Working with laminate
Introduction to Laminate
Laminate, more commonly known as Formica, can be used in a multitude of ways, both in the home and shop. Of course, it has been the mainstay of kitchen and bathroom countertops for many years, but has several other uses wherever a smooth, easy to clean surface is required. Laminate is available in a variety of colours and surfaces, from a very plain flat white to a granite-type colour and texture. Other exotic finishes are available, including a stainless steel look or even a copper coating.
Applying a solid edge not only looks good but it provides a strong edge that will stand up to knocks and drops.
Roll out the glue
Using a paint roller to spread the contact cement will give you an even coat every time.
You only get one chance to attach the laminate to the substrate once the contact cement is dry.
Get the air out
Use a J-roller to remove any air trapped under the laminate and to ensure good adhesion.
A laminate trimmer, as the name suggests, was designed for this task. You can follow up with a file to remove any sharp corners.
Cut to size
The laminate trimmer fitted with a flush-trim bit is the easiest way to dimension the fragile laminate material.
Laminate Grades and Sizes
Laminate is available in several thicknesses, the most common of which are general purpose and post form grades. The sheets available at many home centers are general purpose grade, while post form grade is thinner and is also easily available. Laminate is available in many different sizes from 30″ x 48″ up to 60″ x 144″. Some home centers have 48″ x 96″ sheets.
Contact cement is the adhesive of choice for attaching laminate to a substrate. It is available in several forms, from the old standby, solvent-based, to latex-based, or an aerosol. I prefer the latex-based cement. It does take longer to dry than solvent-based cement but the smell is minimal and it’s much easier to roll or brush out. The aerosol cans of cement are great for small projects like a router table top. A one-litre can will easily cover most workshop projects and a four-litre can is plenty for a typical kitchen countertop. Latex-based contact cement is easily brushed on with cheap disposable brushes or rolled with a smooth surface latex paint roller. Contact cement works best at room temperature and cannot be allowed to freeze. Leftover cement has a limited shelf life, even in a well-sealed can, so try to buy just enough to finish your job.
Any sheet material will make a good substrate for a laminate top. In my opinion, the best is a good grade of particle board, 1-1/16″ thick. Plywood works well too, but sometimes the grain pattern will ‘telegraph’ through the laminate, especially with the thinner post form grade. The surface to be laminated must be smooth and free of defects such as knots and voids.
Working with Laminates
Laminate is relatively fragile, and must be handled with care. A work surface the size of the sheet is highly recommended. Laminate is easy to cut to size. The best way is to clamp the sheet to a flat surface, overhanging the edge, and using a laminate trimmer with a 1/4″ flush cutting laminate bit riding along the work surface edge. Smaller pieces can be cut on a table saw with a carbide crosscut blade and a zero clearance insert for the throat opening to prevent chipping the laminate.
Building and Laminating
The first step in constructing a laminated surface is to build the substrate to the finished dimensions with the appropriate edge in place. The example shown has 1″ x 2″ solid oak added to the edges for a small countertop. After gluing and nailing the oak to the particle board, the entire surface is sanded smooth with a belt sander with an 80-grit belt and swept clean.
The laminate is cut to size about an inch or two bigger than the substrate and laid upside down on a flat work surface.
Contact cement is rolled on to the substrate and laminate and allowed to dry. A roller tray is not needed, just pour some cement on to the surface and roll it out evenly. A thin, even coat is important, and then allow the cement to dry until it is clear. A second coat is recommended on the substrate because some of the first coat will have wicked into the substrate. A 2″ disposable nylon brush works well for smaller pieces; just keep it in the contact cement between uses.
Contact cement adheres instantly upon contact, so aligning the sheet over the substrate is critical. Once the two surfaces touch, it will adhere permanently. Place some spacers over the substrate about 6″ apart and lay the laminate on top of the spacers. I prefer to use venetian blind slats for this job. Move the laminate so that the substrate is covered properly and remove the spacers a few at a time without moving the laminate, pressing down on the laminate as you go. On a large surface, work from the middle outwards, pressing firmly to prevent air bubbles under the laminate. After the sheet is adhered to the substrate, use a J-roller to firmly press down on the sheet, especially around the edges, to ensure a good bond.
The laminate can now be trimmed to the size of the substrate using the laminate trimmer and the 1/4″ laminate bit, followed by a light filing to relieve the sharp edge.
Joining two sheets of laminate to form a large countertop is very tricky. Laminate does have a ‘grain’ and if two sheets are joined at an angle, the texture and colour will show differently in the two sheets. The two adjoining edges must be perfectly straight – don’t rely on the factory edges. Cut both sheets with a straight edge and the laminate trimmer very carefully and file any ‘fuzz’ off the bottom and top surfaces. Adhere the first sheet to the substrate and roll flat. Add the second sheet, carefully butting the joint together first then rolling out the rest of the sheet.
Three Easy Edge Treatments
After laminating, there are several options for finishing, the simplest of which is to do nothing except sand and stain the wood edge. If the wood edge was laminated as shown then a bevel can be cut revealing the wood. The third option is to simply file the edge square.
Laminate has a multitude of uses around the home and shop. It is easy to clean and very slick, making it ideal for router tables and other work surfaces. It is also totally impervious to any solvent found in a home workshop. Try your hand at this technique to improve the surfaces in your home and shop.