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 already have tileboard in a room, is it worth keeping the material or should you just rip it out? As with many other quick-fix home remodeling materials, tileboard is something you should thoroughly consider from all angles before you make a purchase. Despite its name, tileboard is not similar to tile and should not be used in many of the same applications, but it can be useful as an easy covering for walls in some areas.

What Is Tileboard?

Tileboard may look like ceramic or porcelain tile from a distance, but it is nothing like real tile. It is much more closely related to the cheap grooved paneling that was commonly used in rec rooms and basement remodels in the 1970s. But while most of that paneling was a plywood material, tileboard is primarily made of compressed wood fibers (often post-industrial recycled pine fiber). The fiberboard is embossed with grooves to give the appearance of tile's grout lines, and it is covered with water-resistant melamine plastic.

Because of the melamine layer, tileboard is often advertised as a material for bathrooms, even for tub alcoves and showers. But at best this material is water-resistant; it is not waterproof. Any moisture that reaches the fiber core will make the core swell and bubble, and the damage cannot be fixed.

Note that 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.

Where to Use Tileboard

Tileboard is often 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 vs. Shower Surrounds

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 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.

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 tile backer, thinset adhesive, grout, and grout sealer, all of which drive up the total project cost. In addtion, the cost of installing tileboard is about one-fourth the cost of installing true ceramic tile, and tileboard installs much more quickly.

Tileboard in Bathrooms

Given its potential vulnerability to moisture, tileboard is suitable for the dry areas of a bathroom. You might use it as a wainscot along the walls (not the tub or shower walls) or even as a backsplash behind the vanity countertop. The melamine surface is easy to clean and will not be damaged by humidity or the occasional splash of water. Wherever you use tileboard, make sure any edges that could get wet are properly sealed with silicone caulk.

Tileboard Is Decorative, Not Structural

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. While it is not suitable for covering loose or cracking tile or plaster, you can use it 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. It also cannot be installed directly over masonry (concrete, brick, concrete block) because moisture can seep through masonry and damage the tileboard or support mold growth.

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. Adhesive is spread onto the back of the tileboard panel, using a notched trowel. The tileboard is simply pressed onto the wall, leaving small expansion gaps along the edges of the panel. 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.