Introduction: Recycled Cork Backsplash
I had a small, 4 foot long, unfinished backsplash in an area we refer to as a butler’s pantry. I had always thought it might be cool to do something more creative than standard tile in the area.
A couple years ago I had made a dart board backboard with wine corks for my father’s wine / game room, and I thought it had turned out really well. I had a few corks left from that project, and I had added a number more to my collection since then. I thought a wine cork backsplash might liven up my boring butler’s pantry, so 3 days ago, that is what I decided to do.
This was a pretty easy and relatively quick project. It took several hours for me to apply each cork individually, but it was definitely easily do-able in a weekend.
Corks (LOTS) - see step 1 for calculating how many you’ll need
1/4 plywood, enough to cover the area of the backsplash
1 1/4” drywall screws to attach plywood to wall
Liquid Nails construction adhesive, Heavy Duty (I used less than two normal caulk-gun-sized tubes)
Circular or table saw
Dremel with wood cutter attachment
Drill with driver bit
Step 1: Calculating How Many Corks You Need
It’s easy to see a bag full of corks and think, “I have a LOT of corks; I’m sure I have enough for this project.” But it’s very easy to over-estimate how many you have and to under-estimate how many you’ll need.
Start by counting what you have. For the best look, throw away any that are synthetic. After you have a count, start calculating approximately how many you’ll need.
To do this, I took 16 corks and laid them out in the basic pattern I wanted to use. Then I measured the length and width of the corks in their pattern. Then I calculated an area in square inches.
So for me, my rectangular pattern was about 7.25” long and 3.375” high. The calculated area is about 24.4 square inches.
Next I measured the area I wanted to apply corks to. It was about 46.75” by 17.75” so the calculated area was about 829.8 square inches.
Finally I divided the calculated area of the entire location I wanted to tile with the calculated area of my 16 corks. So for me this was 829.8 / 24.4 or 34. Then I took this number and multiplied it by the number of corks in my original sample (16). The total, 544, gave me the approximate number of corks I was going to need.
You have to remember this number is not an exact amount. In all likelihood you will need a few more than this. 5-10 percent more is probably a safe number that will give you a fair amount of layout flexibility.
There are proponents of cutting corks in half to double the number of corks you have for projects. But if you have never tried it, cutting corks (especially lengthwise and ESPECIALLY older corks) with box cutters, knives, or power tools is not a particularly easy task. I very much recommend using whole corks for this project.
I had about 360 corks. And I knew I would need close to 200 more, so I ordered a set of 200 from eBay. I figured if I was still a few short after that, I could probably ask friends and family for extras.
I completed more than half of this project with my original 350 or so corks before the 200 ordered ones arrived. Looking back if I had not been in such a hurry to get started, then waiting for the 200 to arrive and mixing them with the ones I already had would have been smarter. As it is, The lower 60 percent of the wall is composed of nearly all American brand corks while the upper 40 percent is nearly all European. Something to consider for the next cork project. :)
Step 2: Preparing Your Underlayment
I made the decision to use quarter inch plywood behind my corks mainly because I knew that down the road if I got tired of it I could remove the whole thing without much trouble. All I would have to do is pull off some of the corks to expose the screws, unscrew it, and pull it out. Then I’d have a minimal number of tiny screw holes to patch. In contrast, scraping off 500 corks individually glued to drywall would make a gigantic mess and take hours of patching to get the wall back in any shape for paint or another backsplash.
For me, since my backsplash area was bordered on both sides by a wall, I had no issues with the edges of the plywood being exposed. However there are a number of different options for covering up exposed plywood edges if the edge of the area will be visible. One idea would be to add a wooden border around it. Another would be to add a border of corks glued to the wall beside the plywood. However these corks would be a little less high then the corks on the plywood. Another option would be to take corks and cut them across to a length of a cork’s approximate diameter plus the thickness of the plywood. Then you could create a sort of step on the cut edge with the knife. Then the lower part of the step could sit flush against the wall and the higher part could be glued to the plywood. See last image for a view of the potential cut.
I cut the Plywood sheet to size, tried to squeeze it in place but realized I had failed to account for the molding on the bottom front of the cabinets. Because it was a tight spot behind a sink faucet that I did not want to have to remove, there was no way to shimmy it back there as high as it was m. I took off another 3/4” from the height and verified I could get it into place.
Before attaching it to the wall however, I used my stud finder to locate the studs in the wall and transferred the stud markings to the plywood. This helped me to know where to screw it on the wall. I also measured the location of the outlet in the wall and transferred these measurements to the plywood. Then I used my Dremel to cut out the location for the outlet.
