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Prefinished vs Unfinished Hardwood Flooring


When you’re choosing hardwood flooring, there are many decisions to make. One of the most important considerations is your flooring’s finish – as this will help to not only determine the overall look of your new flooring but also its long-lasting beauty.

Available options

Finish refers to the top coating that is applied to hardwood flooring after it has been sanded and stained. Either a urethane or oil base, the finish seals the wood, protecting it from staining, discoloration, moisture penetration – and the everyday wear of busy families. In shopping for hardwoods, you’ll likely find many prefinished products. As the name implies, these floors are ones that have already been sanded, stained, and finished at the manufacturer’s factory. Once installed in your home, these floors are essentially ready to go. Another option is unfinished hardwood. With these floors, sanding, staining, and finishing are done on-site, after installation. This process is referred to as “finished in place.” The main advantage here is that you are able to customize the flooring’s stain color to match your specific décor better than with prefinished floors, where what you see is pretty much what you get. So is it better to go with prefinished or unfinished planks? As with most flooring options, this answer will largely be an individual preference. To help you decide which finish option is right for you, following is an overview of each.

Prefinished Hardwoods

Today’s prefinished hardwood flooring manufacturers have come a long way in perfecting their finishing techniques. Gone are the old wax-like coatings that often showed scuff-marks and white spots if the flooring got wet. In recent years, not only have the finishes gotten more durable and easier to maintain, but manufacturers have perfected their application techniques with often flawless results. Today, the most common finishing process involves the use of ultra- violet (UV) lights to quickly dry each coat of finish. Referred to as a UV finish or UV cured, this process allows as many as 6-10 coats of finish to be applied to the wood and dried in mere minutes – further enhancing the durability of the planks. Not all finishes are the same, however. Following are some of the more common prefinished available, each offering different levels of strength, durability, and shine:
•   Aluminum oxide: The most popular finish type used today, this finish uses an advanced technology that mixes tiny aluminum particles with the urethane, increasing the wear layer’s resistance to scratches and other abrasion. While an extremely strong finish, aluminum oxide alone can make flooring appear dull. Therefore, most factory processes involve applying only one coat, followed by multiple coats of urethane – for added shine. Gloss levels include glossy, semi-gloss, and satin sheens. These floors tend to leave a visible scratch across the surface when damaged.
•   Natural oil finishes: This finish process injects acrylic monomers directly into the cell structure of the wood. Boards are then coated with a finish wear layer. This technique effectively fills the open pores of the wood throughout the entire thickness of the plank, further strengthening the wood and offering added protection against possible denting from daily wear. The most durable alternative, acrylic impregnated prefinished hardwood flooring is most often used in commercial applications but it is becoming popular in residential flooring. This finish is most often offered in a satin gloss.

Why Choose Factory Finished Woods?

In today’s market, prefinished woods are pretty much the norm. Here are some of the reasons why:
•   Color options: Color options: There are colors such as reactive stains and paints that can only be used in a shop or factory settings.
•   Less mess: Less mess: No sanding, staining, or sticky finishes means less mess in your home.
•   No wait time: No wait time: You won’t have to wait days for your flooring to completely dry. Once floors are installed, you can move furniture right in and start enjoying your new flooring.
•   Odorless: : Odorless: The finish is completely dry, so there are no strong odors to deal with.

Why Not to Choose Factory Finished Woods?

99% Engineered: It Almost all factory finished floors will only come in an engineered format. Not only that, most of these engineered floors have as little as 2 mm of actual hardwood on the surface, which is equivalent to 3/32”. These floors can be sanded one time IF the sub straight they were installed over was flat. This is generally not the case.
•   Limited Options: It is almost impossible to find everything you are looking for in on particular factory finished floor. Options such as species or grain pattern, board sizes such as thickness/widths/lengths, textures, edge profiles, colors, finishes and sheens of finish.
•   Matching material: Each time a particular batch of wood is run through the conveyer belts at the factory, a color lot is assigned to that run do to the potential for slight variances in color from previous runs of that same flooring. In addition to this, most manufacturers drop color lines or collections every 2-4 years depending on the popularity of that particular floor. This makes obtaining the same material months or years later for repairs do to water damage or additions to the property virtually impossible.
•   Scratches: Aluminum oxide is a durable mineral applied to the finish used in the factory. These finishes generally leave a visible white line scratch across the surface of the boards. These scratches will only disappear when a fresh coat of finish has been applied.
•   Beveled edges: It takes precise milling in factories to produce wood floors that when installed run smoothly across the top from one board to the next. This kind of precision drives the cost of the manufacturing upward. Very few manufacturing facilities have the machinery necessary to provide the square edge material needed for factory-finished floors. Therefore, most factory finished floors will have some sort of beveled edge.

Unfinished Hardwoods

While on-site finish techniques and products have improved over the years, finishing your hardwood floors yourself can still be a messy, time-consuming process. But as mentioned, it can also produce a level of customization that’s not possible with prefinished flooring. Some of the available finishes for on-site use include:
•   Water-based urethane – The advantage of using water-based finishes is that they are quick drying (usually 2-8 hours per coat) and virtually odorless. The durability of these finishes ranges from moderate to excellent, depending on the brand. One drawback is that for some wood species, water-based finishes do not always enhance the color, especially with exotic woods. In these cases a color-enhanced sealer should be applied as a first coat. The complete drying process can be as long as 1-3 weeks.
•   Natural oil –range from moderate to excellent.
•   Hard wax oil
•   Tung oil

Why Choose Unfinished Woods?

In addition to better customization, here are some more advantages to choosing unfinished woods:
•   Larger plank widths & lengths: Unfinished woods are often easier to find in extra-wide boards (plank widths of 7” or more) than prefinished woods.
•   Solid or Engineered option
•   Color options
•   Finish & sheen options
•   Edge & texture options
•   Wood species options
•   Wooden staircase that match
•   Seamless look: Square-edged planks help create a more seamless look. While this option is limited in prefinished flooring, unfinished flooring is often only available with square edges.
•   Better moisture protection: When floors are finished on-site, the seams between the planks are sealed as well, allowing for more protection against moisture than prefinished woods, in which only the individual planks are sealed.
•   Easier to repair: If unfinished flooring gets scratched or dented during installation, it’s fairly easy to repair the damage before the top coating is applied. With prefinished woods, the only option is to replace the damaged board. While some may try to fill, sand, and reseal a damaged prefinished board, the end result rarely matches the look of the factory finish.
•   Easier to refinish: While many prefinished woods can be successfully refinished, keep in mind that the process will involve removing 6 or more layers of baked-on urethane finish before even getting to the bare wood. The process is far less time consuming when refinishing site-finished woods, which generally have fewer layers of finish to remove.