Why Laminate Countertops Are Making a Comeback

Modern Kitchen Interior
Steven Miric/Photodisc/Getty Images

After years of being vilified, laminate countertops have surged back in popularity.  There's no secret to this.  At one time, laminates held a firm position as the manmade materials countertop of choice.  But this position was challenged with the introduction of solid surfaces (i.e., Corian).  Why finish your kitchen off with laminate's layers (more on this below) when you can have a surface that is solid--homogeneous through and through?

Due to this stiff competition, laminate counter makers stepped up their game, and now this material--once a staple of ultra low-budget remodels--is being found in higher-end homes.

Will it find a place in yours?  Let's demystify laminate countertops by looking at the manufacturing process, installation techniques, prices, and major manufacturers.

Would You Believe They Aren't Plastic?

Laminate came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when plastic everything was the vogue. Certainly, laminate must be a modern plastic substance that is environmentally evil?

Wrong. A familiar name to all of us, Formica, began operations in 1913 making industrial laminate products, and countertops as long ago as the late 1940s. And don't even dare use the word plastic. Laminate is not plastic.

In today's age, when paper countertops are all the eco-rage, laminate counters have always heavily sourced from paper--not plastic.

Laminate, from top to bottom, looks something like this:

  1. Melamine Resin - Transparent. Protects everything else below it.
  2. Overlay or Wear Layer - Paper similar to the paper used to make coffee filters or tea bags. Also, carries some melamine resin and aluminum oxide with it.
  3. Decorative Layer - This is the layer that has the color and design.
  1. Kraft Paper - Similar to paper in grocery bags, the Kraft paper layer forms the core of the laminate surface. This paper is hardened with resins.

Installation Choices (You Can Even Install It Yourself)

Unlike difficult-to-install materials like slab granite or solid surface, the laminate can either be DIY-installed or professionally installed.

  1. DIY Install Pre-Fabricated Counters:  You can purchase pre-fabricated laminate counters online or from home improvement stores. These counters have the laminate surface already applied to the base and with edge treatments added. Your range of looks is limited.  Home improvement stores tend to only carry 3-5 styles in stock, though you can special order other styles.  
  2. DIY:  Make Counters Yourself and Self-Install:  To increase your style options the entire world of laminates, you can create laminate counters from scratch.  Sheets of the laminate are glued to particleboard, with laminate forming the edges, too.  A router rips off excess laminate and gives you a smooth, straight edge.  Handling the router with laminate is tricky, as even the slightest nudge is enough to nick the laminate and ruin your edge. This option has a significant learning curve.  Rolled edge treatments are not possible with homeowner-created laminate counters.
  1. Pro-Installed:  Your pool of sizes and styles is expanded to the maximum.  As noted in the previous step, the installer first lays down the particleboard base, then applies your choice of the laminate surface with a strong adhesive. Excess laminate is routed off and edge treatments added.

Prices

There was a time, long ago, when laminate counters were inexpensive--all of them.  Laminate is still one of your cheapest countertop options.  But with premium and designer laminates available, you need to keep an eye on the price tag.

  • Raw Laminate:  4' x 8' sheets of laminate from home improvement stores begin at about $1.80 per square foot.  Remember, this does not include the slab base, baseboard, or peripheral materials, such as an adhesive.
  • Laminate Slabs:  A decent laminate slab (laminate on 1/2" particleboard, with a rolled front edge and attached backsplash) begins at $7 per square foot from Home Depot.
  • Pro-Installed:  Professionally installed laminate counters start at around $30 per linear foot, depending on your area. If you want custom edge treatments--and this is a time-intensive task that drives up the price--expect to pay upwards of $50 per linear foot.

Laminate vs. Other Materials:  Which Would I Personally Choose?

Laminate is distinctly different from other types of countertop materials:

  • Solid Surface vs. Laminate - If the laminate is ever confused with another countertop substance, it's usually what we call solid surface. Solid surface (i.e., Corian, etc.) is solid all the way through. Laminate is typically cheaper than the solid surface and somewhat easier to fabricate.  Between the two, I would choose solid surface.
  • Quartz vs. Laminate - Stone can be either slab of natural stone or quartz (engineered stone made from stone particles bound by adhesives into slabs). In either case, the stone is solid all the way through, unlike laminate with its particleboard base. Stone is vastly more expensive than laminate and is difficult to fabricate and install.  Between quartz and laminate, I would choose quartz.  Between natural stone and laminate, it's a toss-up, as I do not relish maintaining my countertops by regularly sealing them.
  • Tile vs. Laminate - Tile, either ceramic or stone, is a little like laminate in that it is a thin layer installed on a wood base. The difference is that tile's base will usually by plywood, whereas laminate's base is particleboard. Tile counters are comparable to laminate in cost.  The main downside of tile counters is the huge number of seams.  Between tile and laminate, I would choose laminate.

Manufacturers

The big names in the laminate are Formica, Wilsonart, Pionite, Bevella, Hartson-Kennedy, and Nevamar.