Cork Flooring Installation: A How-To Guide

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Cork flooring is a beautiful, low-maintenance, eco-friendly flooring option that feels great under your feet and works well with radiant heat. While many people choose to hire a professional installer to handle their cork flooring installation project, it is possible to DIY this home improvement project yourself, especially if your subfloor is ready to go. Typically, those going the DIY route opt to install cork floor planks because they are easier to work with, but if you have prior experience with flooring installation and a good bit of patience, it is also possible to lay cork tiles yourself.

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Preparing to Install Cork Flooring

To prepare cork flooring materials, place the unopened boxes of plank or tile in the installation area for at least 72 hours before installing. Letting the cork acclimate to the temperature and humidity of the room will help ensure it does not stretch or shrink during installation.

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Things You'll Need

How to Install Cork Planks

Most cork planks can be snapped together and installed as a floating floor system without glue or nails. If a product requires glue, follow the manufacturer's installation instructions. To help prevent imperfections in the flooring from transferring into your new floor, install underlayment before installing the cork.

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1. Prepare the Room

Because natural cork planks expand and contract with changes in humidity, you must leave a 1/2-inch expansion gap around the flooring. To hide this, you can remove your baseboards before installation and reinstall them after the floor is completed, or you can add shoe molding or quarter round to the baseboard after installation. If your baseboard already has shoe molding or quarter round, remove it first.

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2. Plan the Layout

Before laying any planks, use a tape measure to determine the room's length in inches. Subtract an inch from this to account for the expansion gap and then divide by the length of the planks to find out how many planks you need per row. Multiply the decimal remainder by the plank length to find out how many inches long you should cut the final plank in the row.

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As an example, if a wall is 156 inches long, it would be 155 inches after subtracting for the expansion gap. If the planks were 36 inches long, it would take four whole planks to cover the wall (155/36 = 4.305). When you multiply the remaining 0.305 by 36, you find that the last plank would be 11 inches long.

If the last plank would be under 12 inches long, add that number to the length of a full-size plank and then divide this number by 2. This number is how long you should cut the first and last plank in the row to ensure neither is under 12 inches. In the example above, you would want to use a jig saw to cut the first and last plank of the row to be 23.5 inches long (11 + 36 = 47; 47/2 = 23.5).

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3. Lay the First Row

Start installing in a corner along the longest uninterrupted wall. Place the first plank with the tongue against the wall and insert 1/2-inch spacers on each side touching a wall to maintain the expansion gap. Line up the butt end of the next plank with the end of the first and hold the second plank at a 45-degree angle while gently pushing down until the tongue locks into the groove.

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Use a rubber mallet and the tapping block included with your flooring to knock the planks into place. Do not use a wood scrap or hit the boards directly with the mallet; doing so may damage the planks, making them unable to link together. Avoid using excessive force or you may cause the seams to rise. Tap only along the top edge of the plank to avoid damaging the tongue-and-groove system.

Keep following this process until it is time to install the last plank in the row. Use a pry bar and a hammer to snap the final plank into place and then insert spacers on each side touching a wall.

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4. Position the Remaining Planks

Start with a plank that's a different length than you used for the first plank on the previous row to add more visual appeal to the layout but always use planks longer than 12 inches. Angle the plank a little and then push the tongue into the groove from the previous row. It should fit snugly and lie flat. Interlock the next plank with the previous row and then press the butt against the last plank from that row and use the tapping block and mallet to knock it into place.

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Use a pry bar and hammer to fit the final plank in each row and each plank in the last row. Remember to place spacers next to each plank installed along a wall.

5. Apply Finish if Necessary

Most cork planks come prefinished, but some manufacturers suggest applying two coats of polyurethane finish to protect your new flooring.

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6. Cover the Gap

Cover the expansion gap with a baseboard, shoe tap, or quarter round. Be sure not to nail these to the floor, as this can prevent the cork from expanding and contracting, damaging the floor.

