Prefinished vs. Unfinished: Hardwood Floor Preferences
They hit me with a litany of prefinished floor questions. Among them: How good are they? (Very good.) Do they last? (Yes.) Is there a choice of colors/stains? (Yes.) Are they better than on-site sanded and finished floors? (It depends.) Are they more expensive? (Not necessarily.) Are they easier to maintain? (Not really.) What’s all the fuss about lifetime warranties? (More than you might think.) Can I install prefinished floors myself? (Perhaps.) Do prefinished floors come in different styles? (Yes.)
I suppose by now you feel much as you do after having a deep conversation with a 14 year old who responds tersely to your interrogation with one- or two-word answers. But fear not, for unlike a teenager, I will elaborate!
The prefinished hardwood floor segment is growing faster than any other in the floor covering industry. In fact, prefinished products have been a main driver behind the tremendous resurgence of hardwood flooring.
Therefore, the answer to the first question I mentioned above must be: prefinished wood floors are pretty darn good! Why else would builders, homeowners, flooring contractors, architects, commercial developers, and remodelers turn to prefinished floors in such big numbers, especially over the past 10 years? While it’s true that the unfinished segment also is growing, prefinished floors represent a bigger portion of the hardwood sales mix.
Prefinished hardwood floors have been improved significantly from the early “stain-and-wax” versions of the mid-1950s. Back then, a simple in-plant finishing process provided the dirty work to basically get some color on the floor, and provide protection with a wax topcoat. These floors actually performed fairly well, as evidenced by the millions of square feet of parquet and laminated block floors that were installed during the apartment construction boom in the New York City metro area.
The rationale behind the type of topcoat prevalent at that time was the user abused the wax, not the finish. But homeowners, especially when both husband and wife began working outside the home, were not thrilled with the idea of having to maintain floors by re-waxing them every so often. In fact, wax was also applied to on-site finished floors, so waxing a hardwood floor had a real negative connotation to it. The maintenance requirements of a wax finish may have led to the much-chronicled decline in popularity of hardwood floors from 1966-1982.
The mid-1980s advent of no-wax, UV-cured polyurethane floors solved that problem. Suddenly, hardwood floors were perceived as being easier to maintain. But what about color choices? On-site sanded and finished floors offer a virtually limitless variety of custom-stained colors that allow the consumer to match to the exact and precise décor she desires.
In the ’50s, consumers generally had three prefinished color choices — light, medium or dark stains — and that was about it! With polyurethane-finished floors, more and more prefinished color choices were introduced to the marketplace (including the dreaded “white floors”). This development helped prefinished wood floors make the huge transition from commodity floor covering to a floor fashion product.
Some manufacturers describe dozens of prefinished colors in their product literature. Does this mean that they are better than on-site sanded and finished alternatives? The answer really boils down to personal preference.
The quality of a field-applied finish is pretty good, but the installer must contend with a number of variables that can affect finish quality. The most common of these are humidity, temperature, sanding dust, hand operation of powerful heavy sanding machinery, noxious fumes, and poor lighting.
These same variables are easily controlled in a factory environment. This is why quality control is easier to maintain with factory-finished products. It also accounts for why prefinished wood floor manufacturers are able to provide better and longer finish-related product warranties.
That brings us to the ever important question of cost. When you consider the time value of money, and how long a house is tied up by the flooring contractor to finish the floor, it’s no wonder that builders increasingly turn to prefinished floors. They can close quicker, which means they get paid faster and incur less interest expense.
They can also provide their customers with a better warranty and, in some cases, a limited lifetime warranty (check individual manufacturers warranties for details and specifics). So when I’m asked about the cost, I try to get people to look at a value comparison, rather than price alone. Almost always, prefinished floors come out the winner!
Today’s newest prefinished floors have aluminum oxide or ceramic-type finishes that are harder, take more abuse and last longer than any previous hardwood floor finish. And, they certainly are tougher than any type of site-applied finish.
The day-to-day maintenance factor, however, is a toss up. The same maintenance procedures for cleaning wood floors on a regular basis (similar to vacuuming carpet) is done regardless of whether it was prefinished at the factory or finished on site. In fact, there are a good number of new, low-cost wood floor cleaning products available on grocery store shelves that have been especially formulated for hardwood floors.
For long-term maintenance, it’s hard to say which type of wood floor is better. While the new harder factory finishes can take a lot of abuse, the job site-applied finishes are easier to sand and refinish if needed. Both can be screened and recoated, as required, to make them look brand new.
As for the do-it-yourselfer, prefinished floors are certainly easier to install than site sanded and finished floors. However, I always caution homeowners about taking on major remodeling projects, such as installation of a hardwood floor. Unless you are a very experienced home handyman, leave the big jobs to the professionals.
During the course of his career, the flooring contractor learns many “tricks of the trade” that help him produce a better, more professional-looking installation. Why take the risk of possibly ruining or wasting valuable building materials such as hardwood floors? These truly add to the value of a home. So, you truly don’t want to cut corners on the installation.
So many styles, species, colors, and types of hardwood floors are available today to meet virtually any décor and/or job site requirements. The choices have never been more plentiful. And my guess is that, whether you are a builder, flooring contractor, architect, commercial developer, remodeler, or a floor fashion conscience homeowner, there is a beautiful hardwood floor in your future — with either a factory or job site-applied finish.