Melamine can be a viable option for many projects — with good conscience and no apology.
I remember reading an article about melamine years ago. The author was very apologetic about the topic because he knew he was addressing woodworkers who had a disdain for the material. Melamine has a rap sheet alright; it is looked down upon by both fabricators and consumers for its imitation wood grain and particleboard core. However, like it or not, it does have a place in the world of cabinetry. And that place is not always located at the bottom of the food chain.
I was first introduced to melamine back in the 1980s while working for a shop down in Tucson, AZ. It was sold to us as the next new material to keep an eye on in cabinetmaking. However, as quickly as it rose in popularity, it also fell out of grace among fabricators and consumers of high-end cabinetry. I believe this happened mainly because it was being used in the wrong application, not because it is not a viable material. Designers were simply asking too much of the product. It’s just not the answer for everything; you have to accept the properties of the material, and design accordingly. For instance, here are a few basic things you need to know about designing with melamine:
- Melamine is a thermally-fused, resin-saturated paper finish (similar to the properties of plastic laminate), bonded onto a particleboard core. In spite of this hard surface, if a sink cabinet gets wet the panel will fail when the water makes its way to an edge. To avoid this problem we started using exterior plywood laminated with matching plastic laminate for the deck in cabinets with plumbing.
- Particleboard is also notorious for picking up odors and hanging onto them. This is most noticeable when used in linen or clothes drawers. Therefore, I always specify solid wood or plywood drawer boxes.
- Don’t make the mistake of using the same solid color melamine for the box interior on a glass or open cabinet configuration as you do on cabinets with doors. Many shops still make this blunder because they like to use the same material throughout the job. For visual continuity, always specify the exterior material to be used on glass door cabinet interiors.
- Melamine is simulated and just doesn’t look or feel like real wood. You can get away with this on cabinet interiors, but the eye is not fooled on exterior surfaces. The exception to this is when budget is a concern, or the client is interested in a uniform appearance. This is why melamine gets specified more often in commercial than in residential projects.
- The Achilles’ heel of melamine is the particleboard edge, which is more vulnerable to damage than plywood or solid wood. Therefore, thicker PVC edges or solid wood edging should be specified for heavy-use areas.
For the most part, I think our suppliers were right during those early years of melamine; it did become the material of choice. The company I worked for fell in love with the stuff, primarily because it eliminated the need for interior finishing of the cabinetry. Homeowners loved the material because it was lower in cost and possessed a hard, durable surface. Our commercial clients liked the uniformity of its “grain” and color. Plus, the easily-cleanable surface made it especially popular for medical facility cabinets. Architects started to spec it on nearly every job we bid.
During those early years, we built thousands of feet of almond and white melamine boxes. The first thing we noticed about working with melamine over plywood was the bad cut lines. At the time, I was working for a small, independent shop. The owner wasn’t interested in upgrading equipment, but was insistent on using melamine for his cash cow product of mainstream cabinetry. So we had to stumble our way through working with the tools we had. We used triple chip blades with a zero clearance insert on the table saw and achieved results that were good enough, at least on the top surface of the panel. It really wasn’t much of a problem, because we were building a face-frame cabinet that only required one good side. We simply put the bad tear-out side on the back and forgot about it. But when the frameless box came along, we had to change both our system and tooling.
Even though the frameless cabinet box has been around for decades, it didn’t really become popular in the United States until the 1980s. Americans have always been enamored with solid wood products. Even plywood met with a lot of resistance in the marketplace when it was first introduced commercially after WWII. And when the frameless box was being touted as the next wave for custom cabinetmakers to ride, many consumers were simply not convinced. Again, it was economics that drove the cabinet industry towards frameless. Eliminating solid wood milling, and incorporating a hardware system that simplified assembly, made it a cabinetmakers dream. But along with the promises of higher profits, cabinetmakers soon realized they needed better equipment to accurately prepare the panel parts that frameless cabinetry required.
The Ideal Process
After Tucson, I worked for a couple of large architectural woodworking companies that had the appropriate equipment. The CNC routers, beam saws, and vertical/horizontal panel saws equipped with scoring blades, made quick work of melamine processing. The reason melamine chips is because the blade on a saw cuts on the downward motion, which causes the material to chip out on the bottom. A saw equipped with a scoring blade eliminates this problem. A scoring blade (see photo, right) is a small diameter blade located in front of the main blade. It spins in the opposite direction of the main blade, and only cuts into the material about 1/16 in. or so. Because the scoring blade cuts first and from underneath, there is no tear-out or chipping. However, the scoring and main blade must be perfectly aligned in order to work properly. And this typically means having expensive, high-end equipment.
For the rest of us, equipped with only a standard table saw, how can we work with melamine? It can be done—with a few modifications. First, as with cutting any panel product, you have to have a means to cut a straight edge before running through the saw. Don’t be deceived; the factory-edge on a sheet of plywood is not straight. Panel saws make quick work of this task, but without one, you have to get creative.
I think the best way to do this is with a good track saw system like the Festool or Dewalt. Using an 8-ft. track, cut the long edge of the panel. You can cut all your parts with the Festool if it’s equipped with a melamine-cutting blade, but it will take more time. What I recommend is using it for your first cut only—but this will depend entirely on what type of equipment you have. Next, you’ll have to prepare your table saw for doing accurate panel work.
Table Saw Modification
A few basics for setting up your saw to get good results:
You can purchase a scoring saw attachment if you plan on using a lot of melamine. If you go this route, be forewarned that it requires a perfect setup/alignment to work properly. If the two blades are not in the same cutting plane, you’ll end up with a double cut edge.
