How to Cut Cork Flooring

If you're looking for a warm, luxurious flooring material that's easy to install and eco-friendly to boot, you'll love cork flooring. It comes in floor planks or tiles, and you can glue it to the subfloor or install it as a floating floor. You can do it yourself, even if you never installed a floating floor before, but it does help to have a little experience.

kitchen with cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul
Cork flooring is a warm, luxurious flooring that's easy to DIY and environmentally friendly.

You cut cork flooring in much the same way that you cut laminates. The cleanest and easiest way to do the cutting is to rent or buy a laminate flooring cutter, which will work with cork even though it's quite a bit thicker than most other laminates. Most people will probably want to do the cutting with a circular saw, and that's OK as long as you take a few precautions.

When it comes to cutting curves and notches, most installers use a jigsaw, but you need even more care to make these cuts because cork is a somewhat fragile material that chips easily. You can also make these cuts with a rotary tool but consider this word to the wise: Rotary tools work quickly and efficiently, but they're hard to control, and if you let your tool wander, you might end up having to discard an entire plank or tile.

hallway with accent chairs and cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul
Cork flooring is vulnerable to moisture, so it isn't a good option for the bathroom or kitchen.

The Construction of Cork Flooring

The term "cork flooring" doesn't refer to those thin sheets of cork padding you see rolled up in the back of the flooring store. Those sheets are underpadding, and you won't need them when installing cork flooring because the planks and tiles already have a cork backing. A typical plank has cork on the top, cork on the back and a plywood or fiberboard core, and all the layers add up to a typical thickness of 1/2 inch to 5/8 inch.

The core forms the bulk of a cork plank, and it features the same tongue-and-groove locking mechanism that you find on other laminate products. If you're not installing a glue-down floor, you simply snap the planks together and allow the cork floor to float over the subfloor. You can install it on a plywood or concrete subfloor, but you may need a moisture barrier because the cork backing doesn't provide moisture protection.

One of cork's main weaknesses is its vulnerability to moisture, so it isn't a good choice for below-grade installation or installation in a damp location, such as the kitchen or bathroom. When in doubt and as a good practice, you should always install a moisture barrier. The National Wood Flooring Association installation guidelines (available at Ferma Flooring) used to require a tarpaper or kraft paper moisture-protective underlayment for wood floors, including cork, but they're removing that requirement from their updated guidelines.

hallway with cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul
Installing cork flooring is an easy DIY project for homeowners with basic construction skills.

Rip Cutting the First Row

After leveling the subfloor, checking moisture with a moisture meter and giving your new flooring at least 48 hours to acclimate in the installation space, you're ready to begin installation, and that starts with laying the first row. When installing hardwood boards, a professional installer usually makes angled rip cuts on the first row to compensate for out-of-square walls, but cork planks are wide, and they don't have a vertical grain, so that usually isn't necessary. You can use full-width planks or tiles maintained at the proper distance from the wall with spacers.

You should trim the tongue off the planks, however, to allow you to maintain a 4- to 1/2-inch expansion gap against the wall. If the planks have a fiberboard core, you can usually make this cut with a sharp utility knife. You can also use a saw; a table saw is best, but if you don't have one, go ahead and use your circular saw. Turn the plank over and cut from the back to avoid chipping the surface. Keep the blade flush against the edge of the plank while you trim off the thin part of the core that extends beyond the edge.

circular dining table with chairs on cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul
After installing cork flooring, you should apply a layer of polyurethane for protection.

Making Straight, Clean Crosscuts

The easiest way to make straight crosscuts is to use a laminate flooring cutter, which resembles a heavy-duty paper cutter. You draw the cut align, align it with the cutter blade, pull the handle and voilá – where there was one plank, there are now two. The thickness of cork flooring is at the upper limit of what a good quality laminate cutter can handle, though, so chances are that you'll be doing the cutting with a circular saw.

Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure

  • Carpenter's square

  • Pencil

  • Sawhorses or work bench

  • Goggles

How to Cut Cork Flooring

Step 1 Measure the Length of the Plank

Extend a tape measure from the wall to the end of the plank that precedes the one you need to cut. Bring the tape measure to the actual edge of the plank, not the end of the groove. Subtract 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the measurement to allow for an expansion gap.

Step 2 Mark the Cut Line

Align the plank you're about to cut to ensure it's in the proper orientation, with the tongue facing the groove of the preceding plank. Turn the plank over, hook the tape on the end of the plank and mark the length on the backing. Use a carpenter's square and a pencil to draw a straight line perpendicular to the sides of the plank through the mark.

Step 3 Set the Cutting Depth of the Saw

Loosen the depth control on your circular saw and raise the blade until the cutting depth is about 1/8 to 1/4 inch more than the thickness of the plank. This helps reduce chipping on the surface.

Step 4 Keep the Blade on the Offcut Side of the Line

Set the plank on a pair of sawhorses or a work bench, lift the blade guard of your saw so you can see the blade and align the blade with the offcut side of the line. Put on a pair of goggles to protect your eyes and watch the blade as you cut to make sure it doesn't wander onto the line or away from it.

Step 5 Use the Offcut to Start a Subsequent Row

Depending on how the room dimensions compare to the length of the planks, you may be able to use the offcut to start the next row, but that doesn't always guarantee a random stagger pattern, which is as important as it is when laying hardwood flooring. Sometimes, you need to wait for a row or two to use an offcut to avoid step or H-patterns, which are unsightly.

How to Cut Curves and Notches

Unlike a crosscut, you can't easily measure a curved cut from the back of a plank, and if you try and fail, you'll probably end up discarding the plank. It's better not to try, so to prevent chipping, you need different tricks. The first is to make the cut with a jigsaw that has a metal-cutting blade with a minimum tooth count of 12 teeth per inch. By itself, that should prevent chipping, but if you want extra insurance, lay masking tape on the general area to be cut, mark the cut line on the tape and cut through the tape.

When curved cuts or notches are exposed, such as at the corners of cabinets, they have to be accurate. One way to guarantee an accurate cut is to make a cutting template from cardboard or even a waste piece of flooring. Once you have a good fit, place the template on the plank to be cut, trace the cut line and make the cut.

It's essential to anchor the plank well when cutting with a jigsaw to prevent vibrations that can cause you to lose control. When cutting on a table or on sawhorses, hang the edge you're cutting over the edge of the cutting surface so that the bulk of the plank is supported and put your weight on the plank as you're cutting. If you have to cut on the floor, hang the edge over a piece of 2x4 placed on its side.

kitchen/living room hallway with cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul

Cutting the Last Row

When you come to the wall opposite the one where you started, you have to fit in partial-width planks, and this is where you compensate for out-of-square walls by cutting planks at an angle. You need two measurements for each plank, one at either end, and these measurements will be different unless the walls are square, which is unlikely. Don't forget to subtract 1/4 to 1/2 inch for the expansion gap; you'll need the extra space to fit the planks in place.

If you make the measurement marks on the ends of each board, you can flip the board over, scribe the line on the back with a straightedge and cut from the back. To install each plank, hook the tongue onto the groove of the one next to it, lay the plank flat and pull it toward you with a prybar until it locks into the plank next to it. Once the plank is seated, use a mallet and a tapping block to seat the end into the previous plank of that row.

Cork flooring comes prefinished, but most manufacturers recommend applying one more coat of polyurethane after you've finished installing the floor. Don't sand or screen the floor before doing this; just make sure the floor is free of dust left over from the installation process.


Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel

Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.