Should I Choose Site-Finished or Pre-Finished Flooring?

When shopping for solid hardwood and sometimes for engineered wood flooring, you may have the option of site-finished flooring (unfinished flooring that requires finishing on site) or pre-finished flooring (stained and sealed in the factory).  Which to choose?

Answer

Choose pre-finished flooring over site-finished flooring.

Because

While I hate jumping on the corporate shilling bandwagon, I do have to admit that–all factors considered–pre-finished flooring will be better for most homeowners than site-finished flooring.

Can you sense all of the qualifiers in that previous statement?  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Pre-finished flooring makes for a faster installation.  As soon as the flooring is down, you can walk on it.  The reason is because someone else (a manufacturer) has already laid down the finish elsewhere (a factory) so you don’t have to do it at your house.

With site-finished flooring, there is a gap between the end of installation and the day you can begin walking on it.

Also, the finish on pre-finished flooring is a tough multi-layer urethane that is difficult to duplicate at home.

Qualifiers

  • Site-finished flooring gives you an enormously wide range of style options that pre-finished can never hope to match.
  • Factory finished flooring tends to have a plastic appearance.
  • One benefit of site-finished flooring is that the finish can fill in the seams between the floor boards, making the flooring more water-tight.

Voices

Bob Vila

“…when it comes to installing solid or engineered wood flooring, prefinished is my choice.”

 

Forget Flooring Warranties Because They Are Basically Worthless

The flooring retailer keeps touting a life-time warranty on the laminate, engineered wood, or carpeting you intend to buy.  This sounds great.  Does this mean you can get a new floor if the one you buy goes bad on you?

Answer

No.

Because

Flooring warranties largely exist for the benefit of the manufacturer, not the consumer.  Warranties shift liability off manufacturers’ shoulders to avoid or limit potential class action lawsuits.

Terms of Most Flooring Warranties

Warranties are styled by manufacturers as a way to provide the consumer with comfort upon purchase of solid or engineered wood, laminate, resilient (vinyl tile, plank, or sheet) and carpet floor coverings.  Common features:

  • Time Period:  Because floors are long-term investments, the warranties usually cover a long stretch of time:  15 to 20 years at a minimum; lifetime, maximum.
  • Conditions:  Warranties commonly address “wear-through,” fading, water damage, staining, and manufacturing defects.
  • Pro-Rated:  Like tire warranties, floor warranties are pro-rated.  So, to use an extreme example, if you are in the 99th year of a 100 year warranty, the manufacturer will pro-rate your reimbursement by a factor of 1%.
  • Reimbursement:  They provide reimbursement, should any of the above occur, usually in the form of store credit or replacement, but rarely monetarily.

Restrictions Make For a Toothless Warranty

If the warranty covers wearing, fading, water damage, staining, and defects, then it excludes everything else that might happen with the flooring.  These exclusions are both specific (things like pebbles underfoot, golf spikes, moving furniture) as well as general (“misuse” is a favorite term).

Insanely Long Warranties Are Great Marketing Tools

Lumber Liquidators is famous for this (and genius, as well).  Consider this:  Armstrong offers a lifetime, original owner warranty for its Premium Lustre Collection.  That’s about as good as it gets, right?  It’s impossible for you to live past your lifetime.  However, Lumber Liquidators offers something that sounds a whole lot better when it rolls off your tongue:  a 100 Year Warranty.

The “Improper Care and Maintenance” Clause

If floor manufacturers need one blanket “way out” of honoring their warranties, it’s called the “failure to properly maintain flooring” loophole.  John Mapes of My Flooring Warranty, which provides enhanced flooring warranties, says that most warranties are a “way out” for retailers and manufacturers.

Is There Any Way to Give Them Value?

