Tileboard is sheet-good material that looks like ceramic or porcelain tile from a distance, but it is nothing like real tile. Although similar to the cheap, grooved paneling that was commonly used in recreation rooms and basement remodels in the 1970s, tileboard is made primarily of compressed wood fibers, which are then embossed with grooves to simulate the appearance of tile grout lines. The sheets are then covered with a thin layer of melamine plastic that has a small degree of water resistance. Because of this melamine layer, tileboard is often advertised as a material for bathrooms, even for tub alcoves and showers. But this material is by no means waterproof. Any moisture that reaches the fiber core will make the core swell and bubble, and the damage cannot be fixed.
These performance problems have caused tileboard to fade in popularity, replaced by other materials, such as FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) panels or self-adhesive mosaic tiles.
Tileboard is still used by landlords and low-quality builders as a cheap way to give the appearance of tile without the high costs associated with actual tile work. Homeowners rarely use tileboard in master bathrooms or kitchens, preferring to use it in less visible and drier places, like half-baths, powder rooms, kitchenettes, and laundry rooms. It can also be used in places that have zero moisture, such as workshops, home gyms, children's rooms, home offices, and hobby rooms.
Tileboard Is NOT Tile Backer Board
Tileboard should not be confused with tile backer, also known as cement board or cementitious backer unit (CBU). Tile backer is used under tile flooring and in tile showers or bathtub areas to prevent damage to the tile installation if moisture gets behind the tile.
The tile-look panels included in some shower and tub surround kits are sometimes referred to as tileboard, but there is a critical difference between shower panels and true tileboard. Like tileboard, shower panels can have a top surface pressed with faux grout lines to look like real tile. However, shower panels are made of solid acrylic or fiberglass that runs all the way through the material. There is no fiberboard core, and shower panels are essentially waterproof from front to back.
Looks like real tile from a distance
Easy to clean
Easily damaged by water
Difficult to find
Lowers real estate value
Low cost is the only true benefit to tileboard. With costs ranging from $20 to $25 for a 4 x 8 sheet, this material costs less than $1 per square foot. This makes it far less expensive than ceramic tile, which rarely costs less than about $5 per square foot after all materials are included. And since tileboard is generally installed as a DIY project, professional labor costs usually don't need to be considered.
Maintenance and Repair
The plastic melamine surface on tileboard makes it easy to wipe clean with a damp cloth. But should the thin surface layer get damaged so that the fiberboard core is exposed, moisture can penetrate the fiberboard, causing it to swell. Once damage becomes severe, the only solution is to remove the tileboard or cover it over with an additional layer.
Tileboard is widely recognized as an inexpensive, low-end product, and it should be used in areas where that reputation is not a drawback. Tileboard used in a laundry room or as wainscoting in a utility room will not raise eyebrows, but installing it in a master bathroom or even a regularly used guest bathroom may lower the real estate value of your home. If you are prepping a home for sale, tileboard is an improvement over bare walls, but it is less appealing than almost any other wall covering.
If you are using it in a bathroom, tileboard should be applied only to dry surfaces. Never used tileboard as a wall surface in showers or tub surround areas. The melamine surface is easy to clean and will not be damaged by humidity or an occasional splash of water.
Along with its low cost, the other advantage of tileboard is its ease of installation. Tileboard is sold in convenient 4 x 8-foot panels, and it can be cut to fit using any ordinary saw. Essentially, tileboard is simply glued down over a flat surface, using panel adhesive spread over the back of the tileboard panel with a notched trowel. The panel is pressed onto the wall, leaving small expansion gaps along the edges. After the adhesive cures, the gaps between panels and at the outer edges are filled with caulk. Molding or other decorative trim finishes the installation.
Tileboard is a very thin material, ranging from 1/8 inch to 3/16 inch in thickness. As a result, it has nearly zero structural value—unlike drywall, which does lend structural reinforcement to a wall. While it is not suitable for covering loose or cracking tile or plaster, you can use tileboard to cover up minor drywall imperfections. In any case, this product is best installed over a flat wall finish, like drywall, plaster, or old paneling. It should never be installed directly over studs or furring strips. Nor should you install tileboard directly over masonry (concrete, brick, concrete block) because moisture can seep through masonry and damage the tileboard or support mold growth.
Top Brands of Tileboard
These are the major manufacturers of tileboard available in North America:
- Eucatex: Based in Georgia, this company makes a variety of panel goods, including Eucatile, a classic tileboard using a fiberboard core. It supplies products to many home improvement centers.
- DPI (Decorative Panel International): This company makes a variety of inexpensive wall panels, consisting of fiberboard panels faced with a decorative melamine surface. Their products are sold at home improvement centers.
Tileboard vs. FRP Panels
Once commonly sold at home improvement centers, tileboard has been largely replaced by FRP panels as a favorite low-cost panel material. FRP panels are similar to tileboard in appearance, but they use fiberglass reinforced plastic or polymers, not wood fibers, to create a building material sheet that has better strength and water resistance than tileboard. FRP panels are available with simulated tile grout lines, and also with a variety of other surface textures.
While tileboard is still available in limited styles, FRP panels are now much more popular at home improvement centers. They are, however, more expensive than tileboard, with costs of $30 to $100 per 4 x 8-foot sheet. FRP panels are by no means a substitute for real ceramic tile, but they are a better-looking and better-performing product than tileboard, if your budget allows it.
Is Tileboard Right for You?
The reality is that other than the very low cost and easy installation, tileboard panels have few true advantages. Made with wood fibers, these panels have poor water resistance and visually won't fool anyone. If you can afford a better material, like FRP panels or economy ceramic tile, those are better choices. But if you are on a very tight budget, tileboard offers a way to finish your walls with a look that resembles ceramic tile for a very low price.