Installing a tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. But before you start tiling, an important decision needs to be made – do you need backerboard? Here is a detailed guide to help you understand when backerboard is necessary for a tile backsplash.
What is Backerboard?
Backerboard, also known as cement board, is a durable tile backing material made from Portland cement and reinforced with fiberglass mesh on the front and back surfaces. It is water-resistant, fire-resistant, and designed specifically for tile applications.
Backerboard provides a sturdy, rigid surface for the installation of ceramic, porcelain, or natural stone tile. It resists damage from moisture and prevents cracks from showing through the tile. Backerboard is commonly 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick and available in sheets or boards. Popular brands include Hardiebacker, Durock, Permabase, and WonderBoard.
When Do You Need Backerboard for a Tile Backsplash?
Here are the main instances when backerboard is required for a tile backsplash installation:
Drywall alone does not provide enough support for tile. It can sag, crack, and allow moisture to seep through. Backerboard must be installed over drywall before tiling a backsplash. This provides the necessary sturdy foundation.
In Wet Areas
Any area that is prone to moisture exposure requires backerboard under the tile. This includes kitchen backsplashes near sinks and dishwashers as well as full bathroom walls in the tub or shower enclosure. Backerboard is impervious to water and prevents the substrate from deteriorating.
For outdoor kitchens, pool surroundings or any tile being set on an exterior surface, backerboard is mandatory. It will withstand moisture, temperature changes, and natural movement better than wood or drywall.
Backerboard can also be installed under tile for flooring applications. This is often required for the subflooring in bathrooms, laundry rooms, and other wet areas. Backerboard improves crack resistance on floors.
Large Tile or Stone
Larger format tiles or natural stone with irregular backs require a perfectly flat and rigid surface to adhere properly. Backerboard resists warping and provides extra grip, making it ideal for large tile installations.
Tile around a fireplace or woodstove must be heat and fire-resistant. Backerboard tolerates high temperatures better than combustible substrates. Use it when tiling fireplace surrounds for safety.
When is Backerboard NOT Necessary?
There are some cases when backerboard does not need to be used under tile:
- Over existing tile, brick, concrete, or masonry – These surfaces are already suitable for tiling over.
- Wood countertops – Plywood or OSB provide adequate support for most tile backsplashes.
- Small mosaic tiles – Tiny tiles adhere fine to painted drywall.
- Low-moisture indoor walls – Vinyl tile backsplashes with waterproof adhesive may be OK over drywall.
So in summary, any wet area, exterior surface, floor, or large format tile should have backerboard installed prior to tiling. For indoor dry walls using tiny mosaic tiles, backerboard may not be required.
How to Install Backerboard for Tile Backsplash
Installing backerboard properly is key to getting great results with your tile backsplash. Here are some tips:
- Choose 1/2 inch backerboard for walls and floors. Screw off every 8 inches across the entire surface.
- Tape and mud seams between boards using alkali-resistant fiberglass mesh tape and thinset mortar. This stabilizes the joints.
- Make sure boards are level and flush. Improper installation can cause cracks.
- Stagger boards similarly to drywall to strengthen the surface.
- Seal and prime backerboard before tiling, especially in wet areas. This prevents moisture damage.
- Use unmodified thinset to attach tile directly to the backerboard.
With proper installation techniques, backerboard creates the ideal substrate for long-lasting tile backsplashes.
Advantages of Using Backerboard
There are many benefits to using quality backerboard for your tile backsplash project:
- Provides a waterproof base for wet areas
- Prevents cracks from telegraphing through the tile
- Stiff surface resists warping or movement
- Suitable for exterior and floor tile applications
- Withstands high temperatures around stoves
- Allows for large format tiles and heavier stone
- Long lasting and durable, outlasting the tile lifetime
By providing a stable and rigid layer that bonds well with tile adhesives, backerboard enables tile installations over problematic substrates and in demanding situations. This gives peace of mind that your backsplash will have quality, lasting results.
Disadvantages of Backerboard
While backerboard has many advantages, there are also some potential drawbacks:
- More expensive than drywall alone
- Heavier and more difficult to cut and install than drywall
- Can be prone to damage from improper handling and storage
- Joints between boards must be taped and mudded well
- Requires careful installation to get flat and smooth results
Even with these disadvantages, the pros of backerboard often outweigh the cons for critical tile applications. Taking care to install it correctly minimizes issues with unevenness or cracking down the road.
Tile Backsplash Alternatives to Backerboard
If you decide backerboard may be overkill for your particular tile backsplash, here are a few alternative options:
- Cement Board Coated Drywall – Combine a drywall surface with backerboard protection.
- Water Resistant Drywall – Special drywall designed for moisture areas may work for some backsplash locations.
- Acrylic Wall Panels – Waterproof acrylic sheets install over existing walls as a backsplash.
- Laminate Paneling – Temporary stick-on panels create a backsplash look without tile.
- Painted Drywall – Use a mold-resistant primer and paint to protect walls.
However, these backsplash alternatives have limitations on use and durability. For a permanent solution, backerboard remains the top choice.
Can You Tile Directly Over Drywall?
It is generally not advisable to install tile directly over drywall alone. While it may seem like an easier and cheaper option, tiling over only drywall carries some risks:
- Drywall paper can deteriorate over time, causing adhesion loss
- Moisture from the thinset can soak into drywall and cause swelling or warping
- Cracks are likely to occur and show through the tiles
- Drywall lacks rigidity and may sag, causing grout and tile to crack
- Drywall alone cannot support heavy stone or larger format tiles
Tile adheres best to a secure and inflexible surface. Although you may initially save on backerboard costs, chances are your drywall-only backsplash won’t last and will need repairs down the road. Investing in proper backerboard installation is worth it for a backsplash designed to endure.
Installing backerboard as an underlayment for tile backsplash provides critical added support, especially in wet or heavy use areas. While not always mandatory, backerboard offers moisture protection, crack resistance, and improved adhesive capability for the tile above. Taking the effort to properly prepare walls with quality backerboard will lead to a finished backsplash with extended beauty and performance. With the right substrate in place, you can feel confident your new tile backsplash will withstand the test of time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does backerboard need to be sealed before tiling?
Sealing backerboard is recommended, especially for wet area installations. This waterproofs the surface and prevents moisture absorption that could compromise tile adhesion. Use a tile-specific sealer or waterproof membrane.
What thickness of backerboard should be used?
For walls and countertops, 1/4 or 1/2 inch backerboard is best. Use 1/2 inch panels for floor installations. Thicker boards provide maximum rigidity and support.
Is backerboard waterproof?
While backerboard resists moisture well, it is not completely waterproof like a surface membrane. Applying a sealer improves water resistance. Its impervious nature still makes it ideal for wet area backsplashes.
Can backerboard get wet before tiling?
Avoid allowing backerboard to get soaked before waterproofing and tiling. Some moisture exposure won’t damage backerboard, but saturated boards can weaken and compromise adhesive bond.
Does backerboard need to be primed before painting?
Most backerboards require priming with a masonry primer before painting. This allows paint to properly adhere to the cementitious surface. Consult individual product instructions.
Can backerboard be used on shower walls?
Yes, backerboard is the recommended substrate for shower walls under tile or waterproof membranes. Its moisture resistance makes it suitable for direct wet contact in bathrooms.