Prefinished vs. Sand and Finish
This article is written for those of you trying to decide between installing prefinished hardwood floors or installing unfinished hardwood floors and having them sanded and finished after installation. There are pros and cons to both products and either could be the proper choice depending on your specific situation.
Unfinished Hardwood Floors – Sand and Finish
First let’s take a look at traditional field finished floors. Field finishing means that unfinished hardwood floors are installed in your home and then they must be sanded smooth before staining (optional) and applying a clear protective finish.
Here are a few examples of hardwood floors we’ve sanded and finished in the field:
Let take a look at the benefits of this method.
- PRO: Color and Sheen Selection
The sky’s the limit, within reason. Unfinished hardwood floors can be stained a variety of colors and wood stains can be both custom tinted and intermixed to achieve a color not commonly found on any particular color chart. Samples can be made of the custom blends on pieces of the actual floor that is going to be installed, resulting in a sample that will give a very close approximation of what you can expect when the job is complete. You can also choose from a variety of gloss levels and finish types to complete the look of your floor. Many pre-finished hardwood floors are only available in a single sheen. In addition to the color and sheen, there is a large selection of finish types to choose from. Traditional oil polyurethane, single and dual component acrylic finishes, acid cured urethanes, oiled finishes, and more can all be applied in the field. This wide selection can help tailor a floor to a specific living situation or a desired look.
- PRO: Coping with Subfloor Irregularities, i.e. The Micro Bevel
Unfinished hardwood floors are sanded after installation, which flattens the surface of irregularities and eliminates the need for a micro-bevelled edge. This will give you the smoothest finished product overall. There are a select few prefinished floors on the market that can emulate the final smooth finish of sanded floor to an acceptable degree if you really want to avoid field finishing, but even those will have some noticeable edge compared to a sand and finish job. Note that this will only help with minor subfloor irregularities. Your starting surface should still be as flat and smooth as possible before installing any type of hardwood floor.
- PRO: Future Refinishing
Field finishing a hardwood floor requires the use of stains and clears that are applied and perform very differently from the finishes used on factory finished hardwood floors. Traditionally a standard oil based polyurethane is used on the majority of field finished floors. While this finish is not as tough as the aluminum oxide finishes found on prefinished hardwood floors, it is much easier to sand away when the need arises to refinish the floor in the future. A prefinished floor will require a lot more work to remove the existing coating as the metallic component of the finish wears out sanding materials very rapidly.
While there is a lot to recommend sanding and finishing an unfinished hardwood floor in the field, nothing in life is perfect and this method is no exception. Let’s take a look at some of the downsides to a sand and finish job.
- CON: Installation Time
Prefinished hardwood floors can often be installed in a matter of days. An unfinished floor may take weeks. It has to be installed, sanded, sanded again, sanded some more, stained, finished, finished again, and probably finished again. A prefinished install involves one major step. A sand and finish job involves multiple major steps and dry time in between many of them. This makes field finishing hardwood floors less than idea in an occupied home.
- CON: Fumes and Dust
There is no way around the fact that stains and clears release fumes until they are cured. Some of these products release potent fumes that can be harmful to breath for any length of time, which means that you will be moving out of your home for the duration of the installation. Even after it’s safe to move back into your home you will likely still be able to smell the product until it is fully cured. This will often take a month or more depending on the type of finish used. Even waterborne products offgas some potent fumes during the application and curing stage.
Let’s also not forget about dust. There are some truly amazing sanders on the market today that do an excellent job of collection dust while they sand. Despite that, there will still be some dust to content with. Again this is not ideal for an occupied space.
- CON: Finish Contamination
This is not usually a huge concern, but when finishing a floor on site you have to keep dust to a minimum to avoid contaminating your finish. This can be a major issue when drywall work or HVAC work with a forced air system is being done in the space. A little dust in the finish is often not noticeable, but if you opt for a very dark stain then even a speck of drywall dust becomes obvious. Even if your installer is extremely careful, it’s difficult to control what other trades do in new construction. An HVAC mechanic won’t even consider the effects on a wet finish when testing an AC or Heat system. All he’ll be concerned with is getting his job done so he gets paid.
