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Choosing Laboratory Casework Materials

Laboratories in the market for casework enjoy numerous options for materials of construction

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Choices, choices, choices

Laboratories in the market for casework enjoy numerous options for materials of construction. Least expensive is polymer laminate, typically melamine—a melamineformaldehyde copolymer used in kitchen tables and counters. Slightly more expensive is high-density polyethylene, which has moderate chemical resistance and is nonabsorbent.

Solid phenolic materials offer the highest chemical resistance, are nonabsorbent, and fall just below epoxy resin materials in cost. According to FORMASPACE (Austin, TX), chemical and temperature resistance are high and moderate for epoxies and phenolics, respectively. Applications for the former include “medical, clinical, and bioscience” whereas the latter are suitable for chemical and industrial use.

The case for steel

Steel casework sits at the top in every performance and cost category. MultiLab (Spring Lake, MI) calls stainless the “holy grail of industrial aesthetic (sic) and function” based on its durability, customizability, versatility, ease of cleaning, good looks, and value, but notes that the cost of such installations may be out of reach for some labs. Hence the argument for stainless lab furnishings as an “investment” (as opposed to a consumable purchase) for pharmaceuticals, biosafety work, surgical centers, hospital and animal research, autopsy labs, and food R&D.

Steel’s strength and amenability to specialty coatings is well-known in the kitchen appliance trades. Epoxy-coated stainless steel is easily sterilizable, impervious to most chemicals, and easily decontaminated for work with infectious or radioactive materials.

Since steel is easy to work, fabricators can create almost any design or shape. Seamless joints, rounded edges, and smoothness contribute to cleanability. From MultiLab: “For laboratories that require zero contamination and have to reduce all risk of infection, stainless steel is one of the best solutions out there.”

Lab managers may (or may not) appreciate how stainless steel surfaces blend in with almost any color decor, as well as surrounding equipment. Moreover powder coated steel, which is quite common, is available in many colors to match, for example, a lab’s decor.

Ultimately MultiLab’s case for stainless rests on cost-efficiency. Stainless steel, according to the company, “lasts longer than any product on the market, requires little to no repairs, and is 100 percent recyclable...[E] ven if a customer spends a bit more money upfront for stainless steel casework, they’ll make back that money in what they save on replacement costs and repairs.”

Note that for a good deal of life science work an easily cleanable epoxy or phenolic work surface sitting atop wooden or plastic cabinetry is perfectly adequate.

This combination provides easy cleaning, sufficient resistance to typical biological buffers and reagents, and relatively low cost. In a pinch, surfaces can be further protected by laying down inexpensive plastic-lined absorbent sheets.

A thing of the past

For decades, composite stone was the most popular chemical laboratory work surface for both open lab benches and fume hoods.

Cabinetry was made of coated steel in research labs, and more classical wood in instructional settings. Furniture placement was permanent, and designs incorporated fixed openings for utilities like nitrogen, air, and water. Mario Di Fonte, VP of sales and marketing at Mott Manufacturing (Brantford, ON, Canada), provides a succinct update and reality check: “Traditional cabinets and casework are a thing of the past. Benches are now more flexible, with suspended cabinetry and utilities feeding benches from above.”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that casework materials of construction should reflect the functional flexibility of modern lab workstations.

Dave Campbell, president of Hemco (Independence, MO), notes that stone work surfaces are rare these days. “Years ago one company sold a popular Portland cement composite material that contained asbestos fibers, but that has obviously gone out of fashion.” Also rare are ceramic and soapstone work surfaces.

Flexible, movable casework has not affected trends in materials of construction, says Hemco’s Campbell. “Stainless steel and wood are both capable of being modular.”

For additional resources on laboratory casework, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit