When you start talking about value, it’s not long before the term ‘value engineering’ comes up. Business-y buzz phrases tend to come and go, but value engineering is a concept that’s surely here to stay. Applied to interior and furniture design, it basically means specifying exactly the right material for the job, in terms of both performance and aesthetic impact – nothing more or less durable than the application calls for.

Over the last several years, the laminate industry has come to epitomise the principles of value engineering. HPL is a material that is quite well understood of course, but there are several other options out there that complete the picture, including TFM/MFC, 3-D laminates and printed foils – read on for definitions of these materials – all of which offer varying levels of performance price points.

The true ‘value’ of these products comes into play in a big way with matching materials programmes. There was a time when every laminate supplier wanted you to specify their materials on every surface in your project. And to be fair, this was the only choice you had if you wanted perfect matches throughout your project. But what ended up happening was that high-wear materials that were ‘over engineered’ and too expensive were used on low-wear or vertical surfaces, while lighter-duty materials ended up on work surfaces where they couldn’t stand up to the abuse.

Several years ago a light bulb went on, and suppliers of ‘competitive’ materials decided that by coordinating their colours and designs they could successfully cover more surfaces within a specification, which made the difference between getting the order or losing it to another material. Now, with almost any supplier you contact, you’ll be cheerfully guided toward complementary materials in the same designs.

But it’s still important to have a little background on what these materials are and where they’re used, beginning with the basics: design.

The Printed Design

All laminates begin with a design concept, interpreted and executed by decor printers. The basic decor papers used in HPL, TFM and paper-based foils are engineered for specific properties such as absorbing the reactive resins required in the pressing stage, printability, and flexibility in the finished laminate. Solid-colour papers in a natural wood tone, for example, eliminate the need for a ‘pad coat’ of ink. The actual designs are most commonly printed on rotogravure presses in one to four stages, using primarily water-based inks.

Design concepts for laminates come from an infinite number of places, and with today’s technology the printed realisations of materials found in nature, industry, architecture, or even in the imagination, are stunningly vibrant. Special pearlescent inks can recreate the sheen of metals, or the reflective flare of a piece of finely finished wood as you turn it in your hands.

A more recent development – laser engraving of printing cylinders – is quicker and more accurate than the traditional electro-mechanical technology. It enables greater print definition and detail in even the most subtle designs than was previously possible; sharper contrasts and smoother tonal gradients for greater dimensionality and realism.

Decor printers work with artists to source raw materials (original art, veneer, stone), which are photograph or scanned and digitally manipulated for scale and ‘pattern repeat’ to fit the finished laminate application. They also offer catalogues of standard patterns inspired by the latest design trends which can be specified as-is, printed in customised colourways.

Over the last several years, the technology for digital inkjet decor paper printing designs has improved in both fidelity and printing speed. Many companies have been using digital printing to produce custom laminates with corporate logos, retail and fast-food branding graphics and murals. This process has also been useful for test-marketing laminate designs in advance of investing in printing cylinders and for creating small-batches of custom designs or out-of-print retro patterns.

While not yet considered practical for production-speed printing, demand for digital inkjet-printed decor papers will no doubt continue to increase.

Another way laminate manufacturers bring additional design elements to a decorative laminate surface is to apply a transparent overlay embedded with fibre or particles from metals (aluminum, copper, gold), textiles and organic sources (coffee beans, banana fibres). The paper carrier becomes transparent in the laminate pressing stage, and the embedded elements, known as ‘inclusions,’ add an extra decorative layer over the solid-colour or printed decor layer.

Surface Texture

Laminate textures have long been considered the final frontier in decorative surface design, because no matter how realistic a printed decor layer is, the wrong choice of surface texture (heavy stippling over a fine woodgrain, for instance) will negatively impact the realism of the finished laminate. Surface textures, imparted by engraved press plates and textured release papers, have become far more realistic in the last decade. It is now possible to create the smooth, silky warmth of finished wood, or the high- and low-gloss variations of granite, so accurately that even experts can be fooled.

Press plates may be engineered to create textures embossed ‘in register’ with the print design for enhanced realism in the surface. In woodgrains, for example, the grain texture aligns perfectly with the printed wood ticking. In stones, variations in gloss levels match up with the compositional details in the print. As with digital print cylinder engraving, new digital press plate engraving technologies have increased the quality and realism of the final texture, as well as the ability to replace plates with exact copies should one get damaged during use.


