The Different Laboratory Worksurfaces
Your choice of laboratory worksurface materials should mainly depend on the work performed in the lab. Certain types of processes will require quite specific countertop matierals. Your laboratory furniture selection, budget, and aesthetic will also determine your choice and may necessitate the use of multiple material types in the same facility.
Lab processes have changed significantly in the past few decades and will continue to evolve quickly. Many of the harsh chemicals and reagents once used on laboratory benches are now regulated to only be handled in fume hoods and bio-safety cabinets. More and more, we see lab benches and tables used for equipment and computer/desk work. Lab planners now prefer laboratory benches and tables using modular concepts to allow easy changes in their configurations within the lab. Likewise, the worksurfaces in labs are modular to go along with these bench and table layouts. Fixed laboratory casework with seamed epoxy countertops are still quite common in laboratories but are becoming less so.
The most common used worksurfaces are:
- Epoxy resin
- Phenolic resin
- Stainless steel
- Butcher block
There are no bad choices, but it is up to you to choose which type is best for your laboratory. Choosing the right one is a crucial decision when outfitting a lab with furniture, however, we are here to help you choose.
What To Consider When Choosing A Laboratory Work Surface?
Choosing the best worksurface is a tough decision because there is a lot to consider. So, depending on your need, performance criteria is what you should consider during the selection process. The most important factors to consider are:
- Chemical reistance
- Abrasive resistance
- Heat resistance
- Impact resistance
- Moisture resistance
- Type of use
- Furniture style
This article will focus on the more common materials of epoxy resin, phenolic resin, and stainless steel pointing out the pros and cons of each. As well as our insights from our vast experience installing these materials. These three make up over 98% of the types of laboratories we install. We also touch on the basics of the other common laboratory countertop materials and their uses. Additional information about laboratory worksurfaces and sinks can be found on our website.
No matter which surface material you choose for your laboratory, your goal is to have a high-quality laboratory work surface that will provide you the best return on your investment. For you to make the best return on your investment, let's take a closer look at the different types.
Epoxy Resin Lab Countertops
Epoxy resin is one of the most used laboratory worksurfaces. This is a very familiar and practical material for lab use. It is an excellent choice for harsh environments, having high chemical resistance, easy to clean, sturdy, and heat resistance. It is widely used in chemistry, biology, pathology, immunology labs, high school, and university labs.
With many possible applications, epoxy is very well suited for fixed casework. Since the cabinetry isn’t intended to be relocated, the worktop seams can be filled and joined to make a more monolithic surface. Epoxy is very hard and is often relied upon for structural support with fixed type casework, such as cut-out sections for upright shelf standards and spanning over unsupported knee space areas in the lab. This dense material is also a good choice to make epoxy resin tables, known as Epoxy Balance Tables.
Epoxy tops are typically specified in one-inch thickness, which is very heavy, weighing 11 pounds per square foot. A one inch thick 72” x 30” epoxy top weighs 165 pounds. Epoxy resin is a molded product created from mixing compounds in a liquid form and poured into molds to cure and harden. This method creates unique design possibilities to manufacture sinks and tops with marine (raised) edges, fully molded worktops with integral sinks and drainers, providing seamless performance. However, the time and cost to build these molds makes small custom orders impractical.
A side note on epoxy thicknesses: Our engineers designed the A.T. Villa Ergolab mobile benching system to use 5/8" thick worktops with a metal frame structure under the worksurface of these benches. This structure provides the advantages of extreme load capacity while reducing the cost and weight of the worktop. Your science is only actually taking place on the top thousands of an inch anyway.
Epoxy resin countertops are made in a limited range of colors but still offer a comprehensive pallet. Most commonly, we see black epoxy in labs, and it is the most economical color choice. Greys and white are also popular choices. These do cost more to manufacture, with white being one of the most expensive. One nice thing about the epoxy colors is that they have through-color, meaning the edges and tops are consistent.
While epoxy resin as a laboratory countertop is a sound choice, there are a few “cons” to this material. There are only a few manufacturers of this material in the U.S., leading to availability problems. Most of these work surfaces are made-to-order, and we have seen lead times of 12-16 weeks during recent years. While the material is very hard, it can be brittle. Epoxy is the most problematic product regarding shipping damage. Epoxy resin is not very scratch resistant. A scratch on a black worktop appears white and is very visible. It is not easy to cut and or modified in the field again due to its hardness. The bottom surface comes from the molds uneven, and while this is not a problem for countertops, it does require additional finishing work at the factory for shelves, where the bottom is visible.
Phenolic Resin Countertops
Phenolic resin has been around for decades and has found many industrial uses. Phenolic worksurfaces made for laboratory and scientific uses have become popular over the past 20 years. Phenolic typically offers some cost savings over epoxy. The material is versatile and has high chemical resistance that is extremely scratch resistant due to its laminated material. If you use highly caustic reagents, phenolic is a perfect choice. Phenolic resin is used in every laboratory type we see, which includes:
- Life sciences
- Cancer research
- Immunology labs
- University labs
Trespaâ TopLabâ Plus is one of the most well-known products for laboratory countertops. Trespaâ was one of the pioneers of phenolic resin laboratory countertops and helped establish this material with the architectural and lab planning communities throughout the world. Another major producer of this material is Fundermaxâ, and they have created some exciting new developments with the colors of this material.
