Is Melamine A 4-letter Word?


From original questioner:

We do custom frameless cabinets for high end residential remodels. We have always used prefinished maple ply for our cases, because we believe it's more durable and a superior material to melamine particleboard. Plus, working with melamine isn't a lot of fun. It's heavy, it chips easily, and the edges are as sharp as a razor blade.

I am currently doing a kitchen remodel for a European client who insisted on melamine cases. We protested politely, but in the end he won out, and I'm finding that it has some real advantages. It machines so consistently on the CNC router due to it's uniform core and thickness, and it also runs through the edgebander much more predictably. On top of that, it's less than half the cost of a calibrated core prefinished maple.

So, do our clients really care about the case material? I wouldn't make the decision based on the cost of the material alone, but if it results in fewer defective parts and tighter cabinets, it saves us a lot of time. I've seen plenty of high end euro melamine cabinets that cost more than ours, and they seem to be selling just fine.

From contributor La

From a commercial shop, Melamine is the standard cabinet interior in our line of work. That said there are lots of vendors and not all are =! The paper that is the face can be different thicknesses. The core can vary a lot. Stuff with course face material is subject to chipping a lot more. When we've gotten panels on a yellow pine core (southern mills) it doesn't seem as stable.
The only weakness is the edges getting chipped when it's not banded. I think the finish is at least as durable as the best of the prefinished plywoods we have used.
The advantages, to me, far out weigh the disadvantages: consistent thickness, flat (important for nested routers,) no core voids, runs better on the banders. Draw back is weight. If you are setup to handle it via forklift, hydraulic lifts or vacuum lifters, air floatation tables etc. wt. not a big problem. I think all the big name European cabinets are made of melamine. I also think most of the bad mouthing of melamine on this forum is from people unwilling to spend the $ to correctly use it. A 10" table saw isn't a solution.

From contributor Ad

Outside of the US & Canada melamine is the standard. The wood is simply too expensive in other parts of the world. They spend money on the outside of the box. At the end of the day the boxes are white and easy to clean. Most of the customers in other countries have never seen wood on the inside of a typical kitchen cabinet. They don't think of them as furniture.

If prefinished maple ply was $100 a sheet hardly anyone would use it. Its hard to make an argument about the maple being anything other than pretty.

From contributor Ev

Agreed with everything said. But, "no particleboard" is a selling point for case goods in any price range. In my own home, I would rather have a good particleboard melamine than a cheap chinese birch ply, but how do you express that to the average homeowner?

From contributor Ma

Larry, I could not agree more. Mario

From contributor Mi

Agreed. I currently build a lot of casework from pre-finsihed ply. This costs me $90 or more per sheet. The the thickness within a lot can vary dramatically, and I have yet to see a sheet that is reasonably flat. Every time I purchase regular unfinished plywood, I am disappointed with the quality. The UV coatings seem to help with stability on the prefinished products.

However my experience is that 1. melamine is way more consistent. 2. It is generally quite flat, and (3) machines well on the CNC router. From experience with demolition work, the cabinets that took the most work to break up were custom built melamine boxes, that were glued, and screwed with dados. Honestly, they took more work to destroy than any factory plywood box, I have encountered.... There are cheaply built particle board boxes that are junk, but they can also be built well. A qualified cabinetmaker will find ways to do this.

The only issues I have seen have been with water dammage in sink bases. Then again the cabinets have usually seen a respectable lifespan by that point.

The melamine work surfaces in my shop have also held up very well.

When I suggest this as an option to clients, they look at you like your a hack, and usually respond with something along the lines of "there will be no particleboard here"
When new clients are interviewing me, they often ask "do you use a lot of particle board"
and of course the answer they want to hear is no.

Quite honestly with the increases in pricing we have seen with plywood, along with the decreases in quality particle board, MDF cores are becoming ever more tempting.

I come from a traditional background, and refinished plywood is my preferred material but, I am starting to rethink that.

From contributor Mi

Correction, to avoid misunderstanding***

Quite honestly with the increases in pricing we have seen with plywood, along with the decreases in quality.

