From their introduction during the late 1940s and 1950s as a space-age substitute for wood or stone surfaces, laminate countertops have come full circle. After the heyday from the 1950s through the late 1960s, plastic laminate countertops went through a long period when they were regarded as cheap and even tacky. Consumers began to shun laminates, turning instead to other countertop materials, such as solid-surface material (such as Corian), natural stone, and finally synthetic stone and composites.
But today's laminates are of considerably better quality than the classic Formica countertops of the 1960s. While they still may not have the prestige of quartz, natural stone, or composite materials, these latest high-pressure laminates (HPLs) are by no means inferior countertop materials. Today's laminates offer hundreds of design options and are still much more affordable than most other materials. For DIYers, laminates offer one of the best choices for building your own countertop. But laminate countertops tend to have a shorter life than other materials, and even the best of them can be susceptible to burns, chipping, or delamination.
Many design options
Susceptible to burns and delamination
Difficult to repair
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Understanding Plastic Laminate
All plastic laminates used for countertops share the same basic manufacturing process, although there are small proprietary variations between manufacturers. In the basic process, plastic phenolic resins are laminated onto layers of ordinary brown kraft paper, then a decorative print layer is added, which is then topped by a wear layer and a thin, transparent melamine resin layer that protects everything. In modern high-pressure laminates, the plastic resins are impregnated with cellulose layers that solidify into a solid under heat and pressure, giving the product considerably more strength and resistance to heat and scratching.
Laminate Countertop Cost
Laminate is still one of your cheapest countertop options. Home Depot reports that the average cost for the countertop alone is $29 per square foot, compared to $52 per square foot for solid surface material (such as Corian), $58 for granite, and $68 for quartz (engineered stone). But the prices for laminate countertops can vary greatly depending on the pattern and color you select, and costs above $40 per square foot are possible.
The cost of a laminate countertop will also vary greatly depending on if you are having a custom countertop fabricated and installed; building your own from raw laminate, or installing prefabricated countertop segments (called a post-form countertop).
- Custom-built countertop: Hiring a pro to build and install your countertop will entail them building the countertop core to exactly match your specifications, applying whatever raw sheet laminate you have selected, then installing the countertop. With installation labor included, average costs for fabricating and installing the countertop are about $60 per square foot. If you want custom edge treatments, a time-intensive task that drives up the price, expect to pay even more. It is also possible to have the countertop fabricated at costs ranging from $20 to $40 per square foot, then install it yourself.
- Build your own using raw laminate: Large sheets of laminate (5 x 12 feet, or 60 square feet) cost $100 to $300 each (or $1.50 to $5 per square foot). Added to this will be about $30 for each 4 x 8-foot sheet of MDF used to build the countertop core, as well as tool rental and supplies such as contact cement. Plan on spending about $5 to $10 per square foot to build your own countertop.
- Prefabricated post-form countertops: Prefabricated countertop segments are sold in 4-foot, 8-foot, and angled corner pieces at home improvement centers. Costs range from $50 to $200 per segment. This is an inexpensive, easy option, but your choice of colors and patterns will be limited to what is stocked at home improvement centers. These are typically quite simple countertops with integrated backsplashes and round-over front edges.
Maintenance and Repair
Laminate countertops are made from plastic resins that make the countertops very easy to clean and resistant to stains. Simple cleaning with soap and water is all that's normally required. They can, however, be scratched if abrasive cleansers are used on them.
Laminate countertops can be subject to delamination over time, especially if water seeps through seams, and repairs are very difficult to make. Serious damage usually requires replacing the entire countertop.
Once limited to basic faux stone and woodgrain patterns, modern high-pressure laminates are available in many hundreds of different colors, patterns, and textures. New printing technology gives modern laminates a depth and realism that was once deemed impossible.
This makes laminates one of the most flexible of all countertop materials, and one that is no longer regarded as cheap-looking, though still less prestigious than top-end materials. In modern-style homes or mid-century modern styles, laminate countertops can be an excellent fit. They can also be a good choice for guest bathrooms or kitchenette/bars in recreation areas.
Laminate Countertop Installation
Unless you are buying factory-made post-form countertop segments, building a laminate countertop—whether it is done by a professional or DIYer—involves first building a core of MDF or plywood, then cutting pieces of plastic laminate and gluing them to the core using contact cement. A router is used to carefully trim the laminate flush with the edges of the countertop. The most difficult aspect of construction is the creation of the edging treatment and the backsplash. The real advantage of having a professional custom-build your countertop is that they have the skills and tools to create decorative edging treatments, such as beveled edges and corners treated with contrasting laminate, or exposed hardwood edging. Professional installation may also involve careful scribing of the backsplash to fit any irregularities in the wall surface.
After the countertop is fabricated, installation is a simple matter of positioning the countertop on the floor cabinets and securing it with screws driven up through the corner brackets on the cabinets and into the bottom of the countertop.
Tops Brands of Laminate Countertops
All of the major brand names in the laminate field now offer quality high-pressure laminates with excellent graphics. They include:
- Formica: This is the original manufacturer of plastic laminates and is still the leading company.
- Wilsonart: Known for some of the toughest of the high-pressure laminates, Wilsonart also manufactures other countertop materials, including quartz and solid-surface material.
- Nevamar: Owned by Panolam Industries, Nevamar makes some of the most artistic laminates. Their selection includes standard wood grains and stone patterns, but also hundreds of abstracts and texture prints in a wide array of colors.
Are Laminate Countertops Right for You?
Once regarded as a cheap, low-end option, laminate countertops are now found in plenty of higher-end homes. They are a good choice for those who want an affordable countertop material that offers a vast range of design choices, or anyone who wants to try their hand at DIY fabrication.