What to Expect From Prefinished Flooring

A basic definition of prefinished flooring is when the boards that are to be installed already have finish on them. In fact, most companies put from 5-9 coats of finish on their prefinished wood.

Prefinished Hardwood floors are quite popular right now, because they have many advantages over the alternative, site-finished floors:

  1. During installation, you skip all the dusty mess that goes along with sanding
  2. The boards are already finished, so as soon as they are down you can walk on them. No waiting for the horrid-smelling finish to dry.
  3. Since the boards are finished in a factory and have 5-9 coats, the finish is very hard, smooth, and durable.
  4. Because sanding and finishing is skipped, a prefinished floor can be installed in half the time, saving you money on labor.

There are, however, a few disadvantages to prefinished floors:

  1. Borders, inlays, and other fancy flooring tricks are hard or impossible for the installer to do, because they usually require sanding.
  2. When boards are cut in the factory, the heights and thicknesses can vary by up to 1/32nd of an inch. Because of this, in order to avoid sharp edges, all prefinished boards are bevelled on all sides. This creates grooves between every board, and accentuates the seams (note: Some people like this look, but few like the feel on their bare feet).
  3. The wood is more expensive (although since you save money on labor, your ending price is usually very similar to the price of site-finished).

For most people, the only disadvantage to prefinished flooring is #2. Since the floor is not sanded after it is installed, there will be unevenness that the installer has no control over.

What to expect from the finished product.

Nail holes/heads. The installer should set all nails and fill all holes. As a result, there should be no visible nail heads or nail holes. However, if you kneel down and look closely, you should be able to find where the nail holes used to be, because no wood filler (or wood putty) can be a perfect match to a wood grain.

Also, there should only be a few nail holes in most floors. In fact, most of the time, a simple, square room can be installed without any nail holes at all. But keep in mind that many situations will require a board to be top-nailed, resulting in nail holes.

Cracks and Creases. Any time a board comes together with another board, it forms a crease. These creases are what make hardwood floors look how they do. On a prefinished floor, these creases are much more pronounced, because the edges of each board are beveled down at about a 45 degree angle. there is nothing the installer can do about these bevels, except to sand down the whole floor and refinish it, which negates the purpose of a prefinished floor, and is not the installers responsibility (In other words, you would have to pay extra for it (probably at least $2.50 per square foot extra)).

When you look at a hardwood floor, there are the creases that go along the length of the wood, and go all the way across the floor (with the grain), and there are small creases inbetween boards in the same row (against the grain). The smaller creases, as a general rule, should be fairly evenly distributed around the floor, with none coming within 6 or 8 inches of eachother. Seams that are close together, or clumped in one area, leaving another area somewhat seamless, are the signs of a poor installation job. They are not, however, a good enough reason to demand that your floor be ripped up and reinstalled at the installers expense. Usually in those cases, you’ve hired a very inexpensive installer, and you got what you payed for. If it is a big deal to you, you might talk about getting the floor redone at a discounted cost.

Any crease in a wood floor has a chance of becoming a crack, for various reasons. One may a milling imperfection in some of the boards (such as one board being slightly thinner than another).

Expansion and contraction may be another reason a crack might open up. In general, wood will expand in the summer and contract (shrink) in the winter. This causes gaps to open up between boards. It is not always good to fill these cracks, because when the boards expand again, it could push the filler out, or even buckle the wood. The best way to avoid these cracks is to keep the moisture level in your house constant. Where we live in Colorado, that means using a humidifier. In many other places, you may need a dehumidifier. There are many types of humidifiers and dehumidifiers out there, so before making a decision, you should shop around.

On the other hand, cracks that are caused by milling imperfections or installation mistakes/problems, should be filled by the installer (with the possible exception of smaller cracks if significant expansion is expected after the installation).

After installation, there should be (in most cases) no visible cracks when viewed semi-casually from a standing position (and without a magnifying glass, please).

Scratches, gouges and other surface problems should not be visible when the installer is done. If the board was damaged when it arrived at your house, the installer should not have installed it. If it happened after the installation, but the damage was caused by the installer, he/she is responsible to fill it, fix it, or replace the boards affected. If, however, the damage is caused by another contractor or worker, or any residents, guests or pets in the house, the installer is not responsible to fix it, and is perfectly within his/her rights to charge extra if you want it fixed (However, charging extra to fix one small scratch that he/she can fix in two minutes, may be considered a little rude).

Expansion Gaps. Because wood expands and contracts (due mostly to changing humidity and temperature), installers will leave expansion gaps between the wood and everything else (walls, other floors, etc.). In general, these gaps are between 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch. This can create a problem sometimes on remodeling jobs, especially in kitchens.

Many houses do not have any trim (or baseboard) around the bottom of the cabinets in the kitchen. When wood floors are installed in these conditions, there will be a visible, ugly expansion gap left over. The homeowner should work with the installer to select (and pay for) a baseboard, trim, or caulk solution.

Baseboards. It is common for the installer to remove and reinstall baseboards when he is hired to install a floor (for a price that should be included in the estimate). This can sometimes cause problems with older baseboards. The installer is responsible for any damage done to the baseboards due to his/her own negligence or hurriedness. The installer is not responsible for any damage that already existed, or that occurred because of the brittle state of the baseboards or excessive fastening to the wall (ie too many nails and/or glue). Be prepared to deal with at least one broken peice of baseboard. Many times the damage can be fixed with a little painter’s caulk and a coat of paint, so don’t get too broken up about it.

In conclusion, please remember that it is a floor and it’s meant to be walked on. If you get down on your hands and knees and study the floor, you will find cracks, holes, scratches, and many other imperfections. When inspecting a floor, it should be done from a standing position in normal light. If you can see problems from that position, that is when you should point them out to the installer. People who refuse to pay because of common imperfections that are expected in wood floors are setting themselves up to be blacklisted or overcharged by other contractors in the future. Nobody wants to deal with an unreasonable customer.

And if you happen to be in Colorado Springs, check out Hardwood Floors by Thomas (formerly “Hardwood Cafe”) for great flooring info, advice and even installation.

251 Responses to “What to Expect From Prefinished Flooring”

  1. Deb Says:

    We just had pre-finished white oak in gunstock installed. In many places where the installer filled imperfections, the oil based putty has made a shiny spot that we cannot remove. We have tried elbow grease, Bona hardwood floor cleaner, mineral sprits – nothing is touching these spots. Was something done incorrectly? Any suggestions on how to remove the shine.

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