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Melamine cabinetry, Part 1; understanding the material

The top edge of this panel shows how melamine chips when cut improperly.
The top edge of this panel shows how melamine chips when cut improperly.
david getts

If you’ve been shopping for cabinetry, you may be familiar with the product melamine. Melamine is a thermally fused, resin saturated paper finish (similar to the properties of plastic laminate), bonded onto a particleboard core. It was first introduced into the market during the 1980’s. It is often looked down upon by both fabricators and consumers for its imitation wood grain and particleboard core. However, like it or not, it does have a place in the world of cabinetry. And that place is not always located at the bottom of the food chain.

When specified properly, melamine can create beautiful, long-lasting cabinetry.
david getts

As quickly as melamine rose in popularity, it also fell out of grace among fabricators and consumers of high-end cabinetry. This happened mainly because it was used for the wrong application, not because it's a low quality material. Designers were simply asking too much of the product. A few basic things every consumer and/or builder should know about melamine:

  1. In spite of its hard surface, if a sink cabinet gets wet the panel will fail when the water makes its way to an edge. To avoid this problem an exterior grade plywood laminated with matching plastic laminate should be used.

  2. Particleboard is also notorious for picking up odors and hanging on to them. This is most noticeable when used in linen or clothes drawers. Therefore, solid wood or plywood drawer boxes are better.

  3. Don’t fall for the mistake of having the same solid color melamine for the box interior on a glass or open cabinet configuration as you do on cabinets with doors. For visual continuity, always specify the exterior material to be used on glass door cabinet interiors.

  4. The material is simulated and just doesn't look or feel like real wood. You can get away with this on cabinet interiors, but the eye is not fooled on exterior surfaces. The exception to this is when budgeting is a concern, or the client is interested in a uniform appearance. This is why melamine gets specified more often in commercial than residential projects.

  5. The Achilles heel of melamine is the particleboard edge; they are more vulnerable to damage than plywood or solid wood. Therefore, thicker PVC edges or solid wood edging should be specified for heavy use areas.

Advantages to specifying melamine would include:

  1. Eliminates the interior finishing of the cabinetry which lowers the cost.

  2. It has a very hard and durable surface.

  3. Uniformity of its “grain” and color.

  4. Easily cleanable surface.

During the early years of melamine processing, many shops didn’t know how to achieve good results with the product because of its tendency to chip when cutting. Small shops used triple chip blades combined with a zero clearance insert on the table saw and achieved results that were good enough, at least on the top surface of the panel. It really wasn't much of a problem because most American shops were still building face frame cabinets that only required one good side. The bad tear-out side was simply placed on the back and forgotten. But when the frame-less cabinet rose in popularity, a better system had to be developed because both sides were visible.

The Ideal Process

Large woodworking companies typically have the appropriate equipment that makes working this temperamental material easy. This would include CNC routers, beam saws, and vertical/horizontal panel saws equipped with scoring blades. The reason melamine chips is because the blade on a saw cuts on the downward motion, which causes the material to tear-out on the bottom. A saw equipped with a scoring blade eliminates this problem. A scoring blade is a small diameter blade located in front of the main blade. It spins in the opposite direction of the main blade and only cuts into the material about 1/16” or so. Because the scoring blade cuts first and from underneath, there is no tear out or chipping. However, the scoring and main blade must be perfectly aligned in order to work properly. And this typically means having expensive, high-end equipment.

Reality Check

But for many small shops and do-it-yourselfers, can melamine be processed with only a standard table saw? Yes it can, with a few modifications. First, like cutting any panel product, you have to have a means to cut a straight edge before running it through the saw. Don't be deceived; the factory edge on a sheet of plywood is not straight. Panel saws make quick work of this task, but without one, you have to get creative. The most economical and accurate way to do this is with a good track saw system like the Festool or Dewalt. Using an 8' track, cut the long edge of the panel first. You can cut all your parts with the Festool if it’s equipped with a melamine-cutting blade, but it will take more time. What I recommend is using it for your first cut only, but this will depend entirely on what type of equipment you have. Next you'll have to prepare your table saw for accurately doing panel work.

Table Saw Modification

A few basics for setting up your saw to get good results:

  • You can purchase a scoring saw attachment if you plan on using a lot of the material. If you go this route, be forewarned that it requires a perfect setup/alignment to work properly. If the two blades are not in the same cutting plane, you'll end up with a double cut edge.

  • For a single blade application, use a negative tooth blade and dedicate it for cutting melamine only. In the early years, triple chip blades were used because they're designed for cutting hard material. However, the sharp angle of a negative tooth grind does a much better job of scoring the brittle surface minimizing tear-out on the backside.

  • Make a zero clearance insert for the dedicated melamine blade.

  • Next, set your table saw blade about 1/2” higher than the thickness of the material. The higher the blade is over the material, the more chance of tear-out below.

  • Use a slow but steady speed as you feed the material. Too fast and you'll get more chipping, too slow and the blade will burn the edge.

  • A good in-feed and out-feed table is essential to keep the material stable throughout the entire cut.

  • Use a good pair of nitrile gloves during panel processing. It not only protects your hands from the sharp edges, but helps you better grip the material. Melamine is slippery. Getting a good grip means you have better control of the panel during its trip through the blade.

  • Finally, wax down the saw and feed tables. The less resistance the material encounters going through the cut the better.

Next in part 2; working the material


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