It happens all the time. You spy a great piece of vintage furniture in the distance at a garage sale, perhaps that perfect long dresser or dining table you’ve been hunting for, and as you run toward it like a person possessed, you slowly realize that it is plagued with ULS—ugly laminate syndrome. Every part of it is perfect, flawless, built like a tank, and then there’s that @$#%&!$ Formica top! In another age when plastic was still a miracle, laminates were the perfect solution for making economical furniture that would look new for all eternity. Although some Formica surfaces are great (think white, bright colors or patterns), fake woodgrain usually just looks awful. This was the case when I found this great TV cart.
The top just ruins an otherwise lovely table constructed of solid walnut. Not only does it not match the real wood in any way, but it is in terrible shape. Unlike wood that can be repaired if scratched, a chip in that precious plastic skin is permanent.
Unsightly as it was, I couldn’t just leave it there for only $4. I thought about various ways to remedy it. Paint? Eh, too much surface prep and masking. Veneer? Too expensive. Vinyl? Hmm. That could work. Since the top is inset, the edges won’t show. It may sound a little like fighting fire with fire, but a solid color vinyl is a massive upgrade from faux woodgrain. To the fabric store!
Good vinyl isn’t cheap (about $22 per yard) so I looked in the remnants first. I found a high-quality black vinyl with a realistic leather texture to give it some style. It was only $5 per yard and I had a 50% off coupon. Score! A word of advice about vinyl remnants: if they’ve been folded, the creases don’t come out. You can flatten the piece out by using a warm iron on the back side of the material, but deep creases are there to stay. It’s best to check it out in the store and be sure you can get enough material for your project between any folds. Since I needed this to be a perfect rectangle, I used a rotary cutter, straight edge and a cutting mat to get it perfect.
To prepare the surface, I scuffed the laminate with sandpaper. This allows the glue to better bond to the slick surface. I also used some adhesive masking paper to protect the edges of the wood from glue which is pretty viscous and hard to control. I used a 50/50 mixture of Aleene’s Tacky Glue and Aleene’s Fast Grab Glue. I mix them because the Fast Grab gives better initial hold, but the thinner Tacky Glue is easier to spread. I spread on the glue using a disposable China bristle brush, but I ultimately resorted to smoothing it out with a plastic putty knife to make sure everything had a uniform coat with no high spots. Then I simply smoothed on the vinyl and let it cure.
Even though it’s still a synthetic surface, the vinyl looks 100% better than the laminate. The contrast in materials looks intentional and stylish rather than cheap. I also like that it’s easily changeable. If you get tired of black, peel it off and try another color. It only takes 15 minutes and it’s inexpensive to do. I only used a quarter of the vinyl I bought, meaning this transformation only cost about 65 cents, not including the glue I already had on hand. You could even repurpose salvaged vinyl or leather from another piece. The possibilities are endless and really only add to the piece without taking away from its original appeal.