This was an archived article that needed reprinted:
Shopping for Pre-finished wood: Basic Training
This article is by Steve Simonson
If you are in the midst of shopping for pre-finished wood, I would encourage you to take a minute and brush up on the basics. You see, there are many people that are more than willing to sell you new pre-finished wood flooring. However, the number of those who will sell it to you and supply you with the proper information, is far less than the total number available.
For the purpose of this article, I am assuming that you have concluded that pre-finished wood flooring is what you really do want. There are other choices including linoleum, natural stone, ceramic tile, as well as laminate flooring, depending on the look that you are trying to capture. I am assuming that you have narrowed your choice down to pre-finished wood and this process should help you make the right choice.
Since I hold my own opinion in such high regard, I do offer a money back guarantee. If you buy a new pre-finished wood and you have used this article as your foundation for that purchase AND you are unhappy with your pre-finished wood I will refund the amount you paid for this article. 🙂
You may ask yourself what kind of “information” am I talking about in the first paragraph? Well, the first part of any flooring experience should be a list of questions. These questions are not going to be asked by you – but instead, by the flooring salesperson. Within these questions, the basics of your lifestyle and living habits will help establish the general needs that your floor must be compatible with. It is simply not enough to find something you like the looks of and then expect it to work with your living environment.
If you have followed my first instruction and read STEVE’S STAGES OF FLOORSHOPPING [see home page], I salute you. For those of you that have not read the stages – you will not get some of the jokes later on. You should now know the basic idea of floor shopping is the transformation of your experience from excitement to desperation – only occasionally leading to the final decision. I hope that we can preclude the frustrations you may feel by helping evoke your expectations for your flooring.
Beyond those basics, we are going to talk today about your ability, as the consumer, to help guide the buying process. These principles can be used in most purchasing situations – but this is specifically directed to pre-finished wood flooring. Remember that this is an ‘interview sales format’ and is similar to what your sales person should be asking you. Following the standard question, I then add some of my patented insight into common situations that, hopefully, will guide you to your own conclusions. Let’s begin.
GOOD DAY TO YOU. THANKS FOR COMING IN – LET ME GUIDE YOU THROUGH THE PRE-FINISHED WOOD SHOPPING PROCESS BY ASKING YOU A FEW QUESTIONS. FIRST – WHAT AREAS OF THE HOME ARE YOU CONSIDERING INSTALLING WOOD FLOORING IN?
Because of the natural beauty of wood and the trend toward natural colors and textures, I have found that wood is used throughout the home. Many people have wood starting in their entry, going down the hallway into the kitchen and dining room. There are, really, an unlimited number of choices – but I personally consider wet areas off limits.
A critical component to this part of your decision is the technical feasibility on where the product is to be installed. For instance, if you want new wood in your kitchen and family room, that sounds like a good application. However, if you have vinyl in the kitchen with a 3/4″ particleboard underlayment and your family room has carpet, you now have a more complex installation. Most people want the new floor to be one level so you can do one of two things:
1. Raise the thickness of the family room by adding an underlayment, so that it matches the total thickness of the vinyl and particleboard. This can be done for most glue down, nail down and floating floors. But, you may create a thickness problem in the family room doorways. Don’t forget to check tolerances at the slider door, and other transition points, to make sure that doors still work after adding both the underlayment as well as the new pre-finished flooring, which can be as thick as 3/4 of an inch. You may also need to consider wether your refrigerator will still fit under your cabinets and will you be able to get your dishwasher out in the future, with the addition of the new pre-finished wood flooring. What about a fireplace? Will you scribe cut to the bricks or masonry work or will you undercut? What is the impact on the baseboard?
2. Remove the vinyl and underlayment in the kitchen and install the new flooring in the new area. This may sound simple at first – but let’s investigate further. Getting vinyl and underlayment off the sub-floor is a difficult and possibly dangerous task. You need to make sure your vinyl does not contain asbestos by getting it tested. If you do have asbestos, ask a local asbestos abatement company for advice about how to proceed. If you do not have asbestos in your vinyl, you can move onto the next step, which would be cutting up the sub-floor (with the vinyl still attached) and removing it in chunks. Once you remove every single nail and staple that was left from that old sub-floor, (pray that it was not screwed and glued down), you can then look at the damage you just inflicted on your cabinets. If you are careful you won’t hit them or scratch them – but be aware of this possibility during the demolition so that you don’t end up spending more time and money due to carelessness. Once you remove the carpet, pad and tack strip. You’ll need to get all of the pad glue and staples out of that floor as well. That is basically all you’ll need – but you’ll still need to be aware of transition points and how they will work with the flooring. One other problem is the chance that your baseboard will now be lower than before and that may leave an exposed area of wall that does not have paint or wallpaper on it, and therefore, may require additional cost and attention.
