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Solid Surfacing Veneer: A Natural Evolution

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Unlike developments in the computer or pharmaceutical industries, synthetic work surface materials may not seem worthy of space age technology. But one look at the past decade shows a rapidly evolving array of products, not the least of which is generically dubbed "solid surfacing."

When solid surfacing material was first introduced some 25 years ago, the product barely resembled what it has become today. The versatility and practicality of solid surfacing has been further enhanced with the recent introduction of solid surfacing veneer, a thinner, lighter weight option that carries most of the same performance and design characteristics as its thicker cousins.

Looking at the brief history of solid surfacing, we have seen a natural¬and accelerated¬evolution from the thicker, heavier materials. The first products, manufactured and marketed as 3/4-inch-thick sheets, were promoted primarily for horizontal applications such as countertops and work surfaces.

Little known, and little understood, they were extremely expensive and hard to handle due to hefty weight. Panels were generally installed over cabinetry and millwork bases with silicone joints, which became easily strained. Edge details were simple and limited.

Realizing that this thick, heavy 3/4-inch-material was over-engineered for most horizontal applications, scientists and fabricators alike searched for a thinner alternative. Solid surfacing in 1/2-inch thickness met marketplace needs on several levels: high performance with no noticeable compromises and lower installation cost. The rapid acceptance of 1/2-inch-thick solid surfacing, and subsequent development of seam kits, represented a milestone for both the product and its usage: inlays and monolithic seams were possible, integral sinks and crafty edges emerged, and both residential and commercial applications increased. Vertical applications, such as wet walls and wainscoting, appeared.

Like its 3/4-inch predecessor, however, 1/2-inch solid surfacing was over-engineered for many of these new applications. Driven by the need to find a lighter weight option for vertical surfacing, the market looked for something even thinner. And 1/4-inch material met these needs.

Solid surfacing acts like a workhorse material. Because renewability is one of
its greatest advantages, solid surfacing is ideal for high wear areas such as
restaurant tables and food courts.

More than 90 percent of 1/4-inch solid surfacing material today goes into vertical applications: tub and shower surrounds and wall cladding in wet areas. However, 1/4-inch couldn't entirely replace 1/2-inch solid surfacing. Too thin to be used without a substrate, it also was too thick to be used as a substrate. The enormous force required to achieve a consistent bond with particleboard made lamination impractical. Thus it could not be used in horizontal applications.

The most recent evolution¬or revolution¬in solid surfacing is the development of 1/8-inch-thick solid surfacing material. Bonded to a wood substrate using laminating technology, it can be seamed to provide watertight joints. As such, it can be used for both horizontal and vertical surfaces, at considerably reduced fabrication and installation cost.

The development of 1/8-inch material and the fabrication techniques that accompany it transforms solid surfacing from countertop material to multi-purpose decorative surface. It can be used in vertical as well as horizontal applications, delivering the same effect as thicker solid surfacing materials with the same product warranties. It can be mixed with other materials, such as wood, to warm up an application or laminate to create colorful or elegant design themes. The use of automated equipment and mass production technology also is bringing new solid surfacing products to market at affordable prices.

As with the development of 1/2-inch and 1/4-inch material, the development of 1/8-inch solid surfacing represents significant growth and expansion for the solid surfacing market because it opens up opportunities for new venues and uses of the product.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in commercial installations, such as:

• Toilet partitions • Restaurant tables • Conference tables • Salad bars • Wainscoting • Wall systems • Tub and shower surrounds • Checkout stands • Reception counters, both vertical and horizontal surfaces

Non-traditional markets also have emerged: millwork, office furniture, appliance fronts, restaurant furniture, residential cabinetry and commercial casework all can be clad in this renewable surface.

These new application opportunities are further expanded by state-of-the-art manufacturing, which makes it possible to offer 1/8-inch solid surfacing in extra wide and custom width sizes. This is most pertinent in applications¬such as the 60-inch back wall of a tub surround¬where seaming would have been necessary with 30- or 36-inch wide sheet goods. Wide sheet capabilities also eliminate unsightly batten strips installed down the center of tub walls and can be used on wainscoting, wall systems and conference tables.

Custom size sheet goods can be ordered within a quarter-inch of needs, length and width. Like side sheets, custom sizing minimizes waste and can reduce the installation price of large-scale jobs.

Design possibilities are not the only story. Solid surfacing is really a workhorse material too. And renewability is one of it most significant characteristics. The same is true of 1/8-inch solid surfacing. Regular, routine maintenance and renewal will not affect the function and good looks of the product. (A high powered random orbital sander using 180 micron sandpaper takes seven to 10 minutes to sand off only 15 mil of solid surfacing material. And that's with some serious elbow grease!)

This makes it practical to use solid surfacing in high wear areas such as restaurant tables, in fast food restaurants or food courts, where maintenance usually means replacing worn out materials with something new. Now it's possible to renew the existing surfacing. Routine maintenance is simple: a random orbital sander renews the finish to its original sheen for a nominal cost to the owner. And, depending on the size of the application or institution, maintenance staff can be trained to renew their own surfaces.

The product's reparability provides a confidence factor when specifying the product in high abuse areas, such as commercial restrooms. If a toilet partition is damaged by graffiti, the surface can be renewed. If the product is damage by etching or deep scratches, the damaged area can be repaired. Most applications can be brought back to their original looks with minimum hassle and expense.

Compared with some more traditional materials, up-front costs of 1/8-inch material may be a little higher. In other cases costs may be lower, or comparable. But the elegance that comes with these performance characteristics can save the owner in the long-run. The renewability and reparability of the product can extend the life and the image that designers create for their clients.

This article was provided by Wilsonart International, whose corporate philosophy emphasizes that the future of surfacing lies in continuous improvement and development of new materials. Wilsonart has a highly trained team of research and development scientists and partners with leaders in innovative material development, such as Aristech Chemical Corp., a leader in acrylic surfacing, to bring 1/8-inch Wilsonart® SSV[TM] Solid Surfacing Veneer to market.

Decorating Studio, LLC or is not affiliated with the authors nor responsible for the actions or content of the articles, or any 3rd party information within or linked to or from Decorating Studio or Decorating Studio's website.
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