When renovating or installing a new kitchen backsplash, one of the most important considerations is the type of material to use as a substrate or backer board. Backer board provides a stable, moisture-resistant surface for tile and other backsplash materials to adhere to. The most common question homeowners have is whether they need to use backer board for their kitchen backsplash or if they can get away with using drywall alone.
What is Backer Board?
Backer board, also known as cement board or tile backer board, is a building material used as a tile substrate for walls and floors. It consists of an extruded core made of cement and fiberglass mesh embedded on each side for added strength and durability.
Some key features and benefits of backer board include:
- Moisture resistant – The cement composition makes it waterproof and able to withstand moisture, preventing warping, crumbling, and mold growth.
- Impact resistant – The fiberglass mesh increases impact resistance, preventing cracks and chips if objects hit the wall.
- Thicker and more rigid – At 1/4 to 1/2 inches thick, it provides a sturdy base for tile adhesion. The rigidity prevents movement that could cause tile cracks.
- Allows for direct tile application – Tile can be applied directly onto the backer board without needing an additional layer of adhesive or mortar.
Popular brands of backer board include Durock, Hardiebacker, and Fiberboard. These backer boards are available in large sheets, typically 3 by 5 feet, or smaller 12-inch square tiles. Most are easy to cut to size using basic tools.
Should You Use Backer Board for a Kitchen Backsplash?
Backer board is the ideal substrate for kitchen backsplashes. Here are the key reasons it’s highly recommended for backsplashes:
Prevents Moisture Damage
Kitchen backsplashes are prone to splashes, drips, and spills on a regular basis. Water can easily seep through porous materials like drywall and cause deterioration and mold over time.
Backer board’s waterproof cement composition prevents moisture penetration and damage. This protects the integrity of the wall for lasting performance.
Highly Durable Surface
The typical lightweight and brittle nature of drywall causes it to dent and damage easily from impacts in a busy kitchen. Backer board’s cement and fiberglass mesh make it ultra durable and resistant to cracks and chips.
Won’t Cause Tile Cracking
The rigid structure of backer board keeps the substrate from bending or flexing, which could loosen tiles and cause cracking grout lines. Drywall can sag over time and create an uneven surface.
Allows Direct Tile Application
Thick backer board provides a perfectly flat and smooth surface for direct tile application without needing mortar. Drywall is prone to imperfections that require skim coating before tiling.
Can You Use Drywall for a Kitchen Backsplash?
Although backer board is the gold standard, you technically can install tile or other backsplash materials directly onto drywall. However, this comes with some drawbacks and risks.
Moisture Damage Risk
Drywall’s paper facing and gypsum core absorb and retain moisture easily. Constant exposure in the kitchen can cause deterioration, swelling, and mold growth. Proper sealing is essential to prevent this moisture damage.
Susceptible to Cracks and Dents
Lightweight drywall dents easily and tile adhesion directly on it can cause cracks from movement and impacts over time. Fragile materials like glass tiles are prone to cracking and sliding from the smooth drywall surface.
May Require Additional Preparation
Imperfections in drywall like bumps, cracks, and uneven areas require skim coating with joint compound to create a smooth tileable surface. Additional mortar or adhesive layers may be needed for a proper bond.
Lacks Long-Term Durability
Regular exposure to moisture and impacts means drywall won’t last as long as moisture-resistant backer board. Drywall has a higher risk of needing repairs or full replacement sooner.
Preparing and Installing Backer Board
Proper preparation and installation are key to getting the advantages of backer board’s durability and performance. Here are some tips:
Choose the Right Thickness
Common thicknesses for backer board are 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch. Use 1/2 inch for better rigidity and impact resistance. It may be required for larger tile formats like 12×24 inches.
Cut It to Fit
Measure the area and cut the sheets to size with a utility knife or backer board cutter. Cut holes for outlets and plumbing fixtures using a hole saw or oscillating tool.
Screw backer board sheets to wall studs or furring strips with backer board screws, spaced 8 inches apart across the entire board. This prevents any flexing or sagging over time.
Tape and Mud Seams
Fill all seams and corners with acrylic-based tile adhesive, then embed alkali-resistant fiberglass mesh tape over each seam. This seals and reinforces the joints.
Seal the entire surface with waterproofing membranes like RedGard or liquid waterproofing compounds. This seals any pores and prevents moisture intrusion.
With proper installation and sealing, backer board will provide the ideal substrate for a long-lasting, damage-resistant kitchen backsplash. It may require a little more time and money upfront but prevents costly repairs down the road.
FAQs About Backer Board for Kitchen Backsplashes
Is backer board waterproof?
Backer board itself is water-resistant but not completely waterproof until sealed properly. Applying waterproofing membranes or compounds makes it a moisture barrier.
Can you put backer board over drywall?
Yes, it’s common to install backer board over existing drywall. This saves time from removing drywall and provides added strength. Screw the backer board securely into studs.
Should backer board be higher than backsplash?
It’s best to install backer board higher than the planned backsplash height. This prevents seams at the top edge. Standard height is 4 inches above the countertop.
How thick should backer board be for kitchen backsplash?
1/2 inch thickness provides maximum rigidity and impact resistance. Some backsplashes may allow 1/4 inch, but thicker is better for durability. Consult manufacturer specs.
Can you use plywood instead of backer board?
Plywood lacks backer board’s moisture resistance and rigidity. It must be very thick (at least 3/4 inch) and coated to provide enough durability and water protection.
Is Durock better than Hardiebacker?
Both Durock and Hardiebacker are excellent brands that provide similar quality, durability, and performance. Choice comes down to availability and personal preference.
How do you cut backer board without dust?
Cut it with a backer board saw or utility knife. To minimize dust, score the face several times before snapping. Alternatively, use a wet saw kept wet while cutting.
Can I install tile directly over backer board?
Yes, tile can be installed directly onto backer board without any additional layer needed. This provides significant time and cost savings.
When planning a kitchen backsplash project, investing in proper moisture-resistant backer board will provide a long-lasting, crack-free surface able to withstand the demands of a busy kitchen. Although drywall can technically work, it comes with higher risks and more intensive preparation.
Opting for backer board is a decision that will pay dividends for years by preventing costly repairs or replacements down the road. With proper planning, measurement, cutting, fastening, and sealing, it can create the ideal substrate for your new backsplash. Carefully weigh the pros and cons and make the best choice for your goals, budget, and timeline.