may be asphalt based; else probably they're vinyl. I think that the cork pattern as well as other light-colored floor tiles will generally date back to early vinyl or "plastic" floor tiles. One of the reasons manufacturers liked vinyl is that lighter colored flooring was easier to produce when you don't start with (black) asphalt.

Reader follow-up:

Okay, that makes sense. They're not dark inside though. So they must be vinyl. So, I'm just going to cover them up.

Vinyl Flooring Products 1900 - 1986 in a Simulated Cork Pattern May Contain Asbestos

Solid vinyl floor tiles from the 1960's typically contain asbestos (C) Daniel Friedman

Similar to inlaid sheet vinyl, the color and pattern in solid vinyl tiles run through the full thickness of the tile, making them very durable. Because the color and pattern extend through the tile, they do not wear away with heavy use, but choices are limited.

Our photo (left) shows cork-pattern solid vinyl floor tiles from the 1960's. Typically vinyl floor tiles, or VAT (vinyl-asbestos tile) from this era contain asbestos, and special procedures are required if the floor is to be demolished.



if your building contains these products, see also ASBESTOS FLOORING HAZARD REDUCTION

Modern solid vinyl tiles are cut from a solid block of material and come with a low-gloss finish.

One type, vinyl composition tile or VCT, is essentially the same product as solid vinyl, but with other binders and fillers. Both types require waxing and buffing, both to seal any gaps between tiles and to create an easy-to-clean surface.

-- Adapted with permission from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction.


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