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Working with Melamine

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Viewed from bottom of panel. Top edge is cut with triple chip blade, left edge cut with negative tooth angle blade.

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.

Reality Check

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

Left blade is negative tooth; right blade is triple chip

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.
I also like using a pair of nitrile gloves during panel-processing. They not only protect your hands from the sharp edges, but help you better grip the material. Melamine is slippery. Getting a good grip means you have better control of the panel during its trip through the blade.

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.
A quirk is the best approach, since it doesn’t have to be flush with the surface to look good. With a quirk you will need to either band the melamine edge first, or color the top of the particleboard to create a less noticeable shadow line. (Photo, right: Melamine cabinet with solid wood edgebanding.)
The standard way to edgeband melamine is with matching PVC edgebanding material.
Edgebanding is available to match every melamine and plastic laminate color, even funky patterns and wood grain. But you need a good tool to apply it. The commercial shops use a glue pot or hot air edgebander.

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.

Full-circle

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:

  1. As an interior material only, where it can be easily separated from the visible exterior. Save the good stuff for the exterior.
  2. 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.

Comments/Discussion

18 Responses to “Working with Melamine”

  1. Jesse Wright

    David,

    GREAT article. Thank you for enlightening us with the use and tips for using Melamine. Your shop also must be a dream to work in.

    Thanks again!

    Reply
  2. J.E. Thiessen

    Interesting to see a recommendation to quirk solid edging applied to melamine. I can’t see this being a good idea on kitchen, bath, office, or mudroom cabinetry where there’s even a small chance of getting liquids on the surface. With a quirked edge the water pools up against the particle core and cause damage right away. If the price point for the project justifies solid edging the customer’s going to be tres unhappy when it’s bubbled up within the first year.

    Commercially edge-banded melamine is pretty consistently water-tight for frameless cabinet edges. Spend the extra budget money on good quality full overlay doors and top surfaces of a material with better wet performance or use melamine boxes with face frames, in my opinion.

    j

    Reply
    • Willy

      As has been noted, Melamine on MDF is not a good combination anywhere there’s water in any form. That having been said, it works great in semi-custom closet components and systems. MDF also lacks the screw holding power of solid wood or plywood, so the use of impact drivers should be kept to a minimum or eliminated entirely. My former shop uses an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw which incorporates a scoring blade making for a very clean cut. My Festool TS55 system also makes exceptionally clean cuts in melamine, often rivaling the F45 quality of cut.

      Reply
  3. Eric Tavitian

    David, I can say that you definitely know the product. I’ve been using melamine since it’s introduction some 30 years ago now. Every one of your techniques I have used or still use to this day. I’m building a new shop now and am finally able to start buying the proper machines to do the job without all the jigs and crazy set ups I’ve been forced to use to obtain a professionally built product. But if it weren’t for all those trial and error jigs and set ups I might not be as proficient at my trade as I am. So I say again, ‘Good Job’ Dave and thanks!

    Reply
  4. Joe Stoddard - Mountain Consulting Group

    Great article – where were you 25 years ago? We built a dentist office in 1985 and melamine was specced for all the cabinets to save money. As you probably know -put the word “dental” or “medical” in front of any standard furnishing, and the price quintuples…so the only way to come in on-budget was to fabricate everything onsite ourselves. That was a learning experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I wish I would have had this article before I started that job!

    One thing I wanted to mention – you can get different thicknesses of the wear surface – horizontal and vertical grade, just like laminates. Melamine you buy at the big box stores is usually the thinner stuff and won’t hold up anywhere near as well in high-use locations.

    The dentist’s cabinets were typically stacks of shallow, wide drawers loaded with heavy equipment or plaster denture castings. Wall cabinets would have similar pull-out storage behind swinging doors. One sagging drawer banging another one will destroy both fronts in short order and the only fix then was replacement. So one last tip – use the heaviest-duty adjustable euro hinges and best quality full-extension ball-bearing drawer slides you can find.

    Reply
  5. Damien (Belgium)

    Great article. Although I see that the rise of specialised CNC driven workshops is starting to make cabinetmaking in Europe a specialist job. Until everyone has replaced his panelsaw with some CNC :).
    I don’t know how it is with other track saws but Makita has an extra depth lock allowing to start the cut with a shallow cut (scoring) where the panel is then cut in a second pass at full depth. Checking the Festool manual I found a splinterguard but not that feature, of course it can probably be simulated with a clipable add-on under the stop block.

    Reply
  6. Victor

    Hello David, I’m intrigued by photograph 13, Is that a grinder? Or is it a sander? Do you actually grind the edge off? What grinding disk do you use?
    Will it chip out and the blue tape become a mess?
    Thank you for your interest in particle boards, 99% of my work is done with veneers and different types of particle boards as well as melamine, and since I only have small tools its great to learn a new trick.

