Switching to Melamine

A cabinetmaker who usually builds with plywood gets advice on working with melamine. July 5, 2006

I have 3 whole house jobs coming up that the builder is adamant about melamine. I don't usually work with melamine because of the weight along with all of the other problems, like edgebanding and so forth. To complete these jobs, what would be recommended as far as tooling? Currently I make faceframe cabinets and usually cut everything on my unisaw with excalibur slider. With these jobs I may be able to invest in some more equipment that may help me out with melamine. I've considered a hydraulic shop cart but am also wondering about a panel saw. Also I usually dado/rabbet ply cabinets but from what I gather most are using confirmats and roo glue for melamine. Also I usually attach my faceframes with pocket screws. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
You can have the parts cut, edged and bored by outsourcing and assemble with confirmats or use 18 gauge brad nailer and countersink and screw. Use added end panels to match doors. I build all my cabinetry this way and a fast butt joint is strong and easy. If you are in South Florida, I can handle all this for you if you like. I have a computerized slider with scoring, 3mm capacity bander and 44 spindle boring machine. I do this now for smaller shops in my area. It gives them time to devote to the trickier stuff and they cannot match my speed or quality.

From contributor B:
Dadoes work just fine, though you will need a good blade. Forrest makes a nice one that leaves chip free cuts and last very long. As far as cutting goes you may be able to get by with a good TCG blade with it set as low as possible. I did this for years before investing in a beam saw with scoring.

To not bore all those pocket holes, attach your frame with wood glue and a few brads to hold everything straight till you can get some bar clamps on. By the time you get your next cabinet tacked together the clamps should be able to come off the previous one. Iíve been doing it that way for years. Once you get the hang of it there is no problem with gluing up an average house worth of cases in an 8 hr day.

From contributor C:
If you don't normally use melamine be careful about investing in machinery for it. In other words, if it's just three kitchens and then back to faceframes, I wouldn't recommend buying an edgebander. On the other hand the panelsaw could be very useful. I try to invest in machinery that I can use for a wide variety of work first, then start going into the more specialized stuff. As for working with melamine, I can't help you with that. I hate the stuff myself and try to avoid it if possible.

From contributor D:
I used to offer both melamine and birch plywood interiors until finally switching over to strictly plywood interiors a couple years ago. It is an easy sell to my customers when I show them the interior of a nicely finished cabinet. It's as easy to clean as melamine, more durable (especially if there is ever a water leak under a sink), repairable if a nail blows out during assembly, eliminates masking the interiors while finishing the exteriors, and the best part - it weighs 30% less! It does cost slightly more for the material itself, but that can easily be made up by figuring in the cost of just one back injury from lugging around a sheet of melamine.

From contributor E:
For the occasional melamine job, no extra tooling should be required, except maybe one of those small portable edgebanders if you like. They are not much money and a little faster. I find it easier to cut all the parts that need banding and hire a college kid or the like for a few hours to do it for me. A lot of people like a few extra bucks on the side.

From contributor F:
I wish I had the luck these other guys have had. Even with the specialty blades and tooling, I could not get chip-free cuts. And edgebanding was the biggest waste of time. Even if I was paying a helper, I still had to pay him for the time he spent. Even then, this preglued banding is more of a bandaid. Between cuts made on a cabinet saw, thin PVC, an iron or heat gun, and a semi-skilled worker who has to be consistent for hours at a time, the hassle is just not worth it. You iron, cut, trim, file, and then fill the chips. This has to be one of the biggest wastes of time.

I have spent big bucks for equipment that is designed to specifically with this stuff, and at best, it is manageable. Not all melamine is created the same. Some coatings are too thin and brittle, and there is nothing you can do to make a clean cut. Some cores are just junk, and no amount of money can buy you a chip-free cut.

If you are just doing 3 jobs, listen to what Harold says. Get your parts from someone who is setup to do this. My edgebander will in 1 hour what will take 15+ hours to do by hand. It will be superior to anything put on with an iron or heat gun. Confirmats are great! But plan on spending hundreds to get a setup that will drill one hole at a time. And then the drill bits are easy to break.

Take the money you will save in labor and invest it in some things you really want or need. And it doesn't hurt to develop networking relationships with other shops. There are plenty of guys who would be willing to help you out on the chance that you would refer your frameless jobs to them.

From contributor G:
Outsource this. I cut all melamine on my CNC and it's very close to chip free, but not entirely. When I have to use a table saw (with an Amana Melamine blade) I get chips. A good new Forrest WW2 blade does better as far as I'm concerned. Find a local CNC shop that can cut all the parts in a few hours. I'd say there is a chance that they can cut it out cheaper than you can do it without one. I'd at least look at the option.

From contributor H:
What do you fill with? CNC all the way - we are getting a job CNC'd and shipped. We will assemble and install. I have a couple blades I use at my shop that work well. Forrest WWII is the best (chip free on the top and very close on the bottom - zero tolerance insert). Festool and an old Systematic blade I have are a close second. Supposedly Forrest is making a blade for Festool.

