Melamine Cabinet Boxes

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Can melamine move in as plywood quality degrades? October 5, 2004

To date I have built all my cabinets in the wood prescribed for the job. If the customer wants oak, they get oak through and through. Doors, face frames, carcasses, and shelves. Carcasses and shelves, of course, are veneer core plywood unstained and coated with three coats of lacquer. I think that this is higher quality and separates me from most shops out there.

I have never been a fan of particleboard use in cabinets, as they usually see some moisture and I believe that this affects the particleboard more than the VCP. However, I am considering joining the pack, as almost all of my plywood suppliers have been getting some real crap plywood. Cut the sheet and it warps and cups. Some have been delaminating and most have more vacancies than in the past. I know that it is much more expensive to build with plywood, as you have to take the time to sand, edge, and spray, plus the cost of the material, but I do accommodate for this in my pricing and everyone seems to be very happy. Another big reason for me not to go with melamine in the past has been the weight factor. It really takes a toll on the body to work with.

My questions are these: will the average Joe/Jane know the difference between the two (or care)? What size melamine should I be using? 5/8" or 3/4"? If the 5/8", then the weight factor goes down. What blades should I use to cut melamine? Do I need an edgebander for shelves to take full advantage of the time savings from not finishing?

Forum Responses
From contributor G:
I also build the way you do, and for the same reasons. Plywood quality has gone down, but I've not experienced the delamination you describe. I would first try a different supplier. That said, I would never go the melamine route unless you want to compete in that segment. I have no desire but to improve the quality as much as I can. That is, if I can charge enough for it. I have yet to see a vanity or sink cabinet that didn't develop a leak sometime in its life, with the usual blowouts in the particleboard cabs, and little to no damage in the ply cabs I have built. Interestingly, I have begun to use moisture resistant MDF for some veneer work. It's amazing in that a piece I placed in a bucket of water overnight swelled less than .015". It runs close to $50.00 for a 4x8, though.

From contributor W:
Why not use pre-finished plywood? Here on the left coast a sheet of pre-finished C2 maple plywood is about $58, less if you buy a unit. A sheet of unfinished C2 maple ply is about $35. If you can finish 32 sq. ft. for $23, more power to you. I use this for all concealed cabinet interiors. I think it looks good and it actually saves the client money on finishing costs, a good selling point. My supplier also sells it in 24 inch rips banded on both edges.

From contributor R:
I have been doing this 20+ years and have never laid my hands on a piece of melamine. Could I sell melamine? Sure I could, but why? It's a competitive market, getting worse every day, and melamine is heavy, like you said. No matter what anyone says, wood will never go out of style, even when better materials are invented.

From contributor N:
I use melamine and like it. I don't have to finish the interiors and it withstands water very well. I also think the interiors have a nice clean look. I brush on polyurethane so I don't have to deal with overspray when finishing the face frames. Time consuming, I know, but it works for me for now. I'm skeptical of lacquers because of bad experiences in the past. Polyurethane just looks richer to me and I don't have to worry about moisture problems. I cut my large panels on a vertical saw and use a modulus 2000 for the smaller pieces. Both leave a perfect edge. I use only 3/4" sheeting material so as to keep inventory simple.

From contributor V:
Another alternative to going with melamine is to use oak, maple or whatever species you prefer over a flakeboard core. The weight is about the same as melamine but the core is void free and the product is stable. You would still have the finishing issue to deal with. I also use a lot of plywood, and have been getting the pre-finished oak and maple for building boxes and for shelves. I will edgeband with pre-finished edgebanding and just touch up along the edges where the edgebanding was trimmed. The pre-finished material saves a lot of time and the finish holds up very well. The cost of the flakeboard core with veneer is quite a bit less than the veneer core plywood.

From contributor P:
Rather than changing over to melamine construction, offer them as another line of cabinets (i.e. builders grade) to your clients. If they are looking to upgrade to custom cabinets, then they probably won't even ask you to price this line and you can continue just as you always have. But for the person shopping cost, this would give you an opportunity to competitively bid against other shops using the same materials.

Another cost savings, if you prefer to continue using all wood construction, would be to use pre-finished birch or maple for carcasses and shelves and use the specified species only for the finish ends and faces. Might not save a whole lot, but every dime counts these days.

From contributor O:
Just last month I built my first kitchen from melamine. All others before that were from veneer core ply with face frames. This customer wanted white inside the cabinets. Short of paint or lining the cabinet with white material, the best choice for me was melamine.

This stuff really takes some getting used to. Don't drop a piece of it (not even on the bench), don't use any of your current saw blades, buy some Roo Glue, practice your edgebanding skills, don't expect the material to be strong enough to hold its own weight and hire help just to move it around the shop. I found out the hard way about how weak this stuff is. I dado for decks and fixed shelves. While cutting the last dado with my router, in a tall cabinet side and hanging about 1/4 of the sheet off the end of the bench (because of my clamped routing guide), I found out that in the blink of an eye the piece will meet the floor. Veneer core never did that.