- CON: Durability
The durability of any hardwood floor often comes down to how you treat it. Pets, children, neglecting regular cleaning and maintenance, and just life in general all put a beating on your floor. No matter what finish you choose, none of them are going to be quite a tough as the aluminum oxide finish found on prefinished hardwood floors. That’s not saying you can’t come close though. Traditional oil polyurethane finishes are the most commonly used and cost effective options, but are also one of the least resilient. Oiled floors are easier to repair damage to, but harder to properly maintain. Two component commercial waterborne finishes are probably the closest in resilience to a factory finished floor, but have the drawbacks of being very expensive products, more difficult to apply, and costing more to apply due to the difficulty involved. If you opt for any two component product you have to make sure the finisher is both familiar and skilled in the application of the product or you will end up with less than optimal results.
- CON: Sharp Edges
This is an often overlooked negative aspect of a field finished hardwood floor. When field finishing a floor the boards all get glued together by the clear coating. This is not a lasting bond. Wooden structures move and the expansion and contraction that occurs will break the bond between these boards. Without a micro-bevel on the edge, like prefinished hardwood floors use, these “broken” edges can be sharper than expected. This is not to say you are going to cut your foot on them, but you may be able to feel them when walking on them barefoot. Eventually, normal wear on the floor will smooth these edges out, but the first couple years on a new floor can be noticeable. Not all houses move the same, so this effect may not be noticeable at all in your specific situation.
Also note that waterborne finishes tend to behave differently than oil finishes and this effect is usually more noticeable with them. Oil finishes are brittle and sheer clean when the floor contracts and the seams open up. Acrylics are more flexible and actually stretch when the floor opens. Unfortunately, when the floor closes up again, the stretched film gets squeezed tight and can peak at the seam, leaving a noticeable ridge between boards. Since acrylics are more flexible they don’t wear down as quickly as oils either, which means that those ridges can take years to smooth out. Again, this isn’t something that will be that noticeable to look at, but you may feel it when walking barefoot or in socks.
Prefinished Hardwood Floors
Now let’s take a look at prefinished hardwood floors. This type of flooring comes from the factory already stained and finished.
Here are a few examples of projects we’ve done with prefinished hardwood floors:
There are several advantages to this, but also a few drawbacks. Let’s examine both.
- PRO: Durability
Almost all prefinished hardwood floors use multiple coats of UV cured urethane containing a metallic aluminum oxide component. This makes for an extremely tough finish that is much harder to scratch than most finishes that can be applied in the field. The nature of the product makes it much easier to apply in a factory using the proper spray equipment and virtually impossible to apply in the field.
- PRO: Installation Time and Lack of Mess
Unlike a field finished floor, a prefinished floor is installed, trimmed out, and that’s pretty much everything. There is no sanding or finishing to be done on site. The entire installation can take a matter of days instead of weeks depending on the size of the job. There is no dust to contend with and no fumes to worry about. Obviously this is a huge plus for installation being done in an occupied space. Depending on the situation you may not even need to relocate during the installation.
- PRO: No Finish Contamination
One of the biggest enemies when field finishing a floor is dust and other debris. No matter how cleanly an installer is or how well filtered the air in a house, something will probably fall into the finish at some point. Sometimes this can leave a noticeable blemish. Prefinished hardwood floors are never wet in the field. All finish is cured at the factory and job site contaminate is not an issue.
Just like with a field finished floor prefinished hardwood floors are not perfect. There are a few drawbacks to using them as well.
- CON: Bevelled Edges and Subfloor Flatness
By far the biggest complaint about prefinished hardwood floors is the presence of a micro-bevel on the edges. These bevels are present for a reason. They help account for subfloor irregularities and slight imperfections in the tongue and groove joint. A field finished floor is sanded flat after install. A prefinished floor is not. Your subfloor needs to be as free of defects as possible before install. Any little bump can telegraph into the wood floor. This bevel helps hide such imperfections, which can result is raised edges that are very noticeable. Any looseness in the tongue and groove joint can affect how a floor draws down when stapled as well, which also results in uneven edges. The micro-bevel won’t eliminate this, but it will disguise it.
Note that there are some prefinished products on the market, such as the Hampton Series from the Impressions Hardwood Collections, that feature an actual square edge. These tend to be higher tier products as they are milled to higher quality specification. Even so, there may be a some slight lippage, which can be felt when walking on the floor barefoot.
- CON: Limited Color and Sheen
While you can customize your color and sheen on a field finished floor, prefinished hardwood floors are limited to a selection of colors chosen by a group of designers that have agreed on what is popular and will sell the best. Sheen is often a semi-gloss or satin finish, with no other options to choose from. Products that use other finishes, like a matte finish often come with other style features you may not want, such as a wire brushed look. Finding the perfect combination of these finishes can be a time consuming process.
