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Design Beyond the Surface

March 1, 2016

With a nearly endless list of design options, features, and benefits, vacuum-formed 3D panels can help elevate interiors to a whole new dimension.

It’s safe to say that we’re now living in the 3D era. From printers, televisions, and even pens, three-dimensional objects are being created in greater detail and efficiency, and are being utilized in more innovative ways than ever before. For commercial interiors, creating a design with a three-dimensional look has never been easier, thanks to the flexibility and character of laminates.

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The trend toward textures and geometries that can not only be perceived by the eye but also experienced by the hand continues to grow as designers seek to create spaces that complement interior architecture with greater visual impact. With ever-increasing realism, vacuum-formed 3D panel products, in particular, have literally helped to reshape interiors that go well beyond the typical two-dimensional surface. Advances in laminate technology provide high-end architectural solutions across a wide variety of markets, including corporate, hospitality, institutional, retail, and even marine environments.

These tactile products open up virtually endless design options for specifiers. Thanks to its many variations in structure, surface, pattern, and material, three-dimensional laminates (3DLs) have become a wildly popular solution for commercial interiors. These attractive, yet durable products offer specifiers tremendous design flexibility and are available in multiple sizes, suitable for walls, wainscoting, ceilings, backsplashes,
furniture, display fixtures, and other interior design applications.

Although 3D laminates aren’t new to the contract interiors market, fresh patterns and textures combined with customization options now available deliver an unprecedented level of aesthetic appeal and design advantages to market. When it’s time to give a project a three-dimensional look, 3D laminates offer the flexibility, performance, and aesthetic appeal needed to take design beyond the surface.

History & Manufacturing 101

Before delving into the numerous features, applications, and benefits of 3D surfacing products, it’s instructive to begin with a brief history of the evolution of laminates, as well as a basic explanation of the process of manufacturing vacuum-formed 3DLs. As design historian Grace Jeffers has noted1, “It surprises many people to learn that laminate, the material commonly found on kitchen counter tops, has been around for more than 100 years.” In the architectural and interior design trades, Jeffers explained that laminates are categorized as a “surfacing material” or a non-essential overlay, a material applied to achieve an aesthetic effect or to serve a durable function.

Initially, however, laminates didn’t have the aesthetic appeal when they were first introduced in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, who impregnated fibrous sheets with phenol-formaldehyde resin2. The first uses of decorative laminates in the 1920s were used in radio cabinets, and the dark color of the resin limited the product to dark colors because it colored dyes didn’t translate well and tended to rub off3.

Decorative laminates were made by impregnating large sheets of kraft paper with phenolic resin, which was then partially cured and cut to sheet lengths after coming out of the oven, which made the dry sheets somewhat stiff and brittle4. A decorative sheet (solid colored, wood-grained, or patterned), impregnated with melamine resin and cut to length in a similar manner to the phenolic core sheets, was laid on a polished stainless steel press plate5. Then several plies or layers of kraft paper impregnated with a phenolic resin were placed on top of the decorative layer, yielding products of varying thickness depending upon end-use requirements6. Next, a sheet of release paper that would not bond to the phenolic resin was placed on top of the phenolic kraft and following this a mirror image build-up of the assembly already on the press plate. Finally, another polished stainless steel press plate was placed on top of the pack assembly7.

Beginning in 1927, decorative laminated sheets using clear urea- and thiourea-formaldehyde were used for countertops, tables, bars, splash backs, interior paneling, doors, store fronts, and ornamental designs8. Because these resins were colorless, lighter-colored laminates, which were resistant to sunlight, were made possible; however, urea-formaldehyde resins tended to warp, absorbed water, and were less durable and more expensive than phenol resins9.

Following the invention of a new kind of resin, melamine, in 1938, laminate could be engineered with a top layer of colored paper10. Melamine bakes, or “flows,” to create a hard, clear, topcoat finish, which bonds and protects the “decorative” paper layer beneath11. “This important invention made the brightly colored laminates we associate with kitchen counter tops of the 1950s possible—and opened up a brand new world of design possibilities for American kitchens and bathrooms,” noted Jeffers.

