Wood or Wood Knot: Unfinished business --Why sanding (still) matters
September 24, 2007
Hardwood flooring continues to flourish, even in uncertain times. For those of us who have devoted our professional lives to this industry, there is a sense of pride and accomplishment when we see today’s consumer opt for wood over other types of flooring. We are proud of the technical accomplishments that continue to advance hardwood and we are impressed with the marketing efforts that promote the creativity and value of this highly desirable flooring.
In particular, prefinished hardwood flooring, both solid and engineered, continues to see impressive growth. Recently, I sat down with a distributor whose business is all hardwood. Like a number of his colleagues, his entire revenue comes from sales of hardwood flooring, accessories, trim, sanding equipment (including sanding paper) and unique sundries. The distributor recalled how the industry was 10 years ago, when unfinished hardwood flooring was a big part of his inventory. It made up more than 60% of his gross revenue. He noted that the growth of prefinished hardwood has not “yet” compromised his revenue. He added that he has no plans to “inject” laminate into his product mix.
Even so, over the past decade this distributor has grown extensively and added multiple locations. The key to these increases has been the rising interest in prefinished hardwood flooring, along with demands that he carry multiple sizes and colors. Truckloads of unfinished soon became multiple selections of both engineered and solid prefinished lumped together in the same truckload. The distributor now admits that the business has done a complete 180. Sales of prefinished exceed 60% with the remainder composed of unfinished.
We all recognize where the growth is coming from for our industry. We have created a market that has responded to today’s modern buying consumer. Hardwood is now available in any “flavor that you can savor.” We offer flooring that can be thick or thin; in different grades suitable for high-traffic (or low-traffic) spots and crafted to look sparkling new or worn and rustic. Hardwood flooring now has so many places to go.
If we were painters, we couldn’t paint a rosier picture. Well, for now, that seems to be fine and dandy. Prefinished hardwood flooring has emerged as the No. 1 choice and floors finished at the jobsite lag behind. Builders like the efficiency and they have gradually converted. Homeowners, meanwhile, enjoy the “in and out” installations and dealers continue to tout the long-term finish warranties. Well then, what could possibly go wrong with all this?
For one thing, remember there are two very distinct retail segments in our industry. In addition to sales there are “aftermarket” labor services. Also consider the issue of warranties. Competing floor makers emphasize warranty terms but these can, frankly, also have a ripple effect if there are claims related to the floor’s durability. Guarantees have disclaimers. This “fine print” may be seldom read and is almost never fully explained during the actual sale. Obviously, flooring is not alone in this category. Still, pointing out the specifics afterwards, especially when the warranty challenge is documented, can create a less than satisfied end-user.
All this gives us pause to wonder: Is the sanding portion of our industry in the midst of downsizing? Everyone in this business-and that includes the prefinished manufacturers-better hope not. The billions of prefinished floors installed over the last decade will ultimately be in need of “professional care” one day. Seldom does a homeowner occupy a home for 25 years after an installation. In fact, housing trends predict that the average homeowner will move every seven years. All types of “artificial” flooring will eventually require replacement. Natural products, such as wood, do not.
Understandably, periodic professional maintenance, such as recoating or even full-blown sand and finishing, will be necessitated by scratches and other mishaps (as well as everyday wear and tear).
It is quite common to see installers who specialize in unfinished hardwood adapt to prefinished installations (especially if the installer is concerned about steady employment). The modification is relatively minor compared to the training required of those entering our industry. Dealers who once frantically searched for sand and finish subcontractors are now beginning to realize the value of having people on staff that can handle that work. Our industry needs to encourage installers to widen their skill set just as we did with our prefinished segment.
There is another key issue: Consumers often go with prefinished hardwood because they assume site-finished flooring involves a messy, smelly process that leaves dust everywhere. Well, these so-called “tormenting” issues need to be addressed and resolved. Areas requiring sanding, for example, should be encased in protective plastic to minimize dust. A daily cleaning of the area is just as important to success as the sanding process itself. There is also dustless type sanding equipment available and many finishing products have little if any odor. In other words: assure the consumers that the intrusion to their homes will be minimal.
The associated cost for quality sanding equipment can vary. The upfront investment may seem considerable, but as with all equipment, it will pay for itself. If you have the opportunity, Wood or Wood Knot invites you to “test drive” equipment at your local distributor when a seminar is available or better yet, if that creates a yearning for more, attend a “beginner’s” sand and finish class sponsored by the manufacturers or one of our industry trade associations. Drop us a line and let us know how it goes. Sounds like a “smooth” idea to me.