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Laminate Countertops

New Innovations Keep Them Interesting

Laminate countertops obviously aren't new. But just because they've been around a while doesn't mean they can’t be stylish and trendy.

Laminate still retains all of its good character traits like low cost, ease of maintenance and abundance of color choices. But today there are new textures and lots of new patterns that more closely mimic natural materials.

If that's not enough, there are a number of different edge treatments you can choose that eliminate the dreaded 'dark line' seams. Laminate countertops prove once again that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

The longevity of laminate might lead you to think there's not much more to learn about them. If you're a kitchen designer, you may be right. But if you're a homeowner looking for some advice, the information that follows might be just what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Laminate is pretty basic but there are some important points to consider. Getting familiar with it can help you avoid passing on a product that might be right for your kitchen.

Laminate 101 -- What Is It, What's New And Why Should I Be Interested?

What Is It?

Laminate is a combination of paper and resin that is pressed and bonded (laminated) together under high pressure and heat. The result is a product that is reasonably durable and easy to maintain.

Laminate is typically constructed in three layers. The bottom layer is made from kraft paper (the same paper that grocery bags and mailing wrap are made from) which is soaked in a phenolic resin. (Kraft paper is usually brown which results in those dark brown edges.) The middle layer contains the color/pattern that you actually see. This is followed by a clear layer that may be topped with abrasion-resistant materials. The middle and top layers of laminate are impregnated with melamine, a clear resin.

So why is this important? Just like with any product, knowing the kind of material you're dealing with helps you understand what it will and won't stand up to. Remember that it's basically a plastic, so it has some limitations, particularly with regard to heat and caustic chemicals. Also, the color or print on that middle layer of paper is susceptible to fading from UV light over time, just like other fabrics and colored paper.

Before going any further, lets get familiar with a few terms that you might encounter when perusing various product literature or talking with a kitchen designer:

  • HPL - HPL simply stands for "high pressure laminate" which is nothing more than laminated layers of resin-soaked paper that have been fused together under heat and high pressure. Some manufacturers use the term, others don't. It’s just good to know so you don't think the ones that do use it are selling something different.
  • Post-formed - These are pre-manufactured countertops whereby the laminate is already bonded to the substrate backing. The laminate is usually formed around the front edge and may include pieces glued onto the sides if the side edges will be exposed (not sandwiched between cabinets). They're basically drop-in-place typically sold by big-box home centers. This is in contrast to a custom laminate countertop that's built up according to your plans either on-site or in a countertop fabrication shop.
  • Grade - Laminates are manufactured in various grades based on their thickness and other attributes. Horizontal-grade laminate is usually the thickest and used in countertop applications. Other grades are thinner and more suitable for vertical applications such as cabinets and wall décor.
  • Finish - This refers to the surface treatment and how it looks and feels. It may be glossy, matte, pebbled, textured or some combination.
  • Solid core - The color of solid core laminate goes completely through the material, which eliminates the dark edges and seams. However, this type of laminate is typically more expensive and there are fewer choices available. Other terms that mean the same thing are "color-through" or "through-color".

What's New & Interesting

Think laminate countertops are boring?. Guess again. Here are the highlights:

  • Plenty of Choices
    There are literally hundreds of colors and patterns, from new stone prints to retro-design patterns (yes, the same ones that were on your grandmother's countertops).
  • Updated Textures & Finishes
    Check out the new textures and finishes that incorporate surface variations and mixtures of matte and glossy effects, all in the same pattern. Some textures include small, randomly dispersed "pits" that mimic a stone surface.

laminate countertops

laminate countertops

Click On Each Image To Bring Up A Larger View To See The Surface Texture Details

  • No Pattern Interruptions
    Forget the seams and repeating patterns. Now you can cover your kitchen island with the representations of a complete granite slab. Most stone-like laminates have a pattern repeat where the "picture" of the stone repeats itself. Formica® has changed this with their 180fx™ line of laminate. It depicts the image of a full slab of granite, like those used on large kitchen islands. Now you can cover your whole island in laminate, complete with the veining and characteristics of a granite slab in all its glory, sans the pattern interruption.
  • Eliminate the Dark Edges and Seams

    laminate countertops

    Color-through laminate eliminates the dark lines that plague a lot of laminate choices.The edges of the laminate are the same color as the surface, so the result is a less conspicuous edge.

    The range of color choices isn’t huge, so if a color-through laminate isn’t your cup of tea, choose a color/pattern that's similar to the dark brown or black color typical of laminate edging. Those seams will be much less noticeable.

    And if that still doesn’t satisfy you, there are special edge treatments that get rid of the dark lines and provide a clean and finished appearance. KURV Edges specializes in edging that creates a relatively seamless look. It's a one-piece molding made from the same laminate pattern as the top of your countertops. Once it's added to the edge, it provides a neat, finished look.

  • Wear-Resistant Surface Treatments
    New surface treatments like aluminum oxide provide a much more wear-resistant surface. This gives the countertop a longer life, which is particularly desirable if you don’t plan on replacing them until the kids have graduated from college.

