Meet The Material: Cork

Article Posted By: Jae Warren

of The Home Depot

Cork brick wall in mid century modern home.

Cork, once thought of as the material of dartboards and wine stoppers, has become increasingly popular for its warm, natural, DIY-appeal, its eco-friendly cred and its industrial utility. From high fashion to eco flooring and space-age technology, cork is now being used in many surprising ways.

What is cork? Cork, interestingly enough, is a vegetable tissue harvested from the bark of cork oak trees found primarily in Mediterranean regions – most notably Portugal.

It takes 25 years for cork oak trunks to start to produce cork. Cork harvesting is a highly specialized process done by skilled “debarkers” to preserve the health of the trees. The first stripping of a cork oak produces a cork of irregular quality referred to as “virgin cork,” which is used in a variety of commercial applications, but not suitable for cork stopper manufacture. (Cork stopper production is guided by strict guidelines defined by the International Cork Stopper Manufacturing Practice.)

Cork can be harvested from a cork oak every nine years, but cork suitable for the production of quality cork stopper (with a regular structure that is smooth inside and out) is only produced from the third harvest on [via APCOR].

What are some of the cool properties of cork? Cork is lightweight, impermeable to gases and liquids, fire retardant, abrasion resistant and remarkably elastic and compressible.

Cork is a fascinating material because of its chemical structure — 60% gaseous elements, surrounded by the compound suberin. Suberin, an organic acid that coats the walls of cork cells, “traps” these gases and makes these cells airtight. This structure gives cork its famous elasticity and low thermal conductivity.

What is cork used for? Fueled by technological advances and the growing interest in eco-friendly products, cork is now being used for a myriad of industrial and decorative purposes.

Ground up virgin cork (also called white agglomerate) is used to create everything from corkboards, protective helmets and buoys to baseballs, footwear and mechanical joints in a wide range of machinery. Cork is also a great material to use for acoustic and anti-vibration insulation.

Other derivatives of cork, such as black agglomerate, are used extensively as thermal insulation – think protective heat shields on the Space Shuttle – and rubbercork (grains of cork mixed with rubber) gives the look of cork with the strength of rubber to flooring and wall covering.

What can you do with cork? Interested in green living, creating a healthier home and promoting environmental sustainability? Consider cork flooring and wall coverings. Cork has a decorative appeal that pairs well with a wide range of décor styles, is available in an array of colors and textures, and can make your home quieter and more comfortable. Cork underlayment and molding for hardwood, ceramic or marble flooring also provides excellent thermal and acoustic insulation. Best of all, it’s 100% recyclable, sustainable and renewable.

And, for some added inspiration to help you uncork your creative juices, here’s a sampling of what we’ve found folks doing with cork:

Cork tiles on a bedroom wall.

Cork wall tiles can provide the perfect backdrop for the eye-popping detail your bedroom, too.  [Via Spicer + Bank]

Purse and handbag made from cork

Eco-friendly and fashion-forward are not always mutually exclusive.

Bath mat made of cork.

And, after a few cases of wine, you too can make one of these ingenious little bath mats of your very own.

Miniature chairs made from champagne corks

In the spirit of the recent turning of the New Year, here are some recent winners of DWR’s Champagne Chair design challenge. Each contestant could use only the foil, label, cage and cork from two champagne bottles to create an original miniature champagne chair. So gather up those corks and see what you can create.  [Via Design Within Reach]

Bonus Fact! Portugal accounts for nearly 50% of the cork produced annually in the entire world.

[Editor’s Note: Meet the Material is a series designed to introduce you to some of the everyday goods sold at The Home Depot. Is there a material you’d like to know more about? Just let us know in the comments!