Bamboo and cork flooring are both made from natural, sustainable plants, so you might anticipate they are similar in many other ways too. To a large extent, you would be correct. But some striking differences are likely to tip the balance, depending on your main priorities when choosing the best flooring for your home. As with many things in life, it’s the subtle differences that make all the difference.
Here we compare these two flooring options’ main features, scoring each one out of 10 points. We provide the final scores at the end of the article.
KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BAMBOO FLOORING AND CORK FLOORING – A GUIDE
HARDNESS (Resistance to Denting)
As you can see from many articles on this blog, bamboo flooring is a tough flooring material and highly resistant to denting. It is substantially harder than most hardwoods (Read our blog, How Strong is Bamboo Flooring Compared to Hardwood? for more information.). And strand woven bamboo is the hardest natural flooring material available. We rate the hardness of bamboo and wood on the Janka scale, and below is a graph that explains what the Janka scale is and how it works. Strand woven bamboo has a Janka rating of over 4,000, which is three times harder than solid oak. While we don’t recommend you walk on it in high heels, even heavy furniture is unlikely to dent it. For hardness, it receives 10 out of 10.
Cork is a naturally soft material, so you might anticipate it would have a low Janka rating. Of course, you are correct; its Janka hardness is around 200, so it’s only one-fortieth as hard as strand woven bamboo. However, things aren’t necessarily as bad as they might appear. Cork is also a highly elastic material. Consequently, it will bounce back into shape from dents. However, once it exceeds its elastic limit, it is easily deformed. Walking on a cork floor in high heels will instantly destroy it, and leaving heavy furniture on it for any length of time will almost certainly cause dents. So, for hardness and resistance to denting, we give it just 2 points out of 10.
ECO-FRIENDLESS / DAMAGE TO THE ENVIRONMENT
Bamboo is probably the most sustainable building material on the planet. It grows very fast and has a significantly lower eco-cost than hardwoods. It is technically grass, not wood, and it can be ready to harvest under five years from planting. Even harvesting bamboo is sustainable since it doesn’t erode the local environment or damage flora and fauna. Taking in carbon dioxide has a more significant impact on reducing global warming than any other plant. For eco-friendliness, we give it maximum marks of 10 out of 10.
Cork is also highly sustainable. It is a part of a bark known as the phellem layer and can be harvested without cutting down the tree. We strip the bark from the tree and let the tree continue to grow. It takes a long time for the tree to mature, typically 25 years or more, but the bark and cork grow back and can be re-harvested after another 9 years or so. The process doesn’t harm the tree, and it’s not unusual for the cork oak tree to live for 200 years. It doesn’t require pesticides and does not significantly deplete the water table. From an eco-friendly perspective, cork flooring scores 10 out of 10.
INDOOR AIR QUALITY, OFF-GASSING, & FORMALDEHYDE EMISSIONS
Many of the materials we have in our homes compromise the quality of the air we breathe because they emit organic chemicals known as VOCs (volatile organic chemicals). In the U.S., on average, the amount of indoor pollutants exceeds outside pollution by five to ten times. For more information on indoor air pollution, please view the video below. These pollutants impact health, so it is clearly better to minimize them when we can, for instance, by choosing a flooring that is free or nearly free of them. So how do bamboo and cork flooring compare?
The VOC content of bamboo is shallow and well within the most stringent indoor air quality guidelines. This is one of the reasons many people prefer bamboo over alternative materials. Even though the urea-formaldehyde adhesive is used to manufacture engineered bamboo flooring (as it is in other engineered hardwoods) and can produce a small amount of VOCs, the quantity is minuscule and well below the level that might affect your health. It scores 9 out of 10 for indoor air quality.
Cork isn’t as free from VOCs as many people think. Researchers have discovered recently that the characteristic smell you get from cork flooring contains a range of VOCs, including:
- Acetic acid
- Formaldehyde (occasionally)
- Phenol (occasionally)
While these VOCs are within government guidelines and are (or at least should be) indicated on the labeling, they do add to the total VOC content of your living space. However, as their levels are low, we can give cork flooring a score of 8 out of 10.
COMFORT FOR WALKING / WARM UNDERFOOT
Stepping onto a bamboo floor in bare feet always feels good. It has the natural warmth of wood, and even on a cold day, it doesn’t feel freezing. This is because heat flows slowly in wood due to its high thermal resistance, which is a little like electrical resistance; the higher its value, the lower the flux, whether it is heat or electrical current. The reason is that bamboo has a cellular structure that includes a large amount of space filled only with air. You can see this from the image below of bamboo fibers taken with a scanning electron microscope. This picture looks a bit spooky too. We give bamboo 9 out of 10 for comfort for walking.
