CEU: Value Engineering Decorative Surfaces without Compromise

Price, performance and aesthetic appeal—delighting clients with exactly the right mix.


By Kenn Busch

This wall in a university center was created from TFM panels, which have many of the same performance properties as HPL, and often share the same designs. HPL is the material most think of when they hear the word HPL is the material most think of when they hear the word Compact laminate is a very thick paper-based material with density and smoothness that rivals solid surface, although it's warmer to the touch, and fabricates with standard woodworking tools. Use of 3-D laminates is growing in medical interiors and other applications because of its ability to seal a panel on five of six sides, minimizing seams where bacteria collects. 3DL can also carry du The patterns and designs you see on HPL, TFM and paper foils are usually printed on décor papers in a rotogravure process. Printers track global trends and often derive their concepts from rare raw ma Press plates impart texture to laminates during manufacturing to complement a printed design, or to add an extra dimension to a solid color. HPL is used for the highest durability commercial laminate floors, and is often specified in retail stores, hair salons and medical clinics.

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In times like these, the pressure’s on. Now more than ever, clients want more value without sacrificing design, so designers need all the available tools—and materials—at their disposal.

When you start talking about value, it’s not long before the term “value engineering” comes up. Business-y buzz phrases tend to come and go, but value engineering is a concept that’s surely here to stay. Applied to interior and furniture design, it basically means specifying exactly the right material for the job, in terms of both performance and aesthetic impact—nothing more or less durable than the application calls for.

Over the last several years, the laminate industry has come to epitomize the principles of value engineering. High-pressure laminate (HPL), aka “Formica,” is a material that’s quite well understood, of course, but there are several other options out there that complete the picture, including TFM, 3-D laminates and printed foils (read on for definitions of these materials), all of which offer varying levels of performance price points.

Learning Objectives

Interiors & Sources’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue’s article. To receive one hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) or one AIA Learning Unit (LU), read the article and then log in to our site to take the test associated with this article..

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Explain the basic differences between different types of decorative surfaces
  • Identify which surfaces are the proper choices for specific applications
  • Determine which substrates are appropriate for different decorative surfaces
  • Explain the environmental advantages of laminated surfaces

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The true “value” of these products comes into play in a big way with matching materials programs. There was a time when every laminate supplier wanted you to specify their materials on every surface in your project. And to be fair, this was the only choice you had if you wanted perfect matches throughout your project. But what ultimately happened was, high-wear materials that were “over engineered” and too expensive were used on low-wear or vertical surfaces, and lighter duty materials ended up on work surfaces where they couldn’t stand up to the abuse.

Several years ago a light bulb went on, and suppliers of “competitive” materials decided that by coordinating their colors and designs they could successfully cover more surfaces in a specification, which made the difference between getting the order or losing it to another material. Now, with almost any supplier you contact, you’ll be cheerfully guided toward complementary materials in the same designs.

But it’s still important to have a little background on what these materials are and where they’re used, beginning with the basics: design.

All laminates begin with a design concept, interpreted and executed by décor printers. The basic “décor papers” used in HPL, TFM and paper-based foils are engineered for specific properties like absorbing the reactive resins required in the pressing stage, printability, and flexibility in the finished laminate. Solid-color papers in a natural wood tone, for example, eliminate the need for a “pad coat” of ink. The actual designs are most commonly printed on rotogravure presses in one to four stages, using primarily water-based inks.

Design concepts for laminates come from an infinite number of places, and with today’s technology, the printed realizations of materials found in nature, industry, architecture, or even in the imagination, are stunningly vibrant. Special pearlescent inks can recreate the sheen of metals, or the reflective flare of a piece of finely finished wood as you turn it in your hands.

A more recent development, laser engraving of printing cylinders, is quicker and more accurate than the traditional electro-mechanical technology. It enables greater print definition and detail in even the most subtle designs than was previously possible, as well as sharper contrasts and smoother tonal gradients for greater dimensionality and realism.

Décor printers work with artists to source raw materials (original art, veneer, stone), which are photographed or scanned and digitally manipulated for scale and “pattern repeat” to fit the finished laminate application. They also offer catalogs of “standard” patterns inspired by the latest design trends which can be specified as-is and printed in customized colorways.

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Over the last several years, the technology for digital inkjet décor paper printing designs has improved in both fidelity and printing speed. Many companies have been using digital printing to produce “custom laminates” with corporate logos, retail and fast-food branding graphics, and murals. This process has also been useful for test marketing laminate designs in advance of investing in printing cylinders, and for creating small batches of custom designs or out-of-print retro patterns.

While not yet considered practical for production-speed printing, demand for digital inkjet-printed décor papers will no doubt continue to increase.

Another way laminate manufacturers bring additional design elements to a decorative laminate surface is to apply a transparent overlay embedded with fiber or particles from metals (aluminum, copper, gold), or from textiles and organic sources (e.g., coffee beans, banana fibers). The paper carrier becomes transparent in the laminate pressing stage, and the embedded elements, known as “inclusions,” add an extra decorative layer over the solid color or printed décor layer.

