Installing Pre-Finished Millwork Versus Finishing on Site

and in most cases, a higher-quality job. April 6, 2007

Our carpenters tell me it takes more time to install pre-finished trim. I argue that by the time field finishing costs are added, the pre-finished road is the way to go. What do you think?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor M:
I always do pre-finished, but most of the work I get is remodels. If you try to finish on site, you get the added aggravation of keeping finish off of the walls, floors, etc.

From contributor H:
It takes a little longer, it’s true, but they don't like it because it makes them be more cautious with the cuts. No sanding out or filling in little mistakes. But it is faster and costs less in the long run. Minor touching up or blending in on site are expected, but you are far ahead of the game installing pre-finished.

Our clients almost always opt for the pre-finished option on our stairs and railings. Their carpenters complain a little, but the clients see it as a savings of money and mess.

From contributor D:
Pre-finishing is definitely the way to go. No way can you get the quality and speed you can get in the shop on the jobsite. If you know what you are doing and you keep your saws tuned, the difference in time is negligible. A miter is a miter, a cope is a cope, whether there is finish on the trim or not.

From contributor J:
I am going to get in trouble here. If your carpenters are quality carpenters and not slam bangers, then it makes no difference if finished or not. At most, it takes a minute or so longer being just a tad more careful. Also, get your hands on a can of that finish/stain and after the joint is glued and nailed, just wipe a rag across joint and whatever little white shows is gone. Sharp blades are a must.

From contributor K:
For me, no doubt pre-finished. Even when I do painted jobs. I install my stain and paint grade the same - tight joints, insides coped (even shoe), biscuits when necessary. When the time and/or money is there, I will purchase (or have trim delivered) to my place ahead of time. I will use my airless or HVLP to spray the primer, sand, and airless to spray the latex. I prefer Benjamin Moore waterborne satin Impervo when I can. Then finish coat in the field after caulk and nails.

Reason I'm detailing this is that I know I get my trim painted faster than 2-3 coats brushed in the field, and my paint job is better than 95% I see. Exception is when you do have a good painter that knows how to caulk, doesn't fill nail holes with caulk on his finger, and sprays the trim.

I've had people comment that they didn't know a wood trim could look so smooth. I can put down a coat of clear poly on 500' of trim in about 20 - 30 minutes (with cleanup), when that would take hours in the field. Even if you spray in the field (which you can't always), you have hours of taping and covering with plastic and drops. It just kills me when a painter/finisher can take a great install and make it look average.

From contributor I:
There is another option which is nearly as fast, and better in my opinion, particularly in areas like the Northeast where many customers want brushed paint. That is to pre-prime, two coat the edges of everything, two coat the whole base, and one coat the face of crown and standing trim. After installation, the painters only need to spot the nails, caulk to the walls/ceilings and face coat the standing trim and crown. No cutting in, no sanding from ladders or while lying on the floor. The only color variation will be slight yellowing of the base, which will hardly be noticeable.

From contributor Y:
It may take more time to install pre-finished trim, but it also takes more time to finish on site. We do our own finishing, high end only, using the best materials and equipment available. While I have seen some pretty nice "on site" finish work, I have to believe that our finish, applied in a well-lit, controlled environment, is superior. Certainly it's faster and more economical to skip the taping and prep work required on site.

Our installation is top notch too. No shortcuts; blocking under crown, sharp tools, lasers, protractors, perfect copes or miters, etc. We touch up with stain and small artist brushes, fill holes with wax sticks and will often tint a tube of caulk and use West System Epoxy "hypo" type syringes for problem areas. The only way I'll install for on site finishing is if someone else is doing the finish.

From contributor A:
One thing to keep in mind is warping due to poor pre-finishing. I had this mother of a job installing 6 1/2" cherry crown pre-finished (Magnamax) face side only. It was warped when I received it in the field. After installing 200 feet, my tongue was pretty loose with my colleagues.