If you’ve ever ordered a piece of furniture with a wood veneer, chances are you were working with Melamine, the ubiquitous plastic with myriad uses from Mr. Clean Magic Erasers to floor tiles.
Melamine was first invented in the 1830s by Justus von Liebig, a German chemist who is considered the founder of organic chemistry. It is created by mixing urea, a waste product, with formaldehyde to create a liquid resin that can be molded under high pressure to create virtually any shape.
Melamine gained prominence in the early 1900’s when it was developed into molded dinnerware called Melmac. Though Melmac is no longer in existence, melamine tableware is still popular and widely available. In recent years however, melamine has gained a bad reputation due to several unscrupulous overseas companies using it as filler in consumable products like pet foods and baby formula. Even though the resin is considered safe for most uses, when ingested, melamine can lead to severe kidney problems and, possibly, even kidney failure.
When used to make furniture, melamine is typically applied as a laminate to particle board or plywood (See the sheets of melamine in the photo above). The melamine resin is applied to decorative paper to form a laminate that has superior material properties to the cheaper wood materials underneath it. For example, the laminated material is heat resistant, water resistant, and easily cleanable – all characteristics that are lacking from plywood and particle board. For these reasons, in addition to its low cost of production, melamine is a great choice for commercial furniture like restaurant tables and office desks; it is also great for cabinetry and bedroom coffee tables.