Refinish Cork Flooring: A How-To Guide

Cork is a durable flooring material that comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. It's a green flooring option that can be subtle, practical and reasonably priced, according to a report by EcoConsumer. With basic maintenance, a cork floor should last for years. However, with time, you will get scratches and dents in your cork floor. Some cork floors can be refinished to get them looking new again.

kitchen with kitchen island and industrial kitchen vent. cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul

Assess the Damage

Before you restore your cork floor, determine if the whole floor needs to be replaced or if refinishing is the best course of action. According to Wood For Business, finishing cork floors can be different depending on the quality of cork, thickness, substrate, method of adherence (glue-down tiles or plank) and finish.

Here are a few tell-tale signs that it's time to refinish your cork floor:

  • Water beading. Water should bead up immediately when it hits the floor. If the floor absorbs water, it will lead to water damage and staining. The means the protective finish is no longer water resistant.

  • Deep gouges and scratches. If the damage is limited to a small section or area, it's better to spot repair it. NACHI.org advises home owners to periodically apply urethane or polish to eliminate small scratches. If your cork flooring is made of interlocking planks, you can replace the damaged one with a new piece. Save yourself time by performing a small repair versus diving into a larger DIY project. If your cork floor has substantial damage, then refinishing the whole floor is the best option.

  • Gaps between the floor panels. Cork naturally contracts and expands with changes in temperature. Gaps between the cork tiles may develop, and large gaps are potentially damaging to your floors.

Refinish or Screen and Recoat?

sander tool
credit: Patrick Daxenbichler/iStock/GettyImages
A sander tool is helpful for refinishing cork floors.

The general rule of thumb when it comes to cork flooring is if the floor is solid cork and thicker than 4 millimeters, it can be sanded and refinished. A quick way to determine if your floor is thick enough is to do a cross section of your floor. Select an inconspicuous area (like around a heat vent) and measure it.

If the cork thickness is less than 4 millimeters or if you have plank flooring with a cork veneer, extra care must be taken. With thin layers of cork, refinishing will not always be the best course of action because the floors cannot withstand heavy abrasion. In this case, you should screen and recoat the floor (light abrasion and one or two coats of finish) or replace the individual cork tiles or plank flooring.

Because the thickness of the cork products will vary depending on the brand of flooring, always check with the manufacturer or installers before refinishing or repairing your flooring.

cork flooring
credit: Wayfair
Refinishing cork flooring can help your floors look new again.

Before either refinishing or recoating, you must know the type of finish on your floor. As long as you're working with a polyurethane finish and not wax, you can recoat or refinish immediately. However, wax floors cannot be recoated or refinished until the wax layer is removed.

If you're unsure about what type of finish is on your cork floor, soak a rag with mineral spirits and rub it on a small area of the floor. If the finish turns cloudy and comes off on the rag, then the floor has a wax finish. Polyurethane will not be affected by mineral spirits.

If your cork floor has a wax finish, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) recommends removing the existing wax finish by buffing with mineral spirits or solvent wax remover and 00-steel wool discs on an electric buffer.

hallway with cork flooring
credit: Stephen Paul

Spot Repairing Cork Floors

If your floor has minor damage, spot repairing is a quick and inexpensive way to repair minor scrapes and dents on your floor.

  1. Select a wood filler that closely matches the tint of your floor.
  2. Fill in the dents or scratches with the wood filler. Let it dry completely.
  3. Once your wood filler is dry, use a fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out the wood filler and make it level with your cork flooring.
  4. Apply a matching stain on the area to which you applied the wood filler.
  5. Apply a polyurethane sealant to the repaired area.

Read more: Types of Flooring

Replacing a Cork Plank

The beauty of interlocking cork planks is how easy it is to replace small damage sections. Swapping out planks is an easy home improvement project that many people can tackle in an afternoon.

  1. Remove the shoe molding around the damaged cork plank with a pry bar.
  2. Unsnap the damaged plank from the other planks around it. Inspect the subfloor and underlayment for damage.
  3. Snap the new plank into place where the old one was removed.
  4. Nail the shoe molding back into place.
  5. The new finished cork plank is protected.
hallway between kitchen and living room with cork floors
credit: Stephen Paul

Screen and Recoat

Recoating is applying a fresh coat of finish to your cork floors. Unlike refinishing, you are not going all the way down to the original floor, just the top finish — so this method works best for cork floors with thicknesses of less than 4 millimeters.

  1. Use a pry bar to gently remove any baseboards and shoe molding from around the floor. Label the baseboards with a pencil to indicate its position in the room.
  2. Fit the sander with a superfine sandpaper or 00-grade wool pad.
  3. Gently sand the floors. You do not go all the way down to the bare wood — you only want to sand to remove the polyurethane finish.
  4. Vacuum and wipe down the floor to remove all sanding dust and debris.
  5. Apply the polyurethane finish with a soft-bristled paintbrush. Start at the edges along the walls work from wet to dry to minimize brush strokes. Be sure to overlap your passes for a smooth finish.
  6. Let the polyurethane to dry for 12 hours or longer depending on the manufacturer's recommendations.
  7. Apply a second coat of polyurethane and let the finish dry, if needed.
  8. Reinstall the baseboard and shoe molding.
cork floor
credit: Home Depot
Cork floors are easily refinished.

Refinishing Cork Floors

If there are substantial signs of wear and tear, like scratches or dents, you should refinish the floors as soon as possible to avoid further damage. The refinishing process uses gentle abrasion to slowly remove the top layer of the floor, revealing a fresh and unscratched layer of the floor.

  1. Use a pry bar to gently remove any baseboards and shoe molding from around the floor. To help you remember the order in which the baseboards belong, number the back of each piece with a pencil to indicate its position in the room.
  2. Fit the sander with a 60-grit sandpaper pad.
  3. Sand the floors. Cork flooring is soft, so keep the floor sander moving and do not put a lotof pressure on the sander to prevent damage. After the first pass, sweep the floor to remove the wood particles.
  4. Remove the 60-grit sandpaper pads and fit the sander with a finer 100-grit sanding pad. Sand the floors again. Make sure the cork surfaceis smooth.
  5. Vacuum the floor to remove all sanding dust and debris. Remove any remaining residue with a tack cloth. Get the floor as clean as possible to ensure a smooth finish.
  6. Apply the polyurethane finish with a soft-bristled paintbrush. Apply the finish to the edges of the floor along the wall first. Work from wet to dry to minimize brush strokes and overlap your passes for a smooth finish.
  7. Allow the polyurethane to dry for 12 hours or longer depending on the manufacturer's recommendations.
  8. Once the polyurethane finish has dried and cured, fit the sander with a 00-grade wool pad. Sand the finish lightly to remove any imperfections. Remove dust from the floor with a tack cloth.
  9. Apply a second coat of polyurethane and let the finish dry. If needed, apply additional coats of polyurethane, allowing each coat to dry thoroughly before applying the next. Once the finish has cured, you can clean cork floors with a damp mop and water.
  10. Reinstall the shoe molding and baseboards.