The old lamination process was costly and labor-intensive, and required extensive handling of the individual sheets. Those sheets were extremely brittle and easily damaged. Breaking off even a small corner rendered the sheet unusable (and not repairable or recyclable).
Modern 3D laminate manufacturing, on the other hand, provides consistent quality, custom patterns, and branded color matching for the design community at smaller minimums and lower costs than historically available.

At the most basic level, specifiers can select from a wide variety of available three-dimensional patterns to choose from and then pair them with one of many finish options to create a unique panel or tile product. The extensive assortment of standard design and color combinations enables designers to meet both traditional and contemporary design requirements. Metal, wood grain, and patina looks can be easily achieved with striking realism but at a lower cost without sacrificing the three-dimensional look and feel of natural products. Additionally, some manufacturers offer the ability to produce custom sheets with logos and other brand-recognizable features built directly into the panels or tiles (more on customization options later on).

The manufacturing process begins with a raw thermoplastic material like PVC, PETG, HIPS, or ABS that provides the “base” of the finished product. The base material may also come in sheeted form for certain through-color finishes. Decorative foils in roll form provide the finish that gives the panel or tile product the desired metallic, patina, wood grain, or solid color looks. Special coatings can be added to the decorative foils for an invisible layer of protection (for patina finishes, for example), whereas protective masking is added when a coating might affect the finish. Solid through-color finishes typically don’t require protective coatings and are shipped as is12.

Next, the substrate is laminated and sheeted at the end of the production line where it is taken to a vacuum forming area. The sheet is heated and drawn into a cast former, and then shaped into the finished pattern using vacuum machinery. The uniform pressure from the vacuum process eliminates shifting and air pockets, creating perfectly smooth parts with consistent, predictable results. The back side of the finished sheet is also taken into account to ensure that there is enough surface area to bond the sheet.

The sheet is then cooled before undergoing a two-step cutting process (rough and final cuts). Finally, the sheet is inspected for quality control before packaged for shipping in either cartons or crates. The finished panels are extremely lightweight, and are flexible enough to be rolled for shipping, yet completely rigid when laminated. This makes the end product more cost effective to ship and easy to install.

Finished 3DL panels are typically about .030-inch thick and are fire retardant grade, passing ASTM E84 Class A Test Standard requirements. Despite their thin profile, vacuum-formed 3D laminates are also extremely durable (more on features and benefits below) and can withstand the demands of high-traffic environments.


Adding Dimension to Walls & Ceilings

Three-dimensional panels and tiles are perfectly suited for both wall and ceiling surfaces to add depth and dimension to a space. Wall panel sizes vary based on application, but many manufacturers offer full-sized wall panels that reach up to 4- by 8-feet in size, while wainscot panels may vary between 30 and 32-inch by 48 inches. Smaller panels for kitchen backsplashes and glue-ups are typically specified in sizes from 18- by 24-inches or as small as 2- by 2-inch.

Some 3DL wall panel designs also incorporate a Built-In Overlap (BIO) feature, where the inclusion of a flat edge on the top and right side of each sheet outside the pattern makes seams less visible (almost invisible in some cases). Panels are lightweight and easy to handle and install, and are well-suited for columns and other vertical surfaces where decorative laminates are desired.

Overhead, adding design elements to the ceiling plane can have significant impact on the overall ambiance of a space and can create feelings of openness, seclusion, intimacy, or even energy. Further, a study of the life cycle analysis of wall-to-wall ceilings versus an open plenum found that while initial installation costs are higher for suspended ceiling systems, energy costs and maintenance are lower than those of exposed ceilings in the long run13.

There are typically two options that exist for ceiling applications—glue-up and lay-in tiles. Glue-up tiles are designed to be installed directly onto ceilings (or even walls), and most feature a BIO or a bead-and-button overlap to offer less visible seams and joins. Lay-in tiles are lightweight and easy to install, and can be laid over an existing suspended grid system. Many lay-in tiles feature four flat edges to help create seamless look.

Some specifiers may naturally wonder how these new lay-in tiles will coordinate with an existing grid system that might not match the intended design theme or aesthetic. The solution is simple: thermoplastic grid covers are available from the manufacturer to perfectly match the finishes of the new decorative tiles and create a seamless look to the ceiling.

