I can't tell you how many times I've been asked what brand of prefinished floor I recommend. Or how many samples I've gotten through the mail. These days there are so many choices out there it really is hard to tell the good floor from the mediocre and poor. For this discussion I will try to stay away from brand names (for once) and try to talk out these floors in a more generic manor. I will only talk about wood flooring, be they solid woods or laminated woods. I am not interested, nor do I install the laminate, or wood pictures encased in vinyl. They will have a short fast life, and soon folks will be on to the next fad. Wood floors are here to stay, if we learn to take care of them, and choose the ones that best suits our needs.
When most people say prefinished hardwood floor, they mean solid wood strip floor. These are generally in widths of 4" or less. A prefinished plank floor over 4" is a poorly designed product, and I've been hearing all winter of these amazing shrinking floors. Go to the plank floor section of the Hardwood Authority and you'll soon realize that you cannot screw and peg a prefinished floor. It's amazing to see these useless products in flooring showrooms, but it's sad to hear the frustration when they start gaping and warping during the first winter, or humid summer. The exception to this would be a prefinished plank floor installed, and then face nailed with rose headed cut nails. This will not be as firm an installation, but it is the next best thing.
So that's my first piece of advice, stick to the 2 1/4" and 3 1/4" sizes of the 3/4" strip floor. While you are still in the comfort of the floor store, see if you can open a box of this flooring and assemble on a flat table or floor about 10-20 sq. ft. Some sales people will be reluctant to let you do this, but you wouldn't buy a car with out a test drive would you? They do have the tools to repack the box, so this should be an easy request. There are a few things to look for. One is the fit, do the pieces slide together easily by hand? Are they well-milled, and stored in a dry environment? Look at how well the side edges fit, is there a bumpy feeling when you run you hand across the boards, or is it reasonably smooth. You should be aware that this product will look it's best installed on a perfectly flat subfloor. Check to see if your subfloor is really that flat and level. If it isn't, you should consider a sand-on-site hardwood floor.
Then the most important thing to consider is, do the ends all have a bit of a bevel, so that there are no splinter prone edges to catch your socks? Take your time, you're going to put out big bucks for this floor and you'll have to live with it for I hope the rest of your life. After all, the oak tree made these bones for 80 years, surely you can take a few days to find a well-made floor. Don't depend on the display samples, these may be the best looking, but not typical examples of the wood you are about to choose.
After you're quite convinced that you've found the floor with the right fit, let's now discuss finishes. All the manufacturers claim to have the best, longest lasting, more coats, less coats but harder, and on an on. What's one to do? The only real test for scratch resistance, (and isn't that really what we're concerned about) is to bring along a piece of extra fine steel wool. This may alarm some sales people in the showroom, but they will have some cut off samples for you to work on. So far the only finishes that will resist the scrubbing of extra fine steel wool are the Polynium ®, or aluminum oxide conversion finishes. It's not really important how many coats they apply; it's the finish itself. After you rub it with steel wool, has it lost it's sheen, or turned white with small scratches. Imagine what it will look like in a few years with daily hard use. I have great reservation with aluminum oxide crystals in the film itself. They may be present in small amounts and be quite safe, until one day (and that day will come) when this floor is so full of dents and scratches, that it will have to be sanded and refinished. This is a normal routine for a strip floor. But the aluminum oxide dust that will be airborne during the sanding is a proven lung irritant, and a possible carcinogen. For solid wood strip floor I choose to avoid this by only using the Polynium® finished boards, as this film is polymerized titanium. The titanium oxide powder is much safer, as it is also used in cosmetics to sunscreens, and is only a skin irritant at worst.
So that takes care of the solid wood products. Then we ask, what about these so called laminated or engineered wood floors? Let's not confuse these with the fake wood laminates, which are just pictures of wood encased in vinyl. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I don't discuss them much at all in this wood floor site. There are two basic categories of laminated wood floor and that is either 3-ply or 5-ply. Both are about 5/16" thick. The 5 ply is, in my opinion, the better of the two, simply because the 5 layers of 1/16" hardwood make for a more moisture stable, longer lasting, and harder plywood. Now it's true you could never re-sand this thin top veneer, but as long as it doesn't get too dented, you can treat it with the professional prep and re-coat systems I mention in my cleaning article in the Floored News section. Re-coating these engineered floors with water based finishes is a little tricky. Apply the first coat thinly with a paint pad and be careful not to puddle up the V grooves too much, this could lift and damage the veneer. The second coat can be a normal snow plow application if you wish, and always use two coats when re-coating with these rather low build water based finishes.
