How to Compare Acrylic vs. Laminated Shower Wall Panels
I remember when our company got into the bathtub and shower wall panel business 15 years ago. All the rage was the quick to install ‘One Day Bathroom’ with acrylic wall panels. The manufacturer promoted an in and out process. Simply take 3 sheets of acrylic. Cut them to size. Adhere them with butyl tape over ceramic tile walls and voila, in one day, your customer has a new shower or tub surround.
They told us this would be a simple (and profitable) job.
And the truth is it is simple and profitable for the contractor doing it. However, here’s the question…and it’s the only question (in the end) which matters.
Are acrylic tub and shower ‘makeovers’ which go over tile the best option for the owner of the home?
The (somewhat) straightforward answer to this question is yes, no and maybe (right now, you’re likely thinking, “Mike – what kind of a B.S. ‘Switzerland-like’ answer is that?). But, in actuality there are a number of factors you need to look at when you’re comparing whether to get a low-cost acrylic wall panel system vs. a higher-end product like laminate shower wall panels.
OK, if you’re not familiar with laminate wall panels I’ll step back and tell you they’re approximately 2’ wide x 8’ tall x 3/8” thick waterproof wall panels. They have a laminate front (which can have tile, stone and marble patterns), are applied on a marine grade plywood backing with a vapor barrier on the rear surface. This product is used extensively in countries like Norway where you’d find it on 1/3 of the bathroom and shower walls. It’s also growing by leaps and bounds in the United States today.
Since you’re likely not a shower wall panel installer or salesperson (and likely don’t play one TV – and neither does anyone else to the best of my knowledge) it can be difficult knowing how to compare acrylic and laminate wall panels. You just know you want the best bathroom surround system for your job. This is exactly the reason I wrote this article.
Below I’ll look at the advantages of laminate wall panels vs. acrylic. Second, I’ll turn the tables and we’ll peek at the disadvantages of acrylic wall panels vs. laminate.
At the end, I’d love your opinion and/or additional questions so you can get your arms around your best choice.
Advantages of Laminated Bathroom and Shower Wall Panels vs. Acrylic
Advantage #1 of Laminated Wall Panels – You’ll get a contemporary look with the waterproof benefits of modular wall panels
Design styles today are more varied and inventive than when acrylic wall panels came on the scene 20 to 30 years ago. For example, maybe you love the Joanna-Gaines-inspired look of the Modern Farmhouse. Or you’re moving into your first new small home (in the walkable neighborhood you just love) and you want an ‘urban-inspired’ bathroom. The reality is acrylic wall panels have nothing to offer to you for these types of design themes.
On the other hand, with laminate panels you can use an Antique gray tile pattern with a faux wood textured for the Modern Farmhouse look. If you want the gritty, urban vibe (but need to keep costs down) the Cracked concrete modern minimalist wall panels below (in the laminate line) can be the ticket for you.
Advantage #2 of Laminated Wall Panels – You can use fashion-forward matte finishes
Let’s face it gloss finishes are not hot today. You’re choosing matte nickel over ‘old style’ polished chrome or polished brass fixtures. Matte is simpler to clean (that’s a HUGE plus when you’re dealing with a bathroom). Matte doesn’t show water spots like gloss.
So, it’s nice to know in laminate wall panels there’s a large selection of matte finished textures. You could go with rough wood wall panels which will give you the ceramic tile look, without the maintenance. You can use a 3D textured slate wall panels for a rustic feel – with ZERO maintenance for you.
The bottom line is – with laminate you can choose matte and gloss finishes, with acrylic you’re stuck with gloss only.
Advantage #3 of Laminated Wall Panels – Thicker modular panel sizes are simpler to work with than thin acrylic sheets
If you’ve ever installed acrylic wall panels you know they’re awkward. They’re only 1/8” thick. A standard sized 60” back wall panel for a tub or shower will bend and flap all around when you’re putting it in. Although they aren’t heavy, because they are flexible and flimsy, they require two people to install.
Laminate panels are 3/8” thick (3x thicker than acrylic) and built in portable 2’ x 8’ sizes. These units simply click, lock and seal together and can be installed by one person (unlike acrylic sheets) and are still only 26 lbs. per panel.
It’s nice to know you’re working with a thicker, higher quality panel – which is also simpler to install.
Advantage #4 of Laminated Wall Panels – Realistic grout joints
There’s nothing worse than a ‘faux’ (simulated-look) product which looks like a ‘faux’ product (‘er you can tell it’s a fake a mile away). And when I look at made-in-a-mold acrylic wall panels IMHO they look fake. The fact that the faux tile joint is the same color as the ‘faux’ tiles is a clincher for me. In addition, the ‘rolled’ edges of the joints just don’t cut it.
Laminated panels are not stamped out of a mold. They’re made with layers of high-pressure laminate of different colors. The tile grout joint is CNC routed out of the layers of laminate. This allows you to get a different colored realistic looking grout joint. That’s why this product is called ‘The No-Tile, Tile Shower.’ It looks and feels like tile, but it’s not.
If you put acrylic panels next to laminate panels the difference is easy to see.
