Traditionally, hardwood flooring is installed as unfinished planks that are then stained and finished with a protective surface layer on-site. More recently, many manufacturers have begun to offer prefinished hardwood flooring products that arrive with very good finishing treatments already applied to hardwood materials. 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, lacks some of the advantages of prefinished solid hardwood.
Pros of Prefinished Hardwood Flooring
Durability: 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.
Easy installation: It is much easier and quicker to install prefinished hardwood than to go through the process of sanding and staining the material on-site. 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 as soon as they are installed.
Ease of maintenance: 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.
Refinishing is possible: 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.
Cons of Prefinished Hardwood
Seams aren't sealed: 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 can lead to dirt and grime getting caught in these seams. The seams also may be susceptible to water penetration, which can cause rot or mold to grow beneath the surface of the floor.
Beveled plank style: This isn’t necessarily a drawback, but more of a style choice. Often, 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.
Subfloor flaws may be evident: 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. A perfectly flat subfloor is essential to ensure a smooth surface.
Refinishing requires heavy sanding: While prefinished floors do not need to be refinished for a very long time, eventually the surface seal will start to fade, scratch, and discolor slightly. Because of the thick and pervasive 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.
Repairs are complicated: 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.
Overall, the advantages of prefinished solid hardwood flooring will outweigh the drawbacks for most homeowners. Many dozens of wood species and colors are now available, and for DIYers, the installation will be far easier than it is with unfinished hardwood, and far less expensive if you are hiring contractors to install your flooring.