One of the most familiar and  widely used decorative surfaces is high-pressure laminate (HPL), first made famous by Formica. HPL is typically constructed of several layers of Kraft paper (similar to shopping bag paper), a layer of decor paper with a solid colour or printed design, and topped with a protective wear layer that can also carry printed design, accents other inclusions.

The Kraft layers are generally impregnated with thermosetting phenolic resins; the decorative and wear layers are saturated with thermosetting melamine resins. Because HPL sheets are pressed individually, many different designs and colours can be laid up in the press at once for increased economy. As mentioned earlier, textured press plates may be used to control gloss levels, or impart textures that mimic stone, wood, tile or other surface designs.

When it was first introduced, HPL was the only kid on the laminate block, so it was used everywhere, from furniture to countertops to wall paneling. Now, you find it specified for high-use applications like counters, desktops and laminate flooring, and it’s a mainstay in healthcare, hospitality, office furniture, retail and other demanding commercial applications. And of course, it’s still the most popular option for residential counters and tabletops.

HPL is very durable and available with special performance properties including chemical, fire and wear resistance, as well as a marker-board finish. Special ‘postforming’ grades are engineered for varying degrees of flexibility for wrapping around columns and curved counter fronts. HPL is also the most common carrier for custom inkjet-printed designs.

Several manufacturers offer premium HPL lines with special realistic or super-durable surface finishes, and some even offer it in translucent fashion colours. It is the preferred material for commercial-grade laminate flooring, which is becoming increasingly popular for applications in retail stores, hair and nail salons and clinics.

In use, HPL must be laminated to a panel substrate, which can be done on site with contact adhesives. Particleboard is the most prevalent substrate choice because of its economy and stability. A single sheet of postforming-grade HPL is capable of covering three of six exposed substrate surfaces.

Solid phenolic/compact laminate

Some suppliers offer very thick (up to and exceeding 12mm) sheets of HPL, known as ‘solid phenolic’ in the US or ‘compact laminate’ in Europe. Solid phenolic is self-supporting and very strong and has long been used as lab tabletops, bathroom stall dividers and for bullet-proof panels.

It carries a decorative and wear layer just like HPL, but has a characteristic black or brown edge that can be machined to a smoothness exceeding that of solid surface material. Some office systems companies have created unique desk, conference and task table designs with these strong, thin panels.

TFM/MFC panels

Thermally fused melamine/melamine faced chipboard (TFM/MFC) panels utilise a melamine-impregnated printed or solid-colour decor sheet similar to that used in HPL, but instead of being laminated to layers of Kraft paper it is pressed directly onto a substrate such as particleboard or MDF. Under heat and pressure the melamine resin from the decor layer flows into the substrate to create a cross-linked thermoset bond, effectively creating a homogeneous decorative panel without the use of adhesives. Some TFM products also carry the same type of wear layer as HPL, and can be embossed to mimic stone, wood and other materials.

TFM panels are very popular in residential cabinetry, furniture and closet systems, and are used in similar applications in retail, healthcare and hospitality applications. Mid-market office furniture producers commonly use TFM. It has even been used for removable decorative wall systems in commercial and retail settings and most residential-grade laminate flooring is TFM.

It has come a long way from its original introduction to North America, when it was most commonly used as a cabinet interior in three not-so-exciting colours: white, almond and grey. The biggest TFM design breakthrough in the first decade was the introduction of black, for which a premium was charged. Now, TFM is available in hundreds of colours, designs and surface textures that rival reality. It carries woodgrain designs so well that it has become an economical and durable substitute for veneered panels in many architectural projects.

TFM compares favorably to HPL in many wear and performance measurements, although HPL offers higher impact resistance and postformability. As a furniture surface, TFM panels and components require a decorative edge treatment. Substrates are commonly particleboard or MDF.

TFM panels are created on very efficient pressing lines and can be specified with or without edge and opposite-side face treatments, so they arrive at the job site ready to install. Many furniture manufacturers say that because TFM panels are essentially a homogeneous product made from paper and wood fibre, they are more easily recycled.

Decorative Metals

Decorative metals are engineered for different levels of performance and ease of handling. Some are literally thin sheets of solid metal, while others are thin metal foils bonded to an HPL backer or directly to other rigid substrates. Available finishes are almost unlimited, including high gloss, copper, patina and brushed effects.

Some decorative metals carry surface finishes durable enough to withstand typical work surface wear, and others are recommended for vertical applications only. The formability of decorative metal surfaces varies, so always be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Decorative metals are used anywhere a designer wants to add a little – or a lot – of spice to a project, and are found often in retail, hospitality, restaurants, office furniture, healthcare, corporate interiors, public spaces and transportation applications.

