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Closet Building Materials

Laminate, melamine, thermofoil, and veneer panels waiting to be made into closets

Are you thinking about making to move to custom closets? After all, they can store a lot more than your standard wood or wire rod and shelf. And they look nice too. But custom closet systems are rarely made of natural wood. So what are you really getting when you trade in your old wooden closet rod for a new luxury closet system? Understand the differences between laminate, melamine, thermofoil, and veneer panels used in custom closets before you order so that you can make informed decisions. A little knowledge about closet building materials goes a long way towards making sure you get the most for your money.

Solid wood is the gold standard for all types of cabinets and built-ins. It's a classic material that has been used in homes since almost the beginning of civilization. Yet custom closets are rarely made of solid wood. In fact, most modern cabinets and furniture are no longer made of solid wood either. Especially the parts that are hidden under upholstery or areas you don't see. That's primarily due to price. Wood is expensive and there are a lot of newer, engineered products that provide a quality product for less. The most popular substitutes are laminate, melamine, thermofoil, and veneer.

What are the differences between melamine, laminate, thermofoil & veneer used in custom closets?

If you have a custom closet, it is most likely made of laminate, or a combination of engineered products such as thermofoil, melamine, and even veneer. Solid wood, when used, is usually limited to showy items like doors and drawer fronts. That's mainly because the cost of building an entire closet system out of solid wood is cost prohibitive. Most custom closet companies can provide solid wood if requested. However, the majority of closet customers simply don't want to spend the amount of money necessary for solid wood on the inside of a closet. Especially when there are beautiful alternatives available that are just as nice and cost less. High-quality laminate products with a particle board or MDF core are especially popular in closet design. HPL, Melamine, thermofoil, and veneer are some of these options. Learn the differences between them and when to use each for best results on your own closet project.

HPL Laminate

Laminate is a type of synthetic plastic material. The laminate sheets are made up of three layers. The bottom layer is created from plain brown paper coated with resin. A second layer of paper printed with the desired pattern is laid on top of that. This printed paper is impregnated with more resin. Both layers are topped with a third layer known as clear sheet that also contains resin. All layers are then fused together through heat and pressure. HPL, or high-pressure laminate, refers to laminate materials that are fused under 1400psi. This high pressure provides a stronger product that will chip and crack less than laminates produced under lower pressure. That's why HPL is often used for countertops, commercial projects, and other high-use areas.

HPL laminated countertop
This countertop is made from HPL laminate that was fused under 1400psi.

Laminates, whether HPL or low pressure, are fused to a thicker core of material — usually particleboard — so that they look and perform like wood boards. The particleboard core is available in different thicknesses and strengths depending on the final application. Closets should use furniture grade, or "M2 Industrial grade" laminate for strength with a thickness between 3/4-inches and one-inch.


Melamine is a type of low-pressure laminate. It is the most common material used to create custom closets. Melamine refers to the type of clear resin used in the manufacturing process. This type of laminate is produced using the same process outlined above, only under lower pressure and lower cost. Years ago, melamine laminate was given a bad reputation as low quality and health concerns due to emissions. However, this is no longer an issue for modern, thermally fused laminates. In fact, today's thermally fused melamine laminates come in a large array of patterns, textures, and colors. Some have an embossed wood grain that is nearly indistinguishable from real wood. All are made to withstand many years of continued use. It's a durable, cost-effective product. And it's easier to care for than natural wood. Just wipe with a damp cloth for cleaning. That's why it's so popular for closet systems.

Melamine closet building materials production

Edge Banding

All laminated and veneer closet panels require edge banding. That's because when a sheet of particleboard is fused with plastic laminate or wood veneer, the material is applied to the front and the back. The edges of the particleboard are left exposed. They need to be covered with a second material known as edge banding. The edge banding material comes in big rolls. Choose from assorted widths that match the thickness of the laminated panel. Edge banding is further available in thick, medium, and thin types. Medium thickness edge banding of 2mm is flexible enough to follow gently curved edges and arches. Use this type of edge banding for your custom closet project. Thicker edge banding won't bend. Thinner material can follow complex curves and contours, but you are better off using Thermofoil components for closet applications with these needs.

edge banding on machine ready for closet panels
These rolls of edge banding are loaded onto the machine and ready to be applied to closet panels.

