Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Warm, durable flooring alternative gaining fans

Put a CORK in it!

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Growing up, the three Penner boys' favourite place to play floor hockey was in their huge kitchen. That was great fun for the kids, Susan and Brian Penner say, but it was tough on the floor.

Now the boys are older, kitchen floor hockey has given way to other interests, and the "really banged up" linoleum has been replaced. Last summer, they installed cork floors in the kitchen, dining and family rooms and main-floor bathroom of the Penner's Fort Garry home.

"It's just beautiful," says Susan Penner, who is delighted with the result. "It makes our home feel more open and inviting. And (the installers) did a wonderful job!"

The natural nut-brown colour with custom inlays enhances the decor, blending beautifully with the kitchen's honey-oak cabinetry while also complementing the Southwest-style family room and the formal dining room.

In the bathroom, they chose a uniform floor with little inlays "just for something a bit different and artistic" she says, while the greater expanse of the kitchen, family room and hallways are "where we wanted the floor to be just natural cork."

But in the dining room, the floor has become the focal point. There, a faux marble oval inlay sets off the elegant onyx table, a treasured family possession.

Like stone and hardwood, cork is a natural (rather than manufactured) floor that, with normal use and care, will retain its beauty for a lifetime. Unlike any other floor, it is always warm to walk on, even during a Manitoba winter. Craig Werntz, of Heartland Wood and Cork Floor, which installed the Penner's floors, calls cork "the ideal barefoot floor."

Cork offers some other interesting features: it is quiet to walk on, cutting down on family noise levels.

It is also resistant to stains, mould and mildew, is hypo-allergenic and environmentally-friendly, according to L.A. Cork of Canada, the distributor who imports it, mainly from Portugal.

Cork trees shed their outer bark about every decade and have been known to live up to 500 years, making cork one of the most renewable of natural resources.

For thousands of years, cork has been used to make soles for shoes and stoppers for wine bottles, but it is only since the late 1800s that cork has been crafted into sheet and tile used for floors and walls. Early cork floors did not have today's water-based urethane finishes, so they were less resilient, and required more upkeep than modern urethaned cork. They also required waxing. Like hardwood, old cork floors can be refinished, making them look, and function, like a new floor. At the Manitoba legislature you can see one of these classic cork floors, thought to be at least 80 years old, and still beautiful despite decades of heavy use.

Easy care

Today's urethane-finished cork is easy care -- just mop or vacuum with a soft brush attachment once a week. If you prefer the softer patina of wax on cork, a traditional cork floor (without the urethane) is also a practical option. Modern waxes are also much improved, Werntz says, and far easier to use.

In addition to the choice of finish, cork is also available in an array of colours, so it is possible to have a floor that is absolutely unique. It comes in many shades of natural brown or can be stained in any colour or hand-painted with a faux finish that mimics marble or stone. Available in sheets, squares, planks and tiles, and either 'raw' or pre-coated, it can be laid out as a uniform sheet, in traditional patterns (such as basketweave or diamond insert), geometrics or freeform designs. Designers are also using cork in combination with hardwood, allowing one to 'flow' into the other, since cork can be cut in any shape.

Although it is a "soft" floor, either regular waxing or the urethane protection makes it fine for high-traffic areas, Werntz says, mentioning a popular local club with a cork dance floor. It is also a good choice for cottages that aren't heated in winter, since a cork floor will not split or heave in temperature extremes. The only uses not recommended are in homes with large dogs (their claws will cause damage), or where there is either chlorine (a spa or pool deck) or constant high humidity.

"I wouldn't have cork with young children," Susan Penner says, since "their toys would certainly damage it." Chair legs and heavy furniture also need to have foot pads applied, to prevent scraping or denting the floor. Where there is sand or grit, (as in an entry or at the cottage) more frequent mopping is required to prevent surface damage. And leave the stiletto heels at the door -- they will dent or puncture cork.

'All can be fixed'

But even with care, accidents happen. The seamless quality of cork means that any damage can be repaired more easily than with other floor surfaces. Urethane will reseal punctured cork. For more serious problems, a section of the floor can be cut out and replaced.

"Spots, holes, fading or discolouration from direct sunlight -- all can be fixed," Werntz says. An "abused" cork floor can be taken down to its raw surface and refinished for about $2.75 per square foot.

But, with normal care, you shouldn't ever need that, he adds. He does recommend recoating urethaned cork floors about every 10 years to renew their original beauty. Cost is about half the tab for refinishing.

Because cork is very thin -- just 1/8-inch thick (0.3 centimetres) -- it requires the support of an absolutely level floor (See sidebar).

Cost of a cork floor is comparable to hardwood. Not including the underlay, at Heartland it ranges from about $8 to $22 per square foot, installed. At the lower end of the range you get a basic quality floor; the extras are for cutting and bevelling cork tiles, adding stains, or hand-painting. Waxes, sealer, urethane and cleaners designed specifically for cork are also available.

Or "if you're handy" you can install a cork floor yourself for about $5 per square foot (not including underlay) and up, Werntz says. "We've had people put in 1,000 square feet on their own. About all you need is patience, focus on the task, a paint roller and a utility knife. It's much easier to install than ceramic!" That do-it-yourself price includes adhesive, urethane, directions, and "one-to-one coaching" as required.

Cork flooring is also available from Winnipeg's Bill Knight Flooring.

An alternative choice is raw (ready-to-stain) or pre-finished cork tiles that come already applied to a hard backing, so they do not need an underlay. They are available at building centres such as Home Depot in St. Vital for about $5per square foot. These tongue-and-groove tiles, says Duane Buhler, a flooring associate at Home Depot, "are designed to create a floating floor" that can be easily installed "over anything but carpet." The result is "a really comfortable floor, good especially for people with bad knees" and is "very durable."

None of which matters to the Penner boys, who still judge a floor by the fun factor: in sock feet, they like to run and slide from one room to another, says their mother, who admits that the parents have tried it, too.

"Isn't that silly?" Susan Penner asks, with a grin. "But we like everything about this new floor. If we ever move, we will definitely choose cork again!"

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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