1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cork

CORK (perhaps through Sp. corcha from Lat. cortex, bark, but possibly connected with quercus, oak), the outer layer of the bark of an evergreen species of oak (Quercus Suber). The tree reaches the height of about 30 ft., growing in the south of Europe and on the North African coasts generally; but it is principally cultivated in Spain and Portugal. The outer layer of bark in the cork oak by annual additions from within gradually becomes a thick soft homogeneous mass, possessing those compressible and elastic properties upon which the economic value of the material chiefly depends. The first stripping of cork from young trees takes place when they are from fifteen to twenty years of age. The yield, which is rough, unequal and woody in texture, is called virgin cork, and is useful only as a tanning substance, or for forming rustic work in ferneries, conservatories, &c. Subsequently the bark is removed every eight or ten years, the quality of the cork improving with each successive stripping; and the trees continue to live and thrive under the operation for 150 years and upwards. The produce of the second barking is still so coarse in texture that it is only fit for making floats for nets and for similar applications. The operation of stripping the trees takes place during the months of July and August. Two cuts are made round the stem—one a little above the ground, and the other immediately under the spring of the main branches. Between these three or four longitudinal incisions are then made, the utmost care being taken not to injure the inner bark. The cork is thereafter removed in the sections into which it has been cut, by inserting under it the wedge-shaped handle of the implement used in making the incisions. After the outer surface has been scraped and cleaned, the pieces are flattened by heating them over a fire and submitting them to pressure on a flat surface. In the heating operation the surface is charred, and thereby the pores are closed up, and what is termed “nerve” is given to the material. In this state the cork is ready for manufacture or exportation.

Though specially developed in the cork-oak, the substance cork is an almost universal product in the stems (and roots) of woody plants which increase in diameter year by year. Generally towards the end of the first year the original thin protective layer of a stem or branch is replaced by a thin layer of “cork,” that is a layer of cells the living contents of which have disappeared while the walls have become thickened and toughened as the result of the formation in them of a substance known as suberin. Fresh cork is formed each season by an active formative layer below the layer developed last season, which generally peels off. Where the formation is extensive and persistent as in the cork-oak, a thick covering of cork is formed. In some cases, as on young shoots of the cork-elm, the development is irregular and wing-like outgrowths of cork are formed. In northern Russia a similar method to that used for obtaining cork from the cork-oak is employed with the birch.

Cork possesses a combination of properties which peculiarly fits it for many and diverse uses, for some of which it alone is found applicable. The leading purpose for which it is used is for forming bungs and stoppers for bottles and other vessels containing liquids. Its compressibility, elasticity and practical imperviousness to both air and water so fit it for this purpose that the term cork is even more applied to the function than to the substance. Its specific lightness, combined with strength and durability, recommend it above all other substances for forming life-buoys, belts and jackets, and in the construction of life-boats and other apparatus for saving from drowning. On account of its lightness, softness and non-conducting properties it is used for hat-linings and the soles of shoes, the latter being a very ancient application of cork. It is also used in making artificial limbs, for lining entomological cases, for pommels in leather-dressing, and as a medium for making architectural models. Chips and cuttings are ground up and mixed with india-rubber to form kamptulicon floor-cloth, or “cork-carpet.” The inner bark of the cork-tree is a valuable tanning material.

Certain of the properties and uses of cork were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the latter, we find by Horace (Odes iii. 8), used it as a stopper for wine-vessels:—

“corticem adstrictum pice dimovebit

It appears, however, that cork was not generally used for stopping bottles till so recent a period as near the end of the 17th century, and bottles themselves were not employed for storing liquids till the 15th century. Many substitutes have been proposed for cork as a stoppering agent; but except in the case of aerated liquids none of these has recommended itself in practice. For aerated water bottles several successful devices have been introduced. The most simple of these is an india-rubber ball pressed upwards into the narrow of the bottle neck by the force of the gas contained in the water; and in another system a glass ball is similarly pressed against an india-rubber collar inserted in the neck of the bottle. By analogy the term “to cork” is used of any such devices for sealing up a bottle or aperture.