Prefinished Hardwood Flooring: Is it Right for You?
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Updated October 20, 2021
Trying to decide between prefinished hardwood flooring and unfinished hardwood flooring?
We understand—hardwood is beautiful, timeless, and one of the most popular types of flooring around.
But putting in unfinished hardwood floors and finishing them in your home can fill your house with dust and debris while taking weeks to complete.
That’s why these days, most people opt for prefinished hardwood flooring—hardwood planks that come with stain and sealant already applied. Often, they offer an easier, quicker way to get the warmth of hardwood floors.
However, prefinished wood may offer less customization than unfinished wood—especially when it comes to specialty wood flooring types.
So: is prefinished hardwood flooring right for you? Are prefinished hardwood floors better than finished-on-site hardwood floors? We’re here to help you find out.
Below, we’ll take you through all the basics of prefinished hardwood flooring. We’ll talk about its pros and cons, answer some frequently asked questions, compare prices to unfinished hardwood, and more.
These days, many (if not all) of the best hardwood floor brands offer prefinished hardwood in a wide range of stains, finishes, and sizes.
Prefinished Hardwood Flooring vs. Engineered Wood Flooring: What’s the Difference?
We hear this question a lot, and we want to clear it up before we talk about anything else. All the best engineered wood flooring can either come pre-finished orunfinished. The finish has nothing to do with the wood being engineered or solid.
The real question you should be asking is what’s the difference between prefinished hardwood and unfinished hardwood?
Engineered Wood Is a Type of Wood Flooring—Not a Type of Finish
And both of these can be purchased prefinished or unfinished. The only difference is that when you purchase unfinished wood, you have to finish it on-site.
So: what is engineered hardwood and how is it different from solid hardwood? While solid hardwood is one piece of wood throughout, engineered wood combines a high-strength plywood base and a solid wood veneer. It’s not faux wood flooring—it’s just another type of hardwood.
And again, engineered hardwood can come pre-finished or unfinished.
Engineered Wood Flooring Has a Lot Going For It
If you need moisture-resistant flooring, engineered wood might be your best bet. It stands up to changes in heat and humidity much better than solid hardwood does.
Think of it this way: the bigger the wood plank, the more vulnerable it is to cupping and warping. That’s why most wide-plank wood flooring options are made with engineered wood—because it’s much more stable.
Also, engineered wood can cost less when you buy exotic wood species—because it uses less of that precious exotic wood.
And Remember: Most Engineered Wood Flooring Options Come Prefinished
While you can buy prefinished or unfinished engineered wood, the majority of your options are going to be pre-finished. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, it’s just the reality of buying hardwood floors. Don’t worry though—that’s not a bad thing! Here’s why.
Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Pros and Cons
Ok! Now that we’ve talked about the difference between prefinished hardwood and engineered hardwood, let’s talk specifically about the pros and cons of prefinished hardwood floors.
The Advantages of Prefinished Hardwood Flooring
Let’s start with the good stuff! Here are the advantages of buying your hardwood floors pre-finished.
Installing Prefinished Hardwood Flooring is Quick and Clean
The speed and simplicity of installing prefinished wood is one of its biggest advantages. If you’re living in your house during a renovation, you do not want to deal with all the dust and chemicals that come with buying unfinished wood and finishing it on-site. Trust us on that one.
All wood flooring types will add warmth classic style to your home. But prefinished hardwood flooring can be walked on immediately after installation—meaning you don’t have to wait for stains to dry or for sealants to cure!
Prefinished Hardwood Can Be Safer for Your Home…
If you buy prefinished floors, your family won’t spend days breathing in harmful VOCs as your new finish dries.
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are harmful chemicals that slowly off-gas from different types of industrial products. Adhesives and finishes are some of the worst offenders. And there’s really no point in looking for low-VOC flooring if you’re going to be breathing in fumes from all the stains and finishes that go on top of them!
Because the VOCs Off-Gas in the Factory—Not Your House
Plus, if you go with a domestic and renewable wood species like pine or maple, your prefinished hardwood can be environmentally-friendly flooring too! Sounds like a win to us.
Plus, it’s Way More Durable and Wear-Resistant
Prefinished hardwood stands up to wear and tear better than hardwood that’s finished on site.
That’s because flooring mills can bake in layer upon layer of super-hard acrylic finishes (generally aluminum oxide), which make your floors super durable. And that’s not an option with unfinished wood that you finish on-site.
In fact, wood finished with polyurethane + aluminum oxide is many times more durable than wood finished with basic polyurethane.
So if you need scratch-resistant flooring and you’re dead-set on using hardwood—especially in high-traffic areas like entryways or hallways—prefinished wood is probably the way to go. Its durability also makes it some of the best wood flooring for dogs (and for the people who love them).
Which Means You Don’t Have to Refinish It as Often (Or At All)
Because prefinished hardwood is so much more durable than finished-on-site hardwood (again: a polyurethane finish with aluminum oxide is way more durable than one without this acrylic finish), the odds of a scratch penetrating down to the wood are extremely low.
To that end, the need to refinish these floors (aka to sand them down to the bare wood) is greatly reduced—meaning you can save on cost to refinish hardwood flooring by doing a simple resurfacing, which makes the floors look brand new without compromising the integrity of the factory finish.
And If You Opt for Engineered Wood, It Also Means You Don’t Need as Thick of a Veneer
If you want to refinish your engineered wood, you usually have to make sure to buy a product with a thick veneer layer—often 3mm or more. But: because refinishing is so much less of an issue with prefinished hardwood flooring (for the reasons we just mentioned), you can opt for a thinner veneer without worry.
