Deck material – natural or man-made?
Choosing a decking material is the first and biggest decision to make. Natural (wood) materials are still very popular, but recently a variety of man-made materials have hit the market. Wood products generally cost less at the time of purchase, but they will always require maintenance through the years, which adds to the lifetime cost of a deck. Man-made materials can be virtually maintenance-free, but they’re more expensive at the time of purchase than wood products. Some man-made materials offer limited color options, so they may not offer the appeal of a beautiful wood deck.
On the other hand, plastic decks won’t warp or heave or buckle, they won’t splinter and they won’t rot. However, anyone planning a deck built of man-made materials should check to see if the builder plans to use wood for the framing underneath, or for details like rails and spindles. (None of the man-made materials we featured in our segment are designed to support the kind of loads that a deck frame must support, although they are definitely strong enough to serve as the “floor” surface on a deck). If so, these wood components will require the same kind of maintenance and upkeep as a deck made entirely of wood.
Treated Pine – the most economical wood, it comes in 2 grades
Cedar – a stronger wood, slightly more expensive than pine, very durable
Redwood – beautiful wood but rather expensive, softer than cedar
Every type of wood can be stained to almost any color, so consider the cost of the wood as much as the look of the untreated wood when you choose a decking material.
If you’re using pressure-treated wood on the deck surface or underneath for the frame, make sure you wait a few weeks so it’s good & dry before you stain or seal it. Pressure-treated wood could still be wet from the factory, and if it doesn’t dry sufficiently before sealing, it will warp or wave within a few weeks.
Here’s a tip - If you build a wood deck, make sure the planks are placed correctly. The curve of the rings at the edge of each plank should curve down like a rainbow, not up like a smile. As the wood dries and ages, it will tend to curl in the direction of those rings. Wood that curls up could cause splinters or gaps which could make you trip. If it curls down, it won’t cause as much disruption.
Wood will always require maintenance. You can never permanently seal wood. Expect to re-seal your wood deck at least every two years.
ChoiceDek – this is a man-made mixture of recycled plastic & reclaimed cedar fibers. It is advertised as maintenance-free. You can add a can stain to ChoiceDek but it’s not required. ChoiceDeck comes in only one color – it starts as a dark brown & fades to a silver- gray in 4 to 6 weeks.
Trex – Slightly more expensive than ChoiceDek, this manmade material is similar to a particle board wrapped in plastic. Trex advertises that it requires no maintenance beyond regular cleaning. Trex comes in two colors: “natural” (which fades to light gray) & “Winchester Gray” (a slightly darker gray). You cannot paint or stain Trex to achieve a different color.
Forever Deck – This is the most expensive of the three man-made materials we featured. This is a recycled plastic that works like a plastic version of lumber. That means that it can be sawed, cut or routered just like wood. Forever Deck material comes in a variety of colors that run through the material, so if you do cut it, you won’t see a seam or a different color on the interior of the plastic. You cannot stain or paint Forever Deck material to achieve a color different from the color options provided by the manufacturer.
What types of fasteners will you use? Will the nails and screws rust, and tarnish the look of the deck? Manufacturers recommend using stainless steel or ceramic-coated fasteners to maintain a rust-free look.
Add-on options are unlimited: you can design and build railings, built-in benches, countertops that meet a window on your house – as we mentioned earlier, the only limitations are your budget and your imagination.
Obviously, safe and solid construction is a very major consideration, especially if the deck sits above the ground by more than a few inches. The design of the frame underneath is a crucial safety factor. Some decks have supports every two or three feet, but the builder’s we’ve spoken with suggest support beams no more than 16” apart, otherwise the deck could bounce or warp.
How is the deck supported or attached to the ground? Home centers sell concrete supports (they look like little pyramids with the tops cut off) that allow a 4x4 support beam to “sit” atop the support. These appear adequate for decks that don’t rise above the ground more than a few inches, but decks with more elevation require some kind of anchorage. Wooden posts buried directly in the ground can rot from the moisture in the soil, so the safer approach is to dig a hole, place the support beam and surround the post with concrete so wood does not come in direct contact with soil. We featured a deck supported by 4x4s made of pressure-treated pine spaced 16’ apart. Each 4x4 was buried 24’ into the ground and surrounded with concrete to protect the 4x4 from direct contact with soil.
In Northern parts of the country you have to consider a frost line. If support pillars are not buried deep enough, the deck supports could heave as the weather shifts from cold to warm. Posts in cold areas should be buried at least 43 to 48 inches into the ground.
Anyone planning to build a deck that is completely off the ground (a 2nd-story deck or a multi-level deck) should check local codes – this type of project may be governed by codes and may require a licensed builder.