Prefinished vs. Unfinished Wood Flooring

Prefinished or Unfinished Wood Flooring - Acacia

Acacia Natural Prefinished Floor. Photo: fantastic-floor.com

I’ve looked at flooring from both sides now… and it’s the horrors of applying polyurethane I recall.

Apologies to Joni Mitchell for that, but when it comes to installing solid or engineered wood flooring, prefinished is my choice. Some pros disagree, but these are my reasons:

You can walk on your new floor immediately. With flooring that is finished on-site using oil-based polyurethane, the homeowner must wait days, sometimes even weeks, before moving furniture back into the room. Even though the floor may be dry to the touch, it will be vulnerable to scraping until the waiting time has elapsed and the finish has fully cured. I once had to shuffle around in socks and remain furniture-less for four weeks after applying three coats of poly to a floor. (Waterborne polyurethane finishes dry to touch quickly but can have varying cure times—some quite long.)

Related: Solid vs. Engineered: Selecting Wood Flooring

No issues with VOCs and your family’s health. For days after applying an oil-based polyurethane, you will smell and breathe in vapors from polyurethane resins and solvents. VOCs have been shown to be carcinogenic, and some waterborne polyurethanes produce them too. Why not buy prefinished so that the curing takes place in a factory, not in your living room?

No worries about dust. Dust and errant hairs are the enemy of on-site floor finishing, but these annoyances won’t have any effect on your new prefinished flooring. You will, however, need to take measures to protect prefinished floors if you have contractors tromping around with tools and equipment en route to other jobs around the house.

Installation in one session. There’s no necessity of staying home to complete the various stages of  an on-site finishing job—sanding, sealing, staining, applying polyurethane and so on. A crew of two had our 300-square-foot solid wood floor installed, with underlayment, in only about two hours.

Prefinished or Unfinished Wood Flooring - Installation

Prefinished flooring usually has bevels on board edges, but that's a small price to pay for its fast, easy, VOC-free installation and durable finish. Photo: Joe Provey

A better finish than what homeowners or contractors can apply on-site. Factory-applied finishes are incredibly durable and often come with a lifetime warranty. The Mullican red oak flooring, shown above, will stay new-looking for longer. It came with a PPG UV-cured resin and nanoparticle coating that is highly scratch- and abrasion-resistant. I can’t even scratch it with my fingernails.

Lower cost. Prefinished solid wood floors initially cost more than unfinished wood flooring—about $2 per square foot for a good grade of red oak. But once you factor in finishing costs, prefinished ends up being less expensive.

Prefinished or Unfinished Wood Flooring - Ash

Unfinished Ash Select Hardwood Flooring. Photo: qualityfloorsdirect.com

Okay, you’ve heard my arguments. But some homeowners and many contractors disagree with me and prefer site-finishing wood floors. Here’s why:

New construction or large renovations. Many contractors prefer to wait until the end of the job to finish the floor. That way, a dropped tool or a mortar pebble under a work boot can’t mar the finished floor—and ruin customer relations.

Greater choice of finishes. There is no question that the site-finished route opens up a greater variety of choices with respect to color and shade. Prefinished products, however, come in more species and stains than ever before.

No bevels. Prefinished floorboards usually have micro-bevels on all edges. These bevels hide slight discrepancies between board depths and widths. Inevitably, some homeowners will prefer the flush look of site-sanded floors, as they feature no such grooves and can be finished to a mirror-like surface.

What’s your preference? Perhaps the hassles of site-finishing will be worth it to you—for one or all of the reasons above. But for homeowners like me, prefinished floors are the future.

For more on flooring, consider:

Rx for Hardwood Floors
How To: Make Your Own Wood Finish
Old Wood Flooring: Replace or Refinish?