Particle board, and MDF cores are becoming ever more tempting.

From contributor Ch

"Quite honestly with the increases in pricing we have seen with plywood, along with the decreases in quality,"

Finding good plywood that is consistently flat has been a real chore in the last few years. What I have learned is to ask about the "core" or "substrate" beneath the outer veneer. There are differences between poplar and fir cores. Ask your supplier. I am paying just under $70 for B-2 rotary cut maple in domestic plywood with a pretty decent core. I can save a few bucks per sheet, but the quality suffers: ripples, voids, veneer splits, and the list goes on.

For pre-finished plywood, a couple of my suppliers have been providing a plywood that has a thin layer of MDF just under the show layer. This produces a very smooth surface. Unfortunately my customers do not often want a natural color (we build furniture, not kitchen cabinets) so I need raw plywood to color and finish. My suppliers do offer an unfinished version of this product. It works well and is very smooth, but is heavier than normal plywood. I haven't purchased this product in either pre-finished or raw in a year or so, so I don't have current pricing.

I will not buy an imported plywood. I have seen too many problems with warping. The quality just isn't there. My suppliers will tell me the same thing. But, there are shops that compete only on price. We choose not to be one of them.

If I had a commercial project where pre-finished, natural maple with PVC edgebanding was acceptable, I would definitely use it over melamine and particleboard. The commercial projects where I do use this, the clients are very happy to have a beautiful product, and without particleboard.

My residential customers also do not like "particleboard" in their furniture. They are very willing to pay more to get a custom-finished, real-wood product. There is a market for the particleboard/melamine product. It just isn't our market. We have learned that we cannot be everything to everyone. There is no sense in even trying to do that. It's impossible. And, I believe that trying to do so is a bad business goal.

From contributor Je

I believe it comes down to education. People don't like particle board because they've been educated by advertisers who use it as a dirty word. In reality as you've found out it is just another material that can be used where and when needed. I use melamine mostly for custom closets and the few commercial jobs I get. Plywood is usually not an option in commercial work and even if it is you would be more expensive than the competition as it's double to cost.

What's important is knowing how to use melamine. It takes a different approach than veneer core and some different tooling as well. Ideally you want to be using melamine specific saw blades for cutting and dowel screws for fastening. You also need a decent edgebander to do the PVC banding. If you can get the edges clean and get the banding on clean your in business.

As for furniture PB/mdf core is the standard today and has been for decades. Most people have absolutely no idea what's under the veneer of their furniture. I've disappointed so many people unintentionally when I've told them their "heirloom" piece is not solid wood, but instead a veneered factory piece. As a woodworker I love solid wood furniture as well as veneered pieces. In reality it's a tiny fraction of people that can afford true custom solid wood furniture. And most vc plywood is not nearly flat enough for any type of quality furniture.

So the point is really not whether or not melamine is a good product, it's about educating the consumers, (and even the fabricators), about what and where it's advantages are. There is no one-size-fits-all material in my shop. Instead I try to continuously learn and use what's the best material for the job at hand.

good luck,

From contributor Ma

My opinion is if your going to start educating the consumer about melamine is in addition to the issues around quality and PB being associated with junk (which is very fair in the commodity world but less so in the custom cab world) you will have to address the issues of the quantities of chemicals, solvents, and so on, in the product and be able to provide them with real data.

Beyond the junk factor, most customers I come in contact with are concerned with the issues of plastics, solvets, VOC's, and so on. Even after explaining to them that there are adhesives in ply, solvents in the UV topcoats for prefinished products, and so on, they simply do not want melamine.

Again, in the commodity market (which is where these consumers operate), the material has fairly or unfairly earned a spot in the slum-lord column even though in a well constructed situation it isnt the case.

A good sales tool may be to have some documentation with regards to how much glue is in the melamine core. What is the chemical makeup of the surface layer. The issues of sustainability with regards to using particle as opposed to veneer to make up the core. Things like that. I really do think a lot of people care "whats in there" just as much as what it looks like or how pretty it is.