Whew! How exhausting! My object with the above accounting, about what goes into the typical process, is not to scare you. I simply want to make sure you anticipate every detail prior to the job starting and not have it surprise you once you are in the midst of it.
There are literally hundreds of variables with your home and the potential choices for flooring, but here is what impacts the technical part of your job the most:
1. Installation method
2. Thickness of new wood floor
3. Existing sub-floor where new floor will be installed
4. Transition points in the room and availability of transitions
5. Usage of the room and applicability of the proposed material
If you are trying to match wood that has been installed previously, you will really need to determine what you mean by match. If you mean match dead on – you are headed for trouble. If you mean match as close as is reasonable – you will need to duplicate the previous floor to the best of your abilities. That means, if your floor was installed, sanded and finished in place, you will need to use that same process again, which means you can quit reading this. If, on the other hand, you want to use a pre-finished wood that ties in and has a good flow, then read on!
NOW THAT YOU HAVE DETERMINED WHERE IN THE HOME TO INSTALL THE WOOD, WE NEED TO ESTABLISH WHAT KIND OF TRAFFIC THOSE AREAS WILL HAVE TO HANDLE. DO YOU HAVE ANY FACTORS THAT MAKE YOUR AREA A HIGH TRAFFIC AREA?
This key question should be answered as honestly as possible. If you have kids and pets, you should already know the answer. Large dogs in particular, can be a tax on your wood floor. This doesn’t mean that people with kids and pets can’t have wood. I am simply trying to point out that if you have a high traffic area, you will need to choose a better quality flooring that can withstand your needs.
For instance, there are some really beautiful high gloss wood floors, from brands like Mirage, Bruce, Hartco, Mercier and many more. These sleek ultra sheen floors have almost a wet look. Some people really really like this look. However, a general rule is that the higher the gloss, the more likely you will see flooring imperfections and scratches. Therefore, if you have a high traffic area – do not put in a high gloss. Use a satin or semi-gloss finish.
A satin or lower gloss look can absolutely stunning and show less day to day wear and tear than the high gloss looks. I recommend people with high traffic go with the lower gloss levels.
If you are looking for a super formal look, or have a low traffic area, a higher gloss level can work out fine.
BEFORE WE DELVE FARTHER INTO THE PROCESS, I BET YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW SOME OF THE BENEFITS OF PREFINISHED WOOD.
I think that pre-finished wood can be an excellent choice for someone who wants to do an installation by themselves, or with a friend. The product gives you the benefit of installing without sanding and finishing, which can be a very annoying process. Because you can skip the sanding and finishing, this means a cleaner job-site, too. Price is not usually an advantage to be perfectly honest. You can probably find a local contractor to install, sand and finish a floor cheaper than buying a high quality pre-finished floor. The prices range from 3.99 to 10.99(and higher) for pre-finished materials only. As usual, you can expect lower priced floors to have a shorter life span than those at the top end of the scale.
Other benefits of pre-finished flooring include a clean clear finish with very few defects. Although a floor will never have a “table-top” finish, you will generally find a cleaner finish because of the factory making the product under very strict controls.
Pre-finished floors can also give you a bit more variety than standard sand and finish floors. Sure, you can get any species in the raw form and have a finish applied – it just seems that few people choose non-standard floors when using the sand and finish process. As we all know, variety is the spice of life – so get crazy and check out some of the cool African hardwood species, like Padouk or Sapele. Or, how about a Purple Heart floor to drive your friends insane with jealously? This is your chance to really expand your horizons.
I think that a benefit of pre-finished engineered woods is dimensional stability. That means, that if your floor is an engineered construction, it usually has multiple layers that composed the flooring. This can be two layers, three layers up to five different layers. The benefit of this process is that when the wood tries to expand and contract, it will actually pull against itself. These layers create a self-balanced board which leaves your overall installation subject to less movement. This is especially important for concrete floors and radiant heat floors, that can have a lot of movement. There layers are usually applied in different directions using a system called “cross-ply-lamination”. This process is not to be confused with laminate flooring. Lamination simply refers to the process of gluing the layers together. The industry now refers to these kinds of floors as “engineered wood flooring”. Not all pre-finished floors are engineered. Some are 3/4″ solid wood. It just depends on your application for which one you should choose.
