Specifying the Right Surface Material

Selecting between different laminated or veneer products depends primarily on the project conditions
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By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP
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Wood Veneer

A very traditional surface material is to use a thin, real wood veneer over a substrate. That substrate could be plywood, particle board, MDF, or other common board stock materials. Typically, thin wood veneers are cut from large logs and glued to the substrate. Such materials have the following general attributes:

  • Design: Wood veneers are available in select range of wood species. The surface can be stained or finished in any traditional manner to achieve the desired wood look. Natural wood does vary in appearance between sheets, so that should be expected and considered as part of the overall design look.
  • Performance: Any wood is an organic material and subject to performance limitations accordingly. Humidity can cause the wood to swell or shrink and may cause cracking as a result. Bulk water can damage or deteriorate the wood and may cause unsightly and unhealthy mold. These limitations make it most suitable for vertical surfaces or very light-duty horizontal surface.
  • Sustainability: The sustainability of wood veneer is also quite dependent on the substrate material even more so than the surface veneer. Recycled content is not common nor are green product certifications, although certain suppliers may be able to provide some products that are more sustainable than others.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Wood products for interior surfaces are generally higher priced than other options. They also typically require more maintenance to keep them looking and performing as intended.
  • Construction Availability: The availability of wood veneer products can vary quite a bit based on project location and the quantity needed. Lead times for large orders can also vary notably.

Overall, wood veneers have some design appeal and the lure of being a natural material, but those attributes need to be weighed against the performance, cost, and availability limitations. Further, wood veneers' sustainability and environmental impact should also considered.

Vinyl Surfacing

A light-duty alternative to veneers is vinyl surfacing. This is different from vinyl wallcoverings in that it is a thin material bonded to a solid substrate using a vacuum forming process. The vacuum forming minimizes, or even eliminates, seams and edges from the final product. Vinyl surfacing is used for walls, cabinet doors, shelving, and countertops in both vertical and horizontal applications. Some considerations related to it are as follows:

  • Design: As with many of the other manufactured products, a range of different colors and finish types are available. These include solid colors, patterns, and simulated materials. Availability varies by manufacturer, of course, so specific color palettes and patterns should be investigated before delving into a full design.
  • Performance: Vinyl surfacing is less durable than HPL, TFL, or other veneers meaning that it will not wear as well or retain its color as well as those other materials. It is fairly easy to clean and disinfect depending on the amount of texture present, meaning that ongoing maintenance is straightforward.
  • Sustainability: Vinyl materials are not known for being environmentally friendly when creating it from virgin ingredients. However, vinyl surfacing can contain recycled content which reduces the need for new ingredients. It is possible to specify an amount of recycled content, but consultation with manufacturers first is warranted to ascertain what is available.
  • Cost-effectiveness: The cost of vinyl surfacing can vary considerably between different products and different manufacturers. Therefore, it is recommended that different materials be priced out to determine which ones work within a project budget or not
  • Construction Availability: The availability of vinyl surfacing varies based on the type, style, and manufacturer. Typically, suppliers will require that it be purchased in minimum-sized orders (50-100 sheets)

Vinyl surfacing is a viable option for some light-duty applications or to address specific project needs. It is not as durable as other options and may or may not have a cost advantage. Specific products should be reviewed.


Different spaces, different surfaces, and different uses warrant different materials for finishes. By understanding the differences between the available materials, design professionals can select and specify the most appropriate choices suited to the needs of their projects. Knowing how to get the most out of every vertical and horizontal surface, as well as understanding where to leverage different materials to organize a space, can help achieve the right balance between design, performance, sustainability, cost, and availability during construction.

Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP is a nationally known architect and author of over 250 continuing education articles promoting better building design through life-long learning.www.pjaarch.com, www.linkedin.com/in/pjaarch


Wilsonart Wilsonart, a world-leading engineered surfaces company, is driven by a mission to create surfaces people love, with service they can count on, delivered by people who care. The Company manufactures and distributes High Pressure Laminate, Coordinated TFL and Edgeband, Quartz, Solid Surface, and other decorative engineered surfaces.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in June 2022