Laminate Countertops: What to Know Before You Buy

New Counters in Modern Kitchen

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The goal of laminate countertops is varied and manifold. Provide waterproof protection for kitchen and bathroom countertops. Be durable enough to last for years. Have enough design choices and colors to satisfy most buyers. And finally, do all of that while remaining inexpensive.

One type of countertop surfacing material actually hits most, if not all, of those points: laminate.

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

What Laminate Countertops Are

If the term laminate countertops doesn't ring a bell, the name Formica probably might.

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.

There was a low period for laminate countertops when design choices dwindled and no designer would ever recommend laminate. But times change. 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. More patterns and colors are available, all in higher definition than before.

Improved High Definition Patterns

Granite laminate countertops may seem 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."

Simulated Stone

In the 1970s, design 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.

Infrequent Pattern Repetition

If you spend enough time staring at a sheet of lower-grade 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 5 feet wide) and reproduced these images in high-definition on Formica. This is a trend that has been copied by many other manufacturers, as well.

Faux Metal Finishes

Another interesting advance from Formica has been the metal finishes in its Authentix Collection. This is not real metal at all, but a clever reproduction. Authentix works well for any application where you need to add some sparkle, such as on kitchen backsplashes or bar tops.

Improved Laminate Countertop Durability

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, fade, and generally lose their freshness and charm.

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.

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.

Increasing Laminate's 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.