Porcelain vs Cork Flooring

Porcelain vs Cork Flooring

The juxtaposition of porcelain versus cork flooring reveals two very different materials. This makes things interesting when someone asks, “Which is better for my project?”

Porcelain is the more expensive big brother of ceramic tile. It is difficult to install but provides a hard, durable material that comes in many styles and finishes.

Cork on the other hand is a natural, renewable material that is easy to install. The visual impact is striking and unique. Cork provides a noticeable soft feel. That allows you to stand on it comfortably for extended periods.

One is hard, the other soft, but there is more to know. So, let’s spotlight some key aspects of these two interesting floor products and learn more about when and where you might use cork or porcelain flooring.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

Side-by-Side Comparison

 Porcelain TileCork
CompositionPorcelain (kaolin clay)Cork
Material CostMore than ceramic, labor 25% more
$3 - 6 Materials
$12 - 15 installed
$1 - 7 installed (4 - 8 for floating floor)
UseKitchens, baths, not for impact-prone areasPlayrooms, comfortable walking and standing surface
InstallationSpecial thin set, laboriousGlue down or tongue and groove,
peel and stick
CleaningEasy to maintain, can disinfectEasy to keep clean
suberin - naturally mold-resistant, rot-resistant,
hypoallergenic
FireFireproofFire-resistant
Radient Flooring?YesYes
SubfloorIs heavy, need subfloor to support weight and is harder to install due to weight, must be smooth and flatCan go over uneven surfaces, can go over other flooring like wood or linoleum
can serve as underlayment for wood, ceramic or stone
FootfallHard cold underfootIs warm under foot naturally
SoundNoisyDeadens sound
FinishCan mimic marble, granite, wood, steel, bamboo, cork, glazed with glass or
Unglazed:Natural, honed, polished, textured/structured, grip
Limited colors, color will vary and may look uneven
sealant, wax, polyurethane, and commercial grade
Water ResistanceBetter resistance to water than ceramic, melted glass on top can make
impervious to water
Must seal and reseal every 5 years
water can warp and discolor, or curl or plump
But can be refinished too
StainsHard to stain, if glazed almost impossible, grout is weak link and needs to be sealed (and resealed)Stains easily (oil, spills) may not be best choice in busy kitchen
Misc.There is a lack of standard labelingCork extraction does not harm trees
hides minor scratches, provides insulation
DurabilityHard, dense, even used in commercial environments,
tiles crack from impact
long-lasting
five classes (1 wall, 2-3 light traffic, 4 med, 5 heavy)
Punctures easliy, NOT pet-friendly
dead loads can dent (e.g. cabinets in kitchen), should use felt pads with furniture and chairs
Fades?NoYes
Below Grade?YesNo
Flooring GuideTile Flooring GuideCork Flooring Guide

Composition

Porcelain is a specific type of ceramic manufactured using pressure and high heat. The end product is dense and glassy, with a low water absorption rate.

It is often less than 0.5% (which is superior to the 4% typical of “ordinary” ceramic flooring). These properties provide good wear resistance and allow porcelain to be used it in “wet” conditions, even outdoors.

Formulas do vary by product. The industry lacks standardized labeling. That can sometimes make buying “real” porcelain tile a challenge.

However, there is a durability grading scale that is an aid in selecting a product for your project. (See the Durability section for details on the rating scale.)

Cork is a natural material, extracted by hand from the bark of the cork oaks in the Mediterranean basin. Harvesting does not harm the tree. It regrows new cork for gathering every nine years.

Wine corks are first punched and then the waste is recycled to manufacture floor products. So, cork is a renewable source. That is not something every flooring option can claim.

You will find cork supplied it a few common “forms,” which include peel-and-stick, tongue and groove, and a bare back tile designed to glue down with contact cement. The demands of your intended use will dictate which one should be used.

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Finish and Shape

Cork

When first introduced, cork came in twelve-inch square tiles in shades of brown. But today, cork manufacturers stain and dye cork flooring to provide many different colors and appearances. They even print some products to look like hardwood

It is a “natural” product and the particles of cork can have a significant impact on the finished look. Manufacturers vary the size of the particles, and the translucency of the applied color, to intentionally create one-of-a-kind grains to the finish.

Some products are supplied with a sealer to protect the cork from water, or you may have to apply a sealer on site. But either way, you will find that most products will require you to reapply a sealant every five years.

Other products may have a wax finish. Wax provides a nice shine, and imparts spill, scratch, and stain resistance. However, you will need to reapply wax every six to twelve months.

Another finish option is polyurethane, a clear coating that protects cork and provides stain and water protection. But it is more susceptible to scratching. And it needs to be reapplied every five to seven years.