Before adhering glue-up tiles to any surface, always check the manufacturer’s recommendations for adhesives. For renovation projects, existing popcorn ceilings need to be scraped completely clean before new glue-up tiles can be applied. As a general rule, trowel and latex adhesives can be used to adhere the tiles to drywall or other ceiling surface. Brush or roll-on, non-flammable, spray-on, and water-based contact adhesives suitable for PVC also work well.

Designers can also dramatically enhance the look of existing drop ceiling systems using light diffusers which are available in contemporary designs that can add up to 30 percent brighter light within a space. Light diffusers replace existing prismatic ones within a suspended ceiling system to create a more attractive look without the need to change out the mineral fiber tiles in order to use them. Diffusers are ideal for office work environments because the light is directed from side to side and does not shine downward onto computer stations.  

For panels that need to be trimmed, an existing mineral tile can be used as a template and a marker and utility knife (razor, scissors, etc.) can be used to score tiles to size and then snap the pieces apart. If grid covers are required, install them prior to the decorative panels, which are simply inlaid directly over the existing mineral tiles within the suspension grid. If making room for a ceiling lamp, ensure that an opening is cut on the tile where the lamp will be attached.

Features: The Sky’s the Limit

When it comes to selecting surfacing materials and products for an interiors project, the question isn’t why should you choose 3DLs—it’s why shouldn’t you? With hundreds of designs and color combinations, low costs, easy installation, and overall flexibility and performance, the sky’s the limit in terms of the features that specifiers have at their fingertips, including:

  • Textures. Given the advancements in printing and manufacturing technology, nearly any shape, size, or pattern can be created. From organic, geometric, weave, wave, and faux textures, 3DL panels give interiors a unique appearance and tactile appeal that’s attractive to both the eyes and the hand. 
  • Finishes. Many suppliers now offer dozens of 3DL finishes, including wood grains, metallic, patinas, and solid colors. Although the design options are nearly endless, it’s important to note that color-through finishes are good option for high traffic areas, especially when combined with lower profile designs.
  • Performance/durability. Many decorative ceiling panels are ultra-rigid and provide impact resistance, abrasion and scratch resistance, chemical resistance, and superior corrosion resistance as well. Composite panels are highly stable, dimensionally consistent, and can be engineered for special performance properties14 including:

a.    Moisture resistance. Three-dimensional decorative panel and tile products are impervious to moisture, are washable, and easy-to-clean, making them a great choice in high traffic environments and healthcare facilities where cleanability is a concern.

b.    Scratch resistance. High-traffic environments with painted walls are often fall victim to scuffing and scratches—a fact that not only diminishes the aesthetics of a space but also adds to maintenance costs. Combining a lower profile texture with the correct finish can make 3D laminates a very attractive option in busy spaces such as hospital corridors, ambulatory care, assisted living facilities, and schools, for example. These panels and tiles are extremely durable and resist a tremendous amount of wear-and-tear. Some 3DLs also come in a paint grade that can be painted onsite to custom match colors and coated to ensure resistance to heavy traffic.

c.    Fire resistance. While most 3DL products meet the required ASTM Class A Fire Rating for commercial environments, they can also be exceptionally heat-resistant. In the residential market, for example, 3DL tiles are used extensively to mimic old tin backsplashes, and they are used in kitchen environments that can withstand heat up to 140 F.

 d.    Density/screw-holding power. 3DL panels and tiles adhere well with mechanical fasteners such as screws and nails, in addition to being applied easily with adhesives that are troweled onto the wall or ceiling surface. This makes them easy to work with and install at the project site with minimal headaches.

e.    Lightweight. The average 3DL panel weighs roughly 0.25 lbs. per sq. ft., making it extremely easy to work with and cost-effective to ship. In spite of its rigidity, 3DL panels are still lightweight and flexible enough to be wrapped around columns and curved millwork.


 f.    Different thicknesses and dimensions. In addition to a variety of panel and tiles sizes, the pattern depth of a 3DL tile or panel can vary from as little as 2 mm deep to almost half-inch deep. This gives specifiers the ability to create a subtle or more dramatic look based on the degree of topography desired.

Most 3DL products are also mold- and mildew-free, which can also help achieve proper indoor air quality—a growing concern in corporate, healthcare, and education applications alike. Further, 3DLs can withstand surprisingly high impacts and offer exceptional scratch resistance with the addition of transparent, protective overlays. As a result, decorative wall panels are a great alternative to traditional wall-coverings and paint.

