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Pre-Finished Vs Site-Finished Hardwood Floors

There’s a lot of confusion out on the internet about pre-finished factory finished hardwood flooring and solid unfinished hardwood flooring that’s installed, sanded, and finished on site.

Many claim one is vastly superior to the other and vise-versa – usually with ulterior motives. So what is the actual unbiased truth? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each below so you can make up your own mind…

PRE-FINISHED HARDWOOD FLOORS:

Pre-finished floors have become extremely popular in the last decade or so. Mainly because it’s definitely a faster and more convenient way to get hardwood flooring into your home. It’s also much easier for the big box stores and flooring showrooms to sell it without having to worry about doing site finished work that involves specialized tools and skills.

Let’s have a look a bit closer in to the pros, cons and then some misunderstandings of these types of wood floors…

Pre-Finished Advantages:

—  The biggest benefit is that because the finish is already on the flooring, you can use the floor as soon as it’s installed, no waiting a few days for the finish to dry. This greatly speeds up the entire process. The faster your floor is finished the faster your home gets back to normal.

— The factory applied finish is usually very smooth and durable (depending on brands, application and finish used of course) as they are applied in a dust free booth with perfect spraying conditions. A lot of manufacturers use ultra-tough aluminum oxide finishes that are applied in numerous thin coats and cured by UV lights. The result is a very tough and smooth coating.

—  There is also quite a bit of time savings gained with pre-finished floors because the floor doesn’t need to be sanded and finished once it’s installed.

Pre-Finished Drawbacks: 

—  The biggest and most obvious drawback with pre-finished floors, are the bevels on the edges. Because of the factory finish, these types of floors obviously cannot be sanded flat on site… so to compensate for any milling discrepancies, the boards are milled with bevels to make the thickness inconsistencies blend in across the installed floor. This means a pre-finished floor will have glaringly obvious v-shaped seams throughout. Right away, even flooring amateurs will know this is a factory finished floor and not an original site installed and finished floor which most people prefer the look of.

—  Many pre-finished customers complain that cleaning and keeping dust out of the bevels is a pain.

—  Another issue with the bevels is that when you need to sand and refinish your floors down the road (yes even these tough aluminum oxide factory finishes will still scratch, dent and wear) your hardwood floor refinisher will need to remove a lot of wood to get the floor level to the bottom of the bevels. This will take a LOT of wood from your floor and wipe years off the overall life of your floor.

—  Years down the road, if there is major damage done to your floors, or if you want to add the same flooring to a joining room, it may be impossible to find the exact same flooring to match your original floor boards. People forget who the original manufacturers was (if they even knew in the first place), or your particular line of flooring may be out of production as is often the case many years later.

—  You also don’t have much choice when it comes to customizing your floor with pre-finished floors. You can’t always choose custom stain colors and sheens or certain board widths. Plus it’s much more difficult to make custom inlays, borders and complicated patterns look good compared to site-finished floors.

Custom Mesquite Flooring

Common Pre-Finished Misconceptions: 

—  Pre-finished floors are not as dusty as a site finished floor.

This is one of the most common misconceptions between these types of flooring. Sorry to say, but anytime an existing floor is ripped up and removed (which is usually the case) and a new floor is installed there will be a big mess to clean up, either by you, or if you hire a good company, by the crew. Ripping up carpet/tile/linoleum and cutting, sawing, nailing and hammering wood is going to cause dust and offcuts– whether the floor is pre-finished or un-finished. Yes you won’t have the added dust from the sanding process to deal with… but again most advanced hardwood floor refinishing companies will have high tech dustless systems that will again make this a moot point.

—  By installing a pre-finished floor you won’t have to put up with the fumes and smell of a site finished job.

While this can technically be true if you’re using a high VOC oil-based finish… most current professional Naperville hardwood floor refinishing companies now offer very low VOC water-based finishes that don’t smell too bad nowadays so this one isn’t as big an issue as the pro pre-finished crowd like to make out.

—  Pre-finished floors offer awesome warranties compared to site-finished floors.

This is one of the biggest – well I won’t call it an outright scam – but genius marketing moves that the pre-finished wood flooring manufacturers have pulled off. They offer crazy 20 to 30 year warranties that sound great to a consumer. These “warranties” have obviously worked extremely well for them and they without a doubt help to sell these types of floors very well. The problem is that when you read all the fine print (which nobody ever seems to do) you soon see that they’re full of restrictive clauses that render them basically useless and impossible to redeem. If you want your site-finished floor guy to go on a half hour rant, just mention how excited you are about the 30 year warranty you saw on the pre-finished hardwood floors at your local big box store and prepare to be educated 🙂

Ok, let’s go on to the next type of hardwood floors…

 

SITE-FINISHED HARDWOOD FLOORS:

These are the traditional type of hardwood floors that have been around for hundreds of years. With a site-finished floor, unfinished wood is installed and then sanded and the finish is applied on-site.

Let’s have a look at the pros, cons and some misconceptions of these types of wood floors…

Site-Finished Advantages:

—  The biggest benefit with these floors is that because they’re sanded on-site before the finish is applied, they are smooth and table-top flat across the surface without any bevels and grooves. Most people prefer this look over the beveled pre-finished look.

—  Site-finished floors are also much easier to clean because you don’t need to worry about getting into all the grooves to remove the dust.

—  You have much more freedom to customize these floors any way you like. Unfinished floors provide a blank canvas for any color of stain, inlays, borders, custom medallions, custom patterns, finish sheen levels plus grades and species of wood. You can even make them look like pre-finished floors with bevels if you like, but with far more customization options (like the image below). Whatever you can think of you can do with a site-finished floor – subject to time and money of course 🙂

—  If there is major damage to your floor or you want to add more wood flooring to another joining room down the road, site-finished floors are much easier to repair, add to and match with the existing floor. You don’t have to chase down the exact company that manufactured that specific line of flooring and hope they still produce it or are still in business.

