This article covers phenolic toilet partitions in detail. It can be viewed as an expansion of the information about phenolic included in our recent article on toilet partition materials. Reading this article will make you a bit of a specialist in phenolic.
Note that other common names for this material include compact laminate, thick laminate, compact grade laminate, and solid phenolic. Our current page dedicated to phenolic stalls is our Compact Laminate Partitions page.
Phenolic is manufactured by coating and impregnating a very durable paper, called kraft paper, with phenolic resins. This paper is called "kraft paper" because the "kraft process" is used to create it. This process produces a paper with long fibers and low lignin content. This is important because lignin interferes with the bonding between wood fibers at the cellular level, weakening the paper. The name of this process comes from the German word "kraft", which means "strength" or "power" in English.
The resin-infused kraft paper sheets are layered to produce the desired final sheet thickness. Decorative paper (also called design paper or deco paper) is then placed on the top and bottom of the stacked kraft paper. A melamine or other protective layer is added to the decorative paper (for durability). Texturing plates are also placed above and below. This entire stack is then pressed at high heat and high pressure, fusing all the layers together and imprinting the desired finish into the sheets.
If you would like to understand this process better, we recommend you search on YouTube or other video-sharing sites for videos of "the phenolic manufacturing process.”
It is helpful to know high-pressure laminates (HPLs) are produced using essentially the same process as explained above for phenolic. The key differences are simply the number of kraft sheets used and the fact that laminates are much thinner overall.
Phenolic is a good choice for commercial restrooms for many reasons covered below. There are times, however, when phenolic may not be the best choice as discussed below.
Because HPL and phenolic are manufactured using similar processes, most of the colors and patterns available in laminates are also available in phenolics. This gives design freedom when specifying phenolic bathroom partitions.
Phenolic manufacturers typically offer this product in one or two finishes (compared to many more finish options for most laminates). Even when there are two finish options, sometimes only one of the options is viable for the project. For example, Wilsonart phenolic colors and patterns are available in matte and velvet texture finish. The velvet texture finish, however, has minimum sheet order requirements which are large enough to significantly drive up the price of small jobs that only need a few sheets of phenolic.
Solid phenolic is one of the most durable materials available for commercial bathroom partitions. The layered kraft paper construction combines with the resins and surface melamine coating to create an extremely durable material. Phenolic resists scratches, stains, dents, and blows. Some brands are also suitable for wet or steamy environments.
One challenge introduced by the durability of this material is that it can be hard to work with "in the field". Manufacturers have specialized saws and other equipment to modify phenolic, but for installers, it can be difficult and time-consuming to modify during installation.
Phenolic components (doors, panels, pilasters, etc.) have historically had the limitation of black or brown edges. This does not usually coordinate with the face pattern or color. One partial solution to this problem is to use phenolic with a colored core. Examples include Wilsonart's SOLICOR product line and "Color-Thru Phenolic" products. Not only can the colored core coordinate the edges and faces, but it can also reduce the visibility of scratches in the face of a part since the scratches reveal the coordinated core color.
Unfortunately, the colored core solution is only available for a limited number of patterns and colors. A better option for eliminating mismatched edge colors is Ironwood Manufacturing's "HeH" edge banding for phenolic components. By allowing phenolic parts to be banded with color-coordinated edging, this option makes the edge color a problem of the past.
The alignment of the kraft sheets and other materials in phenolic results in a very good fastener holding capacity when fasteners are screwed into the face of the material.
The edges of phenolic parts, on the other hand, have poor fastener holding capacity. Furthermore, a screw or other fastener driven into an edge can destroy the part. This is because the fastener will divide the core kraft paper sheets, which can split the core, which ruins the part. Even if the phenolic does not split, the holding capacity of a screw in the side of a part will be poor.
Phenolic partition systems are typically more expensive than standard plastic laminate or powder coated metal partitions and are similar in price to solid plastic (HDPE) partitions.
Some partition manufacturers limit color and pattern options with phenolic color charts. This lowers the cost of the partitions because the partition manufacturers can negotiate better pricing due to higher volume per color.
Ordering from a partition manufacturer that inventories limited colors and sizes can result in lead times as low as two weeks. Partition manufacturers that offer the full range of phenolic patterns and colors cannot afford to inventory them all. Therefore, the phenolic is ordered on a per-job basis, which adds weeks to the lead time. The additional work to cut, finish, and crate the material results in an overall lead time of six to eight weeks.
In addition to simple slab components, Ironwood Manufacturing offers phenolic doors and panels with louvers, captured panels, acrylic door lites, and glass door lites. All of these options are built with true stile and rail construction. Engravings and moldings are also available options, including moldings applied to captured panels.
Phenolic can be manufactured with customizable patterns. For examples of this, see Wilsonart’s Virtual Design Library ("VDL”) products.
Standard phenolic from most manufacturers is class B fire rated. Phenolic manufacturers can add fire-retardants to the phenolic resins, making class A fire-rated phenolic partitions possible.
Note that class A fire-rated material typically costs twice as much as its class B counterparts.
The material yield from the phenolic sheets can vary widely, depending on component dimensions and configuration options. For example, a 73" high door or panel may have a significantly worse yield (more material waste) than a 71.5" high door or panel. We recommend you either specify standard component heights (58", 71.5", or 84") or work with your partition manufacturer to specify sizes with acceptable material yield.
Phenolic is an excellent material choice for bathroom stalls. An awareness of its essential characteristics can be useful in informing commercial restroom design decisions. Additionally, offerings such as Ironwood Manufacturing's phenolic louvered doors and HeH edge banding eliminate some long-standing limitations of this material.