To Back-Butter or Not Back-Butter, That is the Question

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Shakespeare said it a little different in the opening of Hamlet, but if he was talking about the concept of back-buttering tile, he may of stated it as above.

Back-buttering tile may not have been an issue in his day, but it’s still debated among seasoned tile setters in 2013.

Answering the Back-Butter Question

Back Butter Tile

To educate or refresh what is meant by “back-buttering”: The phase back-buttering describes the process of applying a thin layer of thinset adhesive to the back of the tiles using the flat side of the trowel. This is done in an attempt to provide as close to 100% coverage of the setting mortar to the tile just prior to setting it into the combed thinset that has been applied to the substrate surface. The objective here is clear – set the tiles in such a way as to reduce the possibility of failure. Many factors must be taken into account in every tiling situation and no two installations are exactly the same.

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The folks in the tile industry have provided us with many exciting choices. Many of the tiles are large format tile. The Tile Council of North America (TCNA) and the National Tile Contractor’s Association (NTCA) describe large format tiles as “any tile measuring 15 inches or more on any one side.” With these types of tiles it’s VERY important to apply enough supporting adhesive under them. One of the best ways to ensure the proper amount – and coverage – to these tiles is by back-buttering them. All natural stone products also need to be back-buttered. Travertine, marble, granite, slate, etc., are natural materials. Many have voids in the reverse side. By back-buttering these types of tiles the installer is filling in the voids giving additional strength to the weaker areas. This is again done in the attempt to achieve the original goal, “Set the tiles in such a way to reduce the possibility of failure.”

I think by now you have figured out which side of the fence I have landed on. I can’t see why an installer wouldn’t back-butter every tile installed.  If you want a more scientific analysis of whether you not you should back-butter, check out the video below.

How to Back-Butter like a Pro

As a seasoned tiler who does back-butter, I have experienced the many difficulties associated with traditional back-buttering techniques, including arm fatigue and occasionally dropping tiles while trying to back-butter. I found that these problems can be solved by using “The Back-Butter Buddy.” Tiles can be stacked safely and securely onto the tool and with a simple spinning action, thinset can by applied to the tiles. Click here to learn more about this brand new product and watch it in action!

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Profile photo of Phil Green

Phil Green is the owner and hands on at PGC Construction Remodeling and Design for over 32 years. Phil has been able to hone his skills in all facets of the remodeling industry. Specializing in kitchen and bath remodels...Read more

15 comments on “To Back-Butter or Not Back-Butter, That is the Question

  1. Profile photo of Brad

    I’m a back-buttering fan. I find it gives the tiles a much better foundation and there’s usually less chance they’ll get worked loose. Fingers crossed!

  2. Profile photo of Phil Green
    Phil Green Post author

    Yes Rob, you were taught right! Many tile setters and homeowners that set tile don’t know how important this is.Newer tiles are the same extremely hard, durable,non-absorbent material all the way through.This means that the thin set will not adhere completely if the tiles are just plopped into place.

  3. Profile photo of Darryl

    I agree with the back-buttering, it’s one of those corners that sometimes gets cut in the name of time, effort or extra material, but it definitely makes the difference in doing a good quality job for the customer.

  4. Profile photo of Tom

    I believe in back-buttering as well. You use more mortar but you don’t have to worry about the tile coming loose because of inefficient contact. The back-butter buddy could also be called a back-saver buddy; balancing tiles while on your knees give me a pain.

  5. Alicia

    Thanks for explaining and giving concrete evidence as to why I should back-butter tile. I’m going to be installing floor tile in my art studio and I wanted to be sure I was doing the best possible job to lay a beautiful floor that lasts.

  6. Profile photo of Sergey

    Phil, to be honest I never heard of “back-buttering” until i read your article. Now, once I am familiar with the term and technique, I clearly understand the benefits of “back-buttering”. Although it is more labor-consuming, “back-buttering” provides a much greater degree of support, especially for large and heavy tiles. Thanks for sharing.

  7. rick d

    i’ve been tiling for 20 years. back/butter is the trick with large tiles. the bond is unbelievable. if a contractor is doing your job ask him if he back/butters the large tiles. if he say’s no, look for another guy

  8. Andrew Mishura

    Thank you for making the effort to produce and share this compelling experiment. Just in time for me as I am planning to start tiling soon on a project for which I require a very high standard of quality.

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