Solid Surface Basics: Tooling, Cutting, Gluing, & Finishing
You can complete the majority of solid surface projects using simple woodworking tools, such as a router, random orbit sander, circular saw, bar clamps, heat glue gun, adhesive dispensing gun and a straight edge/rip fence. Of course, many more expensive, professional-grade industry tools exist, but we’ve done our best to show you how to work with solid surface using basic tools. Here they are:
Circular Saw with Carbide Blade
An 18-volt cordless circular saw will cut ½” thick solid surface material. For anything thicker, a corded 7 1/4” circular saw is fine. For both, a thin 24 tooth carbide tipped blade will work for rough cuts and a 40 tooth for smoother edges.
A router is typically used for putting the finishing touch on edges that are to be seamed, for creating the final edge profile or creating a curved piece with a template used as a guide.
Choose a straight edge that is long enough to be clamped at each end to the material and is thick enough to easily guide the router. TIP: if you don’t have such a straight edge, you can use a long level or any other stiff, thick straight item.
Heat Glue Gun
The heat glue gun is used to secure clamping blocks to the material during the seaming process.
Adhesives, Dispensing Gun, and Tips
A color-matched adhesive, which also serves as a gap filler, is available to help make the seam invisible. The adhesive dispensing gun and tips are for applying adhesive to the material surfaces to be joined.
Random Orbit Sander and Abrasive Kits
Random orbit sanders are used for sanding the surfaces to the finish that is desired—flat through high gloss. An inline sander or belt sander will leave visible sanding marks and is not recommended for a final finish.
CUTTING AND SEAMING
Solid surface material is heavy, so it’s best to cut and shape it while it is stationary rather than trying to push it through a machine like a table saw. If you don't have a good size, flat, workbench to work on already, a great way to achieve a good working environment is to simply use sawhorses and long straight boards. If sawhorses are used, equip the top with a soft wooden sacrificial board or if using a workbench use wooden spacers. Having a top board or spacers that can be easily cut allows the saw blade to cut through the material and the top part of the sacrificial boards while the material remains in place.
Make sure the saw blade extends below the solid surface a ¼” or so. If the sawhorses are not level then it will be more difficult to seam pieces in a later step, so make sure the sawhorses are as level as possible.
In the next section, we’ll cover three of the most common types of cuts: a mirror cut, a straight cut, and a curved cut.
Making Mirror Cuts for Seaming Two Pieces
With this technique, the edges to be joined are routed at the same time, which provides a perfect fit. The seam will be almost invisible when the two pieces are pushed together, even without adhesive.
- Use a 1/2" shank double fluted router bit.
- Securely clamp the edges of two pieces 3/8” apart so they cannot move.
- Securely clamp a straight edge fence parallel and to one side of the opening. It needs to be at the correct distance so the router bit can cut down the middle of the opening in one continuous movement. If the bit moves a slight amount one way or another during the cut, the undulation on one side will be the mirror of the undulation on the other side, hence it’s called a mirror cut.
[Figure 1: Mirror Cutting Material Layout]
[Figure 2: Making the Mirror Cut]
Straight Cut Using a Circular Saw and Router
Another method for making a cut straight enough for seaming is to make a rough cut with the circular saw and leave about ⅛” of material that will be removed with the pass of the router.
After making the rough cut with the saw, clamp a straight edge the appropriate distance from what will be the finished edge and run the router to remove the leftover 1/8” of material. The result will be a straight cut suitable for seaming.
[Photo 1: Straight Cut with Circular Saw]
[Figure 3: Routing a Straight Edge]
Handy tip: Some inaccuracies can occur when using this method to create a seamable edge. The surest way to create an edge seaming is to use the mirror cutting method as described above—unless you have a $30000 panel saw or CNC machine.
Handy tip: Apply a dusting of cornstarch to the surface and straight edge to allow the router to slide smoothly.
Making Curved Cuts
Use a template and a router for curved cuts.
Draw the pattern on the template material and then carefully remove all material up to the edge of the pattern line. This edge must be smooth, true, and accurate because any bumps will be transmitted to the material to be routed.
The easiest way to guide the router against the template is to use a router bit with either a top or bottom bearing that is the same size as the cutting diameter of the bit. Use a template for all inside and outside corner cuts.
Seaming (Gluing) Two Pieces Together
Fabrication manuals from the solid surface manufacturers often show fancy and expensive tools that are used to help with seaming. Those expensive tools and methods are good best practices when you are producing a lot of seams. If you are not, then the following tools will more than suffice:
Make six or eight 1” x 2” clamping blocks from wood or scraps of solid surface. Attach these blocks with heat glue about 2” from the edge of the pieces to be seamed.
[Figure 4: Gluing 2 Surfaces Together]
[Photo 3: Attaching Clamping Blocks]
Lay down one or two 2” wide strips of plastic tape on the surface under the area of the glue seam for protection from glue drip onto the surface. Place paper on the floor to catch any drip through.
Do a dry run to make sure the sheets will mate evenly and then separate them by about 1/2” in preparation for adding adhesive
[Photo 4: Test Setup before Applying Adhesive]
Always dispense a small amount of material from a new cartridge before adding the mixing tip to be certain that both parts of the adhesive flow. After the tip is attached, squeeze a bit more through the tip and then start applying to surfaces to be bonded. After you are done, leave the tip in place with the material set up in the tip. That will provide a tight seal.
[Photo 5: Preliminary Adhesive Dispensing]
Apply two ¼” diameter passes of adhesive, one pass on each of the surfaces to be mated. This will eliminate “soft spots.” If there is a place on the first pass where the adhesive was not mixed correctly, then the second pass, which will not likely have that happen in the same location, will ensure there will be catalyst available to cause hardening of the adhesive.