The 3-ply laminated floors have a top veneer of as much as 1/8" and some of the 1/2" laminated strip floors have as much as 1/6" in their top ply. So these you can sand and refinish later in the life of the floor. But as you notice the makers of these products mention professional sanding, and claim up to 6 or more sanding and refinishing cycles. Speaking as a professional floor sander of 23 years, I know caution is the word when approaching these laminated floors, with my 3 horsepower drum sander. On one hand the customer expects you to take out all the dents and deep scratches, and your sanding machine demands that the floor be leveled for the first time in it's life. Now days you're going to be using very coarse sandpaper to get through these factory conversion finishes. Once you sand past the over-wood and beveled edges to get all the finish off it leaves a little wood left on the top of the groove. So, yes I would say the 1/8" top veneered laminated floors can be sanded and finished once, and the 1/6" top veneered probably twice, but no more. And never the 6 times the manufactures suggest.
If I were installing a laminated wood floor below grade, I would stay away from a floor that has veneer layers that are thicker that 1/8" and would prefer the 5-ply material. If the veneer layers are thicker, they will tend to act like solid wood, expanding and warping when encountering moist conditions. Above grade these new thick layered plies might be OK but time and customer complaints will tell, and I'll hear about them soon enough. But basement installations of these floors is not a good idea. And on second thought I wouldn't put any hardwood floor in a basement. All it takes is a pinhole in a water pipe while on vacation, and your wooden floors are toast.
Oh, and avoid the laminated wood planks that have softwood cores. This is the cheaper less moisture stable way of making plywood. The two woods have very different rates of expansion, so this could be trouble. The are easily recognized by the thick band of white softwood in the middle.
One very popular (until you walk on one) type of laminated floor is the floating floor. It's cited as the answer to unsuitable or irregular sub-floors, which cannot handle the glue down operation of the normal laminated floors. These come as separate boards, like a strip floor, or a glued up panel. In most cases they are simply glued edgewise to themselves over a foam pad. The temptation will be to buy the larger easier to install panels, but these may prove unsightly in the future as bit of dirt lodge in the unnatural looking seams of these paneled floors. They have 2-3 factory glued up boards on the panel, but then an unsightly gap will appear, as the less than perfect installation proceeds. These floors only seem to look perfect in the showroom. And the simple PVA glue will fail in a decade or so in the constantly walked on seams. This type of glue has little flex, and this is where it is needed the most.
For a quick easy glue-less installation, some manufactures have now incorporated a locking system that clicks these panels together. But after being in the market for a few years these glue-less boards are starting to talk back. They pop, squeak, and shift in these amateur installations, and considering they were about the same price as a glue down floor. Remember that the removal and replacement of a floor is more expensive in the long run.
And then there is the less known Austrian-German product that has a clip fitted floating system. This is precision milled solid wood in various thicknesses. The 7/8" material is a bear to install, and quite expensive, but is tough enough to allow removal and re-installation. Most people choose the thinner 9/16" thick boards, which are easier to install because of their flex. But I cannot figure why you'd want to do that, unless you wish to surprise the buyer of your house. "My gosh!", they'll say, "I'm sure there was a hardwood floor here before".
There is no ignoring a bumpy sub-floor with any of these floating floors. This will cause the popping, and too tight a fit to a metal doorjamb will cause a squeak. The overall hollow sound turns me off entirely from these floors. Although I have to admit a floating type of installation may be the best answer to installing a floor on a radiant heated slab. There are always better (albeit more expensive) ways to get good performance out of a wood floor in this rather tricky situation.
All the comments I made about factory finishes in the beginning of this article apply even more so to these laminated wood floors, pick a good long lasting finish from the start. You can buy the best prefinished product in the world but if you fasten it to the wrong subfloor, it will cause you no end of grief, be sure to read my article in the Floored News section on Installing Strip Floor. For the laminated plank floor, that are glued down to concrete (that's their best application) you will really need to read my up coming article on Concrete Subfloors. I will recommend certain glues and methods for this rather pernicious subject. Suffice to say for now as long as you use a good adhesive like Dri Tac (www.dritac.com), these laminated floors, although light duty, should give you 25-50 years of service.
Warranties are certainly and important issue when buying these factory floors but seeing how this article is getting a little long and you need a break from looking at your monitor I'll deal with them in a future article. So there you have my humble opinion on what prefinished floor I would choose. If I had to.