Corkage, Part I: Barney’s Exile

September 1, 2015 — 8 Comments

Just before moving into our house in 2010, I consolidated two spaces in the basement for my woodshop–a small workroom and a craft area. Both of these spaces featured a utilitarian but whimsical (read: wholly unappealing) linoleum tile floor. I’m pretty sure the color of the tile in this part of the basement was “Smallpox Barney” – a variegated periwinkle that either looked like a) Barney the Dinosaur just threw up or b) like an interior designer threw up – on Barney.

As my first goal when moving in was to just have a shop, the easiest and cheapest path to that goal was to simply extend the existing flooring to the new shop boundaries. Though by no means my favorite option, it allowed me to focus on other aspects of the shop’s infrastructure: walls, lighting and electrical. And oh yeah, moving the family across the country and getting them settled in.

Woodshop V1 under construction

Woodshop V1 under construction

Then came the flood.

Since the flood essentially ruined the ceiling and walls in the shop, the whole shop was going to be gutted and most of the reconstruction (thankfully) covered by insurance. As everyone knows, however, linoleum tile can only be damaged by a combination of black magic and Kenny Loggins. The floor was unharmed by the flood and as such, I was on my own financially for replacing it. Still, with everything moved out of the shop for a few months, there was no better time to replace the indestructible Barney vomit floor with something more appealing both aesthetically and ergonomically.

I’m writing these posts because while researching different flooring materials for use in woodshops, I found no information on using cork. Though I’m sure cork has been used by others before me, I was pretty much going into it blind. So I thought I’d contribute my experience with cork to the intertubes so that others could benefit from my experiment. But to cut to the chase: cork is an outstanding woodshop flooring material, at least for me.

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The handtool area of the current workshop

First of all, if you don’t already know, basements impose significant constraints on the selection of flooring material, woodshop or not. Basements suffer from fluctuating temperatures and humidity, and for many, this rules out many flooring options. My basement was built with residential use in mind and as such, it benefits from a hydronic radiant heating system and air conditioning, which in theory limit drastic environmental changes. Even so, my builder cautioned me against wood floors (which was, at the time, my first choice). To install wood floors, we’d have to lay down sleepers and reduce the height of the shop by 3 inches or more. And though I have more than enough ceiling height (my basement’s ceilings are 9 feet high), the height differential would require small steps in areas of the basement not receiving wood floors (such as the bathroom and utility room) and would make the bottom stair significantly less tall than the other stairs – a recipe for injury. But the real reason I rejected the wood floor option was because wood floors can do some pretty ugly things on top of radiant heat and aren’t that great at passing radiant heat through to the room.

I also considered and rejected engineered wood floors and laminate flooring for various reasons. I’ve had some experiences with both and wasn’t too keen on repeating them.

Enter cork. I had been hearing about cork flooring from several acquaintances and only within the year prior to the shop flood was I able to see it installed in someone’s home. For me, cork floor marketing touts all the right qualities:

  • It’s gorgeous: Cork flooring comes in many different styles. As with everything that comes in styles, some of them are hideous, but even the ugliest of them are preferable to smallpox Barney linoleum.
  • It’s comfortable: It’s cork, so it’s springy and bouncy and resilient. It’s even more comfortable than wood floors in my opinion. For someone with a bad back like me, this would be a huge plus.
  • It’s durable: Cork doesn’t really scratch, as linoleum does. Cork flooring is cork all the way through, so scratching it only reveals more cork. You can also sand and refinish a cork floor as you would a wood floor.
  • It’s environmentally-friendly: I’m not referring to the earth’s environment (though cork flooring is apparently a very eco-friendly material) – I’m referring to what it does to the environment in which it is installed. It dampens sound (a plus in rooms used for woodworking as well as for a kids’ playroom), has decent grip even when dusty, is fire-resistant, transfers radiant heat extremely well, and handles moisture better than many flooring materials (it’s often used in kitchens and bathrooms).
  • It’s versatile: It can be installed as a glue-down on a subfloor or, in my case, as a floating floor in basements or on slab foundations.

All of these characteristics make cork read like a no-brainer, but as I mentioned, I couldn’t find any information on using it in a woodshop. So I took a few sample boards home to test them. My tests involved leaving them under my heaviest pieces of equipment for a couple of weeks, rolling heavy equipment on them, dropping various things on them, and so forth. The results surprised me.

A floating cork floor plank is basically two layers of cork (the nicer looking side goes on top, in case you were wondering) sandwiching some substrate material (I’ve seen everything from this green stuff, which is a highly water-resistant dense fibrous material–the same stuff the Lantern Corps uses for their general issue mattresses–to corrugated cardboard, which is the same material a nine year-old used to build an arcade).

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A closeup of the corner of a floating cork floor plank

The heaviest piece of equipment in my shop is my Hammer A3–31 combination jointer/planer machine, which clocks in at a respectable 640 pounds (that’s 290kg for those of you in the civilized world, and 108kg for those of you in civilized areas of Mars). This machine sits up against a wall and is often rolled out from the wall to joint or plane longer boards. The A3–31 uses an elegant combination of a tommy bar and a set of hard plastic wheels to roll, so obviously my biggest concern was that the weight of the unit and the repetitive rolling would damage the floor.

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To test this, I placed one of my sample planks under the machine for a week. When I removed the plank, there was the slightest indentation, which was gone by the next day. The substrate didn’t dent at all, just the cork. I tried rolling my A3–31 and my (also heavy) 20″ bandsaw over the test boards as well, and they held up just fine.