These days, the industry-standard veneer thickness is about 1.2mm for prefinished engineered hardwood.
Prefinished Wood is Usually More Widely-Available Than Unfinished Wood
These days you may find that it’s easier to purchase prefinished wood than unfinished planks, especially at big-box retailers.
From mom-and-pop flooring stores to national home-improvement chains, you’ll most likely have a very good selection of prefinished hardwood flooring in different species and stain finishes near you.
The Disadvantages of Prefinished Hardwood Flooring
Of course, there are some disadvantages of prefinished hardwood. Here are a few of the most important ones to know about.
Prefinished Hardwood Can’t Be Used for Some Custom Designs
We’re sorry to say, but you may have to forget about your Pinterest folder of intricate wood floor patterns if you choose prefinished hardwood flooring.
Obviously, it depends on what you’re going for. Classic wood floor designs like herringbone and chevron parquet flooring are easily achievable with prefinished hardwood. But when it comes to multi-colored, 3D designs and inlays…well, they’ll probably require a custom finish.
Unfinished Hardwood is Much More Customizable…
This one is a no-brainer, but we’re going to go over it anyway. If you buy unfinished hardwood and finish it on-site, you can literally make it look like anything. Because you’re the one who’s in charge of finishing it!
Including The Way Your Edges Look (Beveled vs. Unbeveled, etc.)
Customization isn’t limited to color and finish, either. It also includes the way the edges of your floor will join together.
Many prefinished hardwood planks have slightly rounded, or beveled, edges. Others have squared edges. It just depends on the product.
We’re going to say it again: most flooring stores offer way more prefinished options than unfinished options. Just keep in mind that you may not be able to fully customize all the aspects of these floors, including the edges.
While prefinished hardwood can do a lot of things, it can’t hide any problems in your subflooring. “What is subflooring?”, you ask? Simple—it’s the foundation of your flooring, often plywood boards nailed down to the big beams holding up your floor.
Unfortunately, prefinished hardwood will make any flaws in your subfloor immediately evident. If your subfloor is uneven in spots, it can cause some of the planks to raise slightly, or even result in visible gaps between the planks.
This means you’d need to create a perfectly flat foundation for the planks to sit on—a challenge that can drive up the cost of your project significantly.
On the other hand, unfinished hardwood that’s finished on-site can be sanded down to a flat, even surface regardless of how the subfloor looks.
And Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Isn’t Necessarily Waterproof
While prefinished hardwood is resistant to scuffs and dents, it’s just as vulnerable to water damage as any other hardwood floor.
Alternately, you could always go with a fake wood flooring option—something like wood-look tile, for instance. If your floor is going to encounter moisture, there’s simply no debating tile vs. wood floors—tiles are fully waterproof, while wood is likely to fail after water damage.
And you don’t have to be an expert to DIY tile floors, either. These days, advances like snap-together tile flooring have made it easy to install all types of tile, from natural stone to wood-look porcelain.
The Cost of Prefinished vs. Unfinished Hardwood Flooring
You may have noticed that we haven’t yet talked about pricing. That’s because it’s neither a pro nor a con of prefinished hardwood flooring. Essentially, it boils down to this:
Prefinished hardwood flooring may cost more to purchase, depending on about a million factors (the wood flooring type, the brand, the finish, your location, the amount you’re buying, etc. etc.) but…
Unfinished hardwood flooring usually costs more to install, because it has to be finished on-site.
What’s the Average Cost to Install a Prefinished Hardwood Floor?
Again, it depends on a ton of factors. What installation method are you going to use? Nail-down? Glue-down? Floating? There are some disadvantages of floating floors, but they’re generally cheaper and easier to put in.
PS: if that has you wondering “what’s a floating floor?”, it’s a floor that clicks together and is held in place by friction, rather than being attached to an underlayment or subfloor. And if that has you wondering “what’s the difference between an underlayment vs. a subfloor“…well, just click on that link to read about it.
Prefinished Hardwood Flooring FAQs
Alright! Now that we’ve talked about prices, let’s answer some frequently asked questions about prefinished hardwood flooring.
Can a Prefinished Hardwood Floor Be Refinished?
Absolutely! Remember, a floor coming prefinished or unfinished has nothing to do with the actual type of flooring it is. So if you can refinish the flooring material, that’s the only thing that matters.
Solid hardwood, for example, can be refinished indefinitely—regardless of whether you buy it prefinished or unfinished. Engineered hardwood, on the other hand, can only be refinished a number of times (if at all) due to the thinness of the veneer layer. After all, you could accidentally sand right through it!
Is Cork Flooring Usually Prefinished or Unfinished?
That’s a good question! Cork is technically made of wood bark (pretty cool, right?), but most people think of it as a type of wood flooring. And while you can technically buy cork either prefinished or unfinished, it almost always comes pre-finished.
Why? Well, if you look into pros and cons of cork flooring, you’ll find that one of the biggestdisadvantages of cork flooring is its susceptibility to moisture. In fact, most cork products require periodic resealing to keep them from absorbing too much. So if you’re going to buy unfinished cork and finish it on-site, you need to make sure you have a pro doing the job.
PS: beware of the cork flooring Lowes or Home Depot sells. It’s not a particularly high-quality product. And some of the options aren’t actually cork at all.
Does Prefinished Hardwood Flooring Resist Water Better?
Rose's career has taken her from small-town teacher to mixologist at several award-winning NYC cocktail bars (and everywhere in between). These days, she plies her craft as an SEO writer specializing in the confluence of wellness, politics, and the service industry.
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