Sustainability. There are many ways to measure the environmental impact of a 3DL panel, including LCAs and third-party certification that measure recycled content, VOCs, etc. There are also the harder-to-measure factors, such as efficiency, durability, and responsibility. Many 3DL products are constructed using a high percentage of pre-consumer recycled content.

For renovation projects, extending the useful life of existing walls or ceilings helps mitigate the amount of construction and demolition waste during a project and can earn valuable LEED points in the process14. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), construction and demolition waste constitutes about 40 percent of the total solid waste stream in the United States and about 25 percent of the total waste stream in the European Union15.

Second to source reduction, building and material reuse is the next most effective strategy for reducing environmental waste because reusing existing materials avoids the environmental burden of the manufacturing process, according to the USGBC. The LEED rating system has consistently rewarded the reuse of materials, and the new version 4 now offers more flexibility and rewards all material reuse achieved by a project—both as part of a building reuse strategy and from off site, as part of a salvaging strategy16.

For renovation projects, vacuum-formed 3D ceiling tiles are an elegant solution because they use existing tiles as a backer and eliminate the need to discard old mineral tiles that would end up in a landfill. Extending the useful life of existing mineral tiles helps mitigate the amount of construction and demolition waste during a project and can earn valuable LEED points in the following categories:

  • MR Credit 4: Recycled Content In order to attain this credit, specifiers must use materials, including furniture and furnishings, with recycled content such that the sum of post-consumer recycled content plus half of the pre-consumer content constitutes at least 10 percent or 20 percent, based on cost, of the total value of the materials in the project. The recycled content value of a material or furnishing is determined by weight. The recycled fraction of the assembly is then multiplied by the cost of assembly to determine the recycled content value.17
  •  MR Credit 5: Regional Materials Building materials or products that have been extracted, harvested or recovered, as well as manufactured, within a specified distance of the project site for a minimum of 10 percent or 20 percent, based on cost, of the total materials value, must be used to attain this credit. If only a fraction of a product or material is extracted, harvested, or recovered and manufactured locally, then only that percentage (by weight) must contribute to the regional value18.
  • IE Credit 4.2: Low-emitting Materials—Paints and Coatings All paints and coatings used on the interior of the building (i.e., inside of the weatherproofing system and applied on-site) must meet the testing and product requirements of the California Department of Health Services Standard Practice for the Testing of Volatile Organic Emissions from Various Sources Using Small-Scale Environmental Chambers, including 2004 Addenda19.
  • IE Credit 4.2: Low-emitting Materials—Ceiling and Wall Systems All gypsum board, insulation, acoustical ceiling systems and wall coverings installed in the building interior must meet the testing and product requirements of the California Department of Health Services Standard Practice for the Testing of Volatile Organic Emissions from Various Sources Using Small-Scale Environmental Chambers, including 2004 Addenda20.

 Design Advantages of 3dls

In the surfacing category, it’s hard to find another product that matches the features and performance characteristics—not to mention aesthetic and tactile properties—of 3DLs. Additionally, there are a number of design advantages to choosing laminates that play an important role in any project. Specifiers would be wise to consider these additional benefits of selecting 3DLs for their next interiors project21:

  • Lower shipping costs and short production lead times on non-stocking items assists in meeting tight deadlines or lower budget
  • Suited for walls, columns, and surfaces where decorative laminates are desired
  • Panels can be directly adhered to drywall and other substrates; no balancing is required
  • Lower profile designs are well-suited for higher traffic areas
  • 3DLs can imitate the look of metals or wood grains at a lower cost
  • Lightweight and much easier to install compared to most other 3-dimensional panel products
  • Designs offer a fun alternative to traditional wall laminates, veneers, paint, and other wall covering options

Consider also the fact that with 3DLs, virtually limitless designs and color combinations are available to meet traditional and more contemporary requirements, and panels can even be painted with custom colors. A number of manufacturers are also now working closely with customers to bring their own, unique design ideas to life—and opening the door to limitless design options in the process. Custom logos, patterns, and designs for branding and signage can now be digitally printed directly onto the film with incredible realism not possible with two-dimensional products.

