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How to Choose Laboratory Casework Materials

How to Choose Laboratory Casework Materials

Carefully examine the pros and cons of different kinds of casework materials before making a selection

Cynthia Walston, FAIA, LEED AP

Cynthia Walston, FAIA, LEED AP, is a laboratory planner and owner of Scientia Architects. Contributions by David Mahood, MGC, Inc., and Claire Tryon H2I Group, all of Houston, Texas.

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Once you have decided on the style of casework—whether fixed or mobile—for your laboratory, there are still many choices to make as to what material to choose. Budget, casework function, and the amount of wear and tear to be sustained, as well as chemicals to be used and cleaning requirements, need to be evaluated. It is important to consider the primary materials that are available for lab casework, and to weigh the pros and cons of each before making your final choices.

Your laboratory designer or casework distributor will be a great resource for you. Ask that whatever casework you select meets the Scientific Equipment and Furniture Association (SEFA) requirements. SEFA was organized in 1988 to establish, monitor, and modify (as needed) industry-wide recommended practices in the areas of fume hoods, laboratory work surfaces, furniture installations, casework, and fixtures. This will ensure that the finishes on your casework meet laboratory standards. For example, flammable cabinets should comply with NFPA 30 and be listed as UL 1275. Chemical exhaust fume hoods and laboratory benches should always be UL listed.

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Laboratory tops

Lab countertops and work surfaces are typically the most abused area of the laboratory. There are a lot more choices available besides the black epoxy commonly found in many labs. The right material depends on the type of experiments or the work you conduct daily. Does the surface need to withstand chemicals or liquids, or an open flame? A trend is to use colors that reflect light, which will reduce artificial lighting and make your lab brighter. Here are some options to consider:

Stainless steel

Benefits: Stainless steel is a non-porous material, which does not allow anything to penetrate it. It is created for labs where sterility is required, as it cannot grow fungus, bacteria, and mold. It is also chemical resistant and highly resistant to heat and can withstand temperatures up to 1,500°F. It will stand up to the cleaning required in sterile areas. Type 316 stainless steel should always be used where harsh cleaning solutions will be used.
Concerns: It is susceptible to scratches and cannot handle bleach because it will leach the nickel and cause pitting. It is also your most expensive top.

Epoxy resin

Benefits: Epoxy resin has excellent resistance to practically all acids, alkalies, and solvents, as well as mold, fungus, and bacteria. It is highly resistant to heat up to 350°F and normal physical abuse. There are a few colors available depending on the supplier, including black, gray, slate, white, and putty.
Concerns: It is a poured product and cannot be modified easily in the field; for example, trying to drill a hole may be difficult. It also can scratch easily and it has less impact resistance than phenolic or stainless.

Phenolic resin

Benefits: Phenolic resin should be considered for labs that do a moderate amount of work with chemicals. It is good for chlorine use and won’t change colors. These counters are very lightweight yet highly durable and machinable in the field, and the material is corrosion- and chemical-resistant. It also has a high fungal, bacteria, and moisture resistance and holds up to impact. It can resist temperatures up to 350°F. It is available in multiple colors and patterns.
Concerns: Most varieties are not fire retardant, so it is not recommended for use around open flames.

Butcher block

Benefits: Butcher block is constructed from solid pieces of wood, often hard maple. These worktops are common in many physical testing facilities or food laboratories. Butcher block is easy to restore to like-new condition if it gets damaged. A great application for this material is in high-impact testing facilities.
Concerns: Wood is highly porous, which means it doesn’t hold up well against chemicals. It can also breed bacteria if not cleaned properly.

High pressure laminate

Benefits: High pressure laminate may be an option if you’re looking for something that’s easier on your budget in dry areas with limited chemical use. Laminates have a wide variety of colors and patterns and are available in a chemically resistant grade. A common use is for ESD (electrostatic dissipative) applications.
Concerns: While it can withstand temperatures up to 275°F, it’s not moisture-, mold-, or bacteria-resistant.

Stone and solid surface materials

These do not provide adequate resistance to heat and chemicals, therefore they are not recommended for normal laboratory use.


Analyze your lab’s needs, and the type of work done in the lab, before selecting which casework material to use.
MGC, Inc.

Stainless and epoxy are the most common lab sinks. Stainless steel is often the most popular choice for its easy care, as a lot of chemical exposure can corrode and rust casework material over time. Epoxy is the less expensive option and offers the best resistance to the many harsh chemicals used in the laboratory. Epoxy can crack with thermal shock, so care needs to be taken with dry ice use.

Cabinet finishes

Mobile cabinetry with steel frames has become a standard in modern labs, offering flexibility and adaptability in research and many academic labs. There are many cabinetry material choices for the cabinets that are part of the system to best suit the needs of your lab.

Stainless steel is used for cabinets for the same reasons as the lab top descriptions above, in regards to high fungal and moisture resistance. The high price limits its use to areas that really need it, such as containment, autopsy, animal research, chemical, food testing, cleanroom, and hospital and medical facilities, as well as pharmaceutical labs.

Steel is a very common cabinet material in today’s labs. It has a powder coating, which is corrosion-, abrasion-, and chemical-resistant, and deters chipping, peeling, or cracking. It is heavy duty and offers high fungal and moisture resistance as well as good resistance to chemicals. Applications span all kinds of labs, including industrial, academic, medical research, and R&D. Laboratory tables should generally be made of painted steel for durability and mobility. Exposed steel should not be used in chemical exhaust fume hoods or acid cabinet interiors.

Wood is the traditional method and tool for creating lab casework. It is attractive and offers warmth to the lab, with solids and veneers available in different wood varieties. New finishes resist wear and tear common in older wood cabinetry, though it does not offer the resistance of steel. Wood laboratory casework should carry FSC certification, AWI Premium Grade, and be used only with low VOC materials, finishes, and adhesives. Stained wood laboratory grade door and drawer fronts are often used with steel cabinets. It is often the standard for academic labs, testing labs, and some technology and research labs.

Laminate is made by applying melamine resin on a surface paper that is decorative. This paper is usually bonded to kraft papers that are filled with phenolic resin for a decorative cabinet. Its low price makes it attractive for light duty and dry labs. The low resistance to heat, moisture, chemicals, bacteria, and everyday abuse limits its use in many laboratories. Substrate material should be seven-ply hardwood plywood core for durability and moisture resistance. Low VOC materials are important with laminate, as many substrates contain added urea formaldehyde. The life cycle is about one-fourth that of steel.

Your material choices are one piece of the selection of your lab casework. Today’s manufacturers offer lines that are designed to reduce the impact of the environment and to meet recycled content required for the US Green Building Council’s LEED program. Selecting materials that are durable, long lasting, and combined with flexible casework that can be moved instead of replaced will go far in maximizing your resources spent on laboratory casework. Picking the correct materials for your lab up front will ensure that you get the longest possible life span out of the materials used in your lab and that you will achieve optimum performance.