New standard, old installation methods: cork tile

CorkInstallationI’ve been involved with cork flooring for the past 15 years, some of that time as a technical support consultant for two cork companies, and some of that time in commercial sales, which I’ve been doing since 2007.

Cork flooring comes as traditional cork tile that is glued down, and as engineered planks that are installed the same way as laminate or engineered wood floating floors. However, traditional cork tile that is glued to floors or walls has been around for almost 100 years and a lot of those conversations I have are about the right way to specify, install and install and maintain cork tile.

As challenging as it was, I was proud to be the chair of the volunteer ASTM task group that created the new industry standard, ASTM F 3008, Standard Specification for Cork Floor Tile. Industry standards for any type of consumer product are consensus documents, so members of the industry and users of the product agree with the language before it is published.

Standards are a vitally important way to make sure that the product being purchased is manufactured properly, and also go a long way to help clarify the different classifications within a product category. This helps a designer or end user make a decision on which product to use and compare one brand to another. Here are some examples from ASTM 3008, which are very similar to the wording of other ASTM resilient flooring standards (i.e. vinyl, rubber or linoleum).

CorkInstallationsSection 4 (Class and Type) includes Class I Homogeneous and Class II Heterogeneous. Either can be specified as Type A, unfinished, or Type B factory finished. These product classes are defined in Section 6; “Homogeneous cork tile shall be of uniform structure and composition throughout, consisting of cork granules thoroughly and uniformly bonded together.”

This is a very durable material that can be sanded and refinished. On the other hand, “The pattern of this [heterogeneous] tile comprises a veneer layer of cork and a base layer consisting of cork granules thoroughly and uniformly bonded together. The pattern of this tile need not extend throughout the entire thickness of the tile.” This is an important point, especially when floors are being specified for commercial use.

Heterogeneous cork may not be recommended for heavy traffic, or may have additional coats of finish applied to the new floor and regularly during the life of the floor. Section 7 (Physical Properties) calls out test methods (such as squareness, thickness, size, density, resistance to curling and flexibility) that can be used to determine when a question of product quality comes up. Section 8 (Performance Requirements) specifies tests for durability such as resistance to rolling chairs, indentation, shrinkage, abrasion and chemicals.

So, this new document will certainly help in deciding what kind of cork tile to specify and also help dealers and installers understand the product better. But what about installation? Well, there are decades old methods that still work best for a successful cork tile project. Before you get started, site conditions are critical.

The manufacturer’s guidelines and ASTM F 710, Standard Practice for Preparing Concrete Floors to Receive Resilient Flooring are required reading for building temperature and humidity, product acclimation, substrate preparation and concrete moisture testing.

If you’ve read my Coverings columns for the past seven years you have seen a lot written about the importance of concrete moisture testing. With natural products like cork and wood, it is even more important! Don’t install the floor if the substrate is not dry, flat and smooth, and don’t even deliver cork tile to a space that is not at the same temperature and humidity as it will be when the space is in use.

Adhesive selection and application is another important part of a successful cork installation. Talking to the experienced cork installers in Europe and here in the U.S. made me a bit old fashioned as far as cork adhesive. The traditional method uses a water based contact adhesive that is applied to the back of the tile and also to the substrate. Because contact adhesive provides an instant bond, this method really holds the tile in place without curled edges. The tile can be coated a day ahead of time, and some companies coat the tile at the factory.
The adhesive is applied with a paint roller and allowed to dry. The tile is set in place and a rubber mallet or a roller is used to make “contact” between the two adhesive films. I prefer the mallet method. Large areas of the substrate can be coated at one time and since the tile is set into dry adhesive, the installer can work on top of the newly installed floor and the floor can be walked on immediately. Well over 95 percent of the cork tile failures I have seen were caused when a manufacturer or installer decided to use a trowel-applied adhesive instead of the contact method. Don’t make that same mistake!

Although classified as resilient flooring, cork is more like wood with regard to handling and maintenance. Most tile today us pre-finished 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 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. For cleaning, sweep regularly and damp mop as you wood for a wood floor.

Wet mopping is not a good idea.

As far back as the 1920s, millions of square feet of cork flooring were installed in North America, but cork use fell off as other synthetic materials grew in popularity. For the past 15 years or so, cork has reemerged. As cork flooring continues to grow in popularity, flooring dealers and contractors who understand this product can become cork specialists.

They will be the ones who get the orders while others are intimidated or unfamiliar with this beautiful, environmentally friendly material.


For more information and photos of cork forests, factories and floors, Visit my Facebook page:

Christopher Capobianco has been in the floor covering industry since the 1970s in various roles including retail and commercial sales, technical support, consulting, journalism, education and volunteer work. He currently is part of the sales team for Spartan Surfaces in New York City. You can reach him via

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