Even with the data I think its going to be a hard sell in many parts of the US.

From contributor Br

If you want to educate the consumer ask if they would prefer you cut down virgin rain forest to get the trees necessary to make quality plywood or if plantation scrub surfaced with melamine is a better suited for their kitchen cabinets. There is a place for nice material but the interior of a kitchen cabinet, which has a relative short life span as compared to furniture, isn't one of them. The problem with the perception of particle board is junk manufactured out of it by mass producers.

Every meal you eat starts with essentially the same raw produces from the same source, the farmer. Yet there is a VAST difference in end product and quality. Making a cabinets of melamine surfaced board is no different.

I prefer PB/melamine to plywood for the reasons stated above, so no, it isn't a four letter word.

From contributor Ma

I think most of us would make the same points. Those who use melamine and PB in their products dictate whether the end product is going to fall apart or not. Not the product itself.

Your statement about cutting down a virgin rainforest for plywood is a little grandiose however.

I happen to live in a state that is absolutely polluted with maple because the timber industry for years has had very little need for these trees. The reason is because they peel miles of maple veneer from very few trees to make maple ply. Again, I would love to see some credible comparisons with regards to consumption and yield for both veneer core products as well as PB. Info that covers everything from yield, adhesives, plastics, and so on. I can only assume the melamine producers have done this already.

For many of my customers the simple issue is plastics and adhesives. Many of which not only off gas but are absolutely brutal in their manufacturing and disposal especially if you factor in a fire as a possibility.

Im well aware that its a very small crowd that thinks of it to that level but the data would bear out the total cost of a square foot of melamine and a square foot of finished ply. It would be interesting to see.

I know one thing for sure. If had to choose between the two for a marshmallow roast for some precious little kids, I think I can pick which I'd build my fire with.

From contributor Br

"Your statement about cutting down a virgin rainforest for plywood is a little grandiose however."

I live in the west and we clear cut. No grandiose about it.

From contributor Ch

Yeah, consistency is great but as soon as a drop of water finds its way to the core it's OVER. MDF same. I only use melamine for commercial or mdf edgebanded (doors//fronts) 4 sides. What's the argument for euro casework? I don't know. I have worked in Germany and Italy and can attest it is the norm BUT, I can also say there isn't a substitute. Prefin plywood does not exist in Europe! Then again paint grade foil MDF does not exist here in the U.S.

From contributor Ev

Yes, the moisture question is what concerns me most. No matter how careful the plumber, a sink base or vanity is going to have water in it at some point in its lifetime, if not at the time of installation. One shop I worked for used a baltic birch core with P-lam for all sink base decks.

The house I rent has 15 year-old melamine kitchen cabinets, and they have fared OK. If you start looking around, you can find some swelling under the sink, and places where a carelessly placed screw has caused a chip to break out. Otherwise it's in pretty good shape, surprisingly even the drawer boxes.

YMMV, of course.

From contributor Br

if you soak you cabinet in water is it the fault of the material used or is the water at fault? what happens if you soak your piano? if the sink base material is the issue, change it in that area. I have a contractor who puts a stainless steel liner in every sink base I build. seems a bit over kill to me but if the clients are paying for it then why not. if your clients want to pay for plywood interiors and believe it superior then I'd do it.

From contributor Al

You can always run a silicone bead at the joints in a sink cabinet. We have been doing that for over 20 years. You have to that at sink cutouts in laminate tops.


From contributor Ma

Gosh.. Personally my take away from this is Im so glad I dont have to work/compete in these markets. Im in no way in a lavish up-scale market, but reading this stuff makes me thankful.

From contributor Ro

We do most of our work in prefinished and some in melamine so with that said...
The water things is complete and utter BS. Melamine will actually fare better in water than prefinished.

Do your own tests, it's not even close. prefinished plywood won't stand up worth crap, melamine will last three times longer at a minimum. I've done the real world tests.

In other words, sell the prefinished as "quality" by all means but don't lie to your customers. A cabinet box (not drawerbox) is better once installed made out of melamine (not shelving though), but the problem is getting it to installation is the only times you will problems with melamine.