Finally, I like the idea of having a warranty of some kind on the flooring. You may already know my opinion about warranties in the flooring business, but if not, let me give you the two second summary. Typically, the warranties are hollow and leave almost no recourse for actual problems. Most of the time, the manufacturer’s will blame everything on the installer. However, in spite of this fact, there seems to be some sense of comfort in knowing that a pre-finished floor has something to refer to in case of problems. The standard warranty with sand and finish floors, is something like when you can’t see the tail lights of the work truck anymore, your warranty has just expired. Now, before all you wood floor professionals start sending me flaming e-mails, let us agree on one point. – Most good guys stand behind their work, but the lack of written warranties in the sand and finish business is not a consumer benefit. Pre-finished floors have a wide range of warranties. Some are builder grade products, which just warrant against manufacturing defects and others have a 25 year guarantee that you won’t have to refinish floor.
Please, let me say that warranties are not the reason to choose one thing over another, based on that solely on that criteria. They are a component in the overall decision.
NOW WE KNOW WHERE THE WOOD IS GOING AND WHAT KIND OF TRAFFIC TO EXPECT. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERENCE ON THE SPECIES OF WOOD?
Oak -Most floors today are still made in oak species. Red oak is the most common, but white oak is used as well. Oak is a good floor for almost any staining situation imaginable. Oak has a very pronounced grain and hides lots of little things. A natural color oak without a stain is a very common floor on the west coast. On the east coast floors tend to be much darker and more traditional. The areas between the two east and west coasts use all the other colors in between natural and dark stain I guess. Red oak tends to have a reddish tone and white oak has a bit of a greenish tone.
Maple has gained a great amount of popularity over the past 3-5 years and is used is many homes. Other popular applications for maple are found in basketball and raquetball courts. Maple has a very subtle grain to it and a light yellowish coloration. Because these features you can see more things like small gaps and minor imperfections in maple than you can in a darker color. Although most maples are not very easy to stain using a standard sand and finish on-site process you can finish different colors of maple in pre-finished floors. Maple us a hardwood and is a bit harder than oak.
Ash has a similar grain to oak, however, has a more yellowish tone to it. So if you have cabinets that you would like to tie in the color ways with the floor – but either can’t get oak to match or don’t want the “same old look” check out ash. It is a hardwood and compares very well to oak in terms of hardness.
Bamboo as a fast growing grass is a earth friendly option. It can be as tough as oak when it is all put together and typically has a few lighter shades available in it. Bamboo has a vertical and horizontal grain layout so you’ll want to figure out which look you like the best.
American Cherry may be one of the most mis-understood wood of all. If you pick up one cherry board and you like the look it may not be indicative of the entire look of the floor. American Cherry starts as a light wood with a reddish cast and very soft graining. There are however, a relatively high percentage(8-12%) of white color boards which I think are very cool looking. However, some people don’t want these white boards in the floor and occasionally ask for this material to be “culled-out” of the batch. This doesn’t mean that somebody with sort it without a cost. Typically companies will simply send an extra 15% of wood and charge you for it and the installer is responsible for pulling the unwanted boards. There is no return on this type of material. American cherry changes dramatically with time due to sunlight and electrical light. This means that if you have an area rug over part of the floor and you move it months later there will be a very obvious spot where the rug was. All American cherry darkens with time and it is considered a soft wood.
Brazialian Cherry is a dark wood and is often confused with American Cherry. However a key fact here is Brazialian Cherry is a very hard wood and can be used in tough areas unlike the softer cousin American Cherry. There are variances with this wood which are noticeable and it will darken with exposure to light. This floor is a good choice if you like a darker look and want something tough. The grain is also a bit more interesting than some of the other standard wood floors.
Now, I can go on and on about different species, but I think I will save that for another article. Suffice it to say, that you do have plenty of choices. Just try to make sure that your selection matches your lifestyle. If you are trying to put a soft floor in a hard used house, you are asking for trouble.
NOW YOU HAVE A GENERAL SENSE ABOUT WHAT LOOK YOU LIKE – BUT HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY KNOW WHAT KIND OF FINISH TO CHOOSE?
Fortunately for you, I am an expert and can give you a crash course in this area – but – I am warning you of one thing: I am giving general rules and there are exceptions. Do not feel like this aspect of my advice is tailored specifically to you. You need to do a bit of research and certainly, asking your salesperson if a specific finish is right for you makes perfect sense to me.
There are literally too many finishes for me to keep track of but I am going to list a couple that you are likely to hear about.