—  Applying maintenance coats is also much easier with site finished floors, this is especially the case if you use hardwax oils like we talk about here and here.

Site-Finished Drawbacks:

—  Because the finish is not applied in a climate controlled and dust proof environment like pre-finished floors, there will be minor imperfections in a site-finished floor. Usually this occurs when small dust particles settles on the finish as its drying. Thankfully these mostly go away after walking on the floors for a few weeks, but they will never be as perfect as boards sprayed in a booth.

—  The on-site install and refinishing process is about twice as long as having pre-finished floors installed. You can read about the process we use here to see why.

—  Unlike pre-finished floors, you won’t be able to walk on your floors right away. The last coat of finish will need to dry at least overnight and furniture will need to wait a couple of days before it’s put back into the rooms, which can be a pain if you’re on a tight schedule.

Common Site-Finished Misconceptions: 

—  The site-finished hardwood floor process creates a ton of dust.

In some cases yes, this is the truth. Some businesses refuse to invest in dustless vacuums and still use dust spewing bags and don’t tape up plastic around the work area. It’s these cheap cowboys that give the whole site-finish industry a bad name. But not all hardwood floor sanding businesses are stuck in the dark ages. Many of us professional companies use state-of-the-art dustless vacuum equipment that contains pretty much all of the dust and then thoroughly clean up any remaining dust. Dust doesn’t have to be an issue anymore if you carefully choose who to work with and you don’t just choose the cheapest guy to work with. You can see how we look after the dust on our jobs in Naperville here.

Dustless Sanding Equipment

—  The on-site finishing process stinks. 

Again, in some cases this is still correct – if you use the cheap guys that aren’t up-to-date with the latest low VOC finish systems and only use the cheaper, lower quality, smellier finishes, then yes your home will stink for a few days and it will be difficult to stay there. But… if you choose a professional company that uses high-end low VOC water based finish systems, then you won’t have this issue to deal with. Some new hardwax oil finish systems (like Rubio Monocoat) have hardly any smell to them at all.

—  Site-finished flooring is more expensive.

This is definitely not the case. Pre-finished flooring of comparable quality is always much more expensive to buy than its unfinished equal. Obviously that’s because the finish is already on the boards from the factory and this process costs more. The installation of a pre-finished floor will take a little more labor initially than an unfinished floor as the installer will need to take a little more care and time with the flooring. But you do end up saving money on labor with a pre-finished floor by not having to sand and finish the floors. So in the end when you compare similar grades of wood, comparable high-end finishes and the labor costs – you end up with very little difference price wise.

 

So Should I Go Pre-finished or Site-finished?

In the end it’s completely up to you. If you have existing hardwood floors, then the choice is much easier – site-finished is the obvious choice. But when you’re installing brand new floors the choice won’t be as easy.

Even though we specialize in site-finished floors, there are obvious benefits that come from pre-finished flooring as well. In fact from time-to-time we even install the odd pre-finished floor when the conditions call for it.

My answer to people when they ask me this always comes back to two issues:

  1. Do you want a completely unique, custom floor? If not then,
  2. Do you want bevels in your floor or not?

To have complete control over a unique custom stained/colored, custom patterned or custom shaped floor then the only choice is to install unfinished wood and site-finish the floor. You just can’t get high-end unique results any other way.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to go all out and crazy with your floor and want something more mainstream that could be achieved with either option, then you need to ask yourself what your preference is when it comes to bevels and grooves. Some people actually like the beveled look, others hate it. What is your preference?

In the end, the choice is yours.

Whatever you decide for your hardwood floors, if you’re in our Naperville, Glen Ellyn, La Grange Park and other parts of Dupage County service area, we’ll be here to help you see it become a reality.

 

4 Comments

  1. Brendan says:

    I’m currently in the middle of choosing what to do with my floors. Unfortunately I’m nowhere near Chicago so I can’t hire you. Thanks for this article, it helped a lot. But why isn’t there ever a simple answer for anything! I’m leaning more to a site finished floor now which is what my wife always wanted anyways. Now to choose between all the different types of wood. You should do a post on that to help me out 🙂

    • Hi Brendan,

      Glad to be of help, even if it’s from a distance.

      That sounds like a good idea for a blog post one day, I’ll see what I can do. It probably won’t be ready until after your floors are finished though unfortunately.

      Hope they turn out great.

      Tadas

  2. Robin says:

    Ive heard all the pro’s listed above for choosing on-site finish vs pre-finished. I had one company try to intimidate me by saying that on-site finished wood flooring needs to be refinished every 3-4 years vs their pre-finished wood.
    I don’t necessarily believe that based on their other horrible sales tactics, but is there any merit to how prefinished vs on site need to be cared for or resealed in the future??

    • Hi Robin,

      If a floor needs to be refinished every 3-4 years then they either have a tribe of cleat wearing football layers living there or have used a really low quality finish 🙂

      All finishes, factory applied or site applied, will need to be refinished at some time in the future. It all depends on the quality, durability, elasticity, chemical resistance, abrasion resistance and a host of other factors of the finish used.

      I’ve seen very durable pre-finished floor finishes and stuff that scratches just by looking at it. Same for site finished finishes. Unfortunately there are so many variables to each option. I would go for the look you want first – grooves and bevels vs a flat sealed floor – and then look into the most durable finishes based on your choice.

      Hope that helps.

      Tadas

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