If you’re thinking of building a wooden deck this summer, you may have noticed that choosing decking materials has become more difficult than ever. Just a few years ago the only option was wood, which came in maybe two or three species. Today, there are dozens of different decking materials available, including composite wood, plastic decking, and hardwood imports.
So, before breaking ground on your new deck, let’s take a closer look at the basic types of decking, each with its aesthetics, maintenance requirements, and price range.
This ubiquitous green wood is the #1 selling decking material today when you consider that pressure-treated (PT) decking is inexpensive, relatively durable, readily available from coast to coast, and easy to stain. Not surprising. Almost any color.
Most PT decking is milled from southern yellow pine, and then chemically treated to resist rot, fungus, and wood-boring insects. The two most common sizes of PT decking are 2x6s (90 cents per linear foot) and 5/4 x 6-in. Planks ($1 per linear foot). Occasionally 2x4s (65 cents per linear foot) are used, but usually only on smaller decks.
The downside of PT lumber is that it is not very dimensionally stable, meaning it tends to swell, shrink, crack, cup, split and warp when exposed to the elements. It is not uncommon for one or more deck boards to need replacing after only a year or two due to severe warping.
PT decking also requires more maintenance than other decking materials. To prolong the life and look of a deck, it needs annual power washing and then a new coat of exterior grade stain or clear wood preservative every two or three years. PT decking may be chemically treated but this does not mean it is maintenance-free.
Naturally superior: redwood and cedar
The next most popular wood decking options are redwood and western red cedar. Both of these western softwoods are loved for their rich color, and natural beauty, and because they are not loaded with chemicals or preservatives. Both wood species contain tannins and oils that make them naturally resistant to decay, rot, and eating insects.
When considering any of these decking options, keep in mind that the level of weathering and bug resistance is directly related to the amount of heartwood in the boards. The heartwood grows near the center of the tree and is relatively hard and very resistant to decay. Sapwood grows on the outside of the tree, close to the bark, and is softer and more susceptible to decay. Your lumber dealer will be able to recommend the best grade of wood to use for decking, but here are some suggestions:
Both Construction Common and Deck Common grades of redwood decking are bonded to sapwood and have knots. A more popular choice, however, is B-grade redwood, which is nearly knot-free and contains mostly heartwood. For decking that is 100 percent heartwood, consider construction heart redwood.
The best grades of red cedar decking are (listed from most expensive and clear, to least expensive and most knotty): Architect Clear, Custom Clear, Architect Knotty, and Custom Knotty. Most lumber yards don’t have more than one or two grades of cedar or redwood, but they can usually specialrequires order to fit your needs.
In most areas of the country, redwood and cedar cost three to five times more than pressure-treated lumber, depending on the grade. However, both species are considerably less expensive on the West Coast, particularly in California and the upper Northwest.
Both redwood and cedar decking requires annual power washing and a coat of finishing every three to four years. A clear wood preservative that contains a water repellent will help protect the wood surface from weathering and reduce checking (fine splitting). However, a clear finish will not prevent redwood or cedar from eventually turning silvery gray. If you want to preserve the natural color of the wood, you should apply a semi-transparent stain that is specially colored and formulated for use on cedar or redwood.
Foreign Imports: Tropical hardwoods
Decking made from tropical hardwood trees began to hit the market about 20 years ago. Now, several species are available from coast to coast, including garpa, masaranduba, kumara, red toward, tigerwood, and ipe. These rich-grained woods are extremely hard, very durable, and naturally resistant to rot and insects. They are so dense, that it is virtually impossible to penetrate the board without first boring a pilot hole, which is why tropical decking is usually secured with hidden fasteners that are clipped to the edge of the board or Screwed.
When first introduced, tropical hardwoods were extremely expensive, but prices have come down over time and in most parts of the country they are slightly more expensive than fine-grade redwood or cedar. The most common throughout the tropics is ipe (EE-pay), sometimes called ironwood or Brazilian walnut. It is a beautiful wood similar to mahogany, but darker in color, and more fertile. Expect to pay about $5 per linear foot for 5/4 x 6-inch ipe decking.
Tropical hardwood decking is so dense that it does not accept stains well. And if left unfinished, it will turn into a silvery patina. If you choose not to stain the deck, be sure to apply a UV-blocking clear wood preservative every two to three years to increase water resistance and prevent checking.
If you want to stain the decking to preserve its natural color, it is important to use a penetrating stain that is specifically formulated for use on hardwood decking, such as Messmer’s UV Plus. Finish. Most standard deck stains are for softwood decking.
Finally, when buying tropical lumber—or any lumber for that matter—check with your lumber dealer to make sure the lumber is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization that certifies that lumber. Identifies what has been legally, and sustainably harvested.
Improved Board: Composites
Composite decking and its close cousin, PVC decking, represent the fastest growing decking materials sold today. Composite decking is made from a mixture of recycled plastic and wood dust that is molded into long, thick planks. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) decking, also known as synthetic decking, is made of 100 percent plastic. There are no wood binders.
Composite and PVC decking are popular because they are virtually maintenance-free. Both types are extremely weather resistant, easy to clean, and will never crack, stem cup, or rot. And they don’t require sanding or staining. They are available in a variety of colors and each has a wood grain texture that looks like natural wood from a distance. Although many homeowners think that composites do a better job of mimicking real wood than PVC. But PVC decking is lighter than composite decking, so it’s easier to transport and lift into place. And it’s worth noting that most composite decking and plastic decking manufacturers also offer a line of matching handrails, balusters, and fascias.
Wood composite decking costs two to three times more than pressure-treated wood, and PVC decking runs 10 to 15 percent more than wood composite.
Composite decking brands include Trex, Fiberon, and Veranda. PVC decking manufacturers include TimberTech Azek, Zuri, and Vekadeck.
Stay Cool Option: Aluminum
Chances are you’ve never seen an aluminum deck, or even know it exists, but in some ways, aluminum is a near-perfect decking material: it rots, rusts, warps, Won’t crease, crack or check, and it’s extremely weather-, mold- and slip-resistant. Its powder-coated finish lasts practically forever and will never peel or blister. Aluminum doesn’t catch fire, wood-boring bugs hate it, and it’s 100 percent recyclable.
When compared with wood, composite, and plastic wood, aluminum decking is three to four times lighter, yet two to three times stronger. It can be cut with the same saws and carbide-tipped blades used to cut wood. And don’t worry about your deck looking like high school bleachers. Most aluminum decking comes in a variety of wood grain finishes and colors.
Most aluminum decking planks have interlocking edges, creating a gap-free, watertight deck. Built-in, self-draining channels collect and dispose of rainwater, a feature especially useful for second-story decks because the space below stays dry. Aluminum decking is available from companies such as Lock Dry, VersaDeck, and NextDeck.
Now you’re probably wondering: doesn’t aluminum get hot in the sun? Interestingly, aluminum decking stays cooler than most types of decking because of its superior heat dissipation properties. Dense materials, such as wood and composites, tend to absorb and retain heat for long periods, creating hot surfaces.
But aluminum is the most expensive of all decking options, typically costing about $10 per linear foot for 1 x 6-in. The Board