Next I put the plywood back against the wall and screwed it in place using 1 1/4” drywall screws. After going through my 1/4” plywood plus my 1/2” drywall there was still plenty of screw left to anchor in the wooden studs.
A final thing I did was to draw a number of horizontal lines on my plywood. These would just be visual guides to make sure my corks weren’t edging too high over time. I originally drew perpendicular lines as well, but I ended up ignoring all of these except a single center line. I used this center line to make sure I always had the same number of corks on the left and the right sides.
Step 3: Determining Layout and Beginning the Corking
There are lots of options for cork layouts. Before starting a project Google cork design layouts for ideas. Remember that anything not parallel or perpendicular to the countertop is going to be significantly harder.
I used a simple 2-up, 2-across pattern. I think it has higher visual interest as opposed to just lines. There’s a lot of “movement” in the design, and I think it’s very pleasing to the eye. It’s also very forgiving and allows you to make nearly invisible sizing or layout adjustments as needed.
I also decided to do a border of a single cork around the entire backsplash. To me it just gives the design a kind of a finished look around the edge.
It was important to me to use only whole corks, so I started by laying out the bottom line of corks. Since corks can differ by 1/4” or even 1/2” or more, it’s easy to find whole corks to fill the space completely. This is also why it’s nice to have a good selection of different kinds of corks to choose from. In fact, I try to pull out and set aside any corks that are extra long, extra short, or extra fat as I find them. This is especially helpful when I get to the end of the row and find that I’ve got an extra large gap, for example, and will need extra long or wide corks to fill it.
Once I had my bottom row selected, I protected my work area (Liquid Nails adhesive is very difficult to remove from things you don’t want it on!). Then added a blob/line of Liquid Nails to the back (opposite of the side I wanted to be visible) of each cork and pressed each cork in place.
Next I placed my 2 single border corks on the left and right edges the field and then started on the first line of my cork pairs.
At this point since I was using cork pairs and wanted to just use whole corks, it was important to me to make a determination as to whether I could BEST fit an even number of corks on each side of the centerline or an odd number of corks on each side of the center line (not counting the single border corks on the edges). This would decide whether or not there would be a pair of corks to the left of the center line and a pair of corks to the right of the center line, or whether there would be a pair of corks split across the center line.
In my space I found that I could better fit an even number of corks to the left and an even number of corks to the right of the center line (not counting the single cork border on left and right edges). And for this reason I started on the far left side of my line of cork pairs and worked straight across.
Had I determined that I would need to split a pair of corks across the center line, I probably would have started in the center for each line of pairs instead and worked outward to the left and right sides.
Working left to right, as I neared the center I tried to adjust my pattern to make sure that my pair would come close as close as possible to the center line. A tiny bit over or under was fine, but I tried to keep it close.
And as I neared the right edge, I worked to find the corks that best filled the space. Some corks are longer, some are shorter, some are thinner, and some are fatter. With a variety of corks filling a space completely with no gaps or having to cut corks is easier than it looks.
One other thing I made an effort to do was to make sure that most of my cork pairs contained 2 corks of the same length. This helped to cut down on gaps and tilted corks in the design.
Step 4: Working Around Obstacles
In this project I had a single outlet to apply corks around. Outlets are nice because the face plate hides unattractive edges or cork pieces of different lengths.
But having done a cork backer board for a dartboard in the past, i learned that if you have exposed cork cuts you have to make, it is best to cut them to the exact length of the space they need to fill so that there are no gaps between them and the object they border.
In my opinion, it is easiest to cut corks with a sharp kitchen chef’s knife. A sawing motion seemed to help. And newer corks also just cut more easily than old dry ones.
When adding corks around my outlet, I had to keep in mind that I was going to need to leave plenty of space to pull the outlet out and put spacers behind it so that it would be even with the new backsplash.
Step 5: Finishing the Area
I wasn’t very concerned with how the upper edge of the backsplash would get finished because I knew it would seldom be seen unless people bent over to take a look. That said, I hoped to work it out so that I’d either have a full pair of corks topped by a single cork border or a half pair topped by as single cork border.
Fortunately this worked out. I got a full pair and enough plywood left to glue on the top border row so the entire area looks finished with no plywood visible. But if you have to make cuts, this is probably the best place to put them since they won’t be immediately obvious.
I’m still waiting on the Liquid Nails to finish curing, but after it does I will likely go back and add a top coat of a spray sealant to help protect it over time. This is probably unnecessary though since this area won’t see much action.
Now all that’s left to do is to plan a party, invite some friends, lay out the wine and appetizers, and show off my space. It’s a rewarding project for just a couple days of work!
Participated in the
Recycled Speed Challenge