Hardwood floors add natural warmth to any room, but the traditional method of putting in hardwood is time consuming, messy, and exposes the installer to toxic fumes from stains and sealants. No wonder even avid DIYers often opt to hire a pro for the job! Prefinished hardwood flooring-hardwood planks with stain and sealant already applied-offers an easier alternative to achieving the beauty of a real wood floor. Like all flooring materials, however, prefinished hardwood has pros and cons, so read on to learn about its benefits and drawbacks to decide if it's the right material for your home.
During manufacturing, prefinished hardwood floors are treated with an aluminum oxide crystal sealant-one of the best hardwood floor finishes for an extremely rugged surface that can withstand heavy foot traffic, moving furniture, and other forms of wear and tear. Conversely, traditional hardwood floors are first nailed into place and then stained and sealed. Because neither DIYers nor flooring contractors have access to manufacture-grade sealants, traditional hardwood floors aren't as durable as their prefinished counterparts and can begin to show scratches and surface dulling in as little as five to seven years. Prefinished flooring coated with superior chemical sealers can maintain its good looks for as long as 25 years without dulling or wearing thin.
With traditional hardwood flooring, you can choose from dozens of wood species and then select from dozens more stain and sealant options. This allows you to get the exact wood grain look, color, and surface sheen you want. Not so with prefinished hardwood, which comes in a limited variety of wood types (such as red oak and maple), colors, and sealants.
There's no denying the simplicity and speed of installing a prefinished wood product-a boon for homeowners living in the house during a renovation. Installing a traditional wood floor can take two weeks or longer, because it occurs in phases: installation of the planks, sanding the surface, staining the hardwood floors, and then applying two or more coats of a sealant that may need days to cure. Not only is the process lengthy, but it's also messy and can produce toxic fumes. With prefinished flooring, there's no downtime-as soon as the planks are installed, you can walk on the floor and start arranging your furniture.
When installed on a level subfloor that has no dips and heaves, prefinished hardwood flooring will look just as smooth as a traditional hardwood floor. But unlike traditional flooring that can be sanded to remove lippage (slight inconsistencies in floor level where planks abut), prefinished planks cannot be sanded because the boards are already finished. If the subfloor floor is uneven in spots, this could cause some of the planks to raise slightly or result in visible gaps between the planks. The effect is usually minimal, but depending on the amount of subfloor unevenness, it could be noticeable.
In order to give the top of planks a smooth finish, the manufacturer creates bevels along the top edges of each plank, called “cambers.” These bevels are very small, just a tiny fraction of an inch, but when two planks are installed side by side, the bevels create a shallow “V” groove along every seam, creating visible lines. While some people like the look of the grooves, others prefer the perfectly flush look of a traditional wood floor that has been sanded smooth. The grooves may also serve as a spot for dust and debris to collect, making prefinished floors slightly harder to keep clean.
Install prefinished hardwood and it will stay looking new for decades. But if down the road you decide you'd like to change the stain, you can do so. A prefinished hardwood floor is still solid wood, after all, so the surface can be sanded and a new stain and sealer applied. Sanding the finish usually takes a little longer than it would with a traditional wood floor, however, because the sealant is harder.
While it takes much less labor to install prefinished hardwood planks, the planks themselves are costlier than traditional unfinished wood planks. What you'll save in labor, you'll most likely make up in the cost of the planks. Expect to pay between $5 and $10 per square foot, depending on the type of wood and quality of the finish, to have prefinished wood flooring professionally installed.
If you're planning to install your own hardwood floor, prefinished is by far the easier process. You'll still have to nail each plank to the subfloor individually, but there's no messy sanding and then cleaning to get the room dust-free, which is necessary before staining and sealing. Likewise, you won't have to worry about inhaling harsh stain and sealant fumes. If you opt to go the DIY route, you can save $2 to $5 per square foot over the cost of professional installation.
Should you decide prefinished hardwood is the right choice for your home, the following tips will help you choose the right planks for your project.
- Engineered hardwood isn't prefinished hardwood. When shopping for prefinished hardwood, you'll likely come across a selection of what's called “engineered hardwood.” Rather than real hardwood, these are manufactured laminate planks with a thin layer of hardwood on the surface. While these offer the look and feel of hardwood, they are actually “floating floors” that do not attach to the subfloor. While engineered hardwood floors can be lovely, most cannot be refinished, and the finish on the cheaper varieties is often thin and dulls quickly. Learn more about different types of hardwood flooring.
- Narrow planks take longer to install. The largest selection of prefinished hardwood planks comes in widths from 3” to 4-3/4”-and these planks offer a classic look that flatters all home designs. Planks on the narrower side (up to 3-1/4” in width), however, are considered more sophisticated, and better suited to contemporary homes. But the narrower the planks, the longer it will take to install the floor-and if you're hiring a pro, you'll pay more in labor.
- Wide planks suit large rooms. Prefinished hardwood planks that are more than 4-3/4” wide are popular for their rustic country appeal. But wider planks tend to make rooms look smaller, so this width is best suited to spacious rooms.
- Choose a wood species based on the traffic of the room. Hardwood is rated on the Janka Scale, named for Gabriel Janka, who developed the rating system. The higher the number, the harder the wood. The standard hardness for wood flooring is around 1290, which corresponds to one of the most popular flooring species, red oak. If you have active kids or pets, however, you may want to choose a harder type of wood, such as white oak with a Janka rating of 1360.