09 September 2008

Laminate countertops have an undeserved reputation as the stuff you settle for if you can't spend the $100+ per linear foot for solid surfacing and natural stone. At just $15 to $30 per linear foot, good quality laminates are easier on your budget, but they have much more going for them than price. They also withstand years of use and abuse, and can turn a rundown kitchen into a showplace.

Laminate counters are formed from layers of decorative and kraft papers saturated with melamine resin and bonded together under pressure. You can also enhance the standard designs by customizing your project with a contrasting edge treatment.

The most crucial concerns with laminates are picking the right color and design for your kitchen and, because each counter is custom-built, making sure the countertop is assembled and installed correctly.

Choosing
  • There are plenty of laminates to choose from. Consider Wilsonart and Formica, which produce 75% of the laminates sold in the US offers 230 different colors and patterns, and Formica stocks 96 solid colors along with dozens of patterns.
  • Formica takes the process a step further. Its selection system is based on matching counters with popular cabinet colors, because cabinets take up most of the visual space in a kitchen. The system suggests bold colors for the daring and neutral ones for more conservative homeowners and those who plan to sell their home in the next few years.
Finishes that work
Most of the colors are available in a variety of sheens. Glossy, shiny finishes make a kitchen sparkle. But remember! It's difficult to keep them clean. Stick with a tough, easy-to-clean matte finish for a working, family kitchen.

The counter
  1. Try using a neutral color or pattern for the counter and applying a bright accent color on the backsplash.
  2. Consider butting the counter against the wall and tiling up to the cabinets, using a tile that picks up one of the counter colors or a contrasting color. Another option is to install matching or contrasting laminate up the wall as the backsplash.
  3. Use the edge treatment as an accent area by adding a contrasting edge strip or even a different material.
  4. Determine if the samples go with your cabinets, floors and appliances. Leave them in place on your current counter for a day or two to see how they look under different lighting conditions.
Spotting Quality
The easiest and cheapest ways to buy a laminate counter is to pick one off the rack at a home center. The backsplash, counter and rounded front are all formed from one piece of laminate. Ready-made countertops cost the least (about $20 per linear foot), and selection is usually limited to white, off white and one or two wood grains.

You'll also have to cut the finished counter to the dimensions of your kitchen, creating an nfinished edge that must be covered with a matching strip of laminate if exposed.

There is another option is to buy the countertop through the kitchen department of a home center or from a kitchen dealer or designer. Your order will then be sent to a fabricator. Or you can seek out at a cabinet shop that makes its own tops. You're best off having the pro come to your house to measure.

Most fabricators deliver the finished countertops and offer installation. Whether you choose this option or not, you should carefully inspect the finished countertop before installation.
  1. Be sure the laminate is bonded to medium-density fiberboard. Because of its limited expansion and contraction, MDF won't crack or buckle the laminate.
  2. Check for a small section of MDF spanning the seams beneath the counter where two pieces of fiberboard come together. This piece adds strength.
  3. Check that the laminate is fully bonded to the substrate. Bonding is easy to spot on the edges. A hollow sound means there's incomplete adhesion.
  4. Look for rounded corners, including those in cutouts for the sink and cooktop. Corners are stress points, rounded ones are less likely to cause cracks in the laminate.
  5. Make sure the supporting cabinets are level so the countertop is, too.
  6. Avoiding scouring pads and cleansers, which will harm the surface.
  7. Always use a cutting board for chopping and slicing, and place hot pots and pans on trivets instead of directly onto the counter.

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