Melamine–good or bad???

…Or maybe I should say the “pros and cons”.

As a cabinetmaker I get this question all the time. Melamine has become the standard cabinet material for many, many years now, and with good reason.
First off, what is called “a sheet of melamine” in the cabinet world is actually 49″x 97″ sheet of particle board with a covering of paper that is impregnated with melamine resins. The major benefits of melamine in today’s manufacturing world are first, it is easily machined so it can be mass-produced. All large scale cabinet manufactures are at least 60% automated, so no need for a skilled craftsman when machines are pumping this stuff out.
Second, melamine is also very stable and flat. Wood, on the other hand, is hygroscopic, meaning it reacts to the relative humidity around it, which makes it warp, twist, and crack over time. Being stable and flat makes melamine ideal to use when squareness and consistency matter as it does in kitchen cabinets.
Density also plays a big role in the reasons for using melamine. Like in all wood products, there are varying grades of melamine and it has to do with density. If you look at the edge of a sheet you will see the centre core of the sheet will have larger wood chips than towards the outer surface. The larger the wood chips in the centre, the higher the quality. The finer chips on the surface are what aid in making it flat, almost moving towards MDF. But the larger chips in the middle dictate the fastener holding ability, i.e. screws, dowels, biscuits, etc…. so the cabinet will hold together better, and last longer if a denser material core is used.
This is one area where melamine gets its bad rap. Ikea cabinets use a lower density particle core and fasteners designed for the home owner to assemble themselves. This combination has left many people frustrated and saying they will never buy particle board junk again!! Ikea has just found a way to deliver a product at a price point people like, with overall quality farther down the list.
Other big box stores use lower grade materials on parts not seen, such as the back, bottom, and stretchers. Some even use hot glue to assemble their cabinets. None of these company decisions are a fault of melamine! Most of home cabinetry is built with “melamine” and it has served very well.
When considering buying cabinets don’t immediately say “no particle board” or “no melamine”. Look at the products and construction techniques used and judge from there.
Even in cabinetry the saying is true, “You get what you pay for”, and not all melamine is “junk”!