History, Manufacturing & Environment
Laminates and countertop laminate are not as old as stone getting it's start just over 100 years ago. The idea of combining thin layers of a material to make one stronger layer dates back at least to the 1800s, however, the true birth and manufacturing of
laminate countertops came in the early 1900s when a couple engineers for the Westinghouse company invented a laminate product with phenolic resins to serve as an industrial insulator.
engineers left Westinghouse to create the Formica Company and soon the
laminated plastic was being used widely for radios and other electronic
By the 1920s decorative colors and patterns like wood grain and faux marble increased the popularity and use of laminate or "Formica" as it was commonly called after the company name.
During the post-WWII era the use of laminate countertops boomed. Today laminate countertops are still very popular.
Formica is not the only choice with several companies like Dupont and their Wilsonart laminate countertops; Nevamar, Pionite and Arborite offer consumers many choices with greater durability, more colors and designs than ever. And laminate sheeting is used in countless industrial and product applications.
Countertop laminate is made by combining layers of paper and resins into a single, semi-rigid plastic sheet. Brown Kraft paper (the same as paper grocery bags) is used for the bottom layers.
A decorative sheet that bears the visible color and/or design of the laminate countertop goes in the middle and translucent sheets of paper form the top layer.
Of course, more than three sheets of paper comprise a sheet of laminate. Multiple sheets of paper are used in each layer and the total number of sheets varies and overall thickness depends on what type or grade of laminate is being manufactured. All paper layers are soaked in a resin, which serves as a glue and binder.
The layers are then pressed together while cooked, which forces all the papers and resins to chemically bond into one plasticized sheet.
These sheets can then be cut to size and glued to a plywood substrate on-site for custom laminate countertops or they can be bonded to laminate countertop particle board forms of various lengths that already include the backsplash and edge detail.
These pre-fabricated laminate countertops allow for even faster and easier installation.
Laminate is made in several thicknesses or "grades".... but for laminate countertops and related applications there are two basic grades: one thick, one thin.
Horizontal Grade is the thickest type of laminate engineered for heavy use and high-impact as laminate kitchen countertops. Of course, it is the most durable, but also pretty stiff and difficult to form or use on anything but a flat surface.
But, we like our countertops flat... so that works out!
However, if you'd like to bend or form the laminate (known as "postforming") to an unusual shape or if the surface will receive only light-duty use, there's the thinner...
Vertical Grade laminate is used most commonly for backsplashes and other areas that really don't need to withstand as much abuse as a countertop. For instance installing laminate countertops in an alcove used as a desk or for shelving or possibly a laundry room countertop.
The production of countertop laminate includes use of formaldehyde,
results in hazardous by-products and VOC (volatile organic compounds)
glues and such are often used upon installation. Furthermore, laminate cannot be recycled. Thus, it's not considered a "green" product.
But no countertop surface is truly green. Some like recycled glass countertops are making headway and countertop laminate manufacturers are starting to respond as well by switching to water-based resins, eliminating formaldehyde and metallic color compounds, using recycled plastic, etc., but all surface types still have a negative environmental impact.