Unless you have solid, freestanding cupboards, it is very likely that your cupboards will be made of some sort of laminate material that has been engineered in a factory. Very often these laminates have a veneer stuck to the surface that gives a particular finish to the surface, and makes it look more attractive. If not, or if you don’t like the surface finish, you may consider covering laminate cupboards yoursel
When we talk about laminates, we are referring to a whole lot of very thin layers of some type of material, that are stuck together to form a thicker material. When we refer to veneers, we mean very thin coatings that are glued over manmade (or engineered) board to give the surface a particular finish that improves, for example, the look of the laminate material. Some finishes are smooth while others are textured. Some include finishes that are designed to look like granite, marble and other materials that are particularly popular in kitchens and bathrooms.
The reason so many cupboards are made from reconstituted boards, including laminates, is because they are so much cheaper than most natural, solid wood. Engineered wood products are produced by sawing, chipping or slicing the raw timber and then bonding these elements together in some way. When we talk about materials being reconstituted we mean that they are basically reorganised. So you will see that reconstituted board contains wood, but in a different form to solid timber board.
In general, the various constituents are bonded together to form panel products, timber-like elements in various sizes, or shaped structural products. Bonding between the constituent parts is usually achieved with adhesives that are either mixed with the components, or sprayed onto the surface, often with the application of heat and pressure during the production process.
The beauty of these manmade products is that sizes do not rely on the dimensions of the tree from which the elements were sawn. This factor neutralises the effects of the defects and distortion that we find in solid wood. It also means that dimensional stability and tolerances for reconstituted timber are usually a lot better than for sawn timber, which is an advantage for the home owner.
Some laminates look better than others, which is something you need to consider when thinking about covering laminate cupboards. But most types can be decorated with mouldings that will make them look as if they are solid wood, and not engineered. All can have hardware (including door handles) screwed into them.
So what is the choice? There are several possibilities, some of which are better suited to the shell of cupboards, or for shelving, rather than for doors. Weight has a lot to do with this.
Blockboard is a relatively expensive laminate material that is particularly useful for cupboards, doors and for shelving. It is made with a core of softwood (usually pine) strips up to 25 mm wide. These strips are placed edge-to-edge and sandwiched between veneers of hardwood on either side. The sandwiched material is then glued under high pressure. You can paint blockboard, or attach mirrors to it. Alternatively you might consider covering it with fabric.
Medium density fibreboard (MDF) is a revolutionary material that was invented about 30 years ago. It is made from softwood fibres that are bonded with a synthetic resin under heat and pressure. It is very smooth and easy to work with, but quite expensive. It is an ideal material for decorative work including routed and moulded furniture and cupboard doors. Although it is relatively expensive, MDF is still a much less expensive option than most natural solid wood. Because it is isotropic (doesn’t have a grain), it doesn’t normally split. But if it is not painted or properly sealed, it does tend to swell, warp, expand and even break. Because it is lovely and smooth, it is easy to paint and can be used very successfully as a base for decorative paint effects.
Hardboard is made from compressed wood fibres or chips that are blasted into long fibres using steam. This process gives the material a much higher bending strength and stability than other boards. It has a smooth, hard finish on one side and a rough texture on the other, and is much denser than MDF or chipboard. If used for cupboards, the rough side should be placed inside and the smooth side on the outside. You can cover hardboard with paint, paper or fabric.
Chipboard, also known as particleboard, is one of the cheapest board products on the market. It is made from small fragments or particles of softwood which are chopped and compacted with resin or a synthetic binder to form solid sheets. Chipboard is manufactured in various grades, depending on the use for which it is intended. There are various different grades, the cheapest of which is a standard grade that needs to be filled and sealed before it is painted. Only an exterior, moisture-resistant grade is suitable for use outside or in damp internal areas like bathrooms.
Chipboard is made up of larger pieces of wood than normal MDF. It is denser than timber, but not as strong as other types of board. It is a good option where appearance and strength are less important than cost. This is one type of laminate that you will definitely want to cover if it has not already been veneered, or you are only using it for the shell (or carcass). However, we do get coated chipboard that is given a synthetic finish in the factory making it suitable for cupboards and for worktops. Veneered board is available with either one or both sides coated in a plain or wood finish.
One very wellknown particle product is Melamine, which is an impregnated paper that is bonded permanently onto the surface of a good quality board. The finished surface is easy to wipe clean and is hard wearing as well as heat, stain and scratch resistant. It is manufactured in various colours and wood grain finishes and is particularly popular for cupboards and counter tops.
Plywood is an inexpensive material that is made from many layers of very thin sheets of wood veneer or plies that are bonded under heat, pressure and with a strong adhesive that transforms it into a composite material. Each layer in the plywood is laid with the grain running in the opposite direction to the layers above and below it, which reinforces the board. The number of layers (or plies) varies, depending on the quality of the board, as does the wood used to make it. Normally there are an odd number of plies in the board.
Plywood is a lot stronger than sawn timber and is resistant to cracking and splitting, twisting and warping. It can also be nailed close to the edges, but if it comes into contact with water for any length of time, the layers are likely to separate. With this reason it should be covered or sealed.
Very often projects that involve covering laminate cupboards are renovations or remodelling exercises. While fabric is an option, and it can look very attractive, paint is usually the most practical approach. If you’re working on a smooth surface, first paint with a proprietary primer intended for laminates, or give the surface a rough sanding, and then use a regular primer as an undercoat. Choose a top coat that will produce a good, hardwearing surface that you can wipe or scrub clean.