Q&A / 

Plastic Laminate Countertops

DEAR TIM: It's time to remodel my kitchen. I was thinking of using plastic laminate countertops again. However, my neighbor has plastic laminate cabinets that have numerous chips. Is plastic laminate not as durable now as it has been in the past? Also, can I avoid that ugly brown line at the edges? If I decide to purchase it, how can I keep it looking brand new? A.R.

DEAR A. R.: Don't base your purchasing decision entirely on the condition of your neighbor's cabinets. The chips on your neighbor's cabinets may be a result of abuse. If anything, plastic laminate is quite possibly more durable than at any time in its history.

The decorative plastic laminate on your kitchen and bath countertops was born in another industry in the early 1900's. The first plastic laminate was used as an insulator in the electrical industry. It was a replacement for heavy ceramic insulators.

Plastic laminate is basically a sandwich of plastic coated papers. It is made by combining layers of kraft paper, a decorative paper layer, and a clear surface layer under high temperature and pressure. The color and patterns you see are simply the layer of decorative paper. The clear surface layer protects the decorative paper from abrasion and moisture.

Decorative laminates are available in different thicknesses. The thickness of the final product is usually a function of how many slices of kraft paper are in the sandwich. The greater the number of slices of kraft paper, the higher the product's impact resistance and resilience. Your neighbor's cabinets most likely are covered with a thinner laminate designed for vertical surfaces. Choose the thickest laminate you can find for your new countertops.

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That ugly brown line you see on your older laminate tops is simply the layers of kraft paper. Newer laminate edge moldings are available that eliminate this unsightly line. Laminate moldings offer a variety of shapes and profiles. These are applied to the front and side edges of your countertops. You can mix and match different colors, textures and patterns to create your own distinctive countertop. Wood edge moldings in red oak and hard maple are also available.

If you desire the real look of wood and the benefits of plastic laminate, consider using laminate veneers. This is a laminate product that substitutes thin wood veneers for the decorative paper in the laminate sandwich. Some of these laminates are available that allow you to stain and finish the surface to your liking. These laminates can be used to make beautiful cabinets.

Caring for your new laminate countertop is a breeze. The trick is to wipe up spills as fast as possible. Always use a mild liquid or powdered detergent to wash the countertops. Be sure to rinse the surface after cleaning. Some detergent residues can cause permanent surface blemishes if they come into contact with water on the bottom of plates, bowls, or glasses. Finally, while these new laminates are durable, they are not cutting surfaces. Get out that seasoned cutting board for cutlery chores.


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