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Why is it that most science classroom desks seem to be built out of wood, but have the desk area covered in some black material? I'm talking about desks like this:

http://st.hzcdn.com/simgs/ab3174c201c9cc49_4-9532/midcentury-desks-and-hutches.jpg

To "prove" its pervasiveness, I Googled "science classroom desk", and the image results have quite a few of these types of desks: Science Classroom Desk Google search

Without knowing an answer to the basic question, it's hard to flesh out my other questions, but here's a basic list:

  • Is that black material inert in some way, so as to not react to any of the chemicals a student might use in class? Is it just easy to clean?
  • Why the standardization? I've seen these desks in public and private schools in a number of different states in the US
  • Is this US-specific? Do other countries have their own standard desks?

(Note: I'm not sure that this is the correct StackExchange website to post this on, so I'm open to suggestions. It seemed to be the closest fit to education/school. There are some sites for specific scientific disciplines, but I thought someone in academia in general might know an answer)

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    I have never seen this. – gerrit Oct 16 '15 at 9:37
  • I have never seen these desks either. Most of the science classrooms, and university labs, that I have been in have white surfaces somewhat similar to kitchen countertops (only differently sized/laid out). – ssmart Oct 16 '15 at 9:51
  • I wasn't actually sure how prevalent they are, which is why I did the Google search to see if it was just a local trend - and yet, I had seen it in a number of different states – Jake Oct 16 '15 at 12:26
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    As the question suggests, these benches are virtually universal in biology labs in the US and Canada; I have seen probably hundreds of labs in dozens of different universities and government institutes, and every one had identical bench tops. The resin is unbelievably tough and resistant to chemical spills, fires, physical damage. Once I requested that our physical facilities people drill a small hole through the countertop so that I could run a computer connector to a specific spot, and it took the guy probably an hour to get through it, destroying multiple drill bits in the process. – iayork Oct 16 '15 at 13:49
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    When you answer "I haven't seen" you should say where you are. – GEdgar Oct 22 '15 at 14:10
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I found an article that explains the reason quite clearly: the black top is a resin laminate that is chemical and stain resistant.

Not all bench-tops are black: there are alternate materials that are white or metallic. Presumably those substances have different resistances for different purposes; for example, some of the white benches I saw while searching were anti-static materials for electronics work. For anything with biological and chemical substances, however, it seems that the black resin laminates are often the preferred material.

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    Maybe the materials that modern bench tops are made from, but they are likely designed this way to replicate the historical laboratory bench tops which were made of slate. Slate is chemically inert, doesn't conduct electricity, and is nonflammable. – AMR Oct 16 '15 at 4:30
  • Really interesting article - I didn't find that in my searches, thanks! Quote of the day - “Somebody probably thought of the design,” she said, “And was like ‘OK.' – Jake Oct 16 '15 at 12:31
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EDIT

Interesting video talking about State of the Art Labs of the 1930's and State of the Art Teaching Labs of 2014

https://youtu.be/hgS0UOP4zUc


Scientific bench tops were originally made of slate, and in many schools and labs you will see that they still use slate tops (or the school happens to be have really old labs and they have never updated them). The main advantages were:

  1. They are chemically inert and will not react to chemicals
  2. They did not conduct electricity
  3. They did not catch fire
  4. They were for all intents and purposes nonporous. You don't want your reactive reagents seeping into the bench tops, where they can stay and react with other materials later on or contaminate your experiments.
  5. The same reason slate is used for billiards tables. It is very sturdy, it does not flex or deform, so it can hold up heavy equipment, and you can grind it to be very level, which is important as you do not want your vessels or burners tipping over.

The reason that the modern materials that @jakebeal mentions are likely black is because traditions are hard to break. You make it look like what people were familiar with, so they will associate it with having the properties of the original material.

If you look at old photographs from labs in Europe, it appears that the material the bench tops are made of are a thick slate slab. I guess choice of material depends on how new the facilities are and what the individual institution's internal safety standards and local building codes call for.

  • I am putting this here as this is more speculation on my part, but I would have to guess that slate was used as it is more economical than marble, which would have been another option. – AMR Oct 16 '15 at 4:57
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    Marble isn't such a great thing if you're working with acids. – Simon B Oct 16 '15 at 10:35
  • @SimonB I mentioned it as there are some old photos where you see marble work surfaces in lab. There were also plenty of pictures of heavy wooden bench tops as well, but there are plenty of reasons by you wouldn't want to use wood. – AMR Oct 16 '15 at 13:44
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Simply put: it's easier to see things - paper, objects, clear scientific equipment, and so on - against a black tabletop.

Furthermore - and perhaps more importantly - a black tabletop makes it easy to see spills and other potential hazards. This makes cleaning easier and more effective.

And finally: black tends to hide wear and tear better than other colors (especially in the presence of scientific experiments). So schools can hold off on replacing their equipment longer and still look nice in the press photos :)

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