Phenolic Resins: New Uses for an Old
By Russ Lee
You have likely seen them used most often in commercial
applications. Whether it be laboratory work surfaces, cabinet doors
in your doctor’s office or toilet partitions in public buildings,
phenolic materials are a popular surfacing alternative because they
are strong, heat resistant and easy to produce. Not only that,
kraft paper saturated with phenolic resin is the main component of
decorative plastic laminate, that most ubiquitous of surfacing
materials for industry and home, including kitchens and
At over 100 years old, phenolic resin was one of the first
thermosetting plastics ever developed for industry. Today, panels
made from phenolic resin for the surfacing industry can be found in
two varieties high pressure and low pressure. Although the basic
resin components are the same for both categories, their
performance characteristics can vary widely.
High-pressure phenolic is generally available in thicknesses
ranging from one-quarter inch to one inch, in a number of colors
and patterns. While most of the well-known decorative laminate
producers, such as Wilsonart and Formica, offer phenolic panels to
their customers on a limited basis, Netherlands-based Trespa
aggressively markets high-pressure phenolic panels exclusively,
under the brand names of Athlon, Meteon and TopLabPLUS.
Like their decorative laminate cousins, high-pressure phenolic
panels are produced under high temperature and pressure and
incorporate an integrated, decorative surface made of melamine
impregnated paper. Unlike decorative laminate, however, phenolic
panels are very heavy, generally require no substrate, and the
edges of thicker panels can be machined and polished.
In recent months, a lesser-known form of phenolic has emerged on
the residential scene as a countertop surfacing material.
Classified as low-pressure phenolic, the material is made of paper
infused with phenolic plastic and, unlike the high pressure
variety, does not use melamine impregnated decorative papers. In
fact, because low-pressure phenolic is completely homogenous, the
Rainier Richlite Co. in Tacoma, WA, which producers the material
for use as countertops, refers to it as solid surface.
Whether or not low-pressure phenolic can be classified as a true
solid surface is better left to the experts to decide. It certainly
resembles solid surface in that it can be machined and sanded, and
it doesn’t support the growth of bacteria. Yet, it cannot be seamed
invisibly in the same way that traditional solid surface can,
although careful machining and gluing with epoxy produces a very
inconspicuous joint. And, even though the material is renewable
(i.e. the finish can be sanded to produce a desired sheen and
consistency), it is not repairable.
Two characteristics set low-pressure phenolic apart from all
other traditional solid surface materials. First, it is extremely
impact resistant, and second, the available colors are limited.
Those of us who enjoy watching the extreme sport of
skateboarding have probably already seen low- pressure phenolic
used as the ramp surface on half-pipes and other geometric shapes.
It has become a favored surfacing material because it is tough,
impervious to the weather and shock absorbent. Boat builders like
the product because it will hold a screw, won’t rot and bonds with
fiberglass resin without surface preparation.
Commercial chefs use low-pressure phenolic as cutting boards and
other work surfaces because it is strong, doesn’t score and won’t
harbor bacteria. In fact, the material has received NSF 51
certification for food contact.
When used as a kitchen countertop surface, the physical
appearance of low-pressure phenolic takes some getting used to.
Richlite’s three available colors maple, brown and black are dull
and mottled looking. The maple color, in particular, seems
susceptible to staining, although it can be quickly cleaned using
common household cleaners. The black color also exhibits a dull,
mottled appearance, yet resembles the look of natural slate, which
has caught the eye of architects and designers. For those consumers
who prefer a more uniform appearance to their countertop, Richlite
offers a food-safe conditioning oil which, when applied to the
surface, produces a richer, more uniform look.
Like traditional solid surface, a decorative edge can be routed
into low-pressure phenolic. Inlays, undermount sinks, grooved
drainboards and other effects can also be machined into the
surface. Low- pressure phenolic is heat-resistant, which makes it a
good material for use around cooktops and other heat-producing
appliances. And, since it can be purchased in thicknesses up to
three inches, there is no need to glue on an extra piece around the
perimeter to be used as a decorative edge, thereby saving
fabrication labor costs.
Priced at more than decorative laminate but less than solid
surface, low-pressure phenolic offers a very attractive price
point, as it attempts to bridge the gap between the two materials
in terms of performance and cost.
In my opinion, low-pressure phenolic is not solid surface in the
strictest sense of the word. However, its processing is
particularly well suited to the same procedures and fabrication
techniques commonly in use by solid surface professionals today.
And, although I believe there is still some development necessary
in the overall aesthetics of the product, I view low-pressure
phenolics as another potential arrow in the ever-expanding quiver
of the solid surface fabricator.
For more information about high pressure phenolics, you may
contact Trespa North America at 1-800-4TRESPA. Rainer Richlite
Company, maker of low pressure phenolic panels, may be reached at