- CON: Refinishing is Much More Difficult
The high durability of a UV cured aluminum oxide finish is great for day to day abuse, but terrible when it eventually comes time to renew the finish on your floor. The metallic components of this finish will wear out the abrasives used to sand it away much faster than most field applied finishes. This makes attempts to refinish these floors time consuming and much more costly to pursue.
- CON: Plasticy Appearance
Not all finishes are the same, but many of the more cost effective prefinished hardwood floors tend to have a more artificial look to them. This stems from the thicker film build of an aluminum oxide finished applied in multiple coats. As it builds up this type of finish can get plasticy look and a somewhat orange peel texture. Higher end product often use better finishing techniques and clear coats that can make this less of an issue.
As you can see, both types of flooring come in a vast selection of products and both have their strengths and weaknesses. Choosing one over the other will largely be a matter of what works best in your specific situation and what gets you the final look and feel you are going for.
Before concluding there is another area we should touch on. There are a few misconceptions about hardwood flooring that should be addressed.
- Field finishing a hardwood floor does NOT provide a solid film on the floor and is not in any way waterproof. While initial application of a finish will bond the edges of all the boards together, movement in the house will crack those joints apart and make them just as susceptible to moisture as a prefinished floor. Some prefinished hardwood floors have a 6 sided seal on each board that actually makes them better in this regard than a field finished floor. Regardless of what product or technique is used, no wood floor should ever be considered either waterproof or water resistant.
- Sanding an unfinished wood floor after installation does not make for a perfectly flat floor, nor does it make up for poor subfloor conditions. Wood has hard and soft grain, which sands differently. When running a large sander on such a surface the entire machine is moving across the floor. Any irregularity in how it moves can cause some irregularities in the sanded surface. Pre-finished floors, while not overall as flat will have flatter and smoother individual boards due to the more exacting nature of the sanding process in a controlled environment. Neither type of floor will account for large irregularities in the subfloor. Start with a good surface if you want to end up with a good surface.
- It is NOT okay to steam mop a wood floor. Never wet mop or steam mop a wood floor of any kind. It does not matter what the manufacturer of the cleaning product says it’s safe to use it on. What matters is what your wood floor manufacturer says is safe, and what voids your warranty. Hardwood floors should be dust mopped or carefully vacuumed. You can also damp mop a wood floor as long as you use the correct mop and cleaner. A microfiber mop should be used to avoid applying too much cleaner, and a cleaner specifically made for hardwood floors should be used. These cleaners are usually alcohol based and evaporate quickly so they don’t have a chance to seep into the wood and cause damage. Certain types of finishes such as non drying oils have special maintenance procedures that must be followed in lieu of using a standard hardwood floor cleaner. We recommend the Impressions Cleaning Kit, which works well with most hardwood floors and leaves no waxy or hazy residue behind. Hardwood floor cleaners should be designed to clean, not to polish or leave a film forming finish behind.
- You don’t need to oil or wax most hardwood floors. Any floor with a film forming finish generally should not be waxed and should never be oiled. Only very specific types of finishes call for an ongoing waxing or oiling schedule and this should be made known to you during the process of selecting your finish. You almost need to ask about a finish like this when shopping for a floor. Most floor finishers are not going to recommend one of these because they know a homeowner is seldom going to remember to follow such a long reaching maintenance schedule, which will cause issues with the floor in the future. If you do opt to use such a floor finish, make sure you know what you are getting into before you proceed with application.
- The color of your floor when new WILL change over time. Wood itself changes color as it ages and depending on how much sunlight it gets. Certain species of wood, such as cherry, can change drastically. Oil based stains and clears amber with age and lack of sunlight. Anything that blocks sunlight can cause differences in the coloration of the wood under it compared to the wood around it. UV keeps oil based stains, clears, and paints from yellowing. Lack of sunlight causes them to yellow. Keep this in mind when placing rugs and furniture in a room and think about planning for a regular rotation of a room’s furnishings to help minimize this effect.
We hope this article provides you with a better understanding of the different types of hardwood flooring available in today’s rapidly progressing market. We’ve tried to touch on all the major points of interest and as many of the specifics as possible. Don’t hesitate to contact us with questions or for advice with product selection for your home or business. It’s always better to ask about all your options before making a major decision and investment instead of regretting a choice after the fact.
Come visit our showroom or Contact us today to speak with one of our craftsmen regarding your specific needs.