Custom programs create branded solutions through an easy process that allows customers to incorporate designs and logos directly into the material—not just as a surface-level treatment. This yields a functional, durable, and affordable branded solution for walls and ceilings. Almost any concept can be incorporated into a 3DL panel. Customers can choose from hundreds of existing designs as a base, or can start from scratch.

Typically, the customization process involves four easy steps: an initial review or consultation that’s followed by a conceptual rendering or CAD stage. Once a design is approved, samples are produced, and then full-sized sample sheets are created for final approval prior to manufacturing and shipping.

Proven in the Real World

While the list of benefits sounds great on paper, the real test of a product’s mettle is in real-world applications. As many designers and specifiers have learned firsthand, most 3D laminates live up to their marketing claims, as evidenced by the tremendous growth of this product segment and usage in commercial interiors projects of all types.

As the office furniture industry has embraced nonstandard and organic shapes for worksurfaces over the years, 3DLs have been a perfect match. They are also commonly found in ready-to-assemble (RTA) furniture, particularly where the design calls for soft edges and unusually-shaped components, and on cabinet doors and drawers in place of lacquer finishes. Additionally, 3D laminates are finding wider acceptance in health care applications, where improved surface resistance to cleaning

chemicals and their ability to seal the panel core against moisture and bacteria without seams provide a competitive advantage over other material options22.

Retail stores are also increasingly using 3DLs for fixtures and POP display applications in high-traffic areas. The following case studies illustrate how 3DLs were used in real-world applications to achieve both aesthetic and performance requirements in three retail settings.

Harley Davidson. When Kentucky-based design firm, AGI, was tasked with exploring products with a different design approach for global motorcycle manufacturer, Harley Davidson, the design team sought materials that would both maintain a modern look and respect the brand’s unique 100-plus years of history for the renovation of its dealership in Greensboro, NC. Given the heavy-use retail application, surfacing and panel products needed to be both durable and attractive. As a result, decorative 3D ceiling, wall, and columns were specified to meet the requirements.

“Harley Davidson does individual concepts, store-by-store, and when this store was done, it was actually one of the first tests for removing the old style type of store, where the building was really as much a star of the show as the product,” explained Mark Wheelihan, owner, Harley Davidson of Greensboro. “What they’ve done now is they’ve tied in the nostalgia, with the vintage pictures and so forth, and in our particular case, but they also, we went from neon and black ceiling, and no neon and nothing that drove your eye above the product.”

Existing black, domed tiles and crosshatch silver products were repurposed for the walls, while columns were covered in a new, impact-resistant thermoplastic product. Additionally, 3D wood-grain panels were used throughout the space to help showcase iconic moments from the Harley archive.

“The standard Harley store over the last 20 years was probably more like a 50’s diner than anything else—it was the look that got used a lot. The Harley architects wanted to design a store that had—because they were going to black so many things out and make the product the star, they needed to basically find ways to find ways to warm up the space,” noted Wheelihan. “So in our case they ended up using the maple to bring warmth into the store. Because other than that, it would be all chrome and metal and steel and blacked out – it was just too much. So even in places where we didn’t use graphics, we still folded the maple in behind the fixtures and so forth to bring uniformity to it.”

Finally, a large-format mural in the store presented a unique set of customization challenges for the manufacturer. By modifying grainy, faded, irregularly-sized photographs, the supplier was able to create impressive, oversized pieces of artwork onto new panel products for the design team that captured the essence of the client’s brand.

And while the aesthetics played an important role, Wheelihan says they could not be happier with the performance of the 3DL panels and tiles they chose for their store renovation.

 “[3DL’s] have been more durable,” said Wheelihan. “We had an event recently, and we had over 8,000 people, and nothing is worse for the wear. We’re a very high traffic environment. With our parts facility next door, we’re constantly throwing very, very large events because we have the capability, which is a little bit unique for a Harley Store to have that kind of facility. And the stuff has held up tremendously. If you get a good installer, the product is never the problem,” he adds.

“We had used an installer in a previous remodel—this is the fourth remodel in 16 years. And that’s the other thing that’s important because the product makes it very easy to go back at and freshen your look because the product not only holds up, but it comes back away easily. So it makes another remodel very easy to change out materials, to change out graphics. We wanted to make the ceiling disappear, so we blacked out the ceiling. We wanted to take away anything that drew your eye up. The store turned out great. Your eye now goes to the motorcycle, to the parts, to the motor clothes.”