For a single blade application, use a negative tooth blade and dedicate it for cutting melamine only. Initially, we used a triple chip blade, thinking the blade design would work well for the hard material. However, the sharp angle of a negative tooth grind does a much better job of scoring the brittle surface, while minimizing tear-out on the backside.
|Make a zero-clearance insert for the dedicated melamine blade.|
|Next, set your table saw blade about 1/2 in. higher than the thickness of the material. The higher the blade is over the material, the more chance of tear-out below.|
Use a slow, but steady, speed as you feed the material. Too fast, and you’ll get more chipping; too slow, and the blade will burn the edge.
|A good in-feed and out-feed table is essential to keep the material stable throughout the entire cut.|
|In addition, because the material is heavy, I like to use an adjustable-height cart for loading it onto the saw table.|
Finally, wax down the saw and feed tables. The less resistance the material encounters going through the cut the better.
Working the Material
Here are a few more things you should know before you jump into melamine fabrication.
Melamine is hard, yet brittle, so it chips easily. Also, sliding it around on a table saw can scratch the surface, so be careful.
|For two-sided panels that are very visible, a strip of blue tape along two edges can lift it off the tabletop enough to prevent contact with your work surface.|
|Marking your scribe line on the textured tape is also much easier than marking the smooth surface of the melamine panel.|
|The tape does help protect the edge, which is why I recommend it for delicate cutting, especially while scribing parts that will be visible.|
An important rule to follow is to always put the good side up when cutting on a table saw, since it has a downward cutting motion. Typically, the topside of the panel will chip less. Plus, you are not causing additional abrasion on the panel face. When using a jigsaw or circular track saw, the good side will be down, because those blades cut on the upward stroke.
Although slower, using a router is a great way to achieve clean edges without chipping. Cutting dadoes and cleaning up appearance edges with a sharp, straight bit will prevent a lot of frustration.
Being a panel product, it will need to be edgebanded, both to conceal the ugly particleboard and provide protection to the edge. Solid wood provides the best protection against abuse, but also requires the most work in attaching and matching color. I recommend using solid wood only where the melamine is exposed to the exterior. And since you can’t sand the wood flush to the surface,
|you need to either accept the imperfection of the mated joint,|
|or quirk the solid wood.|
If you don’t have a lot of PVC material to band, you can do it with a hot air gun and roller. If you plan on using an iron, then your only option is melamine tape (irons will deform the PVC). In either case, doing it by hand is a pain and yields mixed results. You can also use contact cement with PVC, or better yet, a matching plastic laminate is very durable if the dark edge lines are not objectionable. For solid colors, FastCap offers a peel and stick tape that is simple to apply and works pretty well.
Melamine edges are very sharp. For shelving, always knock down the edge with a stroke of sandpaper.
Repairing melamine can be difficult. Surface scratches that remove the color will always be visible. Small holes and edge-chipping can usually be successfully repaired. For bigger holes and repairs, a good product to use is Seamfil, which is designed for plastic laminate. It’s helpful to have a kit containing several colors that can be custom-mixed to match the melamine. Mixing with a little lacquer thinner will allow it to spread easier. Simply putty-knife it onto the damaged area, let it dry, and clean the excess off with lacquer thinner. For small nicks and quick-fix repairs, colored wax sticks (designed for filling dings and holes in pre-finished wood) work great.
Melamine is much heavier than veneer-core plywood, which makes it fatiguing to work with. But with the particleboard core comes a consistent thickness throughout the panel, unlike with plywood, which varies in dimension. This can have an effect on how panel parts are cut and what the outside dimensions of assembled boxes will be.
Melamine faces can be glued, but you’ll need glue designed specifically for the product such as Roo glue.
The use of melamine is still pretty extensive in the commercial cabinet and fixture industry, but most of our residential clients prefer wood. And I can certainly relate; being a wood guy myself, I have always preferred plywood for its natural characteristics and flaws. However, during this recent economic downturn, people are looking for ways to save money, and melamine is a viable option, if used correctly.
I’ve kind of come full-circle with my interest in melamine. My initial enthusiasm was replaced with a return to the plywood mainstay. But the labor savings in a properly-constructed melamine box can be considerable. A big factor in the successful use of melamine is how it is designed into a project. Even with the wide array of color and wood grain choices, it is best-used one of two ways:
- As an interior material only, where it can be easily separated from the visible exterior. Save the good stuff for the exterior.
- Open shelving used in a closet application where it’s not going to be subject to a lot of use. Exposed melamine with standard banded edges will not typically hold up as well to the rigors of everyday use as other methods will.
To be the most cost-effective, you have to remember that melamine is designed to be a complete, finished product system. That’s why on lesser-quality cabinetry you’ll find even the finished panels, doors, drawer fronts, and drawer boxes all constructed out of this manufactured material which doesn’t require a trip to the spray booth. Hence, the reason it has an extensive rap sheet. But taking advantage of the “complete product system” simply hinges on using an edge that doesn’t require finishing. That’s why it is so critical to use matching edgebanding, especially on frameless cabinetry. Any solid wood you introduce—unless it’s a face frame that clearly separates the interior from the exterior—has to be matched to the melamine, not the other way around (see photo, right). Even though flush solid wood edges add durability, they take away from the labor-savings of using melamine in the first place.
Just like a lot of material we use in our projects, everything has a place. Melamine acquired its bad rap for the imitation look and failure in certain applications. But this is more of a result of poor design and fabrication, rather than the material itself being bad. Like the familiar saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” melamine can be used on quality projects if the proper design and fabrication methods have been employed. If the material is used responsibly, it can be introduced as an option for many projects with good conscience and no apology.