Things You'll Need

How to Install Cork Tiles

Cork tiles are installed using either contact cement or mastic. For contact cement, the adhesive is applied to the plywood underlayment or subfloor and the cork tiles and is then allowed to dry. When the two surfaces touch, they immediately stick together with a bond so strong that the tiles can't be moved.

Mastic is troweled onto the subfloor or underlayment, and the tiles are then set into the wet adhesive. With mastic, you can move the tiles after setting them down, but it is easy for tiles to shift during installation, ruining your layout. For this reason, most DIYers prefer contact cement, though it is less forgiving.

Tip

Be sure to check with the flooring manufacturer and choose a compatible adhesive. Otherwise, the installation might void the flooring's warranty.

1. Prepare the Subfloor

Cork tiles cannot be installed on a foam underlayment but instead must be laid directly on the subfloor or plywood underlayment, a good option for those with less-than-perfect subflooring. The installation area must be prepared correctly, or defects in the floor will transfer into the cork, causing it to become distorted and look shoddy. Nails or screws must sit flush or be just below the surface. The subfloor must be clean and even, so use a leveling compound to even out defects and cover up the seams between plywood joints.

It is possible to install cork directly on smooth concrete floors as long as they are moisture-free. This process is different than that used for wood subfloors and plywood underlayment. Check with your flooring supplier or the manufacturer for tips on installing the tiles directly on concrete if you plan to go this route.

2. Plan the Layout

After taking precise measurements of your room, draw it to scale on some graph paper. Use the same scale to cut out tiles. Then, apply them to an overhead projector sheet placed over the room dimensions using double-sided tape. Use this to plan the tile layout, including any special borders or patterns, to ensure you don't end up with any overly thin fragments of tiles along the edges. If you find a piece of tile will be too small, try shifting the whole pattern over a little.

Order at least 10 percent extra materials to account for mistakes in cutting and laying tiles.

3. Snap Chalk Lines

Divide the room's length by half and then measure and mark that distance along one wall. Repeat the process on the opposing wall and then snap a chalk line between the two points.

Repeat this process on the other walls to find the center point where the two lines meet. If your graph paper layout has an off-center design, adjust your layout lines accordingly to help you find the best place to start laying the tiles.

4. Apply the Contact Cement

Open some windows or turn on fans to improve ventilation. Roll contact cement on the back side of all tiles using a low-nap roller to avoid leaving fibers behind.

Apply contact cement to the floor of the quadrant furthest away from the room entrances. Roll the adhesive about an inch past the chalk lines to simplify application when working on the remaining quadrants. Put your roller in a plastic bag to prevent it from drying before you finish the project.

Let the adhesive dry as directed by the manufacturer.

5. Lay the Tiles

Carefully position the first tile in the center of the room based on the center point of your chalk lines. Hold it slightly above the surface or on the side until it is in position because once the bottom touches the adhesive on the subfloor, it won't budge. After setting the tile in place, gently tap it with a rubber mallet to help ensure the entire surface bonds evenly.

Butt the side of the next tile against the first one, following your layout line to ensure the lines stay straight. Keep going until you reach the wall and then move inward, working in rows until the quadrant is complete.

Cut tiles to fit your pattern using a utility knife and a metal straightedge. Secure the tile using a vice or your knee and then pull the knife blade back and forth multiple times using light pressure until the cut goes all the way through.

Lay one quadrant at a time, doing the area closest to the primary entryway last.

Tip

If you make a mistake, remove the cork tile by prying and scraping it up using a 3-inch firm-blade scraper. Reapply adhesive to the subfloor and allow it to dry before trying again.

6. Add the Finishing Touches

When the tiles are all laid, go over the surface with a heavy floor roller to ensure even adhesion. Look for any high spots or ridges and smooth these with 100-grit sandpaper and then remove any scratches with 150-grit sandpaper. Vacuum the floor twice to ensure you remove all the dust.

Apply a water-based polyurethane finish according to the manufacturer's instructions. Allow it to dry before adding a second coat. If the floor is in a high-traffic area, allow the second coat to dry before applying a third coat.

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