Working With Melamine
Laminate-covered substrate produces a bright, clean and washable cabinet at a lower cost than hardwood panels.
Synopsis: Melamine is less expensive than plywood and its laminate surface is easy to keep clean, so the material is a logical choice for kitchen and bathroom cabinets. The author, a cabinetmaker and experienced kitchen renovator, shares tips on how to work with the material in the article. A sidebar describes the different types of melamine that are available.
A few years ago, I remember, I was admiring the cabinets in my sister’s new kitchen until I opened a cabinet door and saw melamine. My stomach turned. In those days before I knew better — I tried to persuade any customer who specified melamine to use something else, usually a hardwood plywood with filled grain and catalyzed-lacquer finish.
Then one day a customer on a tight budget brought me his kitchen plans. The upper cabinetry would be open birch shelving; the base units would house drawers behind doors. With this design, I discovered I could use melamine on the interiors and shave $2,000 off the total kitchen price — in part because melamine is cheaper than hardwood plywood ($29 per sheet vs. $50 per sheet) but also because the finishing is already done, which cuts out a great deal of expensive sanding, and brushing or spraying.
Satisfying a customer with beautiful hardwood exteriors is one thing, but when I can add the surprise of a clean, washable cabinet interior at a lower cost than hardwood plywood or high-pressure laminate (HPL), my custom cabinetry becomes hard to resist. I sold the job and have used decorative laminated panels almost exclusively for cabinet interiors since.
What’s exciting about this product for me as a contractor and cabinetmaker is that the decorative surface of this material is similar in characteristics and advantages to HPL, but I don’t have to do any laminating. What’s more, delamination of thermofused melamine is virtually nonexistent because there’s no layer of adhesive to dry or deteriorate over time. Also, decorative panels are available in wood grains and in almost every color and texture that can be found on a string of HPL chip samples. Panels are also manufactured in thicknesses from 1/4 in. to 1 1/4 in. and in sizes from 4 ft. to 5 ft. wide and 6 ft. to 18 ft. long.
Melamine’s variety of colors, patterns and textures makes it useful for furniture and cabinetry in the home, office and even in some commercial applications. And when I think back to my sister’s kitchen cabinets, I realize how confused I was about decorative laminated panels and the generic lumberyard term melamine that is used for them.
I consider thermofused melamine the best of the decorative laminated panels. It has a tough surface, good wear resistance and excellent water resistance. It also won’t peel away from the substrate. Thermofusing gives it that hard, durable surface. And although some specialized techniques are needed to work with the material, it can be used in most home shops.
I was skeptical about melamine, so I did some tests
When I first started using melamine, I studied a brochure from a manufacturer that showed the different colors of melamine and listed some of the characteristics of the material. The brochure also included the performance standard for thermofused, or thermoset, decorative panels, but I was skeptical and performed a couple of simple tests. First, I placed a soaked washcloth on a thermofused surface. The next day, I was pleasantly surprised to find the wash cloth dry, the water evaporated and the overlaid surface undamaged.
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