How to Lay a Cork Floor
An eco-friendly floor that's also easy on the feet
It's bad enough to have to get up in the morning, let alone get up and experience the icy shock of a cold floor. What you need is some warmth underfoot, a little cushion as you pad across the house. Enter cork. Resilient yet durable, stylish yet earthy, a natural cork floor can turn any cool room into a cozy haven. Cork is also a lot easier to install than traditional wood flooring. Manufacturers now offer products in engineered panels that snap together without glue or nails. These floating-floor systems sit well over plywood, concrete, or even existing flooring. As This Old House technical editor Mark Powers shows here, in one afternoon you can turn a kitchen or playroom floor into a comfortable mat where your toes can roam free without fear of the big chill.
Cork Floor Overview
Installing a click-together floating floor is a simple process, but a few guidelines need minding. To begin, while cork flooring is appropriate for most spaces in your house, its unglued seams will absorb water, which can swell and potentially warp individual planks. That rules out its use in wet rooms such as baths.
And, like all natural materials, cork expands and contracts with changes in weather. Each piece may only move a little, but that adds up over the width of an entire room. This cumulative effect requires you to leave a 1/2-inch space around the perimeter of the flooring. Of course, for a finished appearance you'll want to hide that expansion gap. If your walls have baseboard, you can carefully pry it off before you start, then run the flooring to within 1/2 inch of the wall and reinstall the base atop the new floor. An easier option: Leave the baseboard in place, lay the floor with that half-inch gap, and then cover it with shoe molding. If your baseboard already has shoe molding, you'll have to remove and reinstall it.
Manufacturers provide a special tapping block that, when butted to a plank and knocked with a hammer, helps lock the tongue of one piece into the groove of another. Make sure you use this block rather than a wood scrap or a direct hammer blow, both of which may damage a plank's soft pressboard backing and make a tight join impossible.
Finally, while nearly all cork flooring comes prefinished and goes down in an afternoon, a few companies suggest applying an extra protective finish coat of polyurethane after the installation. And most manufacturers recommend that you unpack all the material 72 hours before starting a job to allow it to acclimate to its surroundings. So keep your timing in mind—you may need to wait to install the flooring and then take the room out of commission for a day or two.