  1. Get a Transferable Warranty:   Make sure that the warranty can be transferred from owner to owner.  While admittedly a minor item, a lifetime flooring warranty looks good when written up in a house sales sheet.  Typically after sale, you hand over a binder or envelope of warranties to the new owner; it’s great to be able to hand over one for flooring, as well as for dishwasher, a/c, furnace, etc.
  2. Get That Certificate of Ownership:  Some claims cannot be called in unless they are accompanied with a Certificate of Ownership.  Having a sales receipt may not be good enough.  Lumber Liquidators is not alone in requiring the original purchaser to register the purchase within 90 days in order to receive an ownership certificate.  After that, the certificate–yes, the physical piece of paper–is needed in order to make a warranty claim.  For Bruce Hardwood, though, a sales receipt and date and proof or purchase are all that are needed to file a claim.
  3. Get a Lifetime or Long-Time Warranty:  What is the length of the warranty?  While the difference between 100 years and lifetime is meaningless, there is an appreciable difference between 15 years and lifetime.  However, the type of floor you purchase generally determines warranty length.  For example, solid hardwood floors will be warranted for longer periods (35 years, 50 years, lifetime) than for engineered flooring, which runs the risk of delamination (5 years, 15 years, etc.).
  4. Get the Best Reimbursement Policy:  If your warranty covers installation, so much the better–many warranties expressly exclude installation.

Voices

My Flooring Warranty

John Mapes of My Flooring Warranty:  “[M]ost claims filed on behalf of consumers against carpeting retailers and manufacturers are found to be maintenance-related, not product- or installation-related. Flooring manufacturers are looking for a “way out,” thus, the routine maintenance cleanings are becoming a vital part of their warranty requirements and are becoming more specific over time.”

 Flooring Covering News

Neil Poland of Mullican Flooring says that nearly every single warranty claim comes within the first six months.  He goes on to say that few claims are made after several years–which is exactly the kind of time period that might result in those wear conditions.

 

What Are Some Common Wood Flooring Terms?

All fields and industries have a language that is particular to their own field; wood flooring is no exception.  What are some common terms which may not be immediately familiar?

Answer

The most common unfamiliar terms that apply to both solid wood and engineered wood flooring are site-finished (unfinished floor that must be stained and sealed on-site); pre-finished (wood flooring that comes with a thick, factory applied finish); and random bundle flooring (floor boards that range in length from several inches to several feet).

Details

In alphabetical order, this is a partial list of terms:

Clear

The highest appearance and grade of wood. Clear means that the wood may have some minor characteristics, but only very minor. These characteristics might include tiny knots. Largely, the wood is considered to be as perfect as possible.

Close Grain (or Closed Grain)

Finely and closely arranged wood grain fibers.

Common

The lowest grade and appearance; lower than clear or select. This type of wood has the most amount of knots, wormholes, flags, and other characteristics.

Grade

The quality of the wood: i.e., clear, select, or common.

Grain

The arrangement of the fibers of the wood.

Janka Hardness Test

A unit that indicates the force needed to embed a .444 inch steel ball halfway into the piece of wood being tested. The harder the wood, teh higher the number. For example, Brazilian Cherry is very strong, at a 2350 Janka; Douglas Fir is very soft at 660 Janka.

Nested Bundles

Nested bundles of wood flooring still have random lengths of floorboards, but they do not differ so wildly as the previous category.  Lengths here range from about six to eight feet.

Open Grain

Large pores and widely spaced fibers in the wood’s grain.

Plank

Wood flooring in widths of 4 inches or greater.

Pre-Finished

Fast becoming the norm, pre-finished wood floors are already sealed (usually with polyurethane) and in some cases, stained.

Random Bundles or Average Length Bundles

When you buy something called a random bundle, this refers to the length of the boards not the quality (though that may accidentally be the case, too).  With random bundles, the length may range from 8 or 9 inches…all the way up to 8 feet long.  Predictably, the lengths are more on the lower end of the range.

Select

A lower grade and appearance than clear. Select may have some characteristics such as knots or wormholes. Note that, with the right type of wood, select characteristics can be considered a desirable mark of distinction rather than a defect.

Site-Finished

Another word for unfinished wood.  This term emphasizes that the floor will be finished on-site, in the location of installation.