Laminate textures have long been considered the final frontier in decorative surface design because, no matter how realistic a printed décor layer is, the wrong choice of surface texture (heavy stippling over a fine woodgrain, for instance) will negatively impact the realism of the finished laminate. Surface textures, imparted by engraved press plates and textured release papers, have become far more realistic in the last decade. It is now possible to create the smooth, silky warmth of finished wood or the high- and low-gloss variations of granite so accurately that even experts can be fooled.

Press plates may be engineered to create textures embossed “in register” with the print design for enhanced realism in the surface. In woodgrains, for example, the grain texture aligns perfectly with the printed wood ticking. In stones, variations in gloss levels match up with the compositional details in the print. As with digital print cylinder engraving, new digital press plate engraving technologies have increased the quality and realism of the final texture, as well as the ability to replace plates with exact copies, should one get damaged during use.


One of the most familiar and widely used decorative surfaces is high-pressure laminate (HPL), first made famous by Formica. HPL is typically constructed of several layers of kraft paper (similar to shopping bag paper), a layer of décor paper with a solid color or printed design, and topped with a protective wear layer that can also carry printed design accents and other inclusions.

The kraft layers are generally impregnated with thermosetting phenolic resins; the decorative and wear layers are saturated with thermosetting melamine resins. Because HPL sheets are pressed individually, many different designs and colors can be laid in the press at once for increased economy. As mentioned earlier, textured press plates may be used to control gloss levels, or impart textures that mimic stone, wood, tile, or other surface designs.

When it was first introduced, HPL was the only kid on the laminate block, so it was used everywhere—from furniture to countertops to wall paneling. Now, you find it specified for high-use applications like counters, desktops and laminate flooring, and it’s a mainstay in health care, hospitality, office furniture, retail, and other demanding commercial applications. And of course, it’s still the most popular option for residential counters and tabletops.

HPL is very durable and available with special performance properties, including chemical, fire and wear resistance, as well as a markerboard finish. Special “postforming” grades are engineered for varying degrees of flexibility for wrapping around columns and curved counter fronts. HPL is also the most common carrier for custom inkjet-printed designs.

Several manufacturers offer premium HPL lines with special realistic or super durable surface finishes, and some even offer it in translucent fashion colors. It is also used in commercial-grade laminate flooring, which is becoming increasingly popular in medical offices, salons and retail applications.

In use, HPL must be laminated to a panel substrate, which can be done on-site with contact adhesives. Particleboard is the most prevalent substrate choice because of its economy and stability. A single sheet of postforming-grade HPL is capable of covering three of six exposed substrate surfaces.

Some suppliers offer very thick (up to and exceeding one-half-inch) sheets of HPL known as “solid phenolic” (in the United States) or “compact laminate” (in Europe). Solid phenolic is self-supporting and very strong, and has long been used as lab tabletops, bathroom stall dividers, and for bullet-proof panels.

It carries a decorative and wear layer just like HPL, but has a characteristic black or brown edge that can be machined to a smoothness exceeding that of solid surface material. Some office systems companies have created unique desk, conference and task table designs with these strong, thin panels.

TFM (thermally fused melamine) panels utilize a melamine-impregnated printed or solid-color décor sheet similar to that used in HPL, but instead of being laminated to layers of kraft paper, it is pressed directly onto a substrate like particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Under heat and pressure the melamine resin from the décor layer flows into the substrate to create a crosslinked thermoset bond, effectively creating a homogenous decorative panel without the use of adhesives. Some TFM products also carry the same type of wear layer as HPL, and can be embossed to mimic stone, wood and other materials.

TFM panels are very popular in residential cabinetry, laminate flooring, furniture and closet systems, and are used in similar applications in retail, health care and hospitality environments. Mid-market office furniture producers commonly use TFM. It has even been used for removable decorative wall systems in commercial and retail settings.

It has come a long way from its original introduction to North America when it was most commonly used as a cabinet interior in three not-so-exciting colors: white, almond and gray. The biggest TFM design breakthrough in the first decade was the introduction of black, for which a premium was charged. Now, TFM is available in hundreds of colors, designs and surface textures that rival reality.

It carries woodgrain designs so well that it has become an economical and durable substitute for veneered panels in many architectural projects.

TFM compares favorably to HPL in many wear and performance measurements (although HPL offers higher impact resistance and postformability). As a furniture surface, TFM panels and components require a decorative edge treatment. Substrates are commonly particleboard or MDF.

TFM panels are created on very efficient pressing lines and can be specified with or without edge and opposite-side face treatments, so they arrive at the job site ready to install. Many furniture manufacturers say that because TFM panels are essentially a homogenous product made from paper and wood fiber, they are more easily recycled.

