Formica back in fashion

By Terry Lobb


When I was a kid I remember our old Formica extendable kitchen table with shiny chrome legs and vinyl chairs with piped and studded seams. Those tables were indestructible.

We used to paint and glue and create beautiful things on that table, do our homework, have all our family meals around it. It could be scrubbed and washed down and come up like new.

Though it's funny I can't remember when mum and dad traded it in for a better, bigger, dining table, perhaps that was when the family grew and we were no longer able to fit around the old one even with the extensions out.

We couldn't do as many things on the new dining table as that was a timber one. And now people are combing second hand stores and dealers for the retro look that I grew up with, that trend came around quickly!

Formica is an old product and it has always intrigued me how something so hard can come from something more delicate. The brand Formica has been around since 1913 and was discovered in 1912 by Daniel O'Conor and Herbert Faber. O'Conor was a young engineer and Faber a sales manager, who had trained as an engineer, and both were working for Westinghouse.

Westinghouse was an American Electrical company where insulation was used widely.

O'Conor came upon the idea of coating a fabric in Bakelite thermosetting resin as it wound around a spindle, then splitting the fabric lengthwise, pressing it under pressure until it cured. The process created a laminated fabric that was strong and light and perfect electrical insulator. The process was patented in February 1913. O'Conor was granted $1, the amount that Westinghouse paid for the rights to employee inventions.

O'Conor had previously shared his findings with Faber who saw enormous potential in the new product. They subsequently left their employment at Westinghouse to set up their own business along with John G Tomlin, who was a lawyer and banker and became their silent partner investing $7500 into the new company. The company began production in May 1913 and by September they were employing 18 people making electrical parts for other companies.

The name Formica was derived from the mineral mica, which was commonly used for electrical insulation at the time.

The new product O'Conor had designed worked as a substitute "for mica", hence a new product and company name was born. The brand name Formica as we know if generally refers to a decorative product that we use on bench tops, furniture and commercially.

Formica was originally created by impregnating large sheets of Kraft paper with a phenolic thermosetting resin. This was then partially cured, creating a stiff brittle sheet. Seven sheets were laid together over a thicker stainless steel sheet of highly polished steel.

A decorative sheet covered this which was usually colour, patterned or wood grain and had also been impregnated with melamine resin. A final, almost transparent, protective sheet again impregnated by melamine was laid on top. This was followed by another layer of stainless steel. This was repeated until 20 complete layers were created creating a "press pack"'. The 'press pack' was placed in a large hydraulic press and under extreme pressure and heat papers were condensed and resins cured to produce the laminated Formica sheets.

Decorative textured surfaces were created by using a patterned stainless steel sheet in the pressing process this would produce a matte surface rather than highly polished finishes the polished stainless steel created.

This process was labour intensive and costly, each sheet was man handled and could easily be damaged because of its fragile state. If damage was done to a single sheet, the sheet would have to be discarded and unfortunately could not be repaired or recycled.

The process was then changed by bypassing impregnating individual sheets. A thick paste of cellulose powder and phenolic resin was used and formed the core in a single piece prior to curing.

The decorative melamine impregnated cover sheets were then laid on top forming the press packs. That was a success and termed Unified Core. This process reduced waste, saved money and also meant the "core" material could be impregnated with a pigment approximately matching the top decorative sheets.

Formica Corporation has had success with this Unified Core technology in countertop material and over the years we have seen many other changes.

I remember a leathery grain at one time in a cranberry colour that must have appeared around the early '80s. We have seen strong, indestructible, highly polished surfaces to more matt or silky surfaces. Sheets were strong and not easily formed so many bench tops were squared off or had a large roll up the back to form the splash back, or at the front of the bench to stop water dripping off.

Formica bench tops came to the fore in the early '50s where Formica was used more domestically.

Formica Corporation was bought by American Cyamamid in 1956. It still carries the Formica Corporation name and is based in Newcastle, England. Since 2007, it has been a subsidiary of the Fletcher Building Group.

Today the laminates are thin to allow for tighter forming of the fronts of benches, illuminating the brown line that used to appear when the Formica was cut. The colours, textures and patterns are limitless depending on the budget but we only see only a fraction of what is available here in New Zealand. But perhaps that is a good thing as it helps in the final decision process in our homes.

If you have questions about issues discussed or product supply call me on 027 602 3298, email terry@terrylobb.com, www.terrylobb.com (website under construction)

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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