Is Tileboard a Good Substitute for Real Ceramic Tile?

Front view of a toilet in a neat bathroom
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Should you remodel your kitchen or bathroom with tileboard? If you have tileboard in a room, is it worth keeping the material or just ripping it out? As with many other quick-fix home remodeling materials, tileboard is something you should thoroughly consider from all angles before you make the purchase. In fact, unless you have bought an older house that needs remodeling, you may have never seen tileboard. Tileboard is rapidly becoming an endangered species due to some of its limitations. But in some rooms, it may have a place in your home.

What Is Tileboard?

Tileboard is not real ceramic or porcelain tile. Tileboard is pressed fiberboard, often composed of 100-percent post-industrial recycled pine fiber, with a hard melamine layer on top. Tileboard's melamine top is grooved to give the appearance of tile's grout lines.

Tileboard should not be confused with tile backer, also known as cement board or CBUs. Tile backer is a 100-percent mineral product and can safely come into contact with large amounts of water, such as found in showers or bathtubs.

Where to Use Tileboard

Tileboard is used by landlords and builders as a cheap way to give the appearance of tile, without incurring the high costs associated with actual tile work. 

Homeowners rarely use the tileboard in master bathrooms or kitchens, preferring to use it less visible and drier places, like downstairs baths, powder rooms, and kitchenettes. Better yet, install tileboard in places that have zero moisture, such as workshops, home gyms, children's rooms, home offices, and hobby rooms.

Tileboard vs. Shower Surrounds

A similar product, a shower and tub surround kit, is sometimes referred to as tileboard for showers. Usually available as three-panel kits, surrounds resemble tileboard in that they have a top surface pressed with faux grout lines to look like real ceramic or porcelain tile. Below that, though, tile and shower surrounds do not have a fiberboard base. Instead of layers, they are homogeneous, consisting of acrylic or fiberglass all the way through, from top to bottom. This is critical because the vast amount of water found in showers and baths would quickly find its way to a fiberboard base and ruin it.

Cost of Tileboard vs. Real Tile

One outstanding benefit of tileboard is its low cost. Even looking at just the cost of raw materials, tileboard is comparable to the price of cheap ceramic tile. But the savings go beyond that, since authentic ceramic tile has other associated costs such as thinset, grout, cement backer board, and grout sealer, all of which drive up the total project cost. Generally, the cost of installing tileboard will be about a quarter of the cost of installing true ceramic tile.

How Water Resistant Is Tileboard?

Tileboard belongs more in the decorative wall panel category than in anything even approaching tile. Decorative wall paneling is the industry's term for a type of thin wood paneling found in basements and mancaves. Because of the melamine top, tileboard is considered to be water resistant but not waterproof.

Tileboard Is Decorative, Not Structural

Tileboard is a very thin material, ranging from 1/8-inch to 3/16-inch. As a result, it has nearly zero structural value. Do not install tileboard over loose or cracking tile or plaster. Tileboard can be a good way to cover up minor drywall imperfections. In any case, this product is best installed over a flat, finish surface; it should never be installed directly over studs or furring strips. Doing so will result in unattractive lines showing through the thin material over time.

How to Install Tileboard

Along with its low cost, the other great thing about tileboard is ease of installation. Essentially, it glues down over a flat surface and the edges are sealed with silicone caulk or edging materials:

  1. Condition the tileboard in the room where you intend to install them for 48 hours.
  2. Ensure that you have solid, nearly flat gypsum drywall walls. Due to moisture-wicking, you cannot install tileboard straight onto any kind of masonry walls such as cinderblock or brick. For masonry, first install furring strips, then drywall, then the tileboard.
  3. Note the tileboard spacing. To avoid buckling of tileboard panels, leave a 3/16-inch gap between panels and a 1/16-inch gap between panel edges and an outer edge, such as a wall, floor, or molding.
  4. Adhere the tileboard to the walls with adhesive, not nails.
  5. Cover the tileboard seams and edges with silicone caulk.

Tileboard as an Eco-Friendly Product

Tileboard, being fiberboard, may contain many chemicals, including phenol, phenol resorcinol, formaldehyde-based melamine, or polyvinyl acetate.

It is important to balance this out with ceramic tile's environmental costs, as well, such as the massive amount of energy expended to heat the kilns. Not only that, the materials to create tile are mined from the earth.