Fast-forwarding a bit: as the frequency of etherfarm posts may suggest, I’ve been pretty busy. Not enough of the last year has been spent in the woodshop, so the jointer-planer has been sitting in one spot for a few months. Just before writing this post, I moved the jointer-planer and took a photo of the indentation left after 3–4 months:

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Keep in mind: I really needed to work hard to light the photo above so that the dent was visible, and my camera’s lens is literally on the floor. At eye level in normal shop lighting, I can’t even find the dent. Can you?

normalcorkL1030481

These photos were taken a few days ago; the floor has already returned to its normal state (flat). I can’t find a dent by sight or by touch.

Obviously, I went with cork flooring, and it has worked out very well throughout the whole basement. I chose a “normal” cork pattern for the shop and something more elegant for the playroom.

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The shop’s cork floor right after installation

I’ll detail some of the specific pros and cons I’ve found to cork floors in the shop in my next post, but keep in mind I’m not in any way trying to sell you a cork floor or spawn a massive cork-floored woodshop movement. I have no idea how it would hold up in a commercial setting or, for that matter, someone who has the luxury of being in their shop more than I am (though I am seeing cork show up in corporate lobbies and in retail, two places that typically see heavy traffic).

I’m merely trying to fill what was an information gap on the intertubes and reveal once and for all the color of Barney’s uneating.

Next up: bouncy bouncy!

8 responses to Corkage, Part I: Barney’s Exile

  1. I really like that and have admired cork in the past. Also love the look of end grain wood blocks.

    I am curious on the size of your shop. I am in around 12×23 feet with a saw, jointer and bench as you are laid out and find life very cramped. I do have the jointer away from the wall to accommodate a hearth and unnecessary clutter but would certainly clear out to have the space your photos show.

    In a truly civilized world, the mass of your tools is constant and only the weight varies. 640 lb is the weight here on earth, but 290 kg is a measure of mass. The difference is that weight is a force and mass is an amount of material. It’s the reason I do all calculations involving mass in metric. The IPS system is awkward and confusing in dealing with mass.

  2. I just caught your previous post. It looks like around 17 feet on the window end of the room.

    Again, compliments on the first class shop.

    Steve

    • Thanks, Steve. According to my Sketchup plans (and depending where you measure from), the rectangular area of the shop is roughly 17 x 32′. Once you take out space for closets and add storage space that is, for example, under the stairs, I’m at about 500 sq. ft for the shop. Plenty of space for my purposes. My first shop was roughly 8′ x 8′, was located outside on a patio, and had to be broken down just about every day. So I feel pretty damn lucky.

      I often contemplate getting rid of the tablesaw, going with a bandsaw for ripping and a track saw for panel goods. The tablesaw not only takes up the most space in the shop, but it does so in a way that pretty much separates the shop in two. Then I take on a home improvement project that involves a lot of repetitive cuts on panel goods and am thrilled that I have the tablesaw. In any case, if you’ve got a tablesaw with a the longer fence, maybe you can get away with a shorter table on the tablesaw?

      In a truly TRULY civilized world, my mass and weight would remain constant and I could eat any quantity of whatever the hell I wanted. Is that a feature of the metric system? Please say yes.

  3. Narayan

    A great report and very pleasing results. I have a friend who scored a large quantity of cork floor panels at the salvage store and did the floor of her basement (over concrete) that serves as her textiles conservation studio. It is magnificent! And I think the benefits to your back will mean more time in the shop. I am thinking of getting horse stall mats for the floor of my shop, as they are locally available pretty cheap. It’s more for traction than comfort as the floor is SYP which develops a smooth polish with foot traffic, hence slippage. Not a danger, but I do find myself sliding when using the planing beam heavy.

    Don

    • Hey Don. Hope your recovery is going well.

      I used a variety of mats in a garage-based woodshop, horse mats included. They were a good and durable (and cheap) solution. Made cleaning a bit more of a chore than it usually is.

      Out of curiosity, would horse mats be cheaper than renting a floor sander and finishing with something a bit more grippy? I put sand in the paint for my outdoor stairs and that has worked pretty well for traction.

  4. Killer post Narayan. I’ve been contemplating wood (based on what Schwarz did in ATC) and cork for my basement. This post makes me think cork is a better option. Did you do the install yourself? If so, is it as easy as it looks on TV?

    Also, you said “floating floor” in your post. Does that mean it was directly on the concrete with no glue or was there at least a vapor barrier present?

    Thanks for the info.

    -Shawn

    • Hey Shawn.

      Wood would probably still be my first choice in a non-basement setting. It’s far more adventurous an option in a basement setting than my builder was comfortable with, and I trust my builder completely. Having lived with the cork, though, I have to say — I definitely could see using it anywhere (and in fact am planning to use it in an upcoming upper floor renovation). It has been, for me anyway, a perfect experience.

      I did not do the install myself; with many flooring materials the warranty is contingent upon installation. It’s easy enough (I’ve done it before with a similar flooring material).

      Usually floating floors are placed on top of a vapor barrier such as visqueen. After consulting with both my builder and the flooring contractor, we installed the floor directly on top of concrete in the playroom and on top of the existing linoleum in the woodshop. We did not want there to be any opportunity for moisture or mold to develop between the foundation and the vapor barrier especially with the radiant heat cycling on and off throughout three seasons. So far so good.

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