Spotting Quality There are several ways to buy a laminate counter. The easiest and cheapest is to pick one off the rack at a home center. These ready-made products are typically post-formed?the backsplash, counter and rounded front are all formed from one piece of laminate. Ready-made countertops cost the least (about $15 per linear foot), and selection is usually limited to white, off white and one or two wood grains. What's more, the thin grade of laminate (about .038 in.) needed for post-forming doesn't offer the impact resistance and ability to hide defects in the substrate beneath it that general-purpose laminate at .048-in. thickness does. You'll also have to cut the finished counter to the dimensions of your kitchen, creating an unfinished edge that must be covered with a matching strip of laminate if exposed. Another option is to buy the countertop through the kitchen department of a home center or from a kitchen dealer or designer. Your order will then be sent to a fabricator. Or you can seek out at a cabinet shop that makes its own tops. In all cases, you're best off having the pro come to your house to measure. Most fabricators deliver the finished countertops and offer installation. Whether you choose this option or not, you should carefully inspect the finished countertop before installation. •Be sure the laminate is bonded to medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Because of its limited expansion and contraction, MDF won't crack or buckle the laminate. Also check for a small section of MDF spanning the seams beneath the counter where two pieces of fiberboard come together. This piece adds strength. •Check that the laminate is fully bonded to the substrate. Bonding is easy to spot on the edges. To test the center, tap the surface?a hollow sound means there's incomplete adhesion. •Look for rounded corners, including those in cutouts for the sink and cooktop. Corners are stress points; rounded ones are less likely to cause cracks in the laminate. •Make sure the supporting cabinets are level so the countertop is, too. If they aren't level, shim them as necessary. Once the countertop is in, you can keep it looking new longer by following the manufacturer's care directions. This means avoiding scouring pads and cleansers, which will harm the surface. Finally, always use a cutting board for chopping and slicing, and place hot pots and pans on trivets instead of directly onto the counter.
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