    Reply
    • david getts

      Victor,

      Yes that’s a disk grinder. It makes scribing go fast and is fairly accurate. I use 50 grit to take things down quick and 80 for detail work.

      Reply
  7. John R Graybill

    Good Article,

    Remember Kortron? That stuff was a nightmare to use.

    I use the Festool set-up to cut all my parts. My first cut is shallow and backwards to act like a scoring blade then my second is full depth going forward of course.

    Since I work alone I avoid melamine because of the weight but it has it’s place especially for commercial work like restaurants.

    I scribe using two grinders, one with two discs of 24 grit paper back to back and a second grinder with 40 or 50 paper back to back. The 24 hogs close to the line with a heavy back bevel and the 50 take me to the line.

    You can’t beat the Fastcap edgebanding for speed and ease of installation. I roll the edges really well to seal them. You can’t use melamine for counters; in the long run water will always get under the edge and swell the substrate no matter what. Even giant, expensive German edgebanders with hot glue and PVC banding water will get in. I prime the inside edges of sink cabinet bottoms to protect them but they still get wet and swell.

    Melamine will chip no matter what and always in the worst spot. Mohawk Color fill crayons, white out and white grease pens are handy to have.

    Because of the extra problems associated with melamine it is easier, for me, in the long run to use armour core Nova ply for my boxes and Melamine as seperate pre-finished end panels and fronts.

    Reply
    • david getts

      That’s an excellent idea using the Festool backwards to score. I’ll have to give it a try. I don’t recall using Kortron. Didn’t it have an acrylic laminate on one face?

      Reply
      • Michael Kellough

        The track saw scoring trick works great!

        I set scoring depth to 6 mm on Festool TS 55 saw and pulled backwards. No chipping at all.

        Set cutting depth to 28 mm with excellent results. Initially used the slightly shallower depth I usually use for nominal 3/4″ plywood and did get chipping on the underside. At that very shallow projection the teeth are still slightly negative relative to the bottom of melamine. Just a few mm more depth and chipping stopped.

        Cut on foam backer with this Freud blade.

        Freud LU79R006M20 Perma-Shield Coated Thin Kerf Plywood and Melamine Saw Blade for Festool Saws, 20mm Arbor 160mm by 48-Teeth Hi-ATB

        Full depth cutting with no scoring was not too bad but the pre-scoring made the cuts perfect.

        However, the cheap melamine wasn’t acclimated and moved when cut in half so I pushed both pieces back together and repeated the process. The track saw system makes that easy. Would shops using a panel saw just leave a crooked cut? Would they even notice the curve or go on to make parts with slightly other than 90* corners?

        Reply
  8. JW

    Thanks for the really informative article.
    I don’t use melamine myself but some budgets call for me to farm out cabinets in melamine. I’ve had some swelling problems in drawers and cabinets that are adjacent to the dishwasher (hot and steamy) and will spec ply in those areas in addition to those mentioned.

    JW

    Reply
  9. Alex Mangels

    Interesting article, I am always a big believer that there is a time and a place for each material, and that no one material can do it all. We use alot of melamine in closets now, and it works great there. Your clothes slide nicely on and off the shelves and never catch a stray splinter just waiting to ruin some lady’s silk blouse. I have had a lot of luck, like John G said, running my festool backwards first with a shallow cut, then finishing it at full depth. I also run my router on the same track with a spiral or compression bit when the edge has to be perfect. I have seen a router bit set that creeates a concave profile on the sheetgood, and a convex profile on the solid stock, and when put together they are advertised as “seemless”, I wonder if any of you have tried them on melamine, or anywhere else for that matter?

    Reply
  10. Gene Davis

    One thing worth mentioning is the quality of panel thickness, by which I mean accuracy and tolerance.

    Commercial melamine panels have a far tighter thickness tolerance than even the best veneer plywoods, which make mel panels the preferred material for CNC-cut carcase parts which are meant for assembly using blind or through dadoes.

    As for sink bases, there are some products available for protecting the decks from water. I don’t know whether the product KraftMaid introduced recently for this is available to the trade for use in other cabinets, but it sure looks like a winner.

    Some more in-depth discussion of the real wood veneer edge tapes, and the different thicknesses of edge tape products, would have been welcome. Maybe a “part two” is in order.

    Reply
  11. Craig Brewster

    A good way to make the cabinets more durable is to put a laminate skin on the areas that will have the most wear. For counter top edges a rubber t-mold is much more durable than edge banding. Great article, as you mentioned , cutting without chip out takes some work.

    Reply
    • david

      Thanks for touching on the T-molding option, Craig. It’s a very simple and durable way to treat laminate edges, especially in heavy-use commercial applications.

      Reply
  12. Rohit

    Hello , Does any one know what is the process to make melamine tape with glue. or any one can provide me best rate. please contact me – rhtgulyani@msn.com

    Reply
  13. Steve

    Could you tell me the best way to attach wood edge band to melamine? Type of nail, screw or other.

    Reply

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