Village Cinema Crown Casino. Similarly, Australian designer Stephen Tieppo of Red Design found 3D panels to be the perfect solution for the refurbishment of Village Cinema Crown Casino in Melbourne. While Tieppo’s goal was to maximize the impact of the renovation, “our options were limited because the client wanted to give the space a new identity without undertaking massive structural changes or change in volume,” he noted.

As a result, the design team at Red looked for a product that had depth and reflection, and that could be installed while the cinema was still operating during the course of the six-week remodeling. Although the builder was unfamiliar with the 3D cladding product that was installed over existing walls, the design team found that the panels provided all the performance characteristics they were looking for while being very easy to use.

“The diamond pattern was an extension of what we achieved with the main wall, where we introduced the diamond geometry to work with the existing air vents,” recalled Tieppo. “The wall was already angled—a product of the 90s, I imagine—so we worked with those angles and the diamond pattern was born. It was a great result and very well executed by the joiners,” he added.

Ham’s Restaurant. Ham’s restaurants first opened its doors in 1935 and quickly became a staple in many North Carolina and Virginia communites, providing great food and fun times for the entire family.  Today, Ham’s has remained true to that vision while also serving up an expanded menu featuring delicious food from bison burgers to fish tacos as well as local craft beers and monthly drink specials.

When Rocky Scarfone first bought Hams franchise in 2010, he had a clear vision in mind—keep the original family fun environment while creating a memorable and recognizable brand.  With several locations established and more on the way, Scarfone knew that keeping the interior design consistent was key to acheiving this goal.

Scarfone had a very specific design idea—he wanted something more than just plain paint on the walls, but needed a product that would easily translate into many locations.  “We were looking to wrap columns and use it on curved walls, but I didn’t want it to be flat, I wanted something three-dimensional,” said Scarfone.

The material he chose also had to hold up to a busy restaurant environment. With all the guests and wait staff bumping into walls, as well as food and drink spills, the substrate had to be extremely durable and easy to clean.  So when Scarfone began remodeling the Ham’s location on High Point Rd. in Greensboro, North Carolina, he approached a leading decorative laminate manufacturer to help find a suitable material that would meet all his needs.

After researching available laminated products, Scarfone decided to select a three-dimensional, thermoplastic laminate, perfect for withstanding the high traffic present in a restaurant.  He chose two different patterns in copper and black colors to complete his vision.  The products he specified are made from 40-50 percent pre-consumer recycled material and contributed credits in the LEED 2009 Materials and Resources and Indoor Environmental Quality categories as an added bonus.

Scarfone recalled, “We started using it on High Point Road, and we liked it so much that I knew this was what our brand was going to look like. It’s our new look.”

As Ham’s new look, the same two products were utilized when remodeling older locations and when opening new ones. In the new spaces, Scarfone was able to incorporate more and more 3DL panels and tiles. In Downtown Greensboro, these attractive and unique products adorn long, curved walls, window breaks, the bar front, door fronts, and even the hostess stand.

In nearby Winston-Salem, the design started with bare walls and floors.  Starting from scratch allowed the 3DL panels to become the main wall and surface treatment throughout the design.  In addition, a new a high pressure laminate with a thin, real metal surface, was selected as a backsplash at beer stations.

Another benefit of using vacuum-formed 3DLs in this project was the ease of installation.  Whether it’s bending around curves or wrapping around columns, the product went up easily.  Scarfone even jokes that his installer has it “down to a science.”

When asked about why he chose these materials, Scarfone said, “It’s great in a restaurant application because all you do is wipe it clean.  We love the durability but also the richness of the product; it just looks and pops action and that’s what we wanted.”

Ham’s Restaurants continues to use 3D laminates in new builds and remodels.

The uniformity between locations has helped Ham’s define their brand while adding a unique design feature that sets them apart from the crowd.

For designers looking to give their next interiors project a unique, textured look with superior performance, it’s clear that there are few options as attractive and affordable as vacuum-formed 3D laminates.

Laminates: Need to know terminology

According to the Laminating Materials Association, Inc., there are a number of terms involved in the manufacturing and specification of laminates that are helpful for understanding the nuances of the various types of surfacing products in this category:

ADHESIVE: A substance capable of holding materials together by surface attachment. The term is used to cover the bonding of sheet material and is synonymous with glue.