Species

A fancy word for the type of wood: i.e., ash, beech, oak.

Specified-Length Bundles

This is a rare category.  It’s just the way it sounds:  every floorboard is the same, exact length (a couple of feet or shorter).  You probably won’t need specified-length bundles, unless you’re putting together some kind of patterned floor.

Strip

Wood flooring in the more common widths of 3 3/4″ or less.

Sub-Floor

An underlayment such as 3/4″ plywood that is installed directly on the joists and under the finish flooring.

Tongue and Groove

Found in strip. plank, or parquet flooring. On the edge of one piece of floor is a protruding piece called a “tongue.” On the edge of a different piece of floor is a cavity into which the tongue will lock. This cavity is called the “groove.” It is similar to the way a Zip-Loc bag works.

Unfinished

Essentially, raw wood with no type of stain or sealant. You will need to seal before using.

 

 

 

Are Heartpine Floors Too Valuable to Cover With Solid Wood or Engineered Wood Flooring?

Short Direct Answer

No.

Because

What kind of heartless monster are you?

MDF, medium-density fiberboard, is the formaldehyde-enriched bully, a child of the big, bad Fifties, rolled off in giant sheets from Southern mills, glued together, coming from China, from Indonesia. Plywood is the Middle American of building materials, only one notch up from MDF.

Heartpine. Our hearts already feel better. Heart. Pine. Both good words, fifty-dollar words. Heart–blood, emotion. Heart, the thing that loves the baby. Pine, knotty pine, natural. Heartpine they dredge up from river bottoms, hundred year-old heartpine because it is so expensive, so much in demand.

And you are considering putting plywood down over heartpine? What kind of heartless miscreant are you?

Do it.

Smack down a nice solid layer half-inch ply if your floors can take it. Think this through, because if you have floor problems, they may not be able to carry the considerable weight of ply plus hardwood.

It’s an emotional issue, mate. Has nothing to do with aesthetics. You want a nice smooth surface. Got kids? You doubly want that floor smooth and splinter-free.

Qualifications

None

Strengthen Joists

You wouldn’t believe the types of questions I get about how to strengthen joists.

So, this means we’re talking about basements, crawlspaces, and attics mainly–accessible places where you can get to the joists without ripping apart half of your house.

Now, none of my advice about how to strengthen joists applies to houses that have severe problems.  Things like:

  • Deep cracks in the joists.
  • Sags lower than a couple of inches.

Wood Shims
Wood Shims

Method 1 – Wood Shims

Using the wood shim method is a stop-gap fix.  Better to sister with a new joist, if possible.

Underneath, you hammer in wood shims between the floor joist and the bottom of the floorboards or subfloor.  “Whoa!” you say.  That’s not strengthening the floor joists; that’s something else!

Indeed.  This is a quick-and-dirty method.  What this does is help force a gap between the joist and floor, raising the floor somewhat.  This works for slight sags.

Method 2 – Sister with New Joist

So, this is a bit harder, but it is more effective.

  • Buy a floor joist the same length as the sagging or weak joist.
  • Lay new floor joist alongside the old one.  You will not be removing the old joist.
  • Make sure new joist is resting next to the same contact points as the old joist.
  • Option A:  Raise up old joist with a 40 ton house jack until it is level or close to level; OR,
  • Option B:  Do not raise up old joist.  Keep the sag in place, and merely strengthen instead of level out the joist.
  • Attach the new floor joist to the old joist with 2 1/2″ screws, driven every 8 inches.

Vinyl Tile Cutter

Cutting sheet vinyl–accurately–is a monumental pain, and it’s nice when a good crew of pros does it for you. So, you might start to think:  Hmm, tile vinyl flooring…easy.

By contrast, vinyl tile (i.e., usually twelve inches square) seems like a walk in the park.  What could be easier?  Slice the stuff apart with a utility knife, and you’re done.  Right?

