What is plastic laminate?

High-pressure plastic laminate (sometimes referred to as HPL) is a decorative sheet material used on vertical surfaces such as cabinet doors and horizontal surfaces such as countertops.

Although there are some overlaps in solid colors and similarities in some woodgrains and patterns between manufacturers, they each have their own set of colors and patterns to meet the tastes of nearly any designer or design concept.

More than just Formica

Many people refer to all HPL as “Formica”, where in reality Formica is only one brand of plastic laminate (much as people refer to all adhesive bandages as Band-aids and all facial tissue as Kleenex).

The largest and most common brand names of laminate in the United States are Wilsonart and Formica. Other brands made in the US are Nevamar, Pionite, and Laminart.

Arborite is made in Canada.

Arpa and Abet Laminati are both made in Italy – all are readily available in the US.

When people think “Formica” they immediately envision vintage patterns from the ’50s like starburst with gold fleck or “boomerang”, unrealistic wood-grain representations from the ’60s and ’70s, or basic white, almond and grey solids and nebulas from the ’80s and ’90s. Although some of these are still available, in the past several years the look, feel, and performance of HPL has drastically changed 

– for the better.

The biggest change has been in the quality of the printed images on the paper used to manufacture HPL.  Advances in the technology of digital imaging and printing processes has produced wood-grain patterns, particularly tighter wood-grains such as maple or cherry, and reproductions of natural (stone) and industrial materials (concrete and steel) that can be almost indistinguishable from the actual material being represented.

Other patterns and colors, although perhaps inspired by nature or other materials, may be completely unique to that particular laminate.

Thus the laminate itself, without mimicking other materials, becomes a design element in its own right. A good example is the laminate shown in the banner above. As you can see the pattern and colors are very unique and suited to an equally unique application. The designer that specified this Italian laminate had a specific design concept and ease of cleaning and durability parameters that really could not be achieved with any other material as this is being used in a commercial environment on the face of a bar

Advances in plastic laminate

One of the other big advances in plastic laminate is the variety of finishes that have become more readily available in recent years.

High-pressure plastic laminate sheets are created by pressing several layers of paper that have been impregnated with phenolic and melamine resins in a heated press with tons of pressure until they have been permanently fused together. During this process a steel press plate with a texture etched on its face (or in the case of high gloss laminate a very smooth mirror finish) is pressed against the face of the laminate sheet. The texture on the press plate is then permanently embossed into the face of the finished laminate sheet.

Although the standard matte finish is still the most popular and works well in most applications, by using enhanced finishes a designer can create a different or higher-end “feel” of space while keeping the project within budget.

This is especially true of wood grain laminates used in a vertical application, such as cabinet fronts or furniture items. Some of these finishes actually look and feel more like a finished wood panel than plastic laminate.

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