In this article we will discuss and describe the four main types of Backer Boards for walls that can be used in bathroom shower and other wet areas. For each type we will also propose and describe a couple of trusted and quality brands of backer board products.
This inexpensive and innovative building material not only helps homeowners achieve a longer lasting and more durable bond between tile and the area destined to host the tile (e.g., showers, floors, countertops) but it’s inexpensive and speeds up the install process.
Further, most types of wall tile backer board products have drywall-like paper backing for a smoother surface.
Use any type of backer board for your job and you will reduce the chance of rot developing, say construction pros who applaud the diverse types of backer board on today’s market.
Table of Contents
- Characteristics of Backer Boards
- Type 1: Foam Backer Board
- Type 2: Glass Mat Gypsum Board
- Type 3: Cement Board
- Type 4: Fiber Cement Board
- Why a Backer Board is Essential for Tiling Jobs in Bathroom?
- Which is Better: Durock Cement Board or Hardibacker?
- What thickness of backer board should I use for walls in bathroom?
- Can I put Tile Directly on Drywall?
- Difference Between Cement Backer Board and Glass Mat Gypsum
Characteristics of Backer Boards
This prefabricated building material, available most commonly in 1/2-inch thick (for walls) and 3 feet by 5 feet lengths, is usually a mixture of cement, water, silica, limestone flour, and Kevlar or fiberglass fibers that contribute to this product’s strength.
Ofcourse, different brands and types will have slightly different material in them.
Easily cut with a saw or multi-tool, backer board may also be called “a cementitious backer unit or CBU.”
Mortar, grout and thinset adhere to it strongly because it is porous.
When installing, these boards are nailed or screwed into wall studs, though cinderblock, mortar and concrete can also host backerboard as an intermediary between walls and tiles.
Let’s now examine the best Backer Board types and brands for shower walls:
Type 1: Foam Backer Board
Because contractors are constantly on the lookout for materials offering reductions in cost and time, foam tile backer board was introduced to the construction industry as a strong, durable alternative that won’t necessarily require the installation of additional sheet or liquid waterproofing membranes.
For solo contractors, foam tile backer boards have the advantage of being so lightweight, no crew is needed for an install.
Foam continues to be a favorite of contractors because this prefabricated option has become a handy resource readily available and produced by myriad manufacturers.
“Heightened awareness of mold-related health problems, and a need for increased productivity at the jobsite, lightweight and waterproof foam tile backer boards are serving as a well-suited solution for projects in the U.S. and Canada,” notes Duane Paradis writing for the industry publication, “Tile Magazine”.
Let’s now see some trusted brands of Foam Backer Boards:
1) Wedi Board
This wall foam board is constructed with a signature blue core that’s crafted of extruded polystyrene rigid foam that is CFC-free and provides an ideal base for tiling.
It’s waterproof, light, stable, heat insulating and features a ceramic covering for a tighter bond. The blue XPS core will continue to serve a protective function even if it becomes damaged, thus additional waterproofing materials needn’t be used to protect tiles.
Use Wedi Board products and walls will be protected against mold and because this product has insulating properties, homeowners can expect energy savings, too.
2) Kerdi Board
Marketed as a “waterproof, multifunctional tile substrate and building panel,” Kerdi Board offers multiple applications, providing a tile-ready base for “showers, bathtub surrounds and platforms, countertops, vanities, shelving, and more.”
Crafted of extruded polystyrene foam, a fleece webbing bonds tile tightly to surfaces. This product fosters creativity and serves as a durable replacement for other solid-backing materials.
It is rigid, smooth and impact resistant, waterproof, stable and offers thermal insulating protection.
Further, contractors say that it’s not only lightweight and easy to transport and handle but since the material makeup of Kerdi Board contains no cement or fiberglass, installers enjoy the added benefit of dust-free installation.
Manufactured by industry stalwart Johns Manville, this durable and waterproof product weighs up to 85-percent less than traditional cement board which allows contractors to speed up project time because in most cases, same-day tiling is likely to occur.
Engineered and tested for strength before being brought to market, all it takes is a standard utility knife to cut GoBoards to size at the construction site and contractors appreciate the fact that there’s minimal dust dispersion when undertaking this task.
Anticipate reduced installation time since waterproofing elements have been added to these Polyiso foam boards at the time of manufacture, another reason contractors “go” for this wall tile backer board brand.
Type 2: Glass Mat Gypsum Board
According to the Master Painters Institute (MPI), glass mat gypsum board makes a great alternative to foam because it’s non-combustible.
This material is composed of moisture-resistant fiberglass reinforced gypsum that is coated with material that meets and often exceeds the highest ASTM standards.
Both moisture and mold-resistant, glass mat gypsum board usually costs more than foam, but it out-performs conventional paper-faced gypsum board by thwarting ambient humidity and standing moisture.
Further, it is “less susceptible to structural failure or delamination,” say experts. Once used for exterior sheathing, this product niche remains a preferred alternative for structures that can ill afford mold, which is why it’s used extensively in hospital walls where constant cleaning is required.
