Many of our customers ask us whether prefinished or unfinished hardwood flooring is better, and my response is usually that both have their advantages! From an aesthetic perspective, it is our strong opinion that there is no comparison to the beauty and warmth of unfinished hardwood flooring that is sanded and finished on site by an expert flooring craftsman. However, there is no denying that prefinished flooring is a much faster process – you can walk on it right after it is installed…it’s done! With that being said, we tend to think of new hardwood flooring as an investment in your home, and it is something that is going to be there for quite some time. The hardwood floor that you choose is something that you will see, live with, and appreciate every day, and for those reasons, we feel that the extra days required for on-site sanding and finishing is of minimal inconvenience when compared with the many years that you will enjoy your new hardwood floors! What are the main differences between the two?
Prefinished hardwood flooring has been finished – sanded, stained, and coated with polyurethane -- in a factory. All you need to do is install it (cut and nail it to the subfloor) and it is done. Unfinished flooring is raw hardwood that must first be installed and then sanded and refinished on site.
Prefinished flooring is factory-finished, and thus each board has been finished individually with sprayed-on coats of polyurethane. The boards are then oven baked with aluminum oxide to create an extremely hard acrylic finish. Because each board is finished individually, this creates a beveled edge along each side of the board. When prefinished hardwood flooring is installed, there will be a micro-bevel or groove in between each board. This creates a floor that is not totally flat, and each board will have a visible line in between it. Unfinished flooring is raw wood with no beveled edges. When unfinished hardwood flooring is sanded and finished on site, there are no lines in between the boards, and you will get a perfectly flat, smooth floor.
Advantages to Prefinished flooring:
Time: Prefinished flooring is a faster process. Once prefinished flooring is installed, you can walk on it and put furniture on it immediately. With an unfinished hardwood floor, the sanding process may take several days and then you will have to wait another several days to put furniture back on the floor.
Less Mess: Prefinished flooring is less messy than an unfinished floor that will need to go through a sanding process. Sanding does create dust during the actual sanding process, though our dustless system definitely cuts down on the mess. And when we are finished with our cleaning process after the floor is sanded, you would never know that there was any dust at all!
No Smell: With prefinished flooring, there is no chemical smells because there are no chemicals being applied. The flooring has already treated in the factory where it was made. It is true that the smell from refinishing and applying an OIL BASED polyurethane is intense, difficult to deal with, and not healthy to inhale; however, with the new green products that we recommend and use, our clients do not have to deal with the harsh smell and/or chemicals of an oil based poly unless they want to. For applications of oil based polyurethane, we insist that our clients be out of the house. For most residential homes, we exclusively use Bona water based polyurethanes which have very low VOCs, are environmentally friendly, and have almost no smell at all. We also recommend and frequently use Rubio and WOCA Hardwax oils, which have NO VOCs and no smell.
Cost: Prefinished flooring usually costs less overall than unfinished flooring. Though prefinished flooring may cost more for the actual material, with the reduced labor costs of only an installation, prefinished flooring usually ends up being less expensive than unfinished hardwood flooring that is installed and then sanded and finished on site.
Advantages of Unfinished flooring:
Appearance: Unfinished flooring looks like real wood. Even though solid prefinished flooring is real hardwood, because of all the many factory sprayed-on coats of polyurethane and/or stain, it is our opinion that prefinished flooring looks plastic-y and factory-made, with a less noticeable grain pattern, and thus less warm. Unfinished hardwood that has been finished on site by an expert hardwood flooring professional looks like a work of art. There is nothing that compares to the natural warmth and beauty of a hardwood floor that has been sanded and treated by a real craftsman. Again, this is our opinion, and everyone has their own preferences. We don't care for the beveled edge and resulting lines in the floor that you get with prefinished flooring, but some people really like them!
Finish Options: The creative possibilities with unfinished floors are nearly unlimited. From the countless different species of wood available, to innumerable stain colors, to the many different finish options, the sky is the limit with unfinished floors. We also do all of the new finish options including hardwax oils like Rubio Monocoat and WOCA (which can be spot repaired if they are scratched), as well as other creative effects, which you cannot find in prefinished flooring. We can create a blue or even a green floor, for example, or do a French Bleed, wire brushed, or hand scraped floor to your liking! Prefinished floors have a much narrower scope of wood species, colors, and finish options to choose from. “Handscraped” or “wire brushed” prefinished flooring that we have seen looks far different from the real craftsmanship exhibited in the wood when this process is actually done by hand instead of in a factory.
Matching existing flooring in the home: If you have existing hardwood flooring in the home that you want to match, adding unfinished wood flooring is the way to go. You will be able to exactly match the species of wood, and an expert hardwood floor refinisher can play with stains and colors on the unfinished wood to exactly match the existing floor.
Uniform stain color: Prefinished flooring that is stained a dark color will only be stained on the face of the board. Because of the beveled edge, when a darkly stained prefinished floor is installed, sometimes you can see the underside or lighter portion of the wood along the edges when you look at the floor from far away. When unfinished hardwood is installed and finished on site, the wood is smooth and uniform, and stain is applied to all visible areas.
Cleaning: The beveled edges of a prefinished floor also create a trap for additional dirt, dust, and grime which can be more difficult to clean than a floor that has been finished on site and is totally flat.
Repairs: If a hardwood floor that has been finished on site gets scratched, it can be spot repaired by taping off boards and sanding those individual boards down to raw wood and then refinishing them. The new hardwax oil finishes Rubio Monocoat and WOCA that we are using more and more frequently in residential homes are even easier to repair as all they require is applying/rubbing in a bit of extra product to visible scratches/raw wood. The surrounding wood will not take the product, which makes it very easy for homeowners to do spot repairs themselves as scratches appear. If prefinished flooring becomes scratched, a whole section of the floor may need to be replaced, or the entire floor may need to be sanded in order to correct the problem.
Refinishing: Over time, both prefinished and unfinished flooring will get some surface scratches from normal wear and tear. Unfinished flooring that has been treated with a water based or an oil based polyurethane can be buffed and re-coated every few years to revitalize the top coat of poly and remove surface scratches. If a hardwood floor is well-maintained and this process is done every couple of years, homeowners will never need a complete sanding! This buff and coat procedure is not an option for prefinished flooring. Prefinished flooring can be sanded down to raw wood, but due to the high number of polyurethane coats applied in the factory, the wood must be sanded down deeper into the material than a hardwood floor that was sanded and treated on site. This means that a prefinished floor cannot be sanded as many times as an unfinished floor as it will more quickly become too thin to re-sand. And with prefinished flooring, the beveled edge will be decreased with sanding, but it will never go away completely!
We install (and refinish!) both prefinished and unfinished flooring, and in the end, it is up to the homeowner to decide which option works best for them! I’ve laid out what I feel are the benefits of both, so hopefully this post will be helpful if you are faced with this decision! And as always, feel free to call us for advice!