Proprietary, commercial grade finishes are also available which impart stain resistance and high-traffic capabilities.  People often apply these finishes are often applied on site and may be out of the realm of DIY’er.

The other aspect of the finished look of cork is its shape. It is easy to cut into endless shapes, which can provide a distinctive, high-end look in your space. Combing creative shapes with different colors of cork, designers like the visual impact this product can make.

Porcelain

You can find porcelain in many styles and colors. You can even finish it to look like granite, marble, steel, bamboo, wood, or even cork. But when talking porcelain finish, it is easier if we break it into two major categories, glazed and unglazed.

Some porcelain is glazed with a colored layer of glass, or the tile may receive an ink jet image before it is glazed with a transparent layer of glass. With this layer of glass on the surface, glazed tiles are almost impossible to stain, but can be slippery when wet.

Also, since glazed products carry the color or image on top of the porcelain, chips and scratches are accentuated when the underlying base shows through the glaze.

With unglazed porcelain, the color and marbling are within the entire body of the porcelain, so scratches or small chips will not be as obvious. Unglazed porcelain also allows the manufacturer to create textures on the surface to better mimic things like wood and concrete, or provide some degree of slip resistance. They can polish or hone products to create a smooth finish with different levels of sheen or gloss.

Porcelain manufacturers provide “tiles” in many shapes; square tiles, planks, octagons, the options are too numerous to list them all here. Some of the shapes are necessary when porcelain is used to imitate another material, like hardwood, and can have a large impact on the overall visual impact of a room.

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Installation

Cork

Installation is one of the major differences between cork and porcelain, and cork comes in a peel-and-stick version which is easy and very DIY. For wet areas like bathrooms, or below grade basements, the self-adhering tiles may not be robust enough and you may need to install a cork floating floor or adhere the tiles with a contact adhesive.  

So, you can buy different “versions” of cork that people install/adhere differently, and you need to select the right version for your specific use and exposure.

You can easily cut cork with a utility knife, or with most saws used to cut wood, which is DIY-friendly. In contrast, porcelain requires a masonry saw with quality diamond blade and creates noise, as well as a big dusty mess.

Cork comes from a tree, and like hardwood, you should acclimate it to your site before installation. Open the boxes to expose the cork to site conditions and let it rest there for a minimum of three days.

Also, it is common to apply a sealer or coating to finish to cork and people often do this on construction sites. This also helps to “fill” and seal the butt joints in the cork, and the selected finish will determine the effectiveness. (See the finish section above for more information on the types of finished most commonly used on cork.)

Porcelain

As already stated, porcelain is hard and durable. But that comes with a downside, it is harder to install than other ceramic tiles.

Porcelain is hard to cut and it is brittle, prone to chipping and cracking. Also, because it is harder and denser than other ceramics, porcelain products require specific adhesives to set the tile and your subfloor must be methodically prepared. Overall, the installation process is an advanced DIY project and some feel it is best to just hire a professional.

Porcelain can be found as a “rectified tile” where the edges are ground or sawed after the tile is kilned. This means every tile is the same size and has edges free from imperfections. So, you can install pieces with thin joints, minimizing the amount and visual impact of the grout.

Speaking of grout, a porcelain floor will require grouting and this is the weak link in a porcelain floor. Thin joints minimize the grout, but some installations opt to use an epoxy grout for improved durability.

Another strategy is to apply a sealer to the installed porcelain floor, and while there may be some benefit for the tile, the sealer is a real bonus to the grout imparting improvements like water and stain resistance.

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Durability

Cork

Cork is not hard like porcelain, but it is surprisingly durable. With the right finish you can use it in high traffic areas, from residential to commercial offices, stores, schools, and gyms.

Cork offers advantages over porcelain because of its cushioning properties, such as better safety in children’s playrooms, or sound deadening of mail cart wheels going around the office.

In rooms like kitchens, the soft feel underfoot allows cooks to comfortably stand for the long periods necessary to prepare meals. And that dropped can of veggies will not shatter cork, like it can with porcelain tile. However, cork is susceptible to punctures from sharp objects, so dropped knives or other sharp objects will damage cork.

There are a few other cork durability issues to consider. heavy furniture with feet can leave “dents” or imprints after a while, and pets can scratch the surface. Also, the sun does fade cork, so sun drenched areas may not be the best place to install cork. When you use it below grade, you will need to employ special procedures to deal with moisture issues that a concrete slab presents.

One feature that allows cork to last longer is that you can sand and refinish it. (Note, the floating floor version is a laminated product and is different, so you may not be able to finish it). If a floor does look tired after a number of years, you can replace the damaged tiles.