Further, it’s practical. This type of wall board is used for fast-track jobs, but it’s not perfect since it doesn’t allow painters seeking a smooth surface a finish that comes with paper cladding.
For those willing to deal with “a fuzzy, prickly fiberglass surface,” tile attachment may not be as easy as it would be using other types of wall tile backer board types.
Produced and marketed by another familiar household name, DensShield is a member of the Georgia Pacific building products family.
This backer board proclaims itself “The first backer board with a built-in moisture barrier.”
Originally made to protect sub-flooring, contractors discovered that this brand also did a fabulous job of preventing wall cavities from moisture that may seep through grouted tiles installed in bathrooms, pool areas and surfaces prone to being weakened by high humidity or direct contact with water.
One of DensShield’s selling points is that it’s easier to handle than cement board and the installation is identical to the one used to attach drywall.
DensShield can be painted, comes in standard sizes, including 5/8-inch, and it meets 2009 IBC/IRC Code standards for wet areas as well as being appropriate for fire-rated walls.
Further, DensShield scores a 10 (highest level of performance) for mold resistance.
Considered a top pick of tile workers and building trade specialists, Durock is produced by another well-known company: USG.
This brand of wall tile backer board comes with plenty of bona fides, including a 20-year limited warranty and an ASTM D3273 mold resistance rating of 10, the highest possible number.
Lightweight, easy to score, snap and install, the company’s proprietary moisture- and mold-resistant substrate is at the heart of this product’s performance record and installers can expect exceptional tile bonding due to the external fiberglass coating encasing the water-resistant gypsum core.
USG stands behind a long reputation that began in 1902 when 20 companies launched the United States Gypsum Company that includes mines, quarries, and processing plants.
Inventors of Sheetrock panels in 1916, USG has become a standard in the building industry due to its superior products and long history.
Type 3: Cement Board
Cement board is said to be the most-often chosen type of backer board because it meets specifications contractors require when installing both ceramic and porcelain tile.
Primarily crafted of cement, this product is reinforced with fiberglass, which makes it an ideal pre-tile install around shower walls as well as being a good choice for exterior tile jobs.
Standard sizing for cement board products is between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thick, and boards typically measure 3-feet by 5-feet.
Mold- and mildew-resistant, cement board comes with this caveat: it is so heavy, it takes several people to move it and requires a carbide-tipped blade to make cuts.
This process creates a lot of dust, so protections to safeguard respiratory systems are also recommended.
Moreover, true cement board products are brittle and if you cut it into thin strips, they can easily break.
It won’t surprise you to learn that in addition to the glass mat gypsum tile backer board products, USG also sells cement-based backer board.
This strong, durable product meets a litany of requirements unique to cement board.
Durock Brand Cement Board is manufactured with mold growth prohibitors and each board features EdgeGuard™, a system that seals board edges, so spinout and crumbling are prevented.
Non-combustible and warranted for interior and exterior jobs, Durock Brand Cement Board is usually easy to cut and install, especially if you work with Durock™ Brand Tile Backer Screws, self-drilling fasteners or nails.
Reliable and meeting all industry standards, Durock brand cement board stands the test of time.
Do the terms lite and cement seem an unlikely pairing when used in the same sentence? Not if you’re considering Wonderboard Lite, produced by Custom Building Products.
Known to be more flexible than Durock, contractors prefer it when installing tile over curved walls, and it tackles the biggest reason contractors avoid cement board: weight.
It’s 20-percent lighter than competitive fiberglass mesh-reinforced cement backer boards and it’s ideal for projects that require an intermediary bonding agent before applying commercial tile, slate, and brick veneers.
Strong, moisture-resistant and having met ANSI performance standards, Wonderboard Lite surfaces are covered with pre-printed pattern that make it easy to get precise scoring, cutting, and snapping, so you could save time and frustration if you choose this material.
Type 4: Fiber Cement Board
One of the benefits of products that have been around long enough to develop a following and a history is that hybrids come along, especially within the construction material industry.
Fiber cement board is one of these innovations, according to DIY experts at the FamilyHandyman website.
This tile backer board variation is crafted of compressed cement, sand, and reinforced wood fibers, which makes these boards very dense.
As a result, you get a product that is less brittle compared to pure cement boards and has more structural integrity (you can cut it into thin strips without breaking). Moreover, Fiber Cement Boards are lighter and easer to handle than cement board.
Sold in 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thicknesses, be prepared for these product’s downsides (e.g can not be used outdoors) when you choose one and keep an eye on future iterations of fiber cement board that are likely to be forthcoming.
Calling its products “The most preferred brand of backer board” on the market, folks at James Hardie Industries are not shy about advertising results of ClearSeas Research study undertaken with the National Tile Contractors Association and TILE Magazine in 2019 in which contractors and tile installers say that Hardiebacker is the brand they would choose if given options.
Manufactured of 90-percent Portland cement and sand — but no loose filler or aggregate — Hardiebacker offers strength and flexility that’s hard to refute, delivering “up to 3X the compressive strength of competitive cement boards.”