A Swedish finish floor is very common and this presents a predictable response from a wood customer. Is this some sort of a Scandinavian identity crisis or is this a kind of hardwood flooring? Well, this type of flooring is typically installed raw, in a home, and then the floor guys come in and sand and finish your flooring. A common brand of this finish type is called Glitza.(aka Bacca-Glitza) This is simply the sealer coat brand name Bacca and the wear layer brand name Glitza. These are separate processes and a standard finish involves one sealer coat and one wear layer coat. This would be a natural Swedish finish floor. By the way this basically is a poly-urethane product with a solvent base to it. This is the smelly stuff and you can NOT live in the home during this process. THERE ARE NO PRE-FINISHED FLOORS THAT HAVE A SWEDISH FINISH. Why you ask? It’s because the process that is used in a home is vastly different than the process used in a factory. You will generally find these floors to be very smooth because they have been sanded. You will also find little tiny pieces of lint, dust, bugs and any number of other things that once were airborne and while your finish was wet decided that the floor looked like a nice place to relax. These things are not the floor guys fault. It is a fact that a factory has superior control over the air quality and finishing process that can not be duplicated in your home.
A polyurethane finish is very popular and up until recently, was the number one finish used on the majority of all pre-finished floors. The process still can be very good and it can be stained and quite versatile as a finish. There are many different kinds of polyurethane and many blends as well. For instance Kahrs flooring uses an acrylic and polyurethane mix to achieve a very tough finish. This can be a good choice for you. Maintenance is ok and spot repairs can be done, but they are easy to spot.
An acrylic impregnated floor, which can be found in Hartco and Bruce floors, can really add an excellent durability factor to your flooring. One benefit of this process is that the finish is actually forced into the floor itself which creates a finish that is all the way through the top wear surface. I have seen wonderful results from this kind of flooring. In fact many commercial areas use this flooring because it is so tough. Currently only oak and maple are made with this technique. I have noticed that water spots the floor permanently if it is left to dry and therefore I would make sure that you know that before you choose it. Maintenance is easy and small scratches are a snap to fix with the spray finish that makes those blemishes virtually disappear.
A newer kind of finish is an actual ceramic finish. This is the same kind of surface wear layer that is used for ceramic tile. This translates to incredible abrasion wear resistance and that is great for you. This finish also makes the floor more resistant to stains, scratches and other imperfections. This is a truly tough finish process. Maintenance is very easy, but refinishing and repairs are not easy because of the strength of the finish.
Aluminum Oxide is also a recent finish of choice which is being used by more and more companies. First introduced in laminate floors you’ll find that Aluminum Oxide is a very tough finish. It is good against stains as well as abrasion wear. Maintenance is pretty good and repairs are not that easy because of the finish type.
A Carbonized finish is used in Bamboo floors and although I have not had enough experience to test it and see it’s results I am please with the clarity and the look of the finish. If it performs like the factory claims it will be a great finish. I like Bamboo floors as a look so I will learn more about this finish process soon.
A wax finish is still available in select floors to give you that special matte finish look with the old school way of doing things. Wax is hard to maintain as far as day to day maintenance, but I believe that it can be repaired pretty easily. Many super high end floors use this because the planked look combined with the wax finish can translate into a spectacular floor. There are newer types of wax flooring that are apparently making the maintenance aspects easier.
WE HAVE REALLY MADE SOME PROGRESS HERE. THERE ARE SOME OTHER ISSUES TO CONSIDER THAT I AM GOING TO LIST FOR YOU. YOU NEED TO KNOW THE ANSWER TO THESE QUESTIONS BEFORE BUYING. THIS IS A SIMPLE LIST – BUT DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND MAKE SURE YOU ANSWER EACH QUESTION HONESTLY.
1. Is your sub-floor wood or concrete?
2. Is your area of installation below grade, on grade or above grade?
Below grade would be like a basement, on grade would be level with the ground outside your house and above grade would be like a 2nd or 3rd story.
3. Do you like a beveled look or would you prefer a flat surface?
4. What width do you want the floor to be?
5. How long do you want the floor to last?
6. What kind of maintenance habits do you have? (not the habits you want, the habits you have.)
7. How adventurous are you going to be with your selection?
8. Are you going to install the floor yourself?
9. Do you like to chew gum?
(I just threw that in to make sure you are paying attention.)
10. Is there a water problem with the area you are considering putting hardwood in?
11. Have you established a budget for yourself based on a square footage allowance?
12. Do you have an installer to do the job if you are not a DIYer?
All of these questions and probably a lot more will come up in the course of your floor shopping. If are reading this article as a guide to help decide if they should choose a wood floor or a laminate floor check out PERGO VS THE WORLD which goes into that kind of question a little better.
Although I am a bit wordy, I hope that this has proven to be helpful. If nothing else I am hoping that the time you spent reading this will be worth the investment as you make a smarter decision about your wood flooring. If you have any comments, flaming e-mails, compliments or even spelling corrections please feel free to post those responses on the ifloor.com bulletin board. If you have any stories about shopping for flooring that you would like to share with me that would be great too!