Cork is an even better thermal insulator than bamboo, and it’s also soft and springy. Walking on a cork floor is even more comfortable than walking on a bamboo floor. The reason is the same as for bamboo; its structure includes a high degree of porosity with each tiny air pocket surrounded by impermeable cell walls. For the comfort of walking, it scores a full 10 out of 10.
Bamboo flooring is water-resistant, but it is far from being waterproof. However, it is more water-resistant than hardwoods, and good quality bamboo flooring will resist damage from a puddle for 24 hours. But leave it much longer, and it might swell and discolor like normal hardwood flooring. Thus, you can use it in most rooms, but not in places such as bathrooms with bathtubs where it might be subject to water pooling. For water resistance, we give bamboo 8 out of 10.
Cork is naturally water-resistant, which is one of the reasons it is used to seal wine bottles. Its water resistance is due to a naturally hydrophobic waxy material it contains called suberin. However, the problem is the flooring seams; they are susceptible to water damage if immersed in water, and the adhesive used to glue down the floor can also be damaged. That being said, manufacturers usually recommend you seal cork floors with a waterproof sealant after installation. We give cork flooring 9 out of 10 for water resistance.
PRICING & AVAILABILITY
The price of bamboo flooring often surprises people. In many ways, bamboo is similar to hardwood, but it costs only a fraction of the price. Perhaps you can work out why. As we say above, bamboo matures in just 5 years while hardwood might take 25 years, so producing bamboo flooring is far more efficient. Since you can get premium wide plank bamboo floors at a reasonable cost, we give it 9 out of 10 for pricing.
As we indicated above, the cork oak takes 25 years to mature, about the same time as white oak, But once it has matured, we can harvest cork from the trees every nine years. Most cork comes from Europe, where there is an abundant supply of cork oak trees and originally used for the wine industry. The ample supply and renewable nature of cork mean its pricing is similar to bamboo; we give it 9 out of 10 for pricing.
ORGANIC, NATURAL MATERIALS VS SYNTHETIC
Both bamboo flooring and cork flooring are entirely natural materials. They both use a little adhesive in their manufacturing, but the amount is relatively insignificant. Both bamboo and cork flooring receive 10 points out of 10 in the “being natural” category.
NATURAL VARIATION IN THE GRAIN – LOOK AND FEEL
Bamboo flooring has a natural grain different from that of hardwood, yet it can look surprisingly similar. The grain is due to the fibrous nature of the material. The result is that every bamboo flooring plank is individual. You will never find two the same. It looks and feels entirely natural. For natural variation, it gets 10 out of 10.
Cork flooring doesn’t exhibit the same kind of grain structure grain variation in bamboo; it looks like cork. But because every cork flooring tile is unique, you will never find a repeating pattern. It has a look and feels of a natural material. It is a personal decision whether you prefer the look and feel of bamboo or cork, but for natural variation, we score it 10 points out of 10.
EASE OF INSTALLATION
As we point out in this blog, installing a bamboo floor is within any skilled DIY enthusiast’s capacity. As long as you stick to the manufacturer’s guidelines, you should be able to lay a floor you can be proud of and will be the envy of your friends. If you would prefer a professionally installed bamboo floor, just about any handyman or carpenter can do it, as long as they follow the installation guide. For ease of installation, we give bamboo flooring 8 out of 10.
Depending on the subfloor, if your floor is anything other than concrete, cork flooring is usually installed by gluing the tiles to a plywood overlay. If the subfloor is dry and flat concrete, you can stick the tiles directly onto the subfloor. The final step is to sand and polish the floor. No installation method could be simpler, so cork flooring scores 10 out of 10 for installation ease.
EASE OF MAINTENANCE
Bamboo floors are easy to maintain and usually need no more than regular sweeping or vacuuming. It is essential to keep them free from dust and grit, as stepping on such debris can result in scratching the bamboo surface. Occasionally it would help if you deep cleaned with a proprietary wood or bamboo floor cleaner. We give bamboo 8 out of 10 for ease of maintenance.
Maintaining a cork floor is similar to maintaining a bamboo floor. It just requires sweeping and vacuuming along with an occasional deep clean. The only difference is that every few years, you might consider resealing your cork floor with a proprietary polyurethane sealant. It also scores 8 out of 10 for ease of maintenance.
THE FINAL ANALYSIS
If you have been adding up the scores as you have gone along, you will have realized it is a close call. While bamboo loses out on comfort underfoot (scoring just 2 to bamboo’s 10) and its lower air quality score, it claws back some points on ease of installation and water resistance. The final score is Bamboo flooring: 91 points Cork flooring: 86 points.