Advantage #5 of Laminated Wall Panels – They’re not hard to source for a DIY job and can be shipped immediately for rush jobs
Although you see ‘Bath-in-a-Day’ acrylic wall panel contracting companies what you’ll find when you call them is, they’re not willing to sell you materials only. So, if you’re a DIY’er who can’t afford professional installation service (or just someone handy who likes to save money doing it yourself), you’ll find it difficult to source acrylic wall panels.
Laminated panels, on the other hand, are available for nationwide direct wholesale. These panels come with complete shower installation kits including trim profiles, hybrid polymer sealant, a finishing tool and even cleaning pads to remove excess materials from the panels.
The product is available for immediate shipment because it’s carried in stock. You’ll get a sharper looking material than acrylic without the contractor markup on the panels.
Advantage #6 of Laminated Wall Panels – You’ll find large format tile sizes
As you know design styles change (think back to the bell-bottom pants and leisure suits of yesteryear). The same is true for shower wall tile sizes and patterns. The small 4” x 4” tiles popular in the 70’s is waaaay out, today – especially in small bathrooms. In these spaces large format tile looks are best because your room will feel larger.
Since acrylic panels are made in expensive molds (the cost which needs to be recouped by the manufacturer) the acrylic manufacturers tend to ‘hold onto’ outdated sizes too many years (in my opinion). This means their ‘faux-tile’ patterns are not up to date.
With the laminate panels (on the other hand) the ability to change the tile looks is simply a matter or reprogramming a CNC machine to cut the joints in a different size.
This is why you’ll see fashion forward large format tile sizes in these panels today. For example, you can use 24” x 24” or 24” x 16” or 16” x 24” looks to name a few.
Advantage #7 of Laminated Wall Panels – You’ll find contemporary niches and corner shelves which don’t look like they’ve been designed when mullets and big hair were popular
Recessed niches and corner shelves are to shower wall panels what purses and necklaces are to a lady’s dress. They’re essential to complete the look (and keep you organized).
When you look at acrylic wall panel niches their molded corner caddies and recessed niches were designed years ago. Bottom line – they look a little (or more than a little) long-in-the-tooth.
With the laminated wall panels, you can choose contemporary shower accessories. In fact, many of the corner shelves and baskets have pieces which can be removed for easy cleaning.
Advantage #8 of Laminated Wall Panels – A Quicker (and Cleaner) Direct to Stud Installation
Laminated wall panels screw directly to OSB (Oriented Strand Board) or 1” x 6” furring strips. They’re quicker to install than acrylic which is put up on moisture resistant green board or installed over tile. In addition, you don’t need tube after tube of adhesives (not exactly the greatest for the environment) or messy butyl tape to glue them onto green board (which are required with acrylic panels) either.
Advantages of Acrylic Bathroom and Shower Wall Panels vs. Laminate
Advantage #1 of Acrylic Panels – They’re one of the cheapest wall panels on the market
If you need a cheap wall panel for a low-rent real estate flip you’re doing on a super-tight budget, acrylic wall panels are a logical fit.
They’re a 100% waterproof and cost effective (the only wall panels cheaper are made of fiberglass or FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic).
While they’re aren’t the sexiest things going, acrylic will keep a tight lid on costs.
Advantage #2 of Acrylic Panels – Edges are pre-bent without the need for finished trim pieces
With many lines of acrylic wall panels, the molded units are pre-bent at the end. This allows you to not add any edge trim pieces (note – in the laminate system there will be mill-finished trim profiles on the edge).
While this is a small installation step – it’s one step in the process you can forgo with acrylic.
Advantage #3 of Acrylic Panels – Each wall (size permitting) can be built with one wall panel
Acrylic wall panels are produced in 36” and 60” widths. This allows you to have a seamless one-piece unit on each wall (of course this will change when your wall dimensions are larger than 60” and have to be seamed).
While the laminate system is also 100% waterproof, separate 2’ x 8’ units are clicked and locked together (note – this process does have the advantage of making your installation simpler though).
Advantage #4 of Acrylic Panels – If you love a subway or ‘windmill’ tile pattern, you’ll get the look with acrylic
Since laminate panels are assembled in 2’ x 8’ sections their manufacturing process will not accommodate ‘overlapping’ patterns from panel to panel. So, designs like subway tile and the windmill look are not possible. With acrylic wall panels you can have any pattern which can be built into the mold (assuming the mold design is wide enough for your space).
Advantage #5 of Acrylic panels – Window accessories can be made of the same material
Windows in a shower or bathtub surround can be a pain when you’re changing to a grout free shower system. With acrylic walls you can get matching window trim kits made with the same color. With the laminate you’ll need to use cultured stone or granite to finish around the window.
So, now that you’re better equipped with the advantages and disadvantages of both acrylic and laminate wall panels systems which do you feel is best for your project (and don’t go ‘Switzerland’ on me, like I did on you in the beginning of this article with you – ha! ha!).
If you’re working through shower or tub wall panel product selections and need help figuring out which system is best, me and my team would love to help (our team includes Terry, Kerry, Diane, Georgia, Michelle, Stacy, Ryan and Jeff).
The best of success with your project!
How can I (or a member of my team) help you?
Do you have any additional question about your project me (or my team) can ‘fill in the blanks’ for you?
We’d love to help. Call us at 877-668-5888 (for nationwide wholesale supply or a connection to a local installing dealer of laminated wall panels). For a local project call 216-658-1280 in Cleveland or 614-252-3242 in Columbus for professional installation service.
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