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Write off solid-surface materials? No way, not yet

The kitchen and bath industry continues to move forward with new high-end materials for countertops and trim. The old stand-by, once the go-to finish, is relegated to the sidelines.

The completed dresser with solid surface top and front façade.

These days, both natural and engineered stone, or engineered quartz, are the high-end choices for the industry, and sheet acrylics and polyesters — often referred to as solid surface — are no longer in vogue. But there are advantages to working in solid surface that can’t be duplicated in any other material. I recently designed and fabricated a piece of furniture using solid surface for the top and front façade that highlights these benefits and design opportunities.

The piece I had in mind was a small dresser that also could be used for a luggage rack. I wanted a material for the top that would be scratch-resistant and easy to take care of, so solid surface was a natural choice. And if it did get scratched, I could sand out any dings easily.

But having decided to use solid surface for the top, the next question was what to use for the front façade. I could certainly switch to wood for this, since I am basically a wood guy, but my thought was to try to use solid surface throughout.

There were many complications given that my design was for a demilune-shaped piece. But I also realized that this would be a learning experience. I always feel that it is good to add a material to my arsenal of media and I had worked with solid surface before.

However, the curves I had in mind were nothing like what I had fabricated in the past. I already owned the two most important tools necessary for working with solid surface — the glue gun and a blade for the table saw. So my investment was only that of time and materials in this experiment.

Curving the trim

To give me easy registration of all parts, I added an inch to the ends of every trim piece so that I could use ¼” bolts to align the two pieces during glue-up. I lightly oiled these bolts so they could be easily removed. You don’t want to forget this step because the glue is tenacious. The holes also were used to attach the guide for routing.

All of the front trim pieces are laminated to a 1” thickness. The verticals are straight, so that was no problem. But the horizontals are curved, so these had to be roughed out with the band saw, laminated and then trimmed to the final curve with a pattern and router table.

One advantage the solid surface holds over other materials is that glue joints are totally invisible. This is particularly true in the patterns with tiny color variants and a bit less so in the patterns with larger flakes or aggregate.

This is important if the design calls for gluing pieces at a 90-degree angle, since the aggregate style sheets are slightly different from front to back. Nevertheless, even with these aggregate patterns, glue joints all but disappear, leaving the illusion that the shapes you create are made from one solid chunk of material rather than laminated up in ½” increments.

The front foot (above) was made from 14 pieces of solid surface; the top isn’t something that could easily be produced with stone.

For instance, the front foot looks like it is all one piece, But it is actually glued up from 14 different pieces that come together at this location. You can’t do that with any other material.

Curving the fronts

The doors and drawer fronts presented a different kind of challenge. I wanted to curve them left to right and still stay with the ½” thickness. So thermoforming was the answer. Sheet acrylic can be shaped by heating it in a 320-degree oven for 50 minutes and then lightly clamped to a form until it cools. A convex form works a bit better than a concave one, but I used both with good success. I also used bags of buckshot to weigh down the warmed sheets, which worked well as a clamp.

The material has no memory, so there is no spring-back at all. The only limitation is the size of the oven you use. I was using a household one, which limited me to about 6” x 26” inserting it diagonally with the piece in a little rack to hold it vertically. I used the already formed drawer front as the form for the sub-front that is part of the actual drawer structure.

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The curved fronts were then ripped in half, the pull band was glued to one edge and then the other half was glued back on. This created a seamless transition from front to pull and back and allowed me to angle the edges of the pulls to form a shape top to bottom on the front of the piece.

These two advantages, invisible laminations and thermoforming, allowed me to create a piece that could not be made as easily or seamlessly with other materials. Even the transition between the two colors of materials used in the top would not have been possible in wood and I doubt that stone fabricators would want to try this design.

The net result is really interesting to me and the ramifications and possibilities for the material seem endless. While parts of this piece were a bit over the top and production took longer than I would want for a commissioned piece, I feel that I really learned a great deal about what I can do — and do easily — with solid surface.

And while the first one took a lot of time, a great deal of that was in the preparation of jigs and patterns, which would make the production of a run of these very cost-efficient.

I still love the look of stone. But I do not have enough shop space to add wet-diamond technology, nor do I have the volume to support the added expense of tooling. So, for me, solid surface is a good alternative.

I am not willing to write it off as a “has-been” quite yet. The ability to seamlessly join it, to sculpt it and to thermoform it are great advantages that we can all bring to bear on many projects in the future.

Andrew Glantz is the owner of Zenith Design in Scottsdale, Ariz., and past president of The Furniture Society.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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