So you’re building a deck. You’ve figured out where it’s going to go, you know how big it’s going to be, and you have great plans for how you are going to use it. The big question you need to answer before you start shopping for materials is what are you going to build the deck from? The most common material used for the structure of the deck is pressure treated lumber, which is usually pine that has been immersed in a pressurized preservative that is water, rot, and insect resistant. As this framework is usually unseen, we will spend our time discussing materials for the deck surface, where the beauty of your deck will truly shine through.
In the past you had pretty limited choices for building materials, but these days there are a wide variety of materials ranging from natural and treated lumber to metal and plastic, and each product has its own set of pros and cons. What is the best choice for you?
Let’s start with natural wood products. Pressure treated lumber, cedar, redwood, and hardwood are all natural wood products that can be used as is for your deck. There are many advantages to using natural wood. It is easy use and manipulate, can be cut to almost any dimension, and is simple to attach to the frame. Because it has been so commonly used for so long, finding matching material when expanding or repairing your deck should not be an issue. Wood remains one of the most popular choices for decking primarily because of its natural beauty and ease of use, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t negatives when using wood.
Some of the cons of using wood decking include the necessity of treating the wood on a regular basis to prevent damage from water and sun. Wood decking can also shrink, twist, swell, and generally degrade over time, meaning care must be taken to maintain and repair your deck on a regular basis. Wood decking is definitely not a “set it and forget it” kind of material.
Natural wood can be among the cheapest decking materials to use, depending on the type of wood you are using. You can expect to pay much less for common pressure treated lumber than you would for exotic hardwoods like Ipe (pronounced EE-pay) or mahogany, which can actually cost more than man-made materials. Another factor when considering wood decks is the ongoing maintenance costs. If you regularly maintain your new deck (which you should if you want it to last), you could easily spend 5% of the cost of the materials each year in maintenance, meaning that after a decade, your costs could equal what you would have spent on a more expensive composite deck that requires little to no maintenance. A well maintained wood deck can last 20 – 30 years with proper care.
Composite decking has come a long way in the last 20 years. It is available in a wide variety of colours and textures, and is coming closer to emulating the look and feel of real wood, although it still has some distance to go. Composite decking is made from a mixture (or composite) of wood particles, plastic or rubber, and adhesive. It is dyed in production, meaning that the colour you buy is the colour you will have for the life of the deck (not accounting for fading and weathering). While this means you won’t have to worry about staining the deck every couple of years, it also means that care must be taken to select a colour and texture that you won’t grow tired of over time. Composite decking is virtually maintenance free, doesn’t warp or split, and is almost as easy to work with as wood, so why wouldn’t you automatically choose composite over another material?
Well, for one thing composite decking has a much higher initial cost than wood, and can cost almost twice as much as pressure treated lumber. As mentioned before, if you select colours or textures that lose their appeal in time, there is little you can do to change the appearance. Composite materials also have much less strength than most wood products, and installation can be difficult in some applications. Composites also tend to retain more heat than wood decks, meaning they can get quite hot under foot in exposed areas.
As mentioned, composite decking can be as much as double the cost of pressure treated wood, and will likely have a higher price tag of any wood product save certain hardwoods. If you are doing a small deck, this may not be an issue, but if you are building a true outdoor living space, you will definitely want to do the math before choosing composite. Composite decking has a lifespan of around 30 years, similar to that of wood, but without the effort and cost of regular maintenance.
Vinyl, Plastic, Metal
These are some of the new kids on the block in decking, and as such can be difficult to find at a reasonable price. Vinyl decking is made of essentially the same material as vinyl siding. It has a life span of 50+ years, won’t fade or splinter, and requires essentially no upkeep. It is far and away the most expensive material to use in decking, costing 10-50% more than composite. It is also very limited in colour and texture selection, and requires care in installation.
Plastic decking is often made of recycled materials, and is very durable. It is waterproof, ages well, and comes in standard lumber dimensions, making it easy to work with. Much like vinyl decking, plastic decks require virtually no upkeep, and can be cleaned with water. One advantage plastic has over vinyl is the wide variety of colours available, making it easy to match any colour scheme you may have in mind. Plastic decking is very artificial in its design, and makes no attempt to truly imitate wood surfaces. For some this is not an issue, but you would need to be very comfortable with the appearance for a very long time, as plastic decking has a lifespan in excess of 50 years. The cost of plastic decking is comparable to composite decking.
Metal decking is an excellent choice for raised or multi-level decks, as the interlocking pieces make for a watertight surface. If you are looking to have a living space underneath your deck, surfacing at least the upper deck in metal may be the right choice for you. Metal deck “planks” come in lengths of up to 28’ (8.5m), and when properly installed will last a lifetime and then some. A metal deck will never be anything other than a metal deck, so regardless of the colour you choose (and there is a limited selection of colours) you need to be prepared for that industrial look for the life of your deck. Metal decks are also susceptible to extreme temperatures, and tend to retain heat quite strongly, so care would need to be taken in exposed areas (much like touching a car hood on a hot sunny day). Metal decking can cost as little as cedar or as much as vinyl, depending on market conditions, etc.
Ultimately, the deck you choose will be a reflection of your style and preferences. There are pros and cons to any choice you make, so find something you can afford and that you are comfortable with for the long run. After all, you want to be able to relax on the deck, not fret over the colour or style. Take your time in planning, do your research and talk to professionals who know their stuff (like we do here at J&H), and you will have a deck you are happy with for a very long time.
– Chad Vankoughnett