Phenolic resin panels are produced from partially recycled paper and phenolic resin. Multiple layers of paper are soaked in a phenolic resin, then placed into a large heated press. When completed, it appears as a solid material. Sheets made in common thicknesses of 6mm (1/4"), 8mm (5/16"), 10mm (3/8"), 13mm (1/2"), 16mm (5/8"), 20mm (3/4") and 25mm (1"). The color palette of the lab grade surfaces is broader than epoxy.
However, the less common colors typically have a longer lead time. Phenolic tops are also not through-color like epoxy. The top layer of the material provides the color, while the core is typically black. The contrast of a white top with a black edge can be quite attractive, though some users prefer a monochromatic top. Both Trespaâ and Fundermaxâ have been developing through-color products in recent years and have released through-color grey material with the top surface and the core appearing the same grey color.
Phenolic has excellent machining properties allowing us to create worksurfaces, shelves, and pegboards. The form of the material does limit the design possibilities. Unlike epoxy that can be molded and formed into sinks, phenolic panels do not lend themselves to marine edges or sinks. Stainless steel sinks and epoxy sinks integrate with phenolic worksurfaces at sink stations.
Phenolic resin is lighter in weight than epoxy. One inch thick phenolic weighs 7.2 pounds per sq. foot, compared to epoxy at 11 pounds. So that one inch 72" x 30" worktop weighs 108 pounds vs. the epoxy top weighing 165 pounds, which is a 53% difference in weight. The reduced weight makes the fabrication, installation, and bench/shelf relocation easier and safer. The lesser weight provides an advantage to your bench or table with adaptable lab furniture solutions by allowing more weight capacity for your equipment.
We find phenolic slightly more resistant to scratches, and we see less shipping and handling issues than with epoxy. Phenolic resin has chemical resistance properties that are very similar to epoxy resin. Here is a comparison chart between Trespaâ and Epoxy Resin surfaces.
While phenolic resin as a laboratory countertop is a sound choice, there are a few "cons" to this material. Phenolic does not have the heat resistance of epoxy and is rated at 350°F. The top color not matching the edges bothers some customers and lab planners.
Stainless Steel Countertops
Stainless steel laboratory worksurfaces are ideal for sterile lab environments. This would include:
- Food development applications
Stainless steel worktops are ideal for cleanrooms since it has the best hygienic and anti-microbial properties. As well as being long-lasting. These worksurfaces are a more expensive option due to the intense labor involved to fabricate them. They are excellent for the applications mentioned above but over time they do develop a patina from use.
Butcher Block Countertops
Also known as maple or woodnblock, these countertops are sturdy and long-lasting. However, not a common material, laboratories for industrial applications are a good fit for butcher block work surfaces. This type of material has excellent abrasive resistance as well as impact resistance.
True butcher block tops are made with the end grain of the wood facing up by gluing together smaller woodblocks. This method creates an extremely durable surface that has some self-healing properties due to grain orientation However, most tops marketed today as butcher block are made with linear wood strips glued together with the grain running side to side and not facing up.
Laminate ESD Countertops
ESD, also known as electrostatic discharge, means a sudden flow of electricity between objects. For laboratories that work with sensitive electronics, laminate ESD work surfaces are the ideal solution. They have an integrated layer of conductive film within the worksurface material. They are safe and static free for putting together sensitive components.
These worksurfaces do require a grounding system to be installed that creates a connectivity from the user, through the worksurface, the furniture and to the ground of the building. The design and installation of these types of worksurfaces can be confusing and are often not designed correctly.
Polypropylene is a very specialized worktop that is an excellent option if your lab using highly corrosive acids and volatile compounds. It is lightweight, mold resistant and very durable. When the room requires no trace metals, polypropylene is the best option.
Other Types of Countertops
Solid surface is a nice quality product but lacks the type of chemical resistance required in a laboratory. This material can easily exceed the cost of epoxy resin or phenolic resin. Therefore, we cannot recommend this material.
Laminate, or High-Pressure Laminate is a thin phenolic layer that is applied to a substrate, which is commonly particle board. While the laminate itself is a sound covering, the real weakness of these types of tops are the seams and edges. Long term exposure to moisture can be problematic. However, we have installed many that have lasted for decades. If you do choose this material for your lab make sure to use a post formed front edge that wraps the laminate from the top, over the edge to the underside without a seam.
Ceramic and porcelain are more commonly used in Europe. They can offer some great looking worksurfaces with very good chemical resistance. In our experience we had too many who experienced damage in shipping to allow us to ship them with confidence.
Glass is uncommon in labs. But long ago we did outfit a wine testing lab in Europe that used thick tempered glass with an LED light source attached to the rear of the glass panel. The effect was beautiful and prefect for that project. It can add many of the characters we seek in laboratory worktops, but it is just not popular or practical. It does require your staff to keep the floors clean.
Need Further Help Choosing Your Laboratory Worksurface Material?
Laboratory worksurfaces have unique requirements. Finding the right material is a tough decision, therefore A.T. Villa will proudly work with you. For more information, take a further look at our work tops. We also provide further technical information on our technical page. Otherwise, contact us and as part of our free design services we will walk you through your options.