BACKER: A non-decorative overlay used on the back of composite panel constructions to protect the substrate from changes in humidity and to balance the panel construction.

BALANCED CONSTRUCTION: A laminated composite panel construction that typically has a similar overlay on both surfaces, which reduces or eliminates warp when subjected to uniformly distributed moisture changes. BASIS WEIGHT Most often used to characterize paper products, in the decorative laminates industry. The basis weight is defined as the weight in pounds of a ream (3000 square feet) of paper.

CALENDERED: For polymers, passing of the film through heated rolls, moving at varying rates, to reduce the film thickness.

CUP: Deviation, flat-wise from a straight line stretched across the width of the panel.

DELAMINATION: An actual separation of a laminate from a substrate.

EMBOSSING: A process by which the surface of the panel product is given a relief effect. This can be accomplished with a pressure roll or a patterned caul plate in a hot press.

HOT MELT: A thermoplastic adhesive that is 100 percent solids and is applied molten to form a bond upon cooling. Hot melts differ from conventional liquid adhesives because they set by cooling rather than by absorption or evaporation of water or solvent.

LINEAR EXPANSION: A measure of growth along the length and/or width of a material when exposed to conditions from low to high humidity, stated as a percentage of the original dimensions.

MACHINE DIRECTION: The orientation that corresponds with the direction in which the product moved through the machine that manufactured it.

MIL: A thickness measurement typically used for vinyls and papers. One mill equals one-thousandth of an inch or 0.001 inch.

MOISTURE CONTENT: The amount of water in wood and expressed as a percentage of dry weight.

MOTTLING: Irregular visual appearance in an area or entire surface of a finished panel.

PRECURE: Curing of a resin before pressing.

RELATIVE HUMIDITY: Ratio of the amount of water vapor present in air to that which the air would hold at saturation at the same temperature.

SOLVENT-BORNE ADHESIVE: An adhesive containing polymeric materials dissolved in volatile organic solvents, to which a small percentage of cross-linker is added to obtain certain desired performance properties, such as higher heat resistance. This type of adhesive is typically used on a “hot line” laminator where it is applied to the board or film surface, dried and then heat activated prior to a hot roll laminating station. They are nongrain raising and exhibit good coatability, high heat resistance and excellent bond strengths.

SCREW-HOLDING: A measure of the force required to withdraw a screw directly from the face or edge of a board, stated in pounds (lbs) or Newtons (N).

SUBSTRATE: A material that provides the surface onto which an adhesive or coating is spread.

TACK: Viscosity or degree of “stickiness” of an adhesive, which reflects its state of dryness or advancement of cure, prior to bonding.

TELEGRAPHING: Transfer of substrate surface defects through the thickness of the overlay material.

THERMOPLASTIC ADHESIVE: Resins or adhesives that harden at room temperature and re-soften upon exposure to heat.

THERMOSETTING ADHESIVE: Resins or adhesives that cure at room temperature or in the hot press by chemical reaction to form rigid bonds that are not resoftened by exposure to heat (cross-links).

UNBALANCED CONSTRUCTION: When individual components or layers of a laminate do not respond equally to changes in moisture, thus causing warp.

WATERBORNE ADHESIVE: Water-based adhesives are formulated synthetic polymers (usually vinyl acetate or ethylene vinyl acetate polymers). These products are generally used for paper laminating, where the adhesive is applied to the web and/or board surface and tacks up through one or more heated rolls that combine paper to board.

WARP: Deviation of a panel from a flat plane due to unbalanced construction, excessive moisture pickup, wetting or other unfavorable exposures.


1, 10-11    Jeffers, Grace. (2013). Learn about Laminate: How laminate was invented and how it is made.

2-3, 8-9    Jester, T. C. (2014). Twentieth-century building materials: History and conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

4-7            Wikipedia (2014). Formica (plastics).

12, 21        Advanced Technology, Inc. (2015).

13            Ceiling & Interior System Construction Association. (2008). Life Cycle Analysis: Wall-to-Wall Ceilings and the Open Plenum.

14, 22        Bush, Kenn (April 2015). Composite Wood Panels: The Big Green Picture.

15-20        U.S. Green Building Council. LEED 2009.

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