Do you remember the kitchen of your childhood?
If you grew up in western society, chances are you lived in a house with a laminate kitchen counter. I did, and I can remember being eye-level with the edge of that counter, and seeing the dark line that separated the vertical edge from the horizontal surface. Our countertops were daisy yellow, and the brownish-black line that separated the edge from the surface delineated an important milestone for my childhood development—because when I finally grew to eye-level with that line on the counter, I could reach the cookie jar.
Now, in the 21st Century, those laminate countertops are coming back. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, or maybe it’s the low cost, or maybe the new innovations in laminate technology—including ditching the telltale laminate edge seams—are making people consider laminate again.
My mother called it Formica, although that’s just one of the many brand names for laminate countertops. What are they made out of? Well, laminate typically gets its color and pattern from printed paper fused to particle board and then covered with clear resin. Sound cheap? It is, and the old versions invariably looked cheap, too.
But the new laminate designs do a pretty credible job of impersonating stone, wood and even marble. Laminate can mimic pricier surfaces now, and some edge treatments, including rounded and ogee shapes, even make the seam seem to go away, making it look and perform much better--but potentially robbing today’s children of their best cookie-stealing memories.
The upside of laminates? Major affordability. You can order and install a laminate countertop for a fraction, sometimes one-tenth, of what the costlier materials like granite will run. A tight budget calls for creative solutions, and some of the new laminate materials lend themselves to creativity, with pretty unlimited color and pattern choices. In fact, take a look at Formica’s website, and go to their Design Center there—its online kitchen countertop design tools allow you to visualize what you can do with laminate countertops.
The other laminate pros: light weight, good durability (except with knifes—see the cons below), reasonably low environmental impact, and high resistance to food stains and scorch marks from hot pots and pans. Laminates can still burn and stain, don’t get me wrong, but has a higher tolerance than some natural materials like granite and butcher block. Also, because of the resurgence of mid-century modern decor sensibilities, laminate kitchens do fit well into homes with that design approach.
You already know one of the downsides—laminate isn’t usually perceived as a high-quality material, so installing it in a home bound for resale may not impress many potential buyers. That’s starting to change with some of the newer laminate products, but if you’re planning on selling soon, ask a realtor in your area what the home price differential would be between a laminate countertop kitchen and one of the higher-end materials—it may surprise you, and it may not be advantageous to install a laminate product.
The other main downside to laminates includes a high susceptibility to scratching, especially from sharp knives. With a non-repairable laminate countertop, always use cutting boards! Forget even once, and you’ll permanently damage the resin surface. Damage it sufficiently—I’ve seen this happen—and water will seep through the resin surface, causing your laminate to de-laminate, or split and come apart.
Also, as a result of that particle board base, you can’t use any of the modern undermount sinks—instead, you’ll need to use a sink with a lip that drops in from the top, and seal it carefully.
Check out some of the laminate brands and their newest offerings—you might be surprised by what you can get for such a low cost of entry.