If you are considering frameless, you will have to buy a good edgebander. Even for the shelves in framed cabinets you need something more than an iron. Bench top hot air at least, then hand trim. This gets old fast.

I pre-finish my face frames and then pocket screw them on the boxes. If an end or bottom will show, I use 3/4" veneered melamine. Has wood veneer on one side. I usually pre-finish these pieces before assembly. Sometimes after. You will need a melamine blade ($60 to $90). I also bought some white melamine color paint for minor touchups. I have only used conversion varnish for finishing and would highly recommend it over regular lacquer.

From contributor S:
I've been using melamine interiors for many years, except behind glass doors, of course. The quality of it has really gone downhill. Becoming more difficult to cut chip free (yes, I'm using the correct blade). I started using panolam with great results.

From contributor R:
What does a 4x8x3/4 weigh? Twice as much as 1/2'' veneer core?

From contributor D:
100 pounds each 3/4" 4x8.

From contributor A:
We use a product that I think offers the best of both worlds. One of our lumber suppliers custom lays up melamine plywood for us. At one time, I owned and operated a processing operation which cut, bored and edgebanded shelving for a major PB core melamine manufacturer. We cut approximately one semi-truck load of product per day. I hated the product, hated the weight, hated the sawdust, and hated the fragility. I'm now the shop manager of a custom cabinet shop and I refuse to use PB. However, I really like melamine as a surface over vinyl (too soft), veneer (too much finishing) and pre-finished veneer (scratches too easily). The plywood is an armor core product (the outer plys are MDF) and offers exactly what I want. The difference in price between PB melamine ($19.00/sht-3/4") and my plywood ($52.00/sht-3/4") is well worth it. To illustrate the difference to my customers, I take a 3" rip of each product and break it over my knee. The PB breaks easily and the ply breaks with a bang. My customers get the picture real fast. We do frameless with Roo-glue and screws and edgeband with an automatic edgebander. We rip on a Powermatic with a standard high angle/alternating tooth/negative hook blade and cross-cut on an old scoring blade, sliding table cabinet saw.

From contributor K:
Just a thought... If you are not tooled up for melamine construction and/or just don't like working with the stuff, order parts/boxes from a company like CabParts or your local melamine cab shop (feed them the overload and develop a reciprocal relationship). No sawdust, no edgebanding, and you can focus on your core (no pun intended) product, etc.

Of course, you'll pay 10-15% more than what it would cost you to produce it, but for some, it may be worth it, especially if it is once in a while.

From contributor O:

I started doing what contributor K suggests. It saves me a lot of time. Found a fella that uses the same software I do and has a CNC machine and edgebander. Email the file and pick up the parts in a few days. The parts just fall together when I get them. We now assemble boxes, built face frame, finish and install. But there is still the oddball something that I build. I still need that melamine blade.

From contributor B:
I've been making the big switch to frameless (full access) this past year, using a high-quality melamine, scoring sliding table, system boring equipment and recently, a good edge bander, and I will never go back to the old ways. The quality of cabinet in looks and construction went up 500%. If the client wants a ply box, I just do the price increase in the estimate and use a pre-finished 3/4" ply. No more sticking my head in those boxes to spray again. The turn around time from start of construction to green-backs keeps me dancin' to the bank.

From contributor X:
If you have plenty of work, don't do it (if it ain't broke...). If you are looking to drum up more business, go for it. Don't assume that melamine equates to lower end cabinetry. I have customers who would willingly pay more for melamine because it is "low-maintenance" and looks "clean". They are always surprised that it is less expensive. It leaves room for higher mark-ups.

Melamine is heavy and prone to breakage in handling, but I've never had a problem of breakage after install. You just have to take a little extra care when delivering and installing; in other words, don't drop the boxes or stand on them before tops are on.

All that said, I'd rather work with veneer cores and solid wood only, if I could.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor E:
We've migrated to melamine with no regrets. The one thing that makes the most difference is the quality of cutting tool edges. We do most of our saw work on a Striebig panel saw with a hollow ground blade and see no chipping on either side. When routering, we use a freshly sharpened single flute half-inch straight bit.

Melamine is flat, inexpensive, and nice to work with. It requires a little more attention to the condition of your tools, but you can handle that.

Comment from contributor V:
We've migrated to melamine with no regrets. The thing that makes the most difference is the quality of cutting tool edges. We do most of our saw work on a Striebig panel saw with a hollow ground blade and see no chipping on either side. Wwhen routering, we use a freshly sharpened single flute half-inch straight bit.

Melamine is flat, inexpensive, and nice to work with. It requires a little more attention to the condition of your tools, but you can handle that.