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Your decision to purchase hardwood flooring pre-finished at the factory or finished at the time of installation will depend on different factors. The type of project, your budget, and the experience of your builder or installer are just a few of the more important factors, and there are many others.

With pre-finished flooring, the manufacturer applies a finish at the factory - typically at least four coats of ultraviolet-cured urethane resin. Manufacturers say these finishes are more consistent and durable because they are applied under strict controls. Factory-finished floors can be installed straight out of the box, which can make the job easier. Manufacturers offer a wide variety of stain colors and finishes. Several finish options are available in prefinished products, including water- and oil-based urethane and wax.

Specialty Finishes

If you are considering bleaching, pickling, or antiquing for your hardwood flooring then you should choose pre-finished flooring. Bleaching, the first step in pickling or antiquing, can weaken the wood and affect its ability to withstand every day wear.

If you prefer to finish your floor on site, you'll have more color choices, but you'll also have to live with the sanding process and wait for each coat to dry. Remember that hardwood flooring will be subject to minute inspection and must withstand much more wear than millwork or cabinetry. Finishing is usually considered the most troublesome and unpredictable phase of a floor installation project.

With Pre-Finished Materials

Pre-finished hardwood products offer consistent quality and quick installation, although not without a few tradeoffs. Here's why:

Controlled Environment

Manufacturers don't have to contend with the effects of other building trades working nearby. Dust, traffic, temperature and humidity are out of the picture.

The Right Tools

Pre-finishing operations work with low-pressure, high-volume spray guns and spray booths, so uniformly good appearance from piece to piece comes much more easily. Maintaining consistency across a whole installation is another matter -- when cutting and mitering expose fresh wood, a factory finish is difficult to match, and touch-ups are tricky if there's damage on a busy jobsite. Finish-matching is easier, however, if you ask the supplier for a touch-up kit. Most manufacturers will supply stains and coatings from the same batch used on your materials, with instructions.


A builder often finishes a project in three steps -- stain, seal, finish coat -- but a manufacturer can go through four, seven, even 13 steps. Additional sanding and extra finish coats add richness and depth.


Pre-finished hardwoods can cost as much as $1.50 per linear foot more than unfinished products. However, there are several ways to look at the "real cost" question. While pre-finished materials cost more initially, builders can save time and money during installation, and do not have to be concerned about regulations for stain and finish material waste disposal.

With pre-finished products, site preparation is simpler, and other trades can continue to work. A lone carpenter or painter can complete touch-up in a day or two.

Different hardwood applications also may affect finishing decisions:


Flooring will be subject to minute inspection and must withstand much more wear than millwork or cabinetry. Finishing is usually considered the most troublesome and unpredictable phase of a floor installation project.


Millwork requires on-site cutting, fitting and at least touch-up finishing whether products are pre-finished or finished on-site. Usually, at least some elements will be beyond reach of close inspection when installation is complete.


Top-quality cabinet finishes are most easily achieved in the cabinetmaker's shop. Installation alone is exacting and labor-intensive.

Finishing on Site

Finishing floors, trim or cabinets on site requires more time and skill than installing factory-finished materials. One advantage of site-finishing is that a consistent finish can be uniformly applied across the entire installation. But finishing a hardwood floor to factory standards in the field can tie up a work site for five days; even finishing decorative millwork can take three days or more. Finishing on site requires extensive preparation. Other work that could jeopardize the quality of the finish will have to stop, adding time to any construction schedule. 

Article courtesy of the American Hardwood Information Center.