You can refinish the entire cork floor to look new. It is a bit of work, but extends the life of cork floors.

Porcelain

Porcelain is a hard, long-lasting, and stain-resistant flooring material.

But less known, there are five classes of durability. A rating of one is only for walls, two and three are appropriate for light traffic, four is for medium to high traffic, and five is specifically for heavy traffic. So, choose the porcelain that meets the level of traffic or wear you expect.

Time has proven porcelain’s worth as reliable material in high traffic areas, but porcelain has two vulnerabilities. First, dropped items can crack and shatter the brittle tiles. You can make repairs by removing and replacing tiles, which is not quick or easy.

Second, the grout is a different material, which is hard to keep clean and susceptible to chipping, cracks, and staining. The grout is the weak component and should be sealed, and it may also require routine care to keep it looking fresh and clean. In some cases, regrouting is necessary to restore the look of the floor.

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Cleaning

Glazed porcelain provides excellent stain resistance and is easy to keep clean with routine sweeping and mopping (select a cleaner that will not harm the grout if you use one). The grout is not as stain-resistant and can be difficult to keep looking fresh.

Many find a mixture of ¼ to ½ cup vinegar per gallon of water makes for a good cleaning solution for a porcelain tile floor. Some even add fragrance to leave behind a clean smell. Use a tile vacuum, mop the floor with the cleaning solution, scrub with a soft bristle brush if necessary, rinse/remove the solution with clean water, then buff with a clean cotton or microfiber towel.

Finished cork is easy to clean, and should be kept free of dirt and debris by routine sweeping or vacuuming with a wood-friendly vac to prevent scratching and excess wear.  It is easy to also clean with a dry or damp mop, but avoid using excess water.

A bonus, cork is hypoallergenic and contains a chemical called suberin that prevents mold growth and repels insects, so you will not need to do mold removal or disinfecting with harsh chemicals.

If you must use a cleaner, select a product that is pH balanced and safe for cleaning wood or cork. Avoid ammonia or harsh, abrasive cleaners when washing cork.

Uncoated cork is susceptible to stains by oily substances and spills should be cleaned immediately. In areas where spills are common, consider a polyurethane, or other coating, to improve stain the cork’s resistance.

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Cost

Pricing for porcelain varies quite a bit, because the installed cost depends on the tile selected and the design layout. A high-grade tile in an intricate pattern will be more expensive than a middle grade tile laid in a square, straight-line pattern.

But in general, porcelain is on the high end of the price range, about ten to twenty five percent higher than “ordinary” ceramic tile, and installed costs are often about the same as an oak hardwood floor.

Cork flooring is more economical than porcelain when you consider cork is in the range of 30 to 50 percent less than its hard competitor. It is easier to install (cutting is easier, it is lighter in weight, no messy thin set, etc.) so there is a definite labor savings that shows when comparing prices ranges.

But keep in mind that for both materials, the colors and pattern used to create those striking, jaw dropping floors will add to the installed cost.

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Intangibles

With two very different materials, there are some things that are hard to classify.  But some of this information might be meaningful to potential users, so we included it here as “intangibles.”

Cork is a natural insulator and does add R value to a floor. But the real advantage of this property is that it feels warm and natural to bare feet. One step with bare feet on a cold winter’s day, and you will appreciate the insulation value of cork. Also, you can use cork with radiant heat, just like porcelain.

Porcelain tile does not absorb much water, and this feature allows you to use it for exterior applications.  For those “outdoor rooms” that are popular, porcelain would be a potential choice as a patio finish. No version of cork will work outdoors.

Cork contains suberin, a chemical that prevents mold growth and repels insects. Plus, cork naturally repels dust, hair, and other small particles. It is also hypoallergenic, so cork is easy on occupants with allergies or those who are sensitive to mold and dust.

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The Verdict

Porcelain flooring is dense, hard, and durable. You can use it in high traffic areas, outdoors, and in wet areas.  Plus, it looks good.

However, porcelain is expensive, can be slippery when wet, and prone to chipping and cracking on impact.  It is also a difficult material to install, and may not be a project for some DIY’ers.

Cork is a unique, visually striking material and provides a “cushioned” floor.  It feels warm and comforting underfoot and is on the order of one third to one half the price of a porcelain floor.

You do not need to coat or seal cork. Sharp objects can puncture it. It is also not water-resistant like porcelain, but you can use it in places like bathrooms if you install the correct version of cork.

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Ben Dolce

About Ben Dolce

Ben has been a freelance writer for the past eight years. But before becoming a writer, he worked as materials engineer and consultant for twenty-plus years developing, testing, and investigating failures of flooring materials.

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