Difficult to Cut with Utility Knife

Not so fast.  Sure, you can cut with a utility knife–and even using a tile cutter, you’ll still be using a utility knife for many cuts–but problems do happen:

  • Wiggly cuts due to your straightedge moving.
  • Unsightly seams and gaps because you did not position your utility knife perpendicular to the tile when cutting.
  • And that other minor detail–injury.

A vinyl tile cutter works just like a paper cutter.  Stick the tile in and slice away!  An accurate, straight, and perpendicular cut every time.  But is it worth buying the thing?

Buy a Vinyl Tile Cutter?

Vinyl Tile Cutter

I would say yes.  You can rent a vinyl tile cutter, and even though rental charges are cheap, it really limits your tile installation time.  With any kind of rental, you know that another day is another dollar (or ten).

So, the real entry-level El Cheapo is this one, the Roberts Quick-Cut Vinyl Tile Cutter, which takes tiles up to twelve inches square.  It’s available at your local orange-and-white big box home improvement store and lots of other places, as well.

When I checked it was fifty bucks.  Now, it’s not a fine piece of machinery, by any means.  I suspect that it will get you through 3 rooms before falling apart into a million pieces, but what did you expect?  It’s not like you’re going to start your new vinyl tile installation career with this thing.

How to Get Rid of Vinyl Flooring Bubbles

Sheet vinyl flooring can develop bubbles of trapped air.  Since these bubbles are covered by a seamless sheet of vinyl on the top, and by the underlayment or subfloor on the bottom, they will never go away.  How do you get rid of them?

One of the reasons you bought sheet vinyl flooring in the first place is its seamless nature.  With tile vinyl floor, you have seams everywhere.  These seams are bad because they can let moisture seep through down to the underlayment.  It should be noted that most seams hold up well–but there is always the possibility of failure.

By contrast sheet vinyl has almost no seams.  Good for daily living, bad for trapping in air bubbles.

Bubbles under sheet vinyl flooring occur during installation, not after.

Keep in mind that the following method only works for relatively small bubbles (up to 6″ diameter).  Larger bubbles require you to cut out a section of the flooring and replace.

Renting a 100 pound roller is a good idea is you want the job done right.  Our improvised “ironing” method mentioned in this article doesn’t work nearly as well.  You can rent a roller for almost nothing at any local rental yard.

Vinyl Flooring Roller

To get rid of these trapped pockets of air under your vinyl, use a canvas needle (a sewing needle used for sewing canvas) or even the tip of an X-acto knife or utility knife, and puncture the bubble.

Most people will not happen to have a floor installer’s 100 pound roller on hand, but if you do, go ahead and use it to flatten the bubble.  Lacking a roller, you can kneel on a short piece of 2×4 wrapped in a towel, and “iron” it out.

Complete by sealing up with a vinyl flooring seam sealer found at most hardware stores.

Installing Cork Flooring

Cork flooring is supposed to be one of those new-fangled ‘wonder floors’ that has all the properties of vinyl flooring, yet remains ecologically sound.  While I disagree with this hyperbole, installing cork flooring is one of the more interesting things you can do for your house, and it certainly is a conversation piece.  But is cork flooring everything they say it is?

Cork flooring is 100% natural, no additives, resins.  It comes from southern Europe and northern Africa, and yes, it really is cork–just like the cork in your wine bottles.  Cork bark is very thick, so after about 10 years, it can be sliced away from the tree and used to plug up your Chateau Rothschild…or your kitchen floor.

Cork floor feels just like padded vinyl flooring when it’s installed.  It does have a certain “soft” feeling or bounce under foot, though not as much as you might expect.  Do not expect this to feel like those resilient rubber mats that you find at gyms.

Cork does not do well in highly moist places like bathrooms or any place where the humidity is 65% or more.  If you must install in bathrooms, make sure you have good ventilation.

Cork Tile Flooring

Cork Flooring Sizes

Just like with its sister resilient flooring, vinyl, you’ll find that cork flooring comes in the usual dimensions:

  • 12″x12″ wide
  • 24″x24″ wide
  • Plank-size cork at 12″x36″

Cork planks are not cork through-and-through.  Cork planks have fiberboard in the middle of a cork “sandwich” for greater structural stability.

