It really depends on the application. For utility cabinet doors, and light storage, etc. melamine is ok. For countertops the coating is pretty thin. Aesthetically, how it looks is subjective, but most of the time I'd rather see real wood. Plywood can be a good choice too, depending.
Melamine is more predictable and stable than wood, but the coating is prone to chipping when you cut it. Hi-ATB saw blades make the cleanest cut in it, but a TCG blade is the most durable for melamine if you're cutting alot of it.
Melamine is a low pressure laminated process done chemically to usually a composite board. It looks similar to Formica, which is a high pressure laminate, but is totally different in durability. It's usually used for shelving, and can be used for cabinet carcasses, and flat (slab) doors, as a way to finish the interiors. It is easy to clean.
For cabinets, the exterior is usually laminated with a Formica type product, or even veneer. For doors it can be edge banded and the exterior laminated like the cabinets. Scott was right. It chips easily, and has low impact resistance.
As an alternative to melamine, a substrate can be laminated with a Formica type product, and there are many styles and colors. For vertical applications, 1/32" is usually used and for horizontal surfaces, like counter tops, 1/16" is recommended. Most brands have matching colors and patterns for both thicknesses.
As said before, melamine is good for cabinet interiors, I have used it for doors, but the chipping thru general use can be a problem. P-lam such as formica, nev-a-mar, etc. is one of the best ways to go.Veneer plywood, (my favorite is "pro-core") is ok as long as it is finished to withstand water, (an understatement). I would rather go with solid wood such as maple.
Melamine, much loved by the kitchen cabinet industry as an easy-to-clean, no finish cabinet material, is a vinyl-type coating, usually applied over particle board. Generally, it's barely more than the thickness of paper. It is most often used in conjunction with a plastic edge tape.
It's issues(as I see it):
-The melamine layer has some amount of durability, but as a worktop, not enough.
-If you use the edge tape, it gives no protection to your front edges, and chips readily. Sometimes it comes unglued. Looks horrible after a short time. If you use melamine for anything, I highly recommend solid wood edges.
-If you cut particle board, wear a good mask or respirator. My first kitchen cabinet job, my customer wanted melamine carcasses. I had a hacking cough for 2 months due to using those paper masks.
I throw in my vote for a plastic laminate, such as formica. Apply contact cement to both surfaces, let it dry til slightly tacky to the touch, set in place (leave a small amount of overhang all around). Apply pressure with a roller(a 'J-roller' works well) or by hammering with a block of wood. Trim the edges with a router bit (a flush trim bit) or a file.
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