How Formica Works

Wooden kitchen with granite worktop
Wooden kitchen with granite worktop
Steve Cole/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

­­If you've ever wondered about the Formica countertops in your kitchen or bath -- or the laminate that tops tables and furniture -- this article is for you. Not only will you learn the history of Formica, but also how to repair it and paint it. But before we move on to those things, you need to learn what Formica is all about.

Formica was created back in 1913 as a replacement "for mica" electrical insulation. Early operations of the Formica Corporation revolved around electric motor v-rings. In 1927, the Formica Corporation patented a barrier sheet; it was the first piece of what would soon become the Formica kitchen and bathroom countertop revolution [source: Formica].

By 1937, the Formica Corporation was creating many types of products, including the Formica tabletops and countertops that it became famous for. The laminates were even used on the walls of the Queen Mary ocean liner [source: Formica].

­Staying true to its original interests, the Formica Corporation also continued to improve upon electrical insulation, and when World War II broke out, Formica production peaked with burster tubes for bombs and "Pregwood" airplane propellers.

By the 1950s, Formica laminates were everywhere, in bold and bright new colors. It was f­eatured everywhere from new homes to passenger train cars, and everybody wanted the look and feel of laminates [source: Formica].

The 1960s and '70s brought even more new colors and textures. And now, in a new millennium, Formica has continued to enhance its offerings and keep pace with the changing face of America.

Formica started as insulation and evolved into one of the most widely used materials in the world. In the next sections, you'll learn how laminate countertops are made, how you can repair them and how to customize them to match your tastes.

Formica Countertops

Believe it or not, that hard kitchen and bathroom surface you use every day is actually made fro­m paper. Formica countertops come in a variety of colors, patterns and textures, each starting with resin-soaked paper.

The inside, or filler, of Formica is made from brown paper bathed in an amber-colored phenolic resin, which is applied by rollers. The resin soaks through the paper, which then sets in a drying oven [source: Formica]. This gives Formica its strength and thickness.

The decorative side of Formica -- the part we see -- is made from high-grade print paper. This paper is put into a vat filled with a clear melamine resin. The paper then goes through a wringer, which squeezes off any excess. An overlay sheet makes it wear-resistant.

Hydraulic rams -- applying between 800 to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch -- press the stacks of resin-soaked paper. The press heats the paper, allowing the resins to liquefy and spread. This bonds all the layers in the stack together into a single laminate unit [source: Formica].

After the unit is removed from the press, it is trimmed, and the bottom is sanded so that glue will stick to it when it is laid in a kitchen or bath.

As with most products, as Formica ages it's more susceptible to damage. One big gash and you might be tempted to invest in a new countertop. But wait -- you can repair damaged areas and save yourself time and money. Read on to learn how to repair Formica countertops.

Formica Countertop Repair

Formica countertops are designed to withstand wear, heat and water, b­ut they can still be damaged, especially as they get older. But replacing damaged countertops is not your only option.

Small chips and scratches can be repaired relatively easily. You can buy laminate repair paste at most hardware stores -- it comes in a variety of colors you can mix to match your countertops. Before applying the paste, clean the counter with an ammonia solution to remove any dirt, grime and grease. Let the counters dry thoroughly and then spread the paste over the bad spot with a putty knife. Let the paste dry according to the directions on the package, wipe the excess off from around the damaged area and clean.

You can use countertop polish to cover small scratches, but the fix is only temporary. You'll need to reapply it on a regular basis -- probably at least every couple of months.

Contact cement is great for reapplying peeling laminate. If the edge of the laminate is damaged beyond an easy glue fix, remove the edge, lightly sand the exposed surface to remove any old adhesive, and glue on a new laminate edge [source: DIYNetwork].

Are you tired of the color of your Formica? Thinking about ripping out your kitchen counters but hate the thought of spending all that money to replace them? Consider painting them. Painting your Formica kitchen and bath countertops can give the room an updated look for much less than it would cost to install new countertops. You will learn how to do this in the next section.

Painting Formica

With a little bit of work, you can transform a boring kitchen into a sh­owpiece for less than what you might expect -- just by painting your Formica. The whole process will take two to three days, depending on how much countertop you have, and if you're going to get creative and apply custom artwork to the countertops.

Before you begin painting, you must prepare the surface. You'll need to clean the area with hot, soapy water to remove dirt, and then clean it again with ammonia or denatured alcohol to remove any greas­e and soap residue.

After your Formica has dried, use a light- to medium-grade sandpaper and sand the entire surface. Use this time to fill any deep nicks or scratches with a good-quality wood filler. Once you've prepared the surface, vacuum the counter to remove all sand and dust.

Coat the surface with a quality primer so the finish paint can adhere to the surface. After the primer is completely dry, apply your first coat of finish paint. Oil-based paint is best. Allow your counters to dry for 24 to 48 hours before applying the topcoat [source: AsktheBuilder].

The topcoat will protect the paint from cracking and chipping, and it adds durability. (In spite of this, your counter will not be as wear- and heat-resistant as it was originally.) Apply a polyurethane topcoat -- after it dries, apply a second coat.

If you're painting your kitchen countertops, be aware that you'll need to be a little careful from now on. Even though the polyurethane is strong, you'll need to use trivets for hot foods, and you'll always need to use a cutting board when cutting and chopping. You'll also have to reapply the polyurethane topcoat on a regular basis to keep your counters looking their best [source: AsktheBuilder].

For more information on Formica and painting and repairing your countertops, check out the links on the next page.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • About Formica. "History" Formica (Accessed 12/16/08)
  • About Formica. " Manufacturing" Formica (Accessed 12/16/08)
  • Carter, Tim. "New Countertops with Paint". Ask the Builder. (accessed 12/16/08)
  • Hanby-Robie, Sharon. "Painting a Countertop" Do It Yourself Network. (Accessed 12/16/08),2037,DIY_13942_2275236,00.html
  • Harmon, Archie. "Laminate Countertop Repair" Do It Yourself Network. (Accessed 12/16/08),2037,DIY_13942_2268441,00.html
  • Rose, Mike. Personal Interview. 12/16/08
  • The Natural Handyman. "Q&A with NH" (Accessed 12/16/08)