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Installments: Cork tile—New standard, same old methods

January 21/28, 2019: Volume 34, Issue 17

By Christopher Capobianco

Some of my friends call me “the cork dork of New York” because of my passion for this flooring material that’s been around about 100 years. I’ve been involved with cork flooring for a long time. I’ve seen cork forests and factories in Europe, watched bottle stoppers get drilled out of tree bark and saw the waste become tile. I’ve worked on some cork tile projects for floors and walls. I am in regular conversation about cork with designers, installers and dealers. I always stress the importance of proper specification, installation and maintenance.

Cork flooring comes as traditional tile, which is glued down, and as engineered “click” planks. Let’s talk about tile.

I chaired the ASTM task group in 2013 for ASTM F3008, Standard Specification for Cork Floor Tile—the first ASTM standard for cork. This document helps differentiate product types and calls out manufacturing and performance standards, just like other ASTM standards. For example, Class I “homogeneous” is a very durable “through color” tile that can be sanded and refinished. Class II “heterogeneous” is made with veneer and may not be recommended for heavy traffic or may need different maintenance. Other parts of F3008 call out test methods (squareness, thickness, size, density, resistance to curling and flexibility) that can be used to analyze product quality. The performance requirements section specifies tests for durability such as resistance to rolling chairs, indentation, shrinkage, abrasion and chemicals.

The ASTM F3008 clears up many product questions, but what about installation? That’s still pretty old school. Start with a smooth, dry substrate, test concrete for moisture and acclimate the material. Like most flooring products, cork needs to be onsite a few days ahead of time at “in use” temperature and humidity. When it comes to adhesive, the traditional method—using water-based contact adhesive applied to the back of the tile and to the substrate using a paint roller and allowing it to completely dry—is the way to go. Tile is set in place and a rubber mallet is used to make contact between the two adhesive films. The tile can be coated the day before and, since this is an instant bond, the installer can work on top of the tile right away and the floor can be walked on immediately. Many cork tile failures I’ve seen were caused when trowel-applied adhesives were used instead of the contact method.

Although classified as resilient flooring, cork is more like wood with regard to handling and maintenance. Most tiles are prefinished with polyurethane and it’s not uncommon to add another coat or two of urethane to a new floor for extra protection. From that point, maintain the cork floor like a wood floor. Make sure furniture has proper glides and take care to protect the floor from damage. Use walk-off mats to keep dirt off the floor and window coverings to minimize fading in bright sunlight. Sweep regularly and damp mop as you would a wood floor.

As cork flooring continues to grow in popularity, flooring dealers and contractors who understand this product can become cork specialists. They’ll be the ones who get the orders while others are intimidated by this beautiful, sustainable material.