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Working with Plastic Laminate

Learn to use this durable, versatile material in your home and shop

By David Radtke


Most woodworkers probably have a natural aversion to working with plastic laminate. After all, we love wood, not plastic! I managed to steer clear of the stuff for years before a bathroom vanity job forced me into it. I was surprised to find it wasn’t so bad! I’d been missing out on a great product that has a thousand uses beyond the durable, easy-to-clean countertops found in kitchens and baths.

 

Think Outside the Countertop

Plastic laminate has a hundred uses beyond the kitchen countertop.Around the shop, it makes an ideal wear surface for jigs, fences, extension tables, assembly benches—anywhere a tough, easyto- clean, low-friction surface is needed.

Unlike wood, plastic laminate requires no clamping, sanding, staining, painting or varnishing.After machining, you’re left with a perfectly smooth, colorful and durable surface that’s ready to use.

Plastic laminate not only creates a durable surface, it also adds significant strength. For example, a particleboard shelf with a laminate top, bottom and edge can hold three times the weight of a raw, uncovered particleboard shelf.

Plastic laminate can also liven up your projects with bold colors.Whether it’s multi-colored shelving or a dark green top on a walnut computer desk, plastic laminates offer a broad pallet of colors.You can even find some pretty good imitations of leather and metal.

So, if you’ve shied away from working with plastic laminate, it’s time to get familiar with this durable and versatile material.

In this article we’ll walk you through making a basic countertop with radiused corners. We’ll also show you how to make a countertop with a wood edge.Laminate requires a few specialty tools and some practice, but once you master the skills, you may find yourself choosing plastic laminate for countertops, shop fixtures, doors—all sorts of projects!

 

What Is Plastic Laminate?

Very simply put, plastic laminate is made with layers of paper and resins pressed together under high temperatures and pressure to form a sheet about 1/16-in. thick. The top layer of paper gives the laminate its color.

Don’t mistake melamine for plastic laminate. Melamine is really only the single colored layer pressed onto one or two sides of particleboard.Because the colored layer is so thin,melamine does not wear as well as laminate. Also, it’s not available in as wide a selection of colors, textures or patterns.

Many home centers carry plastic laminate, but the choices are limited, and the sheets are usually 4x8 and smaller.However, you can special order sheets up to 5 ft. x 12 ft., in a wide array of colors and textures. (See Sources, below for laminate manufacturer contact information.)

Tip: Hang on to your leftovers. Scraps of plastic laminate make great shim stock for setting an even gap around drawers and doors.

 

Choosing a Substrate

Plastic laminate is so thin, the surface underneath it (the substrate) must be sturdy and smooth. Because it’s relatively cheap, the most popular choice for a substrate is 3/4-in. high-density particleboard. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) works equally well but will cost you about 30-percent more.All of these substrates are sold at home centers in 4x8 sheets.

 

Build the Substrate

Make sure the substrate is perfectly clean, flat and free of blemishes,because they’re sure to show through the laminate. Cut your top to size on the tablesaw. Countertops typically have a builtup edge to give them a more substantial look.Cut 2-in.-wide strips of particleboard for front-edge buildups. Glue and nail (or clamp) the strips to the outside edges for a full 1-1/2-in.-thick nosing (Photo 1).Use a portable jigsaw to cut a 2-in. radius on the outside corners. Then sand the edges and radiused corners perfectly even.

 

Cut the Plastic Laminate to Size

Once your substrate is built, you’re ready to cut the laminate sheet to size. Full sheets of laminate are flimsy and hard to handle. If you’re working alone, we recommend cutting the sheets down to manageable size using a scoring tool or a circular saw. You can also cut laminate on your tablesaw using a simple hold-down jig. Cut the laminate 1/2-in. larger in width and length than the substrate dimensions. Cut the large surface piece first, then the thin strip for the vertical edge.

Now you’re ready to cement the laminate to the substrate. Remember, contact cement works differently than other adhesives. After coating both surfaces to be bonded you let the cement dry before you put them together. Once dry, the two surfaces will bond instantly on contact, and there’s no turning back. You can’t reposition the piece.Weird stuff,but it really is the best adhesive for laminate work.

 

Apply the Laminate Edge

For countertops, always do the vertical surfaces first and the top or horizontal surface, last. That way the horizontal top overlaps and protects the vertical edge from chipping when you drag heavy appliances or dishes off the countertop. For vertical surfaces like doors, it’s just the opposite; horizontal first and vertical, or edges, last.

Position the substrate onto a couple pieces of 1-in. scrap so the bottom of the built-up edge is 1/4 in. off your bench (Photo 2). This will accommodate the 1/4-in. overhang of the laminate piece and allow you to use your bench as a guide for getting the strip placed evenly on the substrate.Apply contact cement to the edge of the substrate and the back of the laminate strip.