Commercial edge banding (attaching the edge banding material to your closet panel) is done on a machine called an edgebander. The edge banding material is loaded into the machine until and held tight against the particleboard. Then hot air is applied to activate glue that adheres the edge banding to the board. The banded board then moves down the machine and through a roller press for several seconds to ensure that there is sufficient glue on all parts of the banding material. Commercially applied edge banding is permanent and won't come off.

Biesse commercial edgenbanding machine
The Biesse commercial edgebander is top of the line when it comes to closets and cabinets.

Edge banding comes in many colors. Finding one to match your panel is easy. Or go with a contrasting color/finish for a decorator look. The banding is also available as thin strips of wood that can make a veneer panel look like a solid piece of wood.

Worker edge banding a closet panel
Workers line up the closet panels on the edgebanding machine for finishing. Most commercial applications for edge banding closet panels are automated and computerized.


Thermofoil is another option for closet building materials. But it is never used to manufacture an entire closet. It is limited to certain trim components like crown moulding as well as doors and drawer fronts. Thermofoil refers to a process where a foil sheet is wrapped around a MDF core in a process similar to vacuum forming. The MDF can be made to nearly any shape and the heated thermofoil will follow the profile exactly. The result is a finished product that looks like it's made from solid material. Modern advancements in thermofoil technology produce a long-lasting, quality product that won't separate from its MDF core. Expect thermofoil components in your closet to last a minimum of ten years without any issues.

Thermofoil material has several advantages over other options. Number one is price. It offers the look of a piece of carved wood at a fraction of the cost. It's even less expensive than melamine or other laminate products. The secondary benefit is maintenance. Thermofoil isn't metal like aluminum foil, but rather a thin sheet of vinyl plastic. This means you end up with a product that is very easy to maintain and clean for years to come. Thirdly, thermofoil requires no edge banding. The material is flexible enough to wrap any shape, including the sides. This means no visible edges like laminate. Use it for your crown moulding and door or drawer front profiles. However, this product only wraps on five sides. The back of the door will need to be a similar/complementary laminate color. And don't use it for any high temperature applications. The thin plastic thermofoil coating is not meant to withstand extreme heat or fire. However, closets are generally perfect candidates for thermofoil.

difference between laminate and thermofoil edges on drawer fronts
Note difference between laminate and thermofoil edges on drawer fronts. Laminate or melamine edges are sharp with edge banding which always leaves a faint line versus thermofoil edges which wrap around the corners with an eased edge.


Veneer refers to a thin sheet of natural hard wood bonded to a panel made of manufactured material. Usually it's particleboard or plywood but MDF is also sometimes used. Like laminate, it requires edge banding on the sides of the panels. Quality veneer and edge banding jobs yield panels that are not easily distinguishable from solid wood. Closets made from veneer panels are considered wood closets even though the product is not made from solid wood. But veneer has advantages over solid wood and is sometimes better because a single sheet can be made to cover larger areas than any single piece of lumber. Most wood furniture today is either particleboard or plywood core with a veneer coating. Veneer requires the same care as solid wood because the surface is real hardwood. It is also expensive, though not as pricey as solid wood. Use veneer when you crave a real wood closet system and even the best laminates won't suffice.

Another, slightly more expensive closet option for those on a budget who desire a wood closet system is to select veneer or solid wood doors but use a coordinating laminate for the panels and structure of the closet. The laminate components keep the price down. But the prominent elements that you see and touch like doors and drawer fronts offer the experience of real wood. It's a compromise favored by many looking for a custom wood closet system.

Feeling confident now that you understand the differences between closet building materials?

Making good choices when it comes to custom closets is all about understanding the differences between laminates and melamine, or laminate and thermofoil, plus the correct use of edge banding and veneers. Learn what to use when to meet your design and budget objectives. After all, knowledge is power. It will always steer you to the best choice. And if you need advice or help with the design of your closet, Closet Works designers are always ready to lend a professional hand. Why not schedule a free, no obligation appointment today?