Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Review: Pros and Cons

Is a Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Right for You?

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Traditionally, hardwood flooring was always installed as unfinished planks that were then stained and finished with a protective surface layer, right on the worksite. But since the introduction of prefinished solid hardwood during the 1940s, this newer form of flooring has become increasingly popular, and today you may find that it's easier to find than traditional unfinished hardwood planks. Especially at big-box retailers, there will likely be a very good selection of prefinished solid hardwood flooring in different species and different stain finishes.

There are certain advantages to purchasing and installing this prefinished hardwood flooring, as well as several drawbacks. Consumers should understand both the pros and cons of this form of flooring when making decisions.

It is important to note that the advantages of prefinished hardwood flooring apply mostly to solid hardwood products. Engineered hardwood flooring, which is also sold in prefinished form, is engineered with a relatively thin layer of hardwood bonded over core layers of plywood or particleboard. It lacks some of the advantages of the solid prefinished hardwood flooring described here.

An illustration of the pros and cons of prefinished hardwood floors
Illustration: The Spruce / Chelsea Damraksa

Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Cost

Prefinished hardwood flooring typically costs between $3 to $20 per square foot for materials, though many very good products are available at the lower end of this price range. It is exotic hardwoods that tend to be quite expensive. These prices make prefinished hardwood roughly 30 percent to 50 percent more expensive than unfinished hardwood, though remember that you will save the time and expense of sanding, staining, and finishing the planks.

Installation labor generally costs another $6 to $8 per square foot, though you should expect labor costs to be on the lower side of this range for unfinished solid hardwood, since the workers won't need to sand, stain, and varnish the flooring.

Maintenance and Repair

When the factory applies the finish treatment to the wood, they are able to use very powerful chemical sealers, which are applied by commercial processes that are not available to on-site installers. Typically, this consists of aluminum oxide crystals embedded in a UV-cured urethane coat. While site-applied finishes are normally warranted for 3 to 5 years, factory-applied treatments may have warranties of 5 to 25 years or more.

Because the surface seal is stronger and more durable when it is applied at the factory, the maintenance of these floors is easier. They tend to be slightly more impervious to stains, moisture, and other discolorations than floors that are finished on-site. In addition, the longer-lasting finish means that you will not have to go through the time, mess, and expense of getting the floors refinished a few years later.

Eventually, though, the surface seal will start to fade, scratch, and discolor slightly. Because of the thick nature of the prefinished topcoat, refinishing requires extensive sanding to reach the natural hardwood again. This cuts down on the thickness of the floor planks and limits how many times you can then refinish the floor in the future.

With site-finished floors, when a piece of wood becomes damaged, you can often repair it by sanding smooth the imperfection. On a prefinished floor, however, the thick seal layer means that when a section of flooring becomes damaged, the only way to repair it is to either sand the finish off the entire floor or remove and replace the broken section.

Design

A good-quality prefinished solid hardwood floor has all the prestige of site-finished hardwood. Any hardwood floor generally adds real estate value to a floor, especially when compared to look-alike "wood" products, such as laminate flooring. Often, though, factory prefinished wood planks will have beveled, slightly rounded edges. This gives the wood plank a more finished and slightly manufactured look. This can be great for the style of some interiors, but it may not look the same as standard hardwood planks with full, squared edges already installed in other rooms. Knowledgable eyes usually can distinguish between a prefinished floor and a site-finished installation.

With literally hundreds of options now available, there really is no decor limitation when it comes to choosing prefinished solid hardwood flooring

Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Installation

Installation of prefinished solid hardwood flooring planks is similar to that for unfinished hardwood—which means it requires special tools, such as a power floor nailer or pneumatic stapler. This flooring material is generally nailed down to the subfloor with finish nails or staples driven at an angle along the tongues along the edges of the planks. This is a more complicated installation than the glue-down method that is sometimes used for engineered hardwood flooring, and it's the reason why most people choose to have professionals install prefinished hardwood.

But a prefinished hardwood floor installation does have one advantage, since there is no need for the sanding, staining, and varnishing process needed for unfinished hardwood. Sanding is a messy procedure that fills the room with wood dust, which then has to be thoroughly cleaned. Hours or even days may be required for finishes to dry between coats. And after that, the finish can leave a residual odor in the air, requiring weeks to dissipate. By contrast, prefinished floors are ready to go immediately after they are installed.

With a site-finished floor, you install the material and then sand it flat. This allows you to remove any height irregularities which may exist due to an uneven subfloor. But with prefinished materials, there is no sanding process, so the actual surface of the installation will reflect any below-surface flaws that may be present. Therefore, a perfectly flat subfloor is essential to ensure a smooth surface.

Top Brands of Prefinished Hardwood Flooring

Most manufacturers of hardwood flooring products offer some prefinished solid hardwood options, although some product lines—and sometimes an entire company— may be devoted to engineered hardwood flooring, not solid hardwood. The most popular brands for prefinished solid hardwood flooring are:

Bruce: This is the wood flooring arm of flooring giant Armstrong. Bruce offers a massive selection of more than 200 prefinished solid hardwood options, as well as more than 100 engineered hardwood products. Bruce is widely available at the big-box home improvement retails.

Lumber Liquidators: This discount flooring retailer offers a surprisingly large selection of more than 150 options for prefinished solid hardwood flooring. Quality can be a little questionable sometimes, but with dozens of good offerings selling at $2 per square foot, a bit more waste is acceptable.

Comfort and Convenience

With prefinished flooring, you get all of the advantages of the factory-applied extra-durable surface seal, plus the look, beauty, and feel of natural hardwood. At the same time, you also always have the option later on of sanding down past the factory-applied coat to reveal the natural wood. It can then be treated with any of the basic on-site finishing techniques.

Because the material is finished at the factory, a sealing agent is not applied to the lines between the planks when they are installed. This creates slightly beveled grooves between boards, which can trap dirt and grime. The seams also may be susceptible to water penetration, which can cause rot or mold to grow beneath the surface of the floor.

Prefinished vs. Engineered Hardwood Flooring

Engineered hardwood flooring, which is made from a thin layer of solid hardwood bonded to a core of plywood or particleboard, is the leading rival to prefinished solid hardwood. It has several things going for it, including ease of installation (it can be glued down) and lower price. But it had one major drawback: Engineered hardwood cannot be repeatedly sanded down and refinished. Hence, the life expectancy is considerably short than for prefinished solid hardwood.

Is Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Right for You?

Overall, the advantages of prefinished solid hardwood flooring will outweigh the drawbacks for most homeowners. Hundreds of options exist for wood species and colors, and DIYers willing to tackle the work will find it much friendlier, since there is no sanding and finishing required. Good quality products lend the same elegance and improved real estate value as site-finished hardwood floors.