  • Seamless Installation With An Undermount Sink
    Do you like the look and easy cleanup that comes with an undermount sink? You now have this option with laminate countertops. For starters, Karran USA makes acrylic sinks specifically made to be mounted under laminate countertops. Counter-Seal® is a solid-surface product that also allows laminate countertops to accommodate undermount sinks. The sink is hung from the Counter-Seal solid surface ring which also acts as a barrier between moisture and the laminate's substrate material.
  • Updated Edge Profiles
    New, more sophisticated edge profiles are available on some post-formed laminate countertops, similar to what’s available with solid surface, stone and other countertop choices. These include 'ogee' and 'double waterfall' edges instead of the more plain bullnose edges found on most post-form countertops.

The bottom line is that there are lots of reasons to take another look at laminate. With such a wide range of available countertop choices, laminate manufacturers have had to develop new ideas to retain market share. This kind of innovation comes at a price, however, and some of these features and premium laminates will cost more than a basic countertop. But for the most part, laminates is still one of the most cost-efficient countertop choices, particularly when you factor in its durability and longevity.

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Pros, Cons And Other Considerations

Like any material that's used for kitchen countertops, laminate has its plusses and minuses, so keep these facts in mind when considering laminate:

The Plusses...

  • Pricing - Laminate is still one of the lowest cost options but the premium laminates will be an upcharge.
  • Style Options - There's an incredible range of colors, patterns and textures available.
  • Non-porous - Laminate is non-porous, easy to clean and not susceptible to damage from common substances found in the kitchen, such as lemon juice and other food-related acids (like some types of stone are).
  • Edge Treatments Offer Style Options - More edge treatment choices dress up laminate countertops and avoid the dark-line edges.
  • Color-Through Options - These choices avoid the dark-edge seams although the range of colors is limited and typically available only in solid colors.
  • Relatively Low Replacement Costs - Replacing laminate countertops is typically easier and cheaper than other types of countertops, should you decide to change in a few years.
  • Durable - With reasonable care, laminate countertops are durable, with good impact and abrasion resistance.
  • Undermount Sinks Available - New sinks and sink edging products give you the option of installing undermount sinks.

...The Minuses...

  • It's Not Indestructible - Yes it's durable, but it's still susceptible to cuts, scratches and chips if it’s hit hard enough.
  • Visible Seams - Seams are visible, unlike solid surface countertops, although certain patterns and colors make them less conspicuous.
  • Not Heat Tolerant - Laminate doesn't take heat well and will scorch or burn if hot pans are placed on it (remember, it's basically a plastic).
  • Scratches More Evident In Dark Colors - Scratches tend to be more visible in dark colors. This is because the melamine content of the outer surface layer exhibits a whitish color when it's scratched which shows up in contrast to the dark background color.
  • Susceptible To Harsh Cleansers - Laminate can be damaged by aggressive cleansers such as bleach and oven cleaners.
  • Fading - Over time, laminate countertops are susceptible to fading when exposed to ultraviolet light (and that includes sunlight).

...And the What Else...

If you’re still undecided, consider these points:
  • Do you do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you? The right tools, adhesives, materials and know-how are necessary for a quality job. As an example, using the right or wrong substrate will impact the durability of your countertops.
  • When shopping, try to look at a full laminate countertop, if not in the same color, at least with the texture you're contemplating. You'll get a much better feel for how it will look than you will from looking at those small sample chips you find at home centers. This is particularly true for textured laminates. Some home centers or kitchen design firms will typically have mock-up kitchens and/or countertops. Ask the designer or fabricator you're working with where you might locate a finished countertop to look at.
  • Whether you install the laminate countertop yourself or have it done, avoid seams near the sink. Seams near water-prone areas pose a greater risk of water getting under the laminate, deteriorating its bond to the substrate.
  • Finally, it pays to compare your overall cost with other countertop materials. While basic laminate is inexpensive, premium laminates with textures and other features will add to the cost. In some cases, these choices may end up costing only several hundred dollars less than a basic granite countertop. In general, laminate may still may be the least expensive option, but the gap has narrowed relative to other choices.

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Laminate Vs Granite

A lot of laminate patterns mimic the appearance of stone primarily because it's a sought-after look. Upon close examination, neither will be mistaken for the other. But if it's any help, the following information compares laminate with granite, mainly from an aesthetics point of view, along with a few refresher comments about the physical differences between the two surfaces.

When it comes duplicating the "picture" of granite on laminate, most manufacturers do a pretty good job of getting it right.

As an example, the photo below shows two sections of granite and one swatch of laminate (the granite imposter). Can you tell which one is laminate? See the answer below the picture.

laminate countertops

A - Real granite
B - Laminate
C - Real granite

Whether or not your eye was keen enough to pick out the laminate or not I think you'll agree that the manufacturers do a pretty good job achieving a realistic representation.

How Sheen, Texture and Edging Affect The Look

Looking at a flat image of laminate is one thing, but most of the time it's viewed from a different perspective, and that's where it struggles to look like real stone.

