Where the World’s Cork Building Material Is Made

A photograph of a pile of freshly-harvested cork barks with dry vegetation in the background. In the top right corner is a world map and across the bottom are the words "Where the World's Cork Building Material Is Made."

Do you know where the world’s cork building material comes from?

People have been using this versatile, lightweight, and sustainable building material without necessarily knowing where it comes from.

The material comes from a unique source found only in certain countries.

Due to its vast cork oak forest cover, Portugal produces 50% of the world’s cork building material. The country is home to 34% of the world’s cork oak forest cover, followed closely by Spain at 27%. These two countries account for 80.1% (240,300 tons) of the world’s cork production.

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss where the world’s cork building material is made and summarize the production rates in various countries.

I’ll also discuss cork harvesting, its use in construction, and market trends. Let’s get started!

Brief History

A photograph of an ancient Greek statue on the left, with harvested cork barks in the bottom right and a jug with a cork stopper in the top right.
Cork has been used for wine bottle stoppers since at least the 1600s but its use dates back much further.

The production and use of cork have a rich history that dates back to 3,000 BCE. In this era, cork was used to build fishing tackle in China, Persia, Babylon, and Egypt.

Italy also used cork to make footwear, cask stoppers, floats, and roofing materials.

As time went by, people developed many ways to use cork. A notable invention was cork stoppers for wine bottles, which became popular in the 1600s.

An excellent example is Pierre Perignon, who used corks held together with wires to seal his latest champagne in 1688.

Commercial cultivation of cork commenced in the 1700s when its benefits became widely known.

Cork makes various products today, including insulation, wine stoppers, and flooring materials. It’s also increasingly being used as a sustainable building material.

Portugal’s evolution as the leading cork producer dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal leveraged cork to make ships that led to the discovery of the New World.

By the 19th century, cork harvesting rapidly expanded as countries like Spain and Portugal adopted modern techniques to improve production.

Where the World’s Cork Building Material Is Made: Top Countries

A world map with textured blue for the oceans and rocky-textured land masses. There is a Portuguese flag with an arrow pointing to Portugal and the word "Portugal" beneath the flag.
Most of the world’s cork comes from Portugal, thanks to its warm climate and well-drained soil.

Although cork is a versatile building material, its availability is limited due to its unique means of production.

Cork is extracted from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber). This tree performs well in the Mediterranean region as it requires acidic and well-drained soils.

Consequently, countries in the Mediterranean region, such as Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and France, dominate cork production.

Although other countries outside the Mediterranean region can produce cork, their production volume is low.

The table below shows the top seven countries in Cork production:

CountryForest Area in Hectares% of the World’s Forest AreaProduction tons (000)% of the Total Production

Table 1: Major cork-producing nations. Source: Cork Quality Council

Cork Harvesting and Manufacturing

Two photographs of the cork harvest. The photo on the left shows a freshly-cut piece of cork oak bark held by a worker with the bare trunk of the tree in the background. The photograph on the right shows a pile of harvested cork barks drying in the sun.
The bark of the cork oak trees can be harvested every nine years without harming the tree.

Cork harvesting is a labor-intensive process that requires skill, precision, and patience. The harvesting is done every nine years once the tree accumulates sufficient suberin bark for cork manufacturing.

Cork is considered a sustainable construction material because its production doesn’t involve cutting down trees.

It’s harvested sustainably by first making a vertical incision on the tree trunk. After that, a horizontal incision is made to remove the cork in slices.

The removed cork is placed in piles and shipped to the manufacturing plant.

Once in the manufacturing plant, the cork slices are crushed into smaller pieces, washed, and dried. The product is then passed through grinders to reduce its size.

After grinding, the product is covered in a mold, and superheated steam is forced through at 600°F (315.56°C) to make the agglomerates used in construction.

Another way to bind the cork pieces together is to pack the cork molds and then bake them at 500°F (260°C) for four to six hours.

The agglomerates are coated with thin layers of polyurethane adhesives to make them waterproof and more fire-resistant.

The finished agglomerated cork is cut into the desired shape, ready for use.

Market Trends

Cork building materials are gaining popularity due to their eco-friendly properties. As a result, its market share is experiencing a steady rise.

In 2021, cork exports totaled US$2.2 billion, a 21.6% increase compared to 2017. In 2017, the exports amounted to $1.81 billion.

Continent-wise, European players account for the highest cork exports totaling $1.74 billion in 2021. This was 93.4% of the world’s total cork exports in 2021.

Asia and Africa came second and third at 2.4% and 1.7%, respectively.

The table below shows the top cork-exporting countries:

CountryValue of Cork Exports (US$)% of Total Cork Exports
Portugal1.3 billion60.9
Spain406.8 million18.5
France121 million5.5
Italy52.7 million2.4
China40.2 million1.8
Germany33.7 million1.5
Chile26.7 million1.2
United States21.1 million1
Poland15.4 million0.7
Denmark15.2 million0.7
Morocco13 million0.6
Algeria12.9 million0.6
Tunisia8.2 million0.4
Austria7.7 million0.3
Belgium7.5 million0.3

Table 2: Highest cork exporting countries in 2021. Source: World’s Top Exports

Uses of Cork in the Construction Industry

A photograph of cork flooring tiles shows a concrete floor with white vapor barrier underlayment, then cork insulation, followed by the cork flooring tile with a tongue and groove edge.
Cork floors provide a sense of luxury because they are warm to the touch. They also save you money on your energy bills.
  • Flooring tiles: Cork is a pressure and shock-resistant material due to its high elasticity. This feature makes it an ideal flooring material with excellent cushioning.
  • Thermal insulation: Expanded agglomerated cork, also known as insulation cork board (ICB), is an excellent thermal insulator due to its low heat conductivity ranging from 0.037 to 0.040 W/mK. In most cases, it’s incorporated within an air gap in the walls as an external thermal insulation composite system (ETICS).
  • Acoustic insulation: Cork features a dense, honeycomb-like structure that is ideal for absorbing sound vibrations. Moreover, with a noise reduction coefficient of 0.7, cork absorbs up to 70% of sound waves. However, effective soundproofing must be at least 3 millimeters (0.12 inches).
  • Roofing: Cork is used as an internal insulator in roofs due to its excellent energy efficiency. Coating your roof with cork helps keep the indoors warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. 

Final Thoughts

The world’s cork building material is made from a few select regions around the globe, with Portugal standing out as the largest producer.

With the growing awareness of environmental sustainability and a need for eco-friendly building materials, it’s no wonder that cork has gained so much attention in recent years.

So, whether you’re in the market for a new floor, ceiling, or wall, consider cork a viable option.

Check out this article to learn more about cork insulation, including the reasons to use it.

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