Do You Need Cement Board for Backsplash? The Complete Guide

What is Cement Board?

Cement board, also known as fiber cement board or fiber reinforced concrete, is a durable building material commonly used as an underlayment for tiles. It consists of sand, cement and cellulose fibers that provide strength and stability.

Compared to drywall, cement board is highly water-resistant and designed not to warp or crumble when exposed to moisture over time. This makes it an ideal substrate for wet areas like bathrooms and kitchens. It provides a sturdy base that can withstand prolonged direct water contact.

Benefits of Using Cement Board for Backsplashes

Here are some of the key advantages of using cement board for backsplash installations:

Superior moisture resistance

Cement board will not deteriorate or promote mold growth when exposed to moisture. Drywall contains paper facing that can become soggy when wet.

Prevents cracks and delamination

The reinforced concrete construction resists cracking and delamination, providing long-lasting stability for tile. This prevents cracked grout lines or loose tiles over time.

Adds rigidity

Cement board offers enhanced sturdiness and rigidity compared to drywall. This provides better support for heavier tile materials like natural stone.

Allows thinset mortar application

Cement board offers a suitable substrate for applying thinset mortar used to adhere tile. Drywall facing paper can react with thinset and cause adhesion problems.

Fire resistance

Cement board is non-combustible and fire-resistant, making it safer than drywall in the kitchen environment.

When is Cement Board Required for Backsplashes?

Most building codes and tile manufacturer instructions specify cement board for backsplash installations in the following wet areas:

  • Behind the kitchen sink
  • Above the cooktop or range
  • Near dishwashers and refrigerators with ice makers
  • When using natural stone tiles
  • Any area prone to moisture exposure

Tile Council of North America (TCNA) guidelines state that cement board should be used for backsplashes in areas exposed to moisture. Many tile manufacturers will also void warranties if the tile is not installed over cement board in wet areas.

Can You Use Drywall for Kitchen Backsplashes?

Drywall can technically be used for some backsplash installations, as long as the area will not be directly exposed to moisture. However, cement board is the preferred substrate. Here are some pros and cons of using drywall:


  • Less expensive than cement board
  • Easier to cut and install for DIY projects


  • Not moisture or mold resistant
  • Vulnerable to damage from humidity and steam
  • Can deteriorate and cause adhesion issues over time
  • Provides less stability for tile materials

If you do opt to use drywall, apply a waterproof membrane or vapor barrier over the drywall before tiling. This will help protect it from moisture penetration. However, cement board is still a better choice for kitchen backsplash applications.

How to Install Cement Board for Backsplashes

Installing cement board involves just a few simple steps. Be sure to follow all manufacturer instructions for proper installation:

Step 1: Cut cement board to size

Use a utility knife or specialty shears to cut pieces to fit your backsplash area. The rough texture will require more effort to cut than drywall. Use straight edges for clean cuts.

Step 2: Fasten the cement board in place

Screw the cement board securely to the wall studs, placing screws at least 1⁄4 inch from board edges and no more than 8 inches apart across the panel. Use corrosion-resistant backerboard screws.

Step 3: Tape joints

Seal all joints with fiberglass mesh tape. Embed the tape in a thin layer of thinset mortar to create a waterproof joint.

Step 4: Seal penetrations

Seal any gaps, corners, and penetrations with silicone or thinset mortar to prevent moisture access.

Step 5: Apply vapor barrier (optional)

For extra moisture protection, apply a vapor barrier membrane over the cement board surface.

Step 6: Apply thinset and tile

Spread thinset mortar evenly across the cement board with a notched trowel. Firmly press tiles into place, applying pressure to create a strong bond.

And that’s it! The cement board provides a stable, moisture-resistant surface for a long-lasting backsplash.

Cement Board vs. Fiberglass Mesh Tape

For taping cement board joints, you have two options – standard paper joint tape or alkali-resistant fiberglass mesh tape. Fiberglass mesh tape is the preferred method for cement board. Here’s why:

  • Fiberglass mesh won’t deteriorate from moisture exposure. Paper tape can disintegrate.
  • Mesh allows for greater thinset contact, creating a stronger bond and waterproof seal.
  • Alkali-resistance prevents degradation from cement minerals.
  • Fibers provide more strength and stability to joints.

Paper joint tape can still be used for cement board, but fiberglass mesh delivers superior performance and durability.

Cement Board Backsplash Cost

What’s the cost for a cement board backsplash? Here are the typical price ranges for materials and installation:

  • Cement board: $8 – $12 per square foot
  • Thinset mortar: $5 – $15 per bag
  • Tile: $5 – $50 per square foot
  • Labor: $5 – $15 per square foot

A typical 10 – 15 square foot backsplash will cost $200 – $700 installed. Using a decorative or natural stone tile will increase costs. Labor prices also vary based on your location.

Maintaining and Cleaning a Cement Board Backsplash

Cement board is highly durable, but proper care is still required:

  • Use pH-neutral cleaners only. Avoid acidic cleaners.
  • Seal grout and tile with an appropriate sealer.
  • Immediately dry any water spills to prevent moisture damage.
  • Re-apply sealers and caulk joints on a regular basis.
  • Check for any cracks in grout lines or tile. Re-grout or replace tile as needed.

With proper installation and care, a cement board backsplash will last for many years of beauty and quality performance.

Do You Need Cement Board for Backsplash: The Bottom Line

While cement board may not be an absolute requirement for every backsplash, it provides significant advantages that make it the preferred substrate in kitchens and bathrooms. Its moisture resistance, durability, and stability deliver lasting performance that drywall cannot match. Following building code guidelines and tile manufacturer instructions for proper installation is always recommended. Although it requires more effort to install, a cement board backsplash is worth the investment in quality and safety.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I install tile directly onto drywall?

Tile should never be installed directly onto regular drywall, especially in wet areas. At minimum, a waterproof membrane or vapor barrier should be applied over the drywall before tiling. Cement backerboard is better.

What can I use instead of cement board?

Fiber-cement, MR board, and denshield tile backer are all suitable cement board alternatives. Some moisture-resistant drywall products may also be acceptable if installed with a vapor barrier. Always check manufacturer guidelines.

How do you waterproof cement board?

You can waterproof cement board by applying a liquid-applied waterproofing membrane, such as RedGard, over the surface prior to tiling. Use fiberglass mesh tape on all seams.

Can cement board get wet before tiling?

It’s best to keep cement board dry before tiling. However, brief moisture exposure will not damage the cement board prior to waterproofing and tiling. Take steps to keep it dry if possible.

How long does cement board last?

With proper installation and care, the reinforced concrete construction of cement board can last 50 years or longer before needing replacement.