[Photo 6: Applying Adhesive]
Apply Bar Clamps
Span the blocks with the clamps and tighten. DO NOT OVER TIGHTEN as it will cause a weak joint. Allow 30 to 45 minutes for the adhesive to set. Remove the blocks by squirting denatured alcohol at their base. This will soften the heat glue so they can be safely removed.
[Photo 7: Clamping the Seam]
Remove Excess Adhesive
Sand away the excess adhesive and feather either side out about six inches using 120 grit abrasive. Next, sand out to about 12 inches using 180 grit and then sand the seam area to blend into the final finish with 280 grit or finer.
[Photo 8: Sand Away Seam Overflow]
Add a Seam Plate
As a best practice to protect your seam, use a seam plate on the back side of the material to reinforce the seam holding the two sections together. Sand the surfaces of the two pieces in preparation for attaching the seam reinforcing plate. The plate is solid surface of the same color or a scrap of a lighter color since darker colors may produce a shadow effect. The seam plate is a 4" wide piece with a 45 degree angle cut on both sides to regulate heat dissipation and minimize the starting of a crack. Cover the plate with adhesive and apply over the seam with some clamping pressure.
[Figure 5: Reinforcing Seams with a Seam Plate]
View the Finished Seam
The seam will be either very inconspicuous or will disappear altogether. The location of the seam in the picture is undetectable, but we know where it is because of the daub of excess adhesive that shows on the edge of the sheet in the lower center of the picture.
[Photo 9: Sanded Seam Disappears]
FINISHING THE SURFACE
Finishes range from matte and satin to highly polished gloss. Use a random orbit sander and assorted grit sanding discs to finish the solid surface. The preferred finish for a particular application is the one that is both functional and attractive. The sanding process is a series of steps where the more steps taken the more polished the finish becomes. It is important to realize that the finish is something you have complete control over and that once it is completed, no additional sealers or coatings of any kind are needed.
The solid surface sheets will arrive from some manufacturers sanded to a matte finish while others will arrive somewhat polished. If the sheets have been handled a lot they may arrive with a combination of finishes where some areas may be scuffed or scratched. It does not really matter; the end product will have the finish you decide to produce.
Solid Surface Color and Intended Use: Why does this matter?
For high-use areas, lighter colors are good and a matte finish is the typical finish chosen. Dark colors show use more readily, especially when the finish is highly polished, so these types of colors and finishes are good for lower-use areas.
The Approach to Successful Sanding
One of the fundamental aspects of successfully sanding a surface is to make sure that the sanding scratches from the previous grit are removed after you have sanded the area with the next finer grit.
For example, you start the sanding process with 120 grit and then sand with 180 grit. After you have made two or three passes over the area to be sanded, the 120 grit scratches should not be visible. However, if instead of using 180 grit after the 120 grit you had sanded with the even finer 280 grit, then the 120 grit scratches would still be visible and many additional passes would be needed to remove them. The point is, by correctly sequencing the grits chosen for each successive sanding, you’ll do less work.
The Movements for the Random Orbit Sander
There are two movements that are important: 1) the movement that the random orbit sander makes and 2) the movement you make with the sander.
The pad on the sander, as the name implies, moves in a random orbit pattern, which means the scratches left from the sanding grit are harder to see than they would have been if the scratches had been in a straight line.
The other movement you make with the sander itself. It is from front to back and side to side where the area to be sanded should be about 2’ x 2’. Each pass should overlap the previous pass by 1/3 the diameter of the sanded path. Repeat this pattern over the area two or three times, wipe the area thoroughly to remove any grit, and repeat the process with the next finer grit.
Sanding Disc Grits and Non-woven Pads
The role of sanding grit is to remove material in a way that with each finer grit, the scratch pattern left by the grit is less evident. The less evident the scratches are translates into the level of apparent shine. Or stated differently, if light rays bounce off a surface without being knocked off track by surface imperfections, then you would see an undistorted reflection that you would refer to as polished.
As the imperfections on the surface become more pronounced, the light ray deflection becomes more pronounced and the reflected image becomes less distinct going from a polished mirror type image to semi-gloss out of focus or blurred image to matte finish where no image is reflected.
Using non-woven pads adds an interesting touch to the desired finish that is hard to describe. If a matte finish is desired then the last sanding grit to use is 280. If you then make another pass with a maroon colored non-woven pad, which is 320 grit, you get a slight additional touch of “richness” that is different than if you had used a sanding disc with 320 grit.
The Sanding Sequence
Use abrasives with 120 grit and 180 grit to remove heavy scratches and return the surface to one similar to the flat finish provided by some manufacturers.
- Matte finish: Use 280 grit and then the maroon non-woven pad
- Satin finish: Use 280 grit, 400 grit, and gray non-woven pad
- Gloss finish: The degree of gloss appearance desired will depend in part on the material color and particulate composition. Use 280 grit, 400 grit, 600 grit and the white non-woven pad for a moderate gloss. Then for a higher gloss also use the 1000 grit and the 2000 grit polishing compound with the white non-abrasive non-woven pad.
- Surface maintenance procedures are dependent on the type of damage and the degree of shine on the finish. Sand out cuts and scratches with 120, 180 grit, and then 280, which will approximate the matte finish of the original piece. Then use the procedures above to match the final finish.
Grit to Micron Conversion: 120-grit (125 micron), 180-grit (82 micron), 280-grit (52 micron), 400-grit (35 micron), 600-grit (26 micron), 1000-grit (18 micron).