A client in the showroom asked me today, “Should I get prefinished flooring or the kind you sand and finish on site?” Excellent question. I hear it almost every day. It’s hard though to get a straight answer to such a simple question. Part of the problem lies in vested interest of those giving the answer.

First, let me get my cards on the table. Our company sells and installs both site-finished and prefinished wood flooring. We have crews that install hardwood flooring, and other crews who perform sand and finish services. We sell roughly 50% prefinished and 50% site-finished. So, it makes no difference to me which way you go. We want you to get the floor that’s best for you.

There are many flooring retailers with roots in the carpet business. Many carpet mills now own wood flooring mills. Not surprisingly, those folks have a vested interest in selling pre-finished wood flooring solutions. They have commission plans for prefinished wood floor sales. They don’t generally have much expertise in site-finished wood flooring, and in fact, the relatively complex nature of site-finished flooring detracts them from selling it – even if a rogue commission plan encouraged it.

There are nearly a billion (I’m allowed one gross exaggeration every Friday) “two guys and a truck” running around town delivering site-finished flooring services. Need proof? Check Craigslist. Many of these guys are “lifers” in the wood flooring world. They don’t have showrooms, hence they don’t have prefinished wood mills calling on them. As a result, they don’t have easy access to providers of prefinished floors, so they’re not inclined to try and sell you prefinished floors. Besides, they’re purists. They ask, “Why would you want prefinished floors when I can sand and custom stain a site-finished floor for you?”

There aren’t many places out there who sell both without bias.

So, which is best for you? That depends. Generally speaking (because there are exceptions to each perspective):

Prefinished Hardwoods…
1. Have harder finishes, and harder finishes have greater wear resistance. That means they have greater wear resistance than those applied in the field. Wear resistance measures how long you can walk on the floor before the finish wears away down to bear wood. Many firms talk about the “100 year wear warranty.” Great. You won’t wear through the finish in 100 years.

2. Have harder finishes, and harder finishes show scratches more than softer finishes. Most finishes are hard because they have aluminum oxide in them, which when scratched, tends to “white scratch.” In other words, the scratches are like reflective diamonds. Remember, wear resistance is not the same as scratch resistance. All finishes scratch. The issue is, how much will you see it from across the room? Its counter-intuitive but perhaps softer floor finishes (or finishes made with nano technology) will dent rather than scratch and reflect and that makes them less noticeable.

3. Have unique colors that are difficult to reproduce in site-finished jobs. For example, maple and pine are tough to stain. In a manufacturing environment, you can stain almost any wood almost any color. So, you can get really unique looks in prefinished woods.

4. Can often be sanded and refinished. However, it’s not as easy as all that. If the wear layer is thick enough, you can sand and finish prefinished woods. However, remember that hard finish? That makes this no ordinary sand job. It takes more abrasives and more work to sand and refinish a prefinished floor. Plus, the beveled edge on most prefinished floors presents a challenge. You have to sand deeply enough to remove the beveled edge, so you don’t have a beveled edge rising and falling across your newly resanded floor. As a result, you’ll sand off a lot of the wear layer. Less wear layer = fewer future sand and finish jobs.

5. Cost about the same as site finished solutions, unless you’re installing it yourself. You see, prefinished hardwoods are milled, manufactured, packaged and marketed. Each step adds cost. Site-finished woods are simply milled. So prefinished materials cost more than site-finished materials. However, prefinished woods have just floor installation cost while site finished woods have to be both installed and sand & finished. Site-finished woods have more labor expense. So, the higher cost of material in prefinished products but minimal labor ends up roughly equal to the low material cost of site-finished hardwoods with the added labor of sand & finish work. Make sense?

Next time, we’ll look at the pros and cons of site-finished flooring….