Decorative metals are engineered for different levels of performance and ease of handling. Some are literally thin sheets of solid metal, while others are thin metal foils bonded to an HPL backer or directly to other rigid substrates. Available finishes are almost unlimited, including high-gloss, copper, patina, and brushed effects.

Some decorative metals carry surface finishes durable enough to withstand typical worksurface wear, and others are recommended for vertical applications only. The formability of decorative metal surfaces varies, so always be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Decorative metals are used anywhere a designer wants to add a little—or a lot—of spice to a project, and are found often in retail, hospitality, restaurants, office furniture, health care, corporate interiors, public spaces, and transportation applications.

3-D laminates, also known as rigid thermoformable foils (RTF), are formable overlays created from calendered PVC or polyethylene polymers. They are available in solid color, metallic, and printed designs, and can be specified in a variety of surface textures, including realistic woodgrain ticking and high-gloss. Like paper-based laminates, they are rotogravure printed, but most suppliers use solvent-based inks because they provide better fidelity on 3-D laminate surfaces. Manufacturers use thermal oxidation to eliminate solvents (volatile organic compounds), preventing them from entering the environment.

3-D laminates with enhanced wear, stain and chemical resistant properties are available from several suppliers.

What makes 3-D laminates unique is that they can be laminated to panels—primarily MDF because of its smoothness and core material consistency—with 3-D details machined into their faces, as well as unconventionally shaped panels and panel edges. Their ability to “self edge” (i.e., wrap seamlessly around the edges and interior

cut-outs of a panel) reduces processing steps and helps seal the panel core from moisture and bacteria. This ability also helps create “soft” edge shapes that mimic shaped solid wood or stone.

3-D laminates are often used on panels with a TFM back in matching designs. There are many component suppliers who specialize in fabricating 3-D laminated parts to order.

The use of 3-D laminates has grown in recent years as the office furniture industry has embraced nonstandard and organic shapes for worksurfaces, and they are increasingly being specified for store fixtures and POP displays. They are also commonly found in ready-to-assemble (RTA) furniture, particularly where the design calls for soft edges and unusual shaped components, and on cabinet doors and drawers in place of lacquer finishes.

3-D laminates are finding wider acceptance in health care applications, where improved surface resistance to cleaning chemicals and their ability to seal the panel core against moisture and bacteria without seams provide a competitive advantage over other material options.

Engineered or reconstituted veneers encompass a range of materials—from fine veneers modified with performance backing for durability, as well as ease of handling and application, to fast-growing low-value species that are engineered to look like rare veneers or geometric designs.

Materials in the “rare veneer” category are created by slicing thin layers from low-value trees, recombining them into multi-ply panels over undulating press plates and re-sliced, resulting in veneers that convincingly mimic high-character species like Birdseye Maple. Geometric patterns are created by slicing and dying veneers, laminating them back together and slicing them again at a different angle. This process may be repeated several times to create very complex designs.

Some engineered veneers are prefinished and bonded to an HPL-style backer in which case they can be applied in much the same way HPL is, with one caveat: they are still wood veneers, so they must be handled and specified as you would any other veneer.

Engineered veneers are specified anywhere traditional veneers are used, including retail environments, hospitality, office furniture, etc.

Printed paper foils, also known as light basis weight papers, are printed or solid-color décor papers saturated with a blend of resins engineered for the final application of the paper. They may also receive a thin top or a “finish” resin coat for additional performance characteristics. Printed paper foils are capable of providing very high print fidelity and realism for woodgrains, in particular.

Decorative foils are glued to substrates like particleboard or MDF by specialized machines on the production line. They are very thin, which means they can “telegraph” any imperfections in the substrate surface. MDF generally has a smoother surface than particleboard, although filler materials can be used to give particleboard a finer finish.

Some printed paper foils can be pressed onto panels machined with 3-D surface details to give the effect, for example, of a raised-panel kitchen cabinet door.

Printed paper foils are widely used in closet systems, RTA and home office furniture, often in combination with other materials like TFM and HPL, which are capable of higher wear and impact resistance. They are also used on ceiling panels, cabinet interiors, and on drawer components.

w value engineering in practice
Every project presents unique challenges when it comes to matching the performance of the materials with the aesthetic vision of the client. When costs are under the microscope (and when aren’t they?) it’s important to know that some of the lower-cost options are not necessarily a compromise. In fact, they often offer hidden value—not only in performance, but in color and design consistency, product availability, and customizability.

And don’t forget environmental impact: the substrates these materials use—particleboard and MDF—are made from recovered wood fiber that would otherwise be burned or landfilled, and HPL, for example, is nearly 90 percent paper fiber, much of which is from industrial scrap. Our natural world also breathes a sigh of relief each time a stone or woodgrain surface design comes out of a printing plant rather than out of the ground.

When it comes to design, it seems, “value engineering” has less to do with engineering and more to do with the value you bring to the project, the client, and the environment.

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