Buyer's Guide to Laminate Countertops

New Counters in Modern Kitchen

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Having taken a real beating throughout the 1980s-1990s, laminates have made a comeback. Homeowners are re-discovering laminate's ease of installation and surprisingly low cost.

What Is This Stuff?

If the term laminate countertops doesn't ring a bell, the name Formica probably will. Formica, a brand name of the oldest type of laminate counter material, has long carried the laminate legion—and sometimes burden—for the rest of the industry. Yes, there was a dark time for laminate countertops; a time when laminate was synonymous with cigarette-burned motel countertops and Space Age-styled Googie diners.

Alas, times change and for laminate countertops, change has been for the good. Many of the myths and assumptions about laminate countertops have been shattered (or never existed in the first place), opening up more kitchens and bathrooms for laminate countertops.

New Patterns

Granite laminate countertops? This seems like a contradiction of terms. After all, laminate counter manufacturers have long been known for producing materials with contemporary designs. As Formica notes in its history, "With the exception of Linen and Wood finish, the patterns were synthetic designs, often with a playful bent."

In the '70s, names like Avocado and Harvest Gold came around. But where were the stones? It wasn't until the 1990s, when homeowners expressed an interest in the real stones—the kind that comes from quarries—that laminate counters began to imitate their earth-based counterparts.

Granite-printed laminate countertops now look remarkably like the real thing, due to improved design and manufacturing techniques. Not only that, but granite laminate counters now have better finishes which more closely imitate granite.

If you spend enough time staring at a sheet of laminate countertop, you'll notice the pattern repeating roughly every 18 inches. Because of the explosion in popularity of granite laminates, Formica with its 180fx series has photographed large slabs of real granite (up to five feet wide) and reproduced these images in high-def on Formica.

Another interesting advance from Formica has been the metal finishes in its Authentix Collection. No, this is not real metal at all, but a clever reproduction. Where would you use Authentix? How about kitchen backsplashes?

Formica Himalayan Slate Laminate Countertop

Enhanced Durability

Wilsonart laminate countertops are perhaps the second-most recognized brand of laminate next to Formica. Not a newcomer by any means, Wilsonart has been producing laminate countertops for decades.

Laminate Countertops Wilsonart

Wilsonart Laminate Countertop "Wear-Ability"

With laminate countertops of the past, you won in terms of price but you lost with the wear/durability qualities. Laminates could easily scratch, scuff, wear down, etc.

Wilsonart's response to this has been a line of laminate countertops using what they call AEON technology. AEON is not available with all Wilsonart laminate countertops, just Wilsonart HD and most Wilsonart Premium Laminates.

There is a myth that laminate will easily scratch—the truth is that, these days, laminate will scratch, but not easily. Manufacturers such as Wilsonart bind a protective layer (in Wilsonart's case, it's called AEON) to the laminate, making it up to 500 percent more scuff and scratch resistant as well as 400 percent more wear resistant. 

Laminate manufacturers always recommend that you use a trivet when setting down hot pots or baking pans, however, as it may scorch. In practice, I have found laminate to be incredibly resilient even when subjected to cast iron pans directly taken from 500 degree-plus ovens.

Wilsonart Old Mill Oak Laminate Counter

Increasing the Appearance of Depth

One of the problems with laminate countertops has always been a lack of visual depth. Natural stones, such as granite, have the appearance of depth because they are deep. Even solid surface and quartz countertop materials can have that desired three-dimensional quality.

But laminate countertop materials are a thin veneer—no more than a few millimeters—so depth must be achieved some other way. Wilsonart has developed a line of HD High Definition laminates under the following premium series: Luna, Eclipse, Metallic, Passage, Crystalline, Gemstone, Bella, Sedona, and Deepstar.