3-D Laminates

3-D laminates, also known as rigid thermoformable (RTF) foils, are formable overlays created from calendered PVC or polyethylene polymers. They are available in solid colour, metallic and printed designs, and can be specified in a variety of surface textures, including realistic woodgrain ticking and high-gloss. Like paper-based laminates, they are rotogravure printed, but most suppliers use solvent-based inks because they provide better fidelity on 3-D laminate surfaces. Manufacturers use thermal oxidation to eliminate solvents (volatile organic compounds), preventing them from entering the environment.

3-D laminates with enhanced wear, stain and chemical resistant properties are available from several suppliers.

What makes 3-D laminates unique is that they can be laminated to panels – primarily MDF because of its smoothness and core material consistency – with 3-D details machined into their faces, as well as unconventionally shaped panels and panel edges. Their ability to ‘self edge’ – wrap seamlessly around the edges and interior cut-outs of a panel – reduces processing steps and helps seal the panel core from moisture and bacteria. This ability also helps create ‘soft’ edge shapes that mimic shaped solid wood or stone.

3-D laminates are often used on panels with a TFM back in matching designs. There are many components suppliers that specialise in fabricating 3-D laminated parts to order.

The use of 3-D laminates has grown in recent years as the office furniture industry has embraced non-standard and organic shapes for worktops, and are increasingly being specified for store fixtures and POP displays. They are also commonly found in RTA furniture, particularly where the design calls for soft edges and unusual shaped components, and on cabinet doors and drawers in place of lacquer finishes.

3-D laminates are finding wider acceptance in healthcare applications, where improved surface resistance to cleaning chemicals and their ability to seal the panel core against moisture and bacteria without seams provide a competitive advantage over other material options.

Engineered Veneers

Engineered or reconstituted veneers encompass a range of materials, from fine veneers modified with performance backing for durability as well as ease of handling and application, to fast-growing low-value species that are engineered to look like rare veneers or geometric designs.

Materials in the ‘rare veneer’ category are created by slicing thin layers from low-value trees, recombining them into multi-ply panels over undulating press plates and re-sliced, which results in veneers that convincingly mimic high-character species like Birdseye Maple. Geometric patterns are created by slicing and dying veneers, laminating them back together and slicing them again at a different angle. This process may be repeated several times to create very complex designs.

Some engineered veneers are prefinished and bonded to an HPL-style backer, in which case they can be applied in much the same way as HPL, with one caveat: they are still wood veneers, so they must be handled and specified as you would any other veneer.

Engineered veneers are specified anywhere traditional veneers are used, including retail environments, hospitality, office furniture, etc.

Printed Paper Foils

Printed paper foils, also known as light-basis-weight papers, are printed or solid-colour decor papers saturated with a blend of resins engineered for the final application of the paper. They may also receive a thin top or a ‘finish’ resin coat for additional performance characteristics. Printed paper foils are capable of providing very high print fidelity and realism, for woodgrains in particular.

Decorative foils are glued to substrates like particleboard or MDF by specialised machines on the production line. They are very thin, which means they can ‘telegraph’ any imperfections in the substrate surface. MDF generally has a smoother surface than particleboard, although filler materials can be used to give particleboard a finer finish.

Some printed paper foils can be pressed onto panels machined with 3-D surface details to give the effect, for example, of a raised-panel kitchen cabinet door.

Printed paper foils are widely used in closet systems, RTA and home office furniture, often in combination with other materials like TFM and HPL, which are capable of higher wear and impact resistance. They are also used on ceiling panels, cabinet interiors, and on drawer components.

Value Engineering in Practice

Every project presents unique challenges when it comes to matching the performance of the materials with the aesthetic vision of the client. When costs are under the microscope (and when aren’t they?), it is important to know that some of the lower-cost options are not necessarily a compromise. In fact, they often offer hidden value – in not only in performance, but in colour and design consistency, product availability, and customisability.

And don’t forget environmental impact: the substrates these materials use – particleboard and MDF – are made from recovered wood fibre that would otherwise be burned or land-filled, and HPL, for example, is nearly 90% paper fibre, much of it from industrial scrap. Our natural world also breathes a sigh of relief each time a stone or woodgrain surface design comes out of a printing plant rather than out of the ground.

When it comes to design, it seems, ‘value engineering’ has less to do with engineering and more to do with the value you bring to the project, the client, and the environment.