AWI Quality Standards and Balanced Lamination

Here's a long discussion of good practice for making laminate cabinet doors, and what the Architectural Woodworking Institute's quality certification standards require. September 27, 2008

I have a 400k job and it is a premium grade certified job. Apparently the company I work for has their own standards. For any door or drawer front that isn't on a tall cabinet, they use 3/4 white melamine, with the laminate on the exterior. In other words, it’s not a balanced construction.

I found this out the hard way, from the inspector, after our cabinets are already onsite. The inspector informed me that the way we build them doesn't meet premium, custom, economy, or even modular quality standards. My boss informed me that we've always done it this way, and other shops he knows do it this way and get away with it. I also noticed that our drawer construction doesn't meet custom or premium. In my mind, we should just adjust our standards to conform with AWI premium grade, so we're covered no matter what, instead of finding out when it's too late. Also, how many reputable shops could really be trying to fly under the radar with this stuff, and why?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor W:
More shops than I would like to admit are producing products that don't meet AWI standards. I think the two items that you mention are often not followed. There are many shops out there that believe contact cement and melamine door/drawers fronts, with laminate edges are a better product to pre-laminated (cold pressed) sheets with PVC edges. I have heard it many times “our customers like the laminate edges better” and an assortment of other reasons. I am for a balanced rigid glue application that is unlikely to fail. I feel that p-lam casework is a commodity item and not too many clients and architects care about the detail, but the fit and function.

The entire point of the AWI Quality standards is to level the playing field as far as quality is concerned. It works sometimes, but often there are people bidding the same work as you that don't even know the standards exist. I feel that if a company works on it processes and have internal standards that meet or exceed AWI, it does not cost any more to make a quality product. In the end this is the business owners’ decision. I would agree with you that on an AWI certified project these issues should be known up front. Is your shop certified? If so, it is hard to believe that this did not come up in the inspection process during certification.

You can decide to be frustrated with the way the business is going or accept the business for how it is and look for ways that your input can make changes over time. Living life in a constant state of frustration is not healthy for you or the business.

From contributor L:
You need to do a time study for your boss on the savings of pre-laid panels vs. sprayed melamine doors. It can be the biggest eye opener for someone that is so hard headed.

From contributor J:
I'm not sure what you're stating here. Is the job spec'd as premium grade or is it a registered project through the QCP program?

Architects often believe, because they don't understand, that they can call a project "Quality Certified" and that means something. It doesn't really; they have to actually register the job with the QCP and additionally you'd have to be a QCP approved shop.

If your boss wants to operate without adhering to guidelines then that is prerogative but as a professional I'd consider looking elsewhere for employment. The whole idea behind Quality Certification is that you as a company can self manage your jobs to the specified quality. Getting away with things doesn't really fit anywhere in that description.

From the original questioner:
Yes, this is a QCP job, and we are a QCP shop. This is the whole problem. I have about 100 cabinets onsite that don't pass inspection! Someone in the company must have known they would pass (I didn't) but never the less, here we are. This is exactly the kind of stuff I hate dealing with.

From contributor L:
We were an AWI certified shop but dropped out because architects and owners would accept the bids from non-AWI certified shops that produced stuff like your shop and would usually be cheaper. As one Architect told me the client wanted the best specs when the job went to bid but the cheapest price after. Unbalanced construction is one of the poorest quality things a shop can do.

I was called to represent a melamine wholesaler once that was being sued by a fairly large shop because the melamine doors that had been laminated on one side were cupping badly. The shop maintained it was the fault of the melamine because they had always done it that way and "never had a problem." Have you read the AWI standards that your shop got while becoming certified? They are quite good and easy to understand.

From contributor R:
The AWI Quality Standard (QS) is a reference for architects to specify their projects. The QS is a compendium of best practices for architectural woodworking assembled and refined over many years by a largely volunteer and constantly changing group of woodworkers. It's a consensus project and the details are struggled over frequently, as to what should be included, what should be allowed and etc. The standards have changed as technology, techniques and hardware have evolved.

