Cork, the bark of the cork oak tree, has been used as a sealing material for centuries. The Romans “corked” wine bottles with it – something it still does today – and before modern elastomers were developed it was widely used as a gasket material. Cork gaskets are less common today, but they still have a role.
Properties of Natural Cork
Cork has a closed-cell structure that gives it excellent resilience. A layer can be compressed to around half its thickness and still recover when the load is removed. It’s also lightweight, flexible, and resists attack by water, many oils and even ozone. At around 275°F (135C) its upper temperature limit is lower than some elastomers, but that’s not its biggest weakness. Those are a vulnerability to mold, fungi and acid attack, and as an entirely natural material, its properties are somewhat unpredictable.
Composite Cork Gasket Material
Cork- rubber composites address these deficiencies. Typically these are 70% cork with a synthetic elastomer binder making up the balance. The elastomer imparts some of its own characteristics to the composite and is usually chosen to improve chemical compatibility and sealing performance. Processing also takes out much of the natural variability.
Composite cork gasket material is available that incorporates a number of different elastomers. EPDM, Neoprene, Nitrile and silicone are just a few. The material is produced as a sheet up to ¼” (6mm) thick and is easily die-cut. It readily takes a pressure sensitive adhesive coating, making it easy to apply in many gasketing and sealing applications.
The “Green” Dimension
Cork is cut from the cork oak tree once every nine years. The tree doesn’t die but instead grows a new layer of protective bark. This makes cork a renewable material, something that may be important in some applications and for some users.
There’s Still a Place for Cork Gaskets
Cork is waterproof and has great compressibility. Modern elastomers may offer better chemical resistance and a wider temperature range, but for sealing water and oil, don’t overlook this oldest of gasket materials.