Thicknesses of cork are:

  • 3/16″
  • 5/16″

Preparing Subfloor for Cork

You won’t find a lot of cork-specific subfloor instructions.  You’ll pretty much want to prepare the subfloor/underlayment just as you would any wood or concrete.

Make sure that either base is clean, flat, smooth, and level.

Moisture can really damage cork flooring, so make sure that the concrete has a moisture level of no more than 5% before installation.

Cork Flooring Finishes

One thing that homeowners may not know is that cork flooring is finished much in the same way that wood flooring is finished.  You can stain cork flooring.  In fact, you can even manually sand portions of cork flooring lightly, if using very fine paper such as 150-grit.  No, you won’t want to sand the entire cork floor; just a few spots that might need it.

Cork flooring will take conventional polyurethene finish (again, just as you would do for wood flooring).

If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can even finish your cork flooring with wax.  Apply paste wax to the cork surface; buff it out; apply again and buff again.

Stapling Sheet Vinyl Flooring

Installing sheet vinyl flooring can be a big pain in the ass, with first cutting out the template, cutting the vinyl, dealing with the goopy and stinky adhesive.  Wasn’t sheet vinyl flooring supposed to be pain-free?  Yes, it can be–when you staple the sheet vinyl instead of deal with adhesives.

Methods – From Hard to Easy

The catch here is that you must be installing the sheet vinyl on plywood underlayment.  Obviously, if you’re installing on concrete slab, staples are not an option.  From hard to easy:

  • Adhesive only
  • Adhesive plus staples
  • Adhesive on perimeter only
  • Staples only – perimeter

We’re just dealing with the last one.

Not Your Usual Stapler

Power Stapler

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to use that spring-loaded stapler hanging in the garage.  It’s not so much the vinyl flooring you have to content with; it’s the plywood.  You won’t be able to drive staples into plywood with your manual stapler.

You need to either buy or rent a power stapler that can drive staples with a minimum 3/8″ length.  Make sure that the staple can be fully driven in, without the top of the staple showing.

How to Staple Sheet Vinyl Flooring

Think that stapling down sheet vinyl is a no-brainer?  Well, it pretty much is.  But there are a few rules of procedure you’ll need to follow, else you end up with bulges.

  1. Make sure the sheet vinyl is completely smooth, with no bulges.
  2. Drive staples about 1/4″ from the edge of the vinyl.
  3. Occasionally, take your nose out of your work and make sure that the entire floor is staying smooth.
  4. Complete an entire wall.
  5. Next, staple the adjoining wall–not the opposite wall.  Stapling the opposite wall will cause problems later on.

Subfloor for Resilient (Vinyl) Flooring

Resilient flooring seems like one giant piece of duct tape:  it will stick to anything.  Well, it can’t.  And that’s why choosing the right subfloor is pretty important before laying resilient flooring.

In case you didn’t know–and why should you?–resilient flooring is the oh-so-sensitive term nowadays for the more hated term, vinyl flooring.  Got that?  Moving on…

Concrete

Roughening a Concrete Floor Before Vinyl Floor Installation
Roughening a Concrete Floor Before Vinyl Floor Installation

Smooth, level, patched, and dry concrete subfloor can be used directly for resilient flooring.  No underlayment needed.

Plywood

Plywood Subfloor
Plywood Subfloor

Half-inch or greater underlayment graded for such use by the American Plywood Association.

Existing Vinyl Floor

Yes, You Can Put Vinyl Over Vinyl
Yes, You Can Put Vinyl Over Vinyl

Sorry, did I use the word vinyl?  I mean resilient flooring.

Clean resilient flooring on a good base can be used as the subfloor for new resilient flooring.

Do Not Use as a Subfloor

  • Wood floorboards
  • Particleboard
  • Hardboard
  • Exterior-grade plywood
  • Cement-based backer board
  • Asphalt tile
  • Rubber tile