Phenolic Resins: New Uses for an Old Material

Phenolic Resins: New Uses for an Old Material

By Russ Lee

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 1-888-383-5533.