Backer Board: What You Need To Know

Ceramic tile is attractive, durable and has quite a bit of personality. It’s perfect for hot, humid or even dry climates, resistant to all manner of precipitous weather phenomena, and is a timeless choice for décor as well. It’s perfect indoors and outdoors, scratch resistant and easy to keep clean thanks to its stain resistant abilities.

However, there’s a definite science to installing ceramic tile above and beyond just measurements, grout joint sizes, grout types and the variety of ceramic tile itself. Oh no, there’s an unsung hero when it comes to ceramic tile that most consumers don’t even know is there. In fact, if it’s applied correctly, the goal is to not notice it’s there in the first place.

What might this be, you ask? None other than backer board.

What the Heck is Backer Board?

If you hear the term “backer board” with little to no context, you probably imagine something used in walls, or the material behind cabinets or under counter tops. But, it’s actually not a board at all, and is used as additional support and leveling for ceramic tile. It’s a thin cement layer that pads the tile and bonds it to its underlying cement surface. Ever wonder what kept the tile firmly cemented in place, so it didn’t wobble, become uneven, or gradually come undone?

That would be backer board.

How Important is Backer Board?

Backer board isn’t just a good idea, it’s frankly a necessity for properly fixing ceramic tile in place. This produces a briefly fluid medium to bond to your plywood or cement subfloor which allows the tile to lay even and bond. Without proper leveling material like this, the tile will be loose, resulting in it coming free or chipping pretty quickly. This also puts strain on the grout, which brings about a host of other structural and aesthetic problems itself.

Backer board also allows the impact of weight and traffic to be evenly distributed across a single tile or multiple tiles, and absorb a lot of shock. Otherwise, the tile will crack and shatter, which of course makes nobody happy.

Lastly, it combats thermal expansion/contraction, which are things all materials in existence do. Heat causes materials to expand, and cold causes them to contract (water being the exception, expanding in both scenarios). Constant expanding and contracting to any serious extent will weaken the tile, causing it to break down, come loose and begin to crack and degrade quickly. Backer board helps to combat this by holding onto the tile, preventing its molecular structure from moving about in these conditions.

How Do I Apply Backer Board?

The short answer is generally that you shouldn’t do this yourself. Properly applying backer board is crucial to its function, and it’s something you can very easily get wrong. Professional tile contractors have a precise process for this as well as the appropriate tools. Like most construction, it’s actually equal parts art and science, and there’s a reason a good tile worker comes at something of a premium. This isn’t an easy thing to do, even if you use a solid tutorial online to do it.

However, as just stated, tile experts come at a premium, and it may be outside your budget. If you do, follow the instructions provided by the tile manufacturers, the tutorial authors, and try to get advice in person or online from experts in this field. If you get this wrong, it’s going to cost you more in the long run than you would spend having a trained professional do it right the first time around.

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