People love cork flooring because it feels soft underfoot and is very quiet. In addition, cork has excellent thermal qualities is hypoallergenic, fire and insect resistant, and renewable.
Native to the shores of the Mediterranean basin, cork has been employed by mankind since ancient times. Cork stoppers, buoys and sandals have been found in archaeological sites that date as far back as ancient Egypt. First discovered by the Greeks, cork production eventually settled primarily in the Iberian peninsula.
photo by Daniel Michalik
The vast cork forests of Portugal and Spain were carefully cultivated, and today the same 8-10 year harvest cycles are followed.
Portugal produces over 53% of all exports of cork stoppers and related products, making it the largest supplier of cork. This small country has almost 1 million hectares of cork forest. Portugal's cork forests absorb an estimated 14 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. A cork oak is harvested every 9 years, and the forests are on yearly, rotating harvest cycles. While one area is harvested, the others are left alone to grow.
photo by Daniel Michalik
Trees damaged by human hands will not produce profitable raw material, so a unique model of natural material sourcing has developed in which profitable extraction leads to numerous environmental improvements. Forest protection (and protection of related habitats) is the key to maximizing the profitability of the yearly cork harvest. It is estimated that dozens of species would be extinct were it not for the cork forest, including the Iberian Lynx and Imperial Eagle. The concentration of biodiversity within the European cork forest makes it one of the world's best models of wildlife conservation.
The beauty of cork comes naturally. Cork grows in the forests of Mediterranean countries and it is truly one of nature's most renewable products. A 15-20 year old cork tree develops a thick bark which is about 2" thick. Skilled cork strippers harvest the outer bark of the main trunk with cork axes. This does not hurt the tree and it all grows back again in 8-12 years and the process begins all over. In fact, one cork oak tree yields 50 harvests over its useful life of 300-500 years. Compare that to most hardwood flooring which requires killing the trees, and produces only a few floors.
Once the harvested cork bark is removed from the forests, it is left out in the open air for six months. This weathering process actually improves the cork’s quality. The bark is then cut into large uniform sheets 4'-5' long x 2'-3' wide. They're carefully transported to a mill where thin layers are veneered off the surface. Right beneath the outer bark layers are the most dense, while the inner layers are softer and less dense.
In the late 19th century, the process of agglomeration was developed by an American. Agglomeration is a process in which waste cork from the stopper industry is combined with a binder to produce a usable product. This greatly expanded the applications of cork, and usage blossomed.
Cork’s durability, beauty, "green" qualities and other unique characteristics. Cork flooring is:
Durable. It resists cracking and abrasions and is impermeable to gas and liquid. Cork flooring also bounces back, so indentations caused by furniture won't be permanent. When properly maintained, cork flooring can last 40 years or more.
Healthy. Cork is naturally resistant to mold, mildew and termites. It's also anti-microbial. Cork flooring does not off-gas or shed microfibers to negatively affect indoor air quality.
Safe. Fire-resistant, cork will melt or ignite only at very high temperatures. Before and during combustion, cork generates less smoke and releases far less toxic material than vinyl flooring.
Comfortable. A cork floor provides a comfortable cushion underfoot because it "gives" when compressed. Cork is also a natural thermal and acoustic insulator, which means rooms with cork flooring are naturally warm and quiet.
Aesthetically versatile. Cork flooring is available in tiles and planks in many styles, colors and sizes. Use planks to create an almost seamless-looking floor, or use tiles in single or alternating colors to create a nontraditional effect.
Practical. Unlike vinyl, the pattern and color of the cork penetrate the thickness of the material, so they're retained as it wears. This lengthens the usable life of the flooring.