Offering score-and-snap cutting that produces lines so clean it only takes 2- to 3-passes with a tool to produce easy-to-align edges, there’s less debris and dust when Hardiebacker is cut.
These boards are made with a patented MoldBlock additive that is proprietary and installers can expect excellent tile adhesion, too.
It stands to reason that this category of wall tile backer board would also be found within the USG library so if you favor this company, this hybrid could be your first choice.
Flexible, sturdy, and offering superior water resistance, this fiber-reinforced gypsum board features a solid core offering users “a uniquely uniform composition” despite an absence of paper facing.
As a result, Fiberock cladding maintains its integrity rather than tearing and scratching.
Environmentalists choose Fiberock because it’s made of 95-percent recycled and certified content, thus it’s the only backer board on our list that promotes sustainability.
Offering three times the industry standard for tile bonding, Fiberock is free of resins, solvents and adhesives, it’s made in the U.S.A., and according to USG, it’s “easy to cut, fasten and install,” offering a unique blend of attributes you may find irresistible.
Why a Backer Board is Essential for Tiling Jobs in Bathroom?
There are two main reasons backer board is used in place of drywall for tiling projects. First, the backer board is more robust and allows the tile to adhere with only a small layer of thinset mortar.
Thinset mortar is spread across the surface and the backside of the tile then the tile is gently pressed into the backer board.
If you were to use another material like drywall, it would likely fall apart due to the weight of the thinset mortar and tile itself. Since bathroom tile is typically much more extensive than tile used for kitchen backsplashes, it’s recommended to opt for backer board due to its enhanced durability.
Another reason backer board is critical for tiling projects in the bathroom is its moister resistance. Undoubtedly, a bathroom sees the most significant amount of moisture of any room in the house and must be designed to withstand damage from water.
Other materials like drywall do very poorly against moisture and can fall apart when exposed. For showers primarily, backer board is critical to prevent leaks and help contain water within the stall.
Which is Better: Durock Cement Board or Hardibacker?
While both Durock and Hardibacker are cement products, a few key differences set them apart.
Durock incorporates a type of glass mesh into the cement, which offers enhanced strength and minimal cracking that can last over two decades.
Durock is a product that can be used both inside and outside, making it a great solution that stands up to areas exposed to moisture. However, Durock is also heavy, more difficult to cut, and requires more clean-up.
Hardibacker is a mixture of cement and fiber, making it much lighter than Durock, easier to cut, and requires a minor clean-up afterward.
This material is only appropriate for indoor applications and is gentle enough for use with porcelain, vinyl, and enamel.
However, due to Hardibacker’s design, it doesn’t provide continued protection once exposed to moisture. Those who choose Hardibacker should also consider applying a waterproof sealant to help repel water.
What thickness of backer board should I use for walls in bathroom?
When shopping for backer board, you’ll notice options for either ½-inch or ¼-inch sheets. Its recommended you use ½-inch for walls you intend to tile.
The extra thickness provides a more stable and flat surface to adhere tile on the backer board. The added thickness also creates a sturdier base, especially when spanning gaps between studs.
Considering a bathroom tiling project isn’t cheap, many homeowners opt for thicker backer boards for peace of mind and long-term durability.
Can I put Tile Directly on Drywall?
In some situations, you can tile directly on drywall; however, the areas in the home you would typically use tile like the bathroom and kitchen wouldn’t be advisable.
Drywall does not stand up to moisture and falls apart when wet. Since drywall is gypsum sandwiched between thin connecting paper, once the outer paper gets wet, it seeps into the gypsum causing catastrophic results. In rooms like the kitchen and bathroom, steam from cooking or a hot shower could have your new tile sliding off the wall.
Another issue with tiling over drywall is that it can quickly develop mold and other harmful bacteria even if it doesn’t fall apart when exposed to moisture.
Water can then spread from the drywall to the framing behind, eventually creating a toxic environment and a weakening of the overall structure of the wall. Water damage will continue wreaking havoc behind the walls unless the problem is identified and can be extremely costly to repair.
Difference Between Cement Backer Board and Glass Mat Gypsum
Glass mat gypsum boards are constructed from moisture-resistant silicone-treated gypsum material. The outer layers are made with fiberglass mats for a great solution to help waterproof bathrooms.
Due to its design, glass mat gypsum is often easier to work with than cement backer board in terms of cutting and installation. With a built-in moisture barrier, glass mat gypsum provides resistance to mold and is favored by some contractors due to cost savings versus other materials.
On the other hand, Cement board is much easier to find, especially in the big box hardware stores, and is one of the least expensive options available. One of the main advantages of cement backer board is that its design prevents it from falling apart even if it’s exposed to moisture.
Many homeowners and contractors apply waterproofing material over the cement board as another layer of protection. Still, even if water penetrated the extra waterproofing layer, the cement board would retain its strength.
The disadvantage to cement board over glass mat gypsum is that it’s much heavier, more challenging to cut, and can damage tile material if you’re not careful.
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