Contrary to popular belief, Formica has nothing to do with ants, but more on that later. It is manufactured from phenolic and melamine resins that are used to impregnate paper sheets. These are dried and then stacked and pressed to form the Formica that we know of. There is a bit more to it than that, but that is basically what it is.
Countertops are available in a wide range of materials, and Formica countertops are one of the more popular of the laminate types. There is a wide range of options available with Formica, and although the name itself is a brand name, it is also used generically for laminate constructions in general.
Formica countertops are available in a wide range of designs from wood grains, marble and stone effects to solid colors, a myriad of patterns and even sparkly effects. Wilsonart is another company that produce a similar laminate material, and between them, Formica and Wilsonart can provide you with just about any design you could think of. Once they have chosen their countertop, many people are so enamored with the range of patterns available that they want their whole kitchen finished with the same laminate – perhaps in a different design for the various kitchen units, but Formica or Wilsonart nevertheless.
Formica has many different benefits. For example, it is very tough wearing, and extremely easy to clean. It tends to be tougher and more resilient than natural materials such as slate and marble, but can be made to look just like them. Artists and professionals emulate the look of natural stone, and Formica can be textured so that it looks and feels like it actually is laid in slabs just like the natural stone materials, but at only a fraction of the cost.
The trend today is to go for the natural stones such as marble and granite, or hardwood finishes such as cedar, rosewood and teak, but the cost of these natural materials is very high. If you want to give your kitchen a totally new look on a tight budget, then natural pattern laminates are the best option. Between the two, Formica or Wilsonart can meet practically any design you have in mind, and simulate the finish of most natural stones and woods.
They are not totally impervious to liquids, but and can be marked by very hot cooking utensils. Most people find they can put microwave cooking containers straight onto their Formica countertop without any problems. They are more impervious to oils and other liquids than natural stone, and certainly stain a lot less than wood. They are also much more hygienic since they are so easy to clean and be kept clean.
The Formica Honed and Etchings textures provide the look and feel of polished stone such as a range of different types of granite and basalt slate. They are textured and look just like the real thing, but with the advantages of the hard laminate surface that, unlike granite, is not porous. Because of this, germs cannot lurk in the surface that is easily cleaned and rendered completely free of germs with a suitable household cleaner.
One of the major drawbacks of this type of laminate is that it chips easily at the edges, and your edging has to be properly and carefully finished to avoid this. Once it chips it cannot be repaired, although replacement is relatively inexpensive. Many people feel that Formica is old fashioned and limited in design to poor photographs of wooden surfaces. In fact nothing could be farther from the truth.
Today's Formica is not what your grandparents used to use. The plaid colors, or old badly defined dark wooden effects, that certainly did look a bit like a bad photograph, are gone and replaced by finishes that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing in both feel and look. The material certainly comes in a much wider range of designs than previously, and many people who have Formica countertops will have nothing else. All natural materials will absorb moisture and oils and can harbor germs, while Formica does not.
This does not mean that you can soak either Formica or Wilsonart laminates with water, because if water gets under the edges it can cause the layers to delaminate, or lift the laminate off the base. For this reason, and the fact that it can chip if banged at the edge, the edges have to be finished correctly as previously mentioned, so it's not a DYI job. Both Formica and Wilsonart provide edgings that can be used, but many people like to use hardwood strip. A nice hardwood strip, such as rosewood, applied right along the edge, and finishing flush with the top of the Formica edge looks really good, and provides good protection for the edge of the laminate.
Both Wilsonart and Formica countertops are hard wearing and hygienic alternatives to the many natural materials that people are opting for today. Although granite might look nice and expensive, it is not the most practical of materials for a kitchen, and even the slightest knock against it can result in breakage. It is cold and unyielding, unlike a laminate finish that can look almost as good, but with a warmer and softer feel.
Incidentally, its name comes from the fact that the originators developed the material to be used in place of mica in electrical insulators, in other words, "for mica"!