Let both surfaces dry to the touch. Depending on the humidity, this could take as long as an hour or as little as 15 minutes. Touch it with your fingertips to test for dryness.The cement should not stick to your finger. Keep the bottom edge of the laminate strip in contact with your benchtop to keep the strip parallel to the substrate. Start at one end and carefully press the laminate strip to the edge of the substrate. Don’t forget about those radiused corners! When you’re a couple inches away from the radius, grab your heat gun and heat the laminate strip a few inches on both sides of the radius (Photo 3). Gently bend the laminate strip around the curve and work your way to the end.To ensure a complete bond, apply pressure along the entire edge with a J-roller (Photo 4).

 

Flush-Trim the Overhang

Now you can trim the edges flush with the substrate. Hang the edge of the workpiece over your work surface to allow room for the router base. Clamp the countertop in place. Install your laminate flush-trim bit in your router. Trim the top and bottom edges (Photo 5).

Use a file or sanding block with 120- grit paper to make sure the top and bottom edges are perfectly flat (Photo 6).

 

Apply the Laminate Top

Double- and triple-check that the substrate surface is completely clean! Even the tiniest wood chip or bit of dust will create a bump in the smooth laminate surface. Coat the top of the substrate and back of the laminate with contact cement using a lint-free paint roller (Photo 7). Cover it generously but keep it from oozing onto the edge face. Wipe off any overflow with a damp rag.When the cement is dry, place clean, splinter-free slip sticks, about 4 to 5 in. apart,onto the substrate top (Photo 8). Slip sticks can be 1/2-in. dowels or square pieces of wood. The slip sticks keep the two cement coated surfaces from touching until you get the top positioned precisely. Flip the laminate onto the slip sticks so you’ve got an even 1/4-in. overhang all around.

Don’t get over-anxious with this step. Starting in the middle, gently pull out the slip sticks and press the laminate onto the substrate. Work your way to one end and come back to the middle and work your way to the other end.

Use a J-roller over the entire surface to ensure a good bond. Be careful with the roller near the edges. Getting too close to the overhanging edge could snap the laminate (see Oops!, below). If you don’t have a roller, just wrap a cotton rag around a 2x4 and push the edge of the covered 2x4 firmly over the entire area.

 

Trim the Laminate Top

Use a little mineral spirits on a rag and rub any excess contact cement from the face of the laminated edge until it’s perfectly clean. To protect the vertical edge from burn marks as you trim, cover the front edge with masking tape. Keep the tape a hair below the top edge (Photo 9).

Next, flush-trim the laminate with your router. Note: Be sure there are no burrs or loose screws on your router base that could scratch the laminate. Use a sanding block with some 220- grit paper to remove burrs. Trim the top, letting the bearing ride along the taped edge (Photo 9). Move the router from left to right, keeping the base flat on the top.

Tip: If your trimming bit gets clogged with contact cement, you’ll need to clean it. Turn off the router, remove the bit and soak it in mineral spirits. Use an old toothbrush to remove the cement.

Ease the sharp top edge where the laminate meets with a bevel-trim bit (Photo 10). Install the bevel-trim bit in your router so only 3/16 in.or less of the cutting edge is exposed. Bevel the top edge only. Now step back and admire your work.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Glue and clamp the buildups to the bottom of the substrate to give the countertop a thicker, more substantial appearance. Use nails to pin the buildups in place so they won’t shift around under clamp pressure.


2. Brush contact cement on the edges. Particleboard edges which are porous and may require two coats (let the first coat dry about 30 minutes). Brush contact cement on the back of the laminate strip when you apply the second coat to the edge. Use supports to hold the substrate off the bench.


3. Use a heat gun on curves to soften the laminate. Press the laminate onto the substrate with a gloved hand.


4. Roll the surface of the laminate firmly to ensure a good bond to the substrate.


5. Trim the top and bottom edge of the laminate strip flush to the substrate. Use a laminate flushtrim bit for this job. Be careful not to tip the router as you cut.


6. Smooth any irregularities left after routing with a file or sanding block. Be careful not to round over the edge. File only in the direction that pushes the laminate into the substrate, not away from it.


7. Roll contact cement on the substrate and the back of the plastic laminate. Let it dry on both surfaces before assembly.


8. Use “slip sticks” to separate the laminate from the substrate. Align the laminate top with the substrate, keeping a 1/4-in. overhang on all sides. Remember:You won’t be able to move the laminate once it touches the substrate. Start in the middle and pull out the slip sticks one by one, pushing the laminate onto the substrate as you go.


9. Trim the laminate flush with the substrate all the way around the top. Masking tape protects the laminate from scorching should the bearing get clogged with contact cement and seize up.


10. Use a beveltrim bit to ease the sharp edge where the two laminate pieces overlap.A thin coat of lubricant, such as petroleum jelly, protects the finished edge from scarring.


