Prefinished vs. Unfinished Hardwood Flooring

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. Often urethane-based, 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 urethane 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 prefinishes available, each offering different levels of strength, durability, and shine:

  • Acrylic-urethane: Similar to polyurethane, this was one of the first materials used in manufacturing prefinished woods and is still used today. Available in varying gloss levels, acrylic urethane is often less expensive than other finishing options, but it can also be less durable.
  • 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.
  • Acrylic impregnated finish: 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 Prefinished Woods?

In today’s market, prefinished woods are pretty much the norm. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Durability: Prefinished woods are often coated with over 6 layers of urethane, making them incredibly durable. Adding to that durability is the fact that that UV technology provides superior curing of the wood, allowing woods to dry to their hardest degree – far in advance of your installation.
  • Less mess: No sanding, staining, or sticky finishes means less mess in your home.
  • No wait time: You won’t have to wait days (or weeks) for your flooring to completely dry. Once floors are installed, you can move furniture right in and start enjoying your new flooring.
  • Odorless: The finish is completely dry, so there are no strong odors to deal with.
  • Flawless: No streaking, bubbling, or missed spots. Prefinished planks include a thicker, more uniform coating than a manually finished boards.

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.
  • Oil-based polyurethane – Oil-based finishes take more time to dry per coat – typically 8-24 hours, and as long as 2-4 weeks until flooring is completely cured. They also produce a distinct odor that may last several days. The advantage, however, is that this finish provides a thicker protective coating and enhances the color of most any wood flooring. Durability, which is also dependent on brand, can range from moderate to excellent.
  • Moisture-cured urethane – These finishes use moisture from the air to dry the wood, which typically takes 8-16 hours between coats and up to 2 weeks for the wood to completely cure. Highly durable (ranging from excellent to best, based on the manufacturer), moisture cured urethane also enhances the wood’s color and works well on all wood species. The drawbacks: this finish is often hard to work with and leaves behind a very strong odor.

Why Choose Unfinished Woods?

In addition to better customization, here are some more advantages to choosing unfinished woods:

  • Larger plank widths: Unfinished woods are often easier to find in extra-wide boards (plank widths of 7” or more) than prefinished woods.
  • 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.

A Word on Gloss

A finish’s gloss level will not affect its overall durability or performance. Here, your choice is strictly a matter of preference. However, keep in mind that lower gloss levels do a better job at hiding the appearance of minor surface scratches that occur with everyday wear.

Learn More

Still not sure which finish option is right for you? Have more hardwood questions? See the WFCA's flooring store locator to find highly trained hardwood flooring retailers in your area who can help you select the best flooring for your home.

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Date: October 3, 2016
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Great information. Very informative and helpful in making my decision.
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It cleared up questions I had. The only part left is to do some pricing.
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very good information. increased moisture protection when using an unfinished wood product.
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like the article, but can only print first 1.5 pages. Would like to keep this for reference.
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