An eco-friendlier countertop option

Northwest-produced product has smaller carbon footprint, but has some drawbacks

Richlite, a paper-fiber- and resin-based material that uses pulp from certified managed forests in North America, is emerging as the new bamboo.

Bamboo products such as Plyboo, long touted as sustainable, can hardly be considered green when you factor in their carbon footprint: They consume a lot of energy when the bamboo is converted to synthetic building materials such as laminated planking and flooring. More importantly, because bamboo products are mainly from countries like China, they have to be transported over great distances before reaching Western markets.

On the other hand, Richlite, which is produced in Washington state, can be made locally with homegrown, sustainably harvested materials and that is why it contributes to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design points in home construction. It is approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, although it must be noted it also contains phenolic resin.

Until recently, this paper-fiber composite was simply used as backing for molding fiberglass boats, skate ramps, airplanes and industrial molds because it can be precisely tooled just like wood, metal or plastic.

The 4-by-8 and 5-by-10-foot sheets are made in varying thicknesses ranging from 1/4-inch thick to 3 inches thick and are composed of paper soaked in phenolic resin that is baked together to form tough boards that are relatively stable in several different colors. Because of its eco-friendly qualities, Richlite has become increasingly popular as a cutting surface in kitchens and for countertops. More recently, it has become attractive as a material for custom furniture, tabletops and desks.

The expert opinion: Colors such as burgundy, tan and blue are available, but furniture designer Jason Lees of Oakland, Calif., leans toward black Richlite because it is more versatile, and he prefers its slightly mottled quality. "I like grain and texture and little decoration," Lees said.

"I discovered Richlite five years ago," Lees said. But the product has been around for nearly 40 years, created for prototyping Boeing airplane shapes by the same family-owned plywood factory that still makes Richlite. Lees has used it to create several types of modernist tabletops that are made to order. "I was looking for an eco-friendly material and thought it would be a great desktop or table surface. It is as strong as stone but not as heavy," he said. "I am amazed that it hasn't been used more."

Richlite sheets cost about $110-$125 a square foot installed, depending on the color.

Pros

According to Lees, Richlite is fairly nonporous but even if it does stain it can be sanded down because the color is integral. Its proprietary oil-coat sealer can also be reapplied. "The boards are not pre-sealed. You have to rub on the gel finish with a rag and any excess buffs off easily," Lees said.

Richlite is a tough material and a 1-1/2;-inch board can cantilever 3 feet without supports.

Cons

Some dealers will sell the sheet sans installation for half the cost, but Scott Martin of Blue Plum Design, a San Francisco kitchen designer and Richlite dealer, prefers to install the product and advises against trying to work with the material without experience. It is less like cutting wood and more like cutting metal, he said. Carbide tips are required for saw blades, and if the blade is not just right the cut will show burn marks that will have to be recut after the heated material cools. "The resin melts if it is heated over 360 degrees," he said.

Another problem is that the resin mellows to an amber color over time, which affects the lighter-colored sheets. Yellow and green will oxidize as well. "It will be harder to match those after installation if you need a new counter. The color changes are not so discernible in the dark blue and black sheets," Martin said.

While it has sustainably harvested natural content, Richlite also is made up of resins that have formaldehyde in their composition, although it is stable after the resins are heat-set.

On the 'Net: Richlite dealer locator: www.richlite.com.


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