A lot of granite countertops are highly polished although some are honed and have a more matte finish. Some laminates do come in a glossy finish while others have a more satin appearance. From that perspective, laminate does an OK job of looking like granite.

Some of the laminates with small pits and pock marks designed to mimic the small fissures that occur even in polished granite add a degree of additional texture. However, most granites don't have pits that large and whatever texture they do have is limited to very fine fissures.

Take a look at this picture below to see how the light "bloom" highlights the small pits in the surface. You be the judge on how good or not-so-good it looks (click on the picture to see a much larger view in a new browser window).

laminate graniteClick On Image For A Larger View

Where faux-stone laminate falls down -- in some cases -- is on the edging. Countertops with the standard 90-degree, squared-off edge look the least like a granite countertop. That's because even squared-off granite countertops have a small but smooth radius, or they have a more elaborate edge altogether.

However, there are some varieties of post-formed “granite laminate” countertops, like those made by VT Industries, with ogee and other elaborate edges, rather than the typical 90-degree edge. These countertops do a better job impersonating a stone countertop. The one drawback is that this type of edging is available on only one edge (the long edge).

Laminate Vs Granite Performance

Both laminate and granite countertops perform well. It's all about what your preferences are relative to cost and upkeep.

Laminate positives include ease of maintenance and a more forgiving nature (your wine glass probably won’t shatter when it’s tipped over).

On the down-side, laminate countertops, even those made to look like granite, won't be mistaken for a piece of granite under closer inspection. It doesn't mean they won't look nice however. It's all a matter of personal preference.

Granite, as the other option, is durable and beautiful. Some varieties require periodic sealing while others don’t and it’s usually more expensive than premium laminate countertops. It'll also chip if you knock it hard enough.

You can compare laminate and granite countertops along with other countertop choices at the kitchen countertops page.

Choices Among Brands -- Are They All The Same?

So let's get down to it. You obviously have choices among the different brands but are they all the same? The answer is a somewhat evasive yes and no.

For the most part, the laminate used for countertops is no different from manufacturer to manufacturer, just like Fords and Toyotas are all automobiles. The differences lie in the unique product distinctions offered by each manufacturer, that come in the form of textures, edge treatments, surface protection or a range of color options.

Virtually all of the manufacturers offer some similar color options like solids, wood grains, stone patterns and abstracts. The differences you'll see are in the quantity of choices or the inclusion of some unique offerings like solid core (color-through) options or three-dimensional texturing. It all depends on what you're looking for and whether a certain brand has it or not.

Other than that, it becomes an economic and logistics decision, combined with which products are available in your area.

For the record, here's a list of the main laminate countertop brands:

Formica®         Arborite®
Wilsonart®         Abet Inc.
VT Industries         Nevamar®

Publisher's Comments --
Laminate's Still A Likeable Surface

When it comes to laminate countertops, I suppose you could say I have a love/hate perspective. I grew up with them as a kid and lived with them in my current home for 17 years. In the end, they had plenty of mileage, were very dated and needed to go. They were so old in fact, they were sort of back in style. That retro style had come full circle.

So why did I keep them so long? It's a good question, but I think the answer lies with the fact that they did their job so well. Now, I'm not the kind of person that parts with money easily so just going out and dropping a few thousand dollars for new countertops isn't my bag. Regardless, it would be hard for anyone to justify throwing out something that held up as well as those counters.

I think what I liked best about them was that they were so low-maintenance. Laminate is easy to clean and I didn't need to fuss about whether I'd left spilled lemon juice on the counter too long or if they needed to be sealed again.

What I didn't like (beyond the color, pattern, etc.) is the fact that they were laminate. I just never warmed up to those dark lines on the edges. And I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I just wanted something more updated with a higher-end look.

When it came time to remodel we added granite countertops and have no regrets. They perform well and look beautiful. But I have to admit, I hate that pronounced "clink" sound every time you put a ceramic bowl or plate down on the surface. Stone is durable, but it can chip and our granite island top has two edge chips after several years of service. With laminate, you don't have to worry so much about that, particularly every time you set something hard down on the surface.

Laminate countertops will always be just that - laminate countertops. In my opinion, they'll never be confused with stone or solid surface. But that's ok. It's a durable, economical countertop that's shown it's mettle over the years. And when you look at what's been done from a style and design point of view recently, there are a lot more choices than what existed when my old laminate countertops were installed.

The point is this: laminate countertops may not present the same style presence as some other countertop options. But if that's not the driving force behind your decision, or other countertop materials strain your budget, laminate's a worthy choice. I've seen some very nice laminate countertops that look sharp, neat and tasteful.

Let's see: more design options, low-maintenance, durable, economical – I think there's something that's still very likeable about laminate countertops.

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Need Some Help Finding A Local Installer?

If you think that laminate's the choice for you but need some help finding a local installer, check out the resource below. When you click the appropriate buttons and fill in your zip code the widget below will link you up with local kitchen remodeling sources that can provide a free estimate for your countertops. Several local sources will contact you at your convenience and there's no obligation at all.

It's just one way to save some when it comes to finding a laminate countertop installer in your local area.

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