Working with Melamine Particle Board

Furniture is what I primarily make, and I think that solid wood is the best choice of materials.  No two pieces are identical, and its consistent nature lends itself well to carving – there is no risk of cutting through one layer into another creating an ugly seam.

But solid wood is not always the best material.  Recently, I made some utilitarian cabinets using melamine-covered particle board.  I don’t know if I’ve ever worked with this material, but over the past few days I became aware of some of its nuances and nuisances.

Like MDF, it is flat.  And heavy.  Sheets of plywood on the other hand are often warped, especially if stored improperly.

Like the veneers on most plywoods, the melamine skin is very thin and chips easily.  I am fortunate to have a scoring blade on my table saw which produces flawless cuts.  Because the scoring blade protrudes above the table by only about 1/16″ or so the material being cut must be flat or the scoring blade won’t do its job.

Joints that are meant to be even have to be even when assembled.  You don’t have much opportunity to flush them afterwards, especially if you’ve already edge-banded them (which is easiest).

Particle board is fragile.  Drop it and a corner will likely be destroyed.  It is not nearly as tough as plywood or solid wood.  It also has less strength, so it can sag even under its own weight if not supported.

White melamine can be clearly marked on with pencil and easily cleaned with a damp cloth.

Pre-glued melamine edging, applied with an iron, is easy to apply.  Use the iron to activate the glue, then press it down with a block of wood to ensure good contact.  Being a hand-plane guy, I used a metal-bodied plane with its blade retracted.  My logic is that the plane is easy to hold and the iron sole acts as a heat sink, quickly cooling down and setting the glue.

If you have a lot of edging to trim, dedicated tools are a good buy.  Otherwise, a plane iron does a good job but is slower.  Tape over part of the edge so that you don’t accidentally scratch the panel.

It’s prefinished, so no extra work is required.  Once it’s edge-banded and assembled, it’s done!

Prefinished means dealing with glue squeeze-out is a snap.  Just pop off the glue with a chisel.  Because glue won’t stick to the slick melamine surface, that means plain butt joints won’t work.  For these cabinets, I used floating tenons.  Screws could have also worked, but would require the holes to be capped later.