Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kitchen Installation Part 2 - Phenolic Resin Countertops

We designed a modern office kitchen for the architecture studio, so we wanted to use an interesting material for the countertops - something other than the traditional granite, corian, or butcherblock. An industrial loft is a tough place, so unusual and industrial-looking materials are a logical choice. We threw various ideas around about what might look cool - concrete, slate, stainless steel, varnished plywood - and then we remembered the old-school, black laboratory tabletops from high school chemistry class. It turns out lab tabletops are made from phenolic resin - a descendant of the early synthetic resins that were used to make things like Bakelite back in the early 1900's. Phenolic panels are made by soaking layers of absorbent material such as paper, wood dust, linen or cotton fibers in phenolic resin and subjecting it to heat and pressure. Once the resin cures, the resulting product is a super tough, heat and stain-resistant panel.

Finding the Panels
We contacted one of the biggest manufacturers of architectural phenolic resin panels, Trespa. Unlike some phenolic resin panels, Trespa doesn't contain formaldehyde and is therefore eligible for indoor air quality credits under the LEED green building certification system. Their local sales rep, Greg, sent us samples in various colors and, sure enough, the old-fashioned laboratory black was available as well as mod metallic colors such as Aluminum. Greg offered us architect trade pricing which turned out to be more cost-effective than alternate countertop materials such as granite or solid-surface products, which generally cost between $30 and $40 per square foot. When we realized how many colors were available and how cost-effective it was, we decided we could use phenolic panels for desks, office shelves, cabinet doors and bathroom counters.
Red Checkmarks Show Panel Uses
We came up with a list of square footage we needed, which turned out to be quite a bit, so to keep the costs from escalating we asked if there was overage or scrap material available. Greg contacted one of Southern California's biggest fabricators of phenolic panels, who just happened to have leftover panels they were happy to sell to us for the cost of the labor to package it. We ordered 7 sheets (in black, aluminum, and metallic grey), which amounted to half a ton of panels.

Picking up the Panels
Getting the panels to the loft was complicated. To have them delivered would cost  $500 because it involved a trucker and semi driving almost 200 miles to our location and 200 miles back. Since we were already seriously over-budget, we decided to pick the panels up ourselves. But some of the panels were 6ftx12ft which doesn't fit in a pickup or regular van. In addition, they would be packaged on a big forklift pallet. Luckily, we knew that our neighbor, the set designer, regularly used a giant truck to transport sets. He directed us to the local production crew truck rental company, and we rented a 12 foot long panel truck with a lift gate for $100. We drove 200 miles to the factory, they loaded the pallet onto the truck and we drove back. Back at the loft, it became apparent there was no way the two of us could lift a panel, nor could we maneuver the panels up and around our landing and into the door in order to get them inside the loft. Thankfully, a neighbor with a large loading dock allowed us to store the panels on his dock and let us use his industrial woodshop to cut the panels to size. Two other neighbors helped us lift the panels onto the dock and then helped guide them through the table saw. We truly appreciated the community effort.
The Cut Panels
Buying the Tools
We contacted several installers who knew how to cut and install phenolic countertops and requested bids for the 6'x3' kitchen island counter and 5'x2' and 2'x2' kitchen wall counters. When we couldn't get a quote for less than $2,500 we decided to cut and install the countertops ourselves, which is not as simple as it sounds. Phenolic resin is as tough as hardwood, so you need powerful tools with sharp carbide cutting bits to shape it. We had a router, but it wasn't powerful enough to tackle phenolic, so we had to buy a big 3.25 horsepower router, a 2" long straight bit, a 1/8" roundover bit, and a carbide-tipped 60 tooth table saw blade. Since the panels are 3/8" thick, we also needed a two-part epoxy resin adhesive to build up layers for the edges so the counters would look the correct thickness once installed. We also needed a panel adhesive to stick the panels to the plywood substrate. 
Supplies for Making the Countertops
The Island Counter
We built the "easiest" counter first. A simple 6' x 3' counter for the island. First we cut the plywood panels that sit directly on top of the cabinets (the substrate) and made sure they fit.

Fitting and Leveling the Substrate
Then we removed the plywood, applied panel adhesive to it and set it upside down on the phenolic resin countertop.  We then took long 2" wide strips of phenolic and epoxied them together to build up the edges of the counter. Since the phenolic was only 3/8" thick and the average countertop is 1 1/2" thick, we needed to epoxy 4 additional layers along the edges of the main counter panel.  
Panel Adhesive on the Plywood
Edge Layers Epoxied and Clamped
We then weighted everything down and secured it for curing overnight.
Countertop Drying Upside-down with Extra Panels On Top as Weights
Finishing the Edges
The next day, the epoxy was dry and it was time to clean up the edges with the router using the 3/4" diameter 2" long straight trim bit. The bit made the sides nice and straight. In order to take the sharpness off the top and bottom of the edges, we then used a roundover bit that shaved a quarter-circle shape off the edges.
Router Smoothing out the Counter Edges
Epoxied Layered Edge Before Router
Layered Edge After Router
The Final Result
All that was left was to move the countertop onto the island cabinets and secure it by screwing it down from the inside of the cabinets. Most cabinet bases come with holes drilled along the top edge of the frame just for this purpose. After much hard work, we now have an island countertop and the skills to tackle the more difficult counter that wraps around the kitchen column.

Countertop Installed
Final Stats
Cost: (Note: most costs cover add'l panel uses: desks, shelves, conference table, etc.)
6'x12' Phenolic Panel (only 1/3 used) = $50
Panel Truck & Gas = $225
Plywood Sheets = $25
3 HP Router = $350
2" Straight Router Bit = $22
1/8" Roundover Bit - $25
Liquid Nails Panel Adhesive = $20
Carbide Table Saw Blade = $40
Two-Part Marine Epoxy = $75
Acetone = $7

Difficulty: Hard (Requires Strength, Heavy Tool Skills, Poses Danger)


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. You've made my day! Seriously. I need new kitchen counter tops and cannot afford them. I was wondering if I could paint them somehow. This looks amazing and you did a wonderful job!

  2. That's looking really sleek! It's nice that you can now find the experts online to help you do the works.

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  4. This blog is very nice and informative. It is difficult task but your post and experience provide and teach me how to handle and make it more effective and manageable.Thanks for the tips. Today I am furtunate and I find a lot of nice posts.