Meet The Material: Formica

Posted by: on February 13th, 2013 | 5 Comments
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Image of gleaming Formica countertops from Scott Lander Design's award-winning Thomson residence renovation

Image via Scott Lander Design

 

Much like Wonder Bread, an iconic brand that came to symbolize the exuberance and optimism of post-war America, high-pressure laminate countertops like Formica were a common sight in diners, soda shops and nearly one-third of all homes by the early 1950s. Gleaming countertops like the one seen above in an award-winning home restoration in Pasadena, Calif., were seen as a triumph of American modernity and manufacturing ingenuity.

After falling from favor for several decades, Formica is now experiencing a resurgence in popularity as it turns 100 years old. There are now literally thousands of colors, patterns and textures of Formica. And with the adoption of new manufacturing processes that use nontoxic resins and recycled paper, Formica has become the darling of many budget remodelers and green builders.

What is Formica? Layers of paper soaked in resin and compressed together at extremely high pressure to form a surfacing material. It’s named Formica because it was originally produced as a substitute for mica, a naturally occurring substance that was used to insulate electrical material.

What are some of the cool properties of Formica? It’s super thin and very strong. Since it’s just paper, you can print virtually any pattern or design on it.

How is Formica used? Today it’s primarily used as a decorative application for countertops and tabletops, walls and other surfaces. It was initially developed by a research engineer at Westinghouse to be a strong, lightweight material for electrical insulation. By the 1930s, major automobile manufactures like Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac and Studebaker were using Formica to make timing gears.

What can you use Formica for? We’ve seen people doing lots of creative things with Formica lately, from making jewelry and sculpture to creating accent walls and colorful DIY headboards.

See even more reasons why Formica is making a comeback in kitchens, baths and many places inside and out of the home.

 

Image of an array of modern Formica finishes

Images via Formica

 

Laminates now offer an almost limitless choice of designs and finishes. From faux wood and stone to geometric patterns, metallic finishes or designs you create yourself, these are not your grandma’s kitchen countertops anymore.

 

Image of an accent wall created with Formica's Petrified Wood laminate

Images via Formica

 

The use of reclaimed wood continues to be a popular trend in home décor. You may find yourself spending lots of time searching high and low for just the right pieces to pull off the look. Laminate finishes like Formica’s Petrified Wood as seen above can be used to create stunning rustic accents that can be styled in completely traditional or thoroughly modern ways.

 

 

Bend it, cut it and apply it to almost any surface. Budget remodelers and green builders aren’t the only ones who have rediscovered the versatility and affordability of Formica.

 

Fish Lamp sculpture by Frank Gehry

Image via Design Boom

 

Formica has a long history of collaboration with designers and artists in the quest to develop ever more inventive surfacing materials. You can see in the photo above a piece of artwork the company commissioned from famed architect and sculptor Frank Gehry in 1983. It’s made of the then-new plastic laminate ColorCore. After accidentally shattering a piece of it while working, Gehry’s fascination with fish led him to notice the similarity between the shards of laminate and fish scales. Fish Lamps became the first of many fish-inspired pieces he would create over the next 20 years.

Bonus Fact: In February 1913, Westinghouse paid Dan O’Conner the princely sum of $1 for developing the technique for making laminated insulators (the precursor to Formica). Weeks later, he rewarded their generosity by leaving the company to start his own insulator business with Herbert Faber, another Westinghouse employee, who actually coined the term Formica.

Find more information here on choosing the right countertops, how to install laminate countertops yourself or having your countertops installed by one of our trained, licensed professionals.

 

Meet the Material is a series designed to introduce you to some of the everyday goods sold at The Home Depot. Is there a material you’d like to know more about? Just let us know in the comments!

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  1. lori seay says:

    I have laminate maple colored kitchen cabinets. Can they be redone in a lighter color such as oak? And how hard would it be and is the cost resonable?

  2. Meredith says:

    I would love to know how to install Formica in an echo friendly way, avoiding toxic adhesives, etc. I have read that these products exist but would appreciate knowing more about what they are and exactly how to use them!

    • Shelley Decker says:

      Jay_HD_CHI, a DIY expert with the How-to Community says:

      “Going Green is a fantastic thing to do and getting away from harsh solvents is always a fantastic route to go. For installing your Formica, contact cement will be your ally in making sure you have a strong bond. While we do not carry a completely zero-voc product, non-toxic contact cement, we do have one that is low-voc and low-odor. DAP Weldwood Nonflammable Contact Cement. The industry is working towards making more and more product low to zero-voc, but not everything is quite there yet. While there certainly may exist products like that out on the market yet, they haven’t reached me to be able to give you first hand advisement on them just yet.”

      Just let us know if you have other questions, Meredith!

      Shelley

  3. Billy Suddeth says:

    I enjoyed the history of Formica. I always thought it was made from formica, which is found in the terra of parts of Alabama. Now we know, thanks.

    • Craig Allen says:

      That’s a common misconception, Billy. We’re here to clear up these mistaken ideas.

      -Craig, from The Home Depot