Learn How to Use Melamine
Melamine is the common name for particleboard that’s coated with a thin layer of plastic finish. The melamine finish is similar to the plastic laminate on countertops, but it’s not as thick. The advantages of building with a melamine-coated product are its durable finish and its relatively low cost. But it can be frustrating to work with. The particleboard can be hard to fasten, and the brittle finish is tricky to cut. Here are some great tips to make your next melamine project a success.
Buy a Special Blade
The melamine finish chips easily when cut, especially if you’re using an everyday saw blade. But you can largely avoid chipping by investing in a special blade that’s designed to cut plastic materials. The teeth on these blades are less angled, which helps prevent chipping. One example is the Freud LU79R007 7-1/4-in. blade. If you can’t justify spending this much, you can still get good results with a less expensive blade that has at least 40 carbide teeth. But be sure to use the chip-free cutting technique that we show in Tip 4.
Order the Color You Want
You’ll typically find melamine products in white at home centers, but many colors are available. Depending on the brand, you’ll find 10 to 20 or more colors available for special order. Check with your local lumberyard or home center for your options.
Wear Safety Gear
You should always wear safety gear when you’re using power tools. There are particular safety concerns when you’re working with melamine. For starters, the plastic finish tends to chip off as it’s cut. The chips are as sharp as glass, creating a real hazard for your eyes. Safety glasses are a must.
The fine dust created by cutting the fiber core is bad for your lungs. If possible, cut outdoors. Indoors or out, wear a dust mask. Wear gloves when you’re handling large sheets of melamine. The edges can be razor sharp. And don’t forget hearing protection.
Cut Without Chipping
Making a scoring cut before the final one will result in a chip-free edge. First, use a straightedge as a saw guide. Without the straightedge, the saw might wobble slightly as you cut, and this twisting will contribute to chipping. Clamp your straightedge guide in position and set the saw to cut 1/8 in. deep. Run your saw along the straightedge and cut a groove in the melamine panel. This shallow cut shouldn’t produce any chipping.
Now reset the saw so the blade extends about 1/2 in. past the bottom side of the panel and make another pass. The resulting cut will be perfectly chip-free on both sides. You can use the same technique on a table saw. Make one shallow cut. Then run the panel through the saw a second time to complete the cut. If only one side of the panel will be visible in the finished project, you don’t need to use this technique because chipping occurs only on the side where the saw blade teeth exit. Just make sure to place the “show” side down if you’re cutting with a circular saw and up when you’re using a table saw.
Pin Panels, Then Add Screws
The melamine finish is slippery, making it difficult to hold the panels in alignment while you drill pilot holes for the screws. Solve this problem by first pinning the panels together using an 18 gauge brad nail gun. The small holes left by the brads are nearly invisible, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration.
Drill and Countersink for Screws
Particleboard, whether it has a melamine finish or not, doesn’t hold screws as well as solid lumber or plywood. Plus, it tends to split if you drive screws without drilling first. The key to fastening it with screws is to drill pilot holes for the screws and countersinks for the screw heads.
Dedicated Countersink Bit
A combination bit that drills and countersinks in one operation saves time. Choose a countersink bit that’s labeled for use with No. 8 screws.
Strengthen Shelves With Nosing
Melamine shelves will sag over time, especially if they’re more than a few feet long. Strengthen shelves by gluing a solid wood nose to one or both edges of the shelf. Here we’ve slotted the nosing and the melamine shelves with a biscuit joiner to allow the use of wood biscuits. The biscuits add strength and help align the edging perfectly. No nails needed; just apply wood glue, insert the biscuits and clamp the edge to the shelf until the glue sets.
The particleboard core is rather brittle and can split if you drive screws too close to the edge. Prevent this by positioning screws at least 2 in. from the edge of panels when possible. Drilling a pilot hole also helps prevent splitting.
Repair Chips with a Special Filler
SeamFil plastic filler paste comes in a tube and is commonly used by pros who work with plastic laminate to repair chips. And since the surface of melamine panels and shelves is also a type of plastic laminate, the repairs blend in well. SeamFil paste is available for about $5 per 1-oz. tube online or where plastic laminate (used for countertops) is sold. It’s available in 20 standard colors that can be mixed to create custom colors.
To use the SeamFil paste, first clean the area with the special SeamFil solvent (available for about $9 per half pint where the paste is sold). Then spread a small amount of the paste on a scrap of wood or plastic laminate. Work the paste around with a polished putty knife until some of the solvent starts to evaporate and the paste starts to thicken. Then press the thickened paste into the area to be repaired and smooth it with the putty knife. It may take a few coats to get a flush surface. Clean off excess paste using a rag dampened with the solvent.
Hide Screw Heads
To conceal screw heads, you have a couple of options. You can buy plastic caps that snap onto or over your screw heads. These work fine but leave a protruding cap.
The other option is to cover the screw with FastCap self-sticking plastic screw covers ($3 to $5 for 56 1/2-in. covers). These are available at some retailers, online or directly from FastCap. Go to fastcap.com to see the huge variety of sizes and colors. If you’re really picky and want to install a nearly invisible, flush screw cover, you can buy a special FlushMount drill bit system that makes a perfect-depth recess for the plastic screw covers.
Finish Raw Edges with Edge Banding
When the edge of a melamine panel is visible but you don’t want to add solid wood nosing, apply edgebanding tape. You can buy iron-on edge banding at most home centers. But an even easier solution is to apply self-adhesive or peel-and-stick edge banding. FastCap is one company that supplies peel-and-stick edge banding in a wide variety of colors, widths and lengths. Called Fastedge, it’s available online and at woodworking stores.
Move a hot iron quickly over iron-on edge-banding tape to melt the glue. If you’re using self-adhesive edge banding, you can skip this step and simply peel off the paper backing and stick the edge banding to the particleboard edge.
Trim the Tape to Finish the Edge
Trim the overhanging edges of the tape flush to the melamine surface with a special tool called an edge-banding trimmer. You’ll find edge-banding trimmers at home centers, woodworking stores and online for about $20.
Look around and you’ll find melamine furniture, melamine shelves, melamine wall panels, and even melamine slatwall. It’s usually labeled as melamine, but you may also see terms such as thermally fused laminate or simply prefinished panels or prefinished
You can buy 4 x 8-ft. sheets of melamine in 1/8-, 1/4-, 1/2-, 5/8- and 3/4-in. thicknesses and melamine shelves in various lengths and widths. Home centers may only stock 1/4-in. and 3/4-in. thicknesses. Melamine sheets cost about 60¢ to $1.25 per square foot. Shelving costs about $1.40 to $2 per linear foot depending on the width.
Learn how to build the Ultimate Garage Cabinets with melamine here.