From contributor I:
I have been cutting Melamine for years and have very rarely have had all of these problems. I guess I have been lucky to this point. Are you still making faceframe cabinets except using melamine for the carcass or are you attempting frameless? If you are still using the frames concentrate on the interiors, not so much on the exteriors. Use a good melamine blade (my sharpener guy sold me an Everlast melamine blade and I have had great luck with them. Keep several sharpened and on hand and when they start to chip slightly use a new one. I recently purchased a Modulas unit that has a scoring blade on it, and after an hour or so dialing it in, it worked great.

I have cut around 45 sheets of 3/4 inch melamine and it is just now starting to dull. Again, if it is a framed cabinet always set your side panels or partitions in a bit if you are really super conscious about any chipping which you shouldn't be if you are using sharp blades. If you get any slight chipping you can take a block with a sand paper disk stuck to it and just slightly (and I mean slightly) take the edge down at an angle. Go too far and it will look like crap. Do this trick when dealing with partitions if you have chip out on the back of your cuts.

As far as edgebanding is concerned if you do not have a big bander and are not planning on buying one do not waste you money on the little cheesy table top hot melt jigs. I found a product by FastCap called FastEdge. It is preglued with a paper cover tape you pull off and install onto your material. I don't know what they are using for glue but it sticks and does not come off. FastCap also sells a little roller that you use instead of a J roller. It works so well that I was amazed it wasn't invented earlier. Very fast and exerts a lot more pressure. Then use a double sided trimmer, and youíre done. This stuff is a bit pricey but the time it saves from not having to iron and all of that it astronomical and more than makes up for it 2-3 times over. Plus it sticks better. If you are really worried about the outside of your cabs that are burred when installed or showing chips when delivered (which I understand) you can always cut a piece of 1/4 melamine or vinyl and tack it to the outside of the box. Always use the PVC banding if possible. They have infinite selections of colors and wood looks and grains available. The real wood edgebanding, even with sharp tools, tends to gar up on the sides. Shelving of course will be an issue. You can cut all you shelving to size + 1/4 inch and then raise your blade only half way up and run your material through twice (once upside down). This should eliminate any chipping but of course takes time. Bottom line it isn't that big of a deal, you'll probably end up liking the stuff and using it more. The only issue of course is the weight - you can't get away with that one.

From contributor J:
I'm doing a bunch of tract homes which include Melamine in the mix. I use Maple Ply always, except for this one builder. Other than the fact that's it's heavy, if your blades are sharp you shouldn't have any problems. Just watch the edges as Melamine is heavy and will slice your fingers and hands versus plywood. You don't need any new machinery. Just go for it. You might like the stuff, it's not bad only different, heavy, and they do put it in High End Cabinetry in very pricey homes. One good selling point is that its finish is better than most anything you could spray on plywood. Also if you do get a small amount of chip out on the backside you could do solid wood edge banding 1" x 3/4" for adjustable shelves, and lightly sand the edges that show. I build Face Frame Cabinets Ply or Melamine. Both are great materials.

From contributor K:
This may be a stupid question, but I'm just the person to ask it. Is there any reason why you can't use melamine and still put face frames on it? I have been toying with the idea at times, but I would still rather use face frames that try edgebanding. If there's a reason, please let me know before I try something wrong.

From contributor L:
For years I built only faceframe cabinets with melamine interiors. I always used a Forrest duraline hi/AT blade and either a Forrest dado or a FS tool dado (I like the FS better).

The trick is to always cut your uppers first so the chips are minimal. You should also plan to replace your blade between 30-40 sheets. You can buy a confirmat bit for about $50 and that is all you need if you can aim and not turn it out. We use 3000 confirmats a month.

From contributor H:
I don't replace my blades, but I do get them sharpened after about 40 sheets. It seems I always have one blade or two coming and going to the sharpener. Other than that, doug and frankenstein are right on. I use that little roller from FastCap for all edge banding (hot or peel and stick).

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the input. I have worked with melamine before but not to this extent. All I know is that it is heavy as hell and I am trying to find the easiest way to cut a full sheet down. Usually what I do is rip my sheet goods down first and then cross cut. I was thinking if I get a hydraulic cart and load that up right off the truck, move it over to my table saw, and rip it down then it will be easier to manage. If this sounds good does anyone recommend a hydraulic cart?

From contributor C:
One more point about saw blades. Although the Forrest WWII is very good, they do make a blade for melamine that is better. It's a little pricier than the WWII but for melamine or crosscutting hardwood ply I think it's worth it.

Another question - for cases, do most use 3/4" melamine? When I've done melamine before this is what I used with 1/4" backs and hanging cleats but this gets very heavy.

From contributor A:
We use 5/8 melamine including backs and drawer bottoms. It saves on material waste and you can optimize everything on cutlist pro or itemizer programs. Backs are nailed and screwed on which is faster than thin backer and nailers. It is heavier than ply boxes.

From contributor I:
I use 3/4 inch boxes with a 1/4 inch back and 3/4 inch nailers. If I am building frameless I dado the backs in and mount a 3/4 inch nailer behind. If I am building a framed cabinet I flush nail the 1/4 inch back onto the rear of the cab and use Roo glue. The 3/4 inch nailers in this case are banded and installed on the inside of the cab. But you know I am getting older and that 5/8 inch material is starting to look a lot more appealing.