3 Ways to Cut Plastic Laminate

1. Cut the laminate with a carbide-tipped scoring tool. Make at least four firm passes to score deep enough for a clean break. Pull up gradually from one end of the score to the other (inset photo).


2. Cut the laminate with a circular saw. Set the blade 1/4-in. deep and hold the laminate up off your bench with 2x4s, as shown. Use a high-toothcount, carbide blade in your saw. Secure the laminate face down on the 2x4s with tape.


3. Cut laminate with a subfence on your tablesaw. The simple subfence shown here fits tight to the top of your tablesaw so the laminate can’t sneak under the fence and get jammed. A narrow strip of acrylic holds the laminate down on the table while letting you see where the laminate contacts the fence.




Must-Have Tools and Matericals


Contact Cement

Contact cement is the best adhesive for laminate work. It creates an instant bond and eliminates the need for clamps.

Contact cement is available in both solvent-based and water-based formulas. The fumes from solvent-based contact cement are toxic and flammable. For that reason,we recommend waterbased contact cement. It’s much safer to use and cleans up easily with soap and water. The only drawback to waterbased contact cement is its longer drying time, especially in humid conditions. Follow the recommended safety guidelines on the back of the container.

Cement Applicators

All you need here is a disposable brush and a 9-in. roller.Look for roller covers specially designed for spreading adhesives. If you choose to use solvent-based contact cement, don’t use foam applicators. The solvents eat them up.


A Router

Any router will do,but smaller is better. Bigger routers have larger bases that tend to get in the way. Laminate trimmers are very small routers made just for this type of work. If you do a lot of laminate work, they are worth the extra cash because they’re so easy to handle.


Laminate-Trimming Bits

You’ll need two carbide router bits to cut plastic laminate; a flush-trim bit ($9) and a bevel-trim bit ($14).The flush-trim bit cuts the laminate flush with the particleboard base (called a substrate).The bevel-trim bit is used to ease the edge where laminate meets laminate at a 90-degree angle (for example, the spot where the edge and top of a countertop meet).


Heat Gun

To bend laminate around a radius, you’ll need a heat gun,which softens the laminate so it won’t break as it’s bent.We’ll show you how to do this later.



Nice-to-Have Tools


Scoring Cutter

If cutting a flimsy piece of laminate with power tools makes you nervous, this may be the tool for you. It’s a carbide-tipped hand tool ($7) that scores the surface of the laminate.After scoring, the laminate will break along the score line. It’s similar to cutting drywall or glass.


Single-Cut Mill/*** File

This tool ($11) is used to ease any sharp edges or straighten any irregularities after trimming. Look for one labeled “mill/*** type” on the package.


J-Roller

This tool ($12) is used to roll the surface of the laminate to ensure a complete adhesive bond to the substrate. In a pinch, you can substitute a 2x4 block with a rag wrapped around it.




Oops!

Oh, great! I got a little too close to the overhanging edge when I rolled out the top.The unsupported laminate cracked all the way back to the substrate.Unfortunately, this is impossible to repair. You must cut new laminate. Fortunately,you can remove the broken laminate and use the substrate again. Contact cement is reversible. Just squirt or brush some mineral spirits into the joint as you peel off the broken laminate (see photo below). The mineral spirits will break the bond. Remember, you must recoat the substrate with a fresh coat of contact cement to create a new bond.




Making a Wood-Edged Top

A wood-edged countertop not only looks great, but it’s easy to make, holds up better than laminate edges and you can choose from a variety of edge profiles.

Prepare the substrate as you would for a laminateedged top. Cut and glue 3/4-in. x 1-1/2-in.-hardwood edge banding onto the built-up substrate. Mitered corners look best. Round the sharp outside corners, sand the wood edge flush with the substrate (top photo), and apply the laminate top. Flush-trim the laminate to the substrate. Then,choose a router bit profile to finish off the edge. I like a simple bevel cut (bottom photo), but you could choose any number of profiles.

Sand the wood edge flush with the top of the substrate. Round over the mitered corners with a router before applying the laminate.


Use a chamfer bit to shape the top edge of the countertop. A 25- to 30- degree bevel looks best.You can choose any number of routerbit profiles as an edge treatment on a wood-edged countertop.




Source

Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.

Woodworker’s Supply, woodworker.com, 800-645-9292, J-Roller, #893-723; 9" roller frame, #948-824; 9" glue roller cover, #948-803; Laminate Scoring Knife, #948-326; 10" mill cut file, #948-206 5480; 1-qt.Water-Based Contact Cement, #927-517; Bosch 1942 Heat Gun, #802-084; Bevel-Trim Bit, #110-075; Flush-Trim Bit, #110-087; 25-degree chamfer bit, 40-102.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker September 2003, issue #102.

September 2003, issue #102

Purchase this back issue.