There are many people in the business who ignore balancing and use contact cement to laminate melamine panels. The consensus of the AWI QS committees down the years, and of the laminate panel industry, is that this isn't a good idea and therefore it's not allowed even in economy grade on projects that use the AWI QS as a reference. This doesn't mean you can't do it, and you might do it for years and have no problems. We did it in my shop for fifteen years before I bought the place. I found it to be an unacceptable risk and I looked for an alternative that would improve my product and bring us into compliance with the QS. As it turns out, with a minimum initial investment I was able to start producing a balanced panel that improved my product, improved the air quality in my shop and cost less than the laminate/melamine/contact cement panel that we used to make.

But the most important point is that when you bid a commercial project, especially a public one, you are bound by the specification. If it says AWI Custom grade and you sign the contract you have to provide Custom Grade. Ignorance of the spec is no excuse, and knowingly providing something that doesn't meet spec is foolish at best and dishonest at worst. A shop that is "flying under the radar with this stuff" is by definition not reputable. It doesn't matter if you always did it this way, or your competitor gets away with it.

Trying to sneak something past your customer is an invitation to disaster, as this current example indicates, and will cost the company money far into the future in lost work from a lost reputation. There is just no point in it. It is one of the ongoing frustrations of life in the commercial business that so many shops continue to get away with substandard work, and the QS and the Certification program are major factors in holding some of them accountable, sometimes.

I have to wonder how the shop got Certified if this was their standard practice. This points out weakness in the Certification process, but also shows that the inspections can actually work.

From the original questioner:
I have been perusing the Quality Standard Book ever since this job started. I have even called the inspector on several occasions with other things to ensure we were compliant. But for some wretched reason, this one eluded me. My only solution at this point was to offer a written five year guarantee against door warpage, over and above the required 1 year warranty on everything. I'm really hoping this works.

If nothing else, maybe it will get the shop owner to finally realize that this isn't such a good idea. You spoke of a system to lay up balanced door material, that is now costing less than before. Care to elaborate a bit?

From the original questioner:
Well, the verdict is in. They (owner and architect) are not willing to accept the door construction even with the 5x longer warranty period. I can't say I blame them, and maybe the rework alone will be enough to make the owner change his mind on this. I can only hope.

From contributor R:
We have a Midwest Automation glue spreader and index table, and a good pinch roller. We use a fast tack pva adhesive which we dry stack under pressure overnight. All the machinery is widely available in good condition used and pretty low cost. There are thousands of panels, almost no problems. No fumes, no VOCs, no lateral shrinkage.

We do all our cabinet doors and most of our countertops this way. Our volume is fairly high so we get good laminate and board prices and we buy balancing sheet in bulk. The cost of materials for vertical grade 1 side balance sheet 1 side (vgrade or white liner) on particle board is close the same as melamine plus vgrade. The cost of glue is less than half of contact and the cost of labor for 2 sides is half of the labor for contact on 1 side, assuming you are doing more than a few sheets.

Depending on where you are, another option is to buy panels from a layup house - you can often get laid up materials for your raw material cost. This takes a little more planning to get the scheduling right. We are not geographically situated for that advantage and I want the schedule control that in house lamination gives me, which is why I do it here. I sell layup to other shops locally too.

From contributor O:
After reading the responses to this post, it seems clear that many frown upon laminating panels with contact. Is this method acceptable under AWI guidelines?

About four years back we farmed out layed up panels for doors for roughly 125 cabinets. The panels were laid up, rolled and stacked for 2-3 days. When we started cutting we noticed that you could grab the overhanging lam and peel about 1/4 of the sheet back with no effort.

Needless to say that left a sour taste with the pva setup. Thank god it was noticed before the job was complete and went out. New panels were re-laid up using contact, and the job today looks as good as when it was installed. We purchased a pinch roller and have done all of our lay-up in house since. It may have been a fluke with the pva panels, I dont claim to know, but one thing’s for sure, I need to be able to sleep at night.

From contributor R:
It was likely a fluke with the panel supplier - it does happen. It also happens with contact. Those who have been around for a few years may remember the "blue glue" failures that were epidemic across the country for a while. There is nothing wrong with good quality contact properly used for laminate, especially when used with a pinch roller. It's the unbalanced panel that is the potential problem, and this is what the QS addresses, not the glue.