From contributor Ji

I do the majority of the work thru my shop in 3/4" particle board. Again you normally get the "what's this hack trying to pull" look. If they can't be reasoned with, I send them elsewhere.
I will put my case up against any from a "cabinet shop" in a 100 mi radius. My cases are 3/4" with full 3/4" backs, confirmat screwed including the back.
I just did a job for a high profile architect that specified 3/4" thermally fused melamine cases with MDF core veneered slab doors. After reviewing his portfolio, I can assure you that both he and his client's fully understand the differences in pb, plywood, prefinished plywood, melamine, or laminate for that matter. They also understand the difference between staples, drywall screws, confirmats and dowels. Most of the general public isn't qualified to spec materials and hardware for their own cabinets. They just aren't.
The job machined and assembled very easily. Clean, tight joints, No warpage. No voids. None of that nonsense. Zero.
I would also agree on the durability of melamine vs prefinished when it comes to water resistance.
I don't know why people expect to use whatever material, lightly topcoat it with a thinned out NC lacquer (thinking-it's on the inside, after all) and blame the material for water failure.
Machining, assembling, and FINISHING whatever material correctly will solve about 85 percent of failures. Having a competent plumber should cover the rest.
FWIW I don't build campfires out of anything from the shop except stile and rail scraps. Everything else goes in the dumpster.

From contributor Ev

I hope this is relevant to the topic, but I'm led to question whether it's better to sell one kind of cabinet, and focus on efficiency (AKA profit), or sell two kinds at different price points and close a higher percentage of sales.

The first option allows more efficient inventory, and by reducing available options, gets you a faster decision from the customer. However, the first option will surely lead to a certain number of customers walking away from a sale because the price is too high or they think the material is low quality.

In our market, which is very large and competitive, I have the feeling that it's better to specialize on one kind of product and focus on marketing to the customers that are most likely to buy it.

From contributor Ch

You cannot be everything to everyone.

I specialize on one segment of the market. This segment prefers plywood over melamine/particleboard. I don't try to spend my time "educating" folks why one material is better than the other under what particular circumstances. I will acknowlege that each has its place both in therms of market and technical capabilities. I am not in the education business and am not trying to change the market's long-held perceptions. I am here to run a business, and make a profit (my income), by selling a quality product to willing buyers.

As part of my marketing strategy, I am branding my business by being known for one particular type of material. Most of my competitors use another type of material. We are at different price points. Many of my customers seek my business out because of the type of material in addition to other factors such as variety, service, etc. My prices are higher because of the materials and labor involved. Yet, my customers are very willing to spend the extra money to purchase my product. Only using this material is my competitive advantage.

If I were to add a second, less expensive product line with the lower cost materials, I would lose my position in the marketplace. I would no longer be "branded" or known for using a particular material, or, as my customers phrase it, NOT using a particular material.

Be very careful on adding a second quality/price line just so you can close more sales. Furthermore, the marketing and advertising for the two different lines will be different. Will you be able to successfully manage both at the same time? It might cause a lot of internal confusion, not to mention a lot of confusion for the prospective buyer. When faced with confusion, prospects will simply go somewhere else.

My feeling is that your assessment about specializing in one product line is the better option.

From contributor La

Make what you can sell. BUT never bad mouth another material, for one day it might come back to bite you. Quite a few shops have gone to melamine after having converted to CNC. Fighting a potato chip on a router is no fun. There are snobby European manufacturers that sell very high priced cabinets in the US market to the people that can afford them. The most prominent brand starts with a "P." (KD Melamine by the way!)

From contributor Ha

I never used plywood in the 24 years I had my shop in Montreal and only started using it in Florida. Canada has always been closer to the European model and way ahead of the US in design and color selection. We build using melamine and plywood depending on what the client wants, but when we'd use melamine ,we always make the sink with plywood and a matching laminate to the other melamine box. Educating the client is key to success in any business and I frequently stand inside my 5/8 construction melamine drawers to show the weight they can carry. Harold.