TFL Decorative Panels: Responsible Design Defined

Achieve the rich look of wood with greater durability, better consistency, and less guilt.

06/01/2014 By Kenn Busch

Have you ever wished there was an easily-sourced decorative panel that was a natural “go-to material” for all of your interior, furniture, and fixture designs? A proven, reliable, and easily-sourced backbone for your hospitality, healthcare, office, retail, and even multifamily housing projects? One that didn’t break the bank, but still offered a wide range of contemporary and classic woodgrains and colors, with exact matches in other complementary materials?

And while we’re at it, why couldn’t this material be the “greenest” option out there, actually certified to be better than carbon neutral and deliver the in-demand visuals of rare and fragile raw materials without actually having to harvest them?

Seems a bit like wishing for the moon, with a fair bit of the rest of the universe thrown in.

Well, count your lucky stars. The material you’ve been looking for has actually been a staple for furniture and interior millwork for decades, but has recently been given new life thanks to advances in decorative printing technology and a groundbreaking life cycle inventory analysis.

And chances are it’s been part of your projects all along, used, or substituted as a favored material for furniture and millwork fabricators.

Thermally fused laminate (TFL) decorative panels are hybrid materials that combine the proven performance advantages of high pressure laminates (HPL) with streamlined manufacturing processes that minimize costs and resource use.

a brief history of tfl
TFL is a European creation, developed over a quarter century ago by large composite panel producers looking for a way to create decorative panels for furniture and interiors more efficiently than what was state of the art at the time: HPL glued to particleboard or MDF.

These producers took the uppermost decorative and durability layers of an HPL sheet, thermally fused them directly to the surface of the composite wood substrate, and marketed them as “melamine boards”—melamine being the resin system that gives toughness and clarity to the surface layer.

But the décors chosen for this first generation of TFL were pretty dull—white, almond, and grey. Black was introduced later with much fanfare. This is why for the first few decades TFL surfaces were used only for cabinet interiors, closet organizers, student furniture, and other applications where price point was paramount. This is also why many in the design community could be heard saying (not surprisingly), “Melamine boards? They’re great for cabinet interiors, but that’s about it.”

In the 1990s, TFL design began to emerge from the shadows. A handful of North American producers began to purchase décor papers from HPL suppliers, so designers could value engineer projects without compromising design harmony—the HPL on the high-wear work surface was now an exact match to the TFL casework.

Such design matching programs are now the norm, with all major TFL producers publishing cross-reference guides for matching and complementary designs in HPL, 3DL (three dimensional laminates), edge treatments, and other materials. This “one-stop-shopping” access to matching designs has played an important role in the growing use of TFL.

But probably the single largest driving force in TFL’s progress in the last 20 years is the advent of laminate flooring. Laminate flooring continues to grow as an option for durable, attractive flooring in residential and commercial installations, and by now pretty much everyone knows about the wide array of click-together flooring options available in the market today.

What few people realize, though, is that the vast majority of laminate flooring, including all of the brands that are now household names, is actually TFL.

Creating and refining a material fashionable and durable enough for the flooring market required years of innovation. The result is an extremely stable and durable decorative panel with enhanced impact and moisture resistance, high wear-resistant overlays to protect the decorative layer, and high-precision fabrication technology.

From global success in the flooring markets it was a short leap for TFL producers to return to furniture—now with a material that bears little resemblance to the white-almond-grey commodity panels of yore.

anatomy of a decorative panel
When you dive into the details (which we’ll do on the next page) the many advances made in the last decade alone add up to a much different material than the original “melamine boards,” but the basic structure remains the same.

TFL is a two-component material composed of the surface and core. The core is always composite wood, either particleboard or MDF, and the surface is a resin-saturated printed décor paper. For very high-wear applications (like flooring), an additional durability overlay may be used.

The secret to TFL’s appeal for responsible design lies in how these two elements are brought together. The resin systems in both the composite wood core and the décor paper overlay flow into each other and crosslink, or “fuse,” under heat and pressure in a high-tech press. This creates a permanent bond without the need for adhesives; the paper literally becomes part of the board, and will never delaminate.

Décor papers deliver the visuals: HPL, TFL, and the lighter weight paper-based foils all begin with a design concept, interpreted and executed by décor printers, who print on papers engineered to accept water-based inks used in the giant rotogravure printing presses, which absorb the reactive resins required in the pressing stage without degrading the print.

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