Meet the pro, Travis Larson
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For 25 years Travis built decks, homes and other structures.
the past 25
expert deck builder, I guess I qualify.
Several of these tips are original
and unique. I know—I invented them.
Some I figured out by actually constructing
the decks; others, by watching
them age over the years. Either
way, these are some of my favorite
deck-building techniques, ones that
I'd recommend to anyone planning to
build a deck.
Tip 1: Build better stairs
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Sturdier stair design
Strong 2x12 skirt boards strengthen wobbly stairs and railings.
Simple notched stair jacks are fine for interior
stairs. They get nailed to wall studs for
stability and are hidden once the house is
finished. Not so with deck stairs. Naked,
notched treated-wood stair jacks are unattractive
and wobbly, and because there
isn't much meat to attach posts or pickets
to, you'll have wobbly handrails, too.
But it's easy to strengthen them and
spruce them up. Adding sturdy, solid
2x12 skirts to the outside jacks and stair
risers does it all.
Tip 2: Seam a deck
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Framing a seam
Add an extra joist and deck board to make a clean decking break and provide good nailing.
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Close-up of deck seam
All deck board joints fall at the seam.
The traditional way most builders go
about decking is to randomly stagger
joints. The result is that end-to-end deck
boards share the 1-1/2-in. thickness of
each joist. That can cause problems,
especially with wood decks. With only
3/4 in. of nailing surface, fasteners will
cause ends to split, and since the board
ends have to be tight, untreated wood
I use a faster, more material-efficient
method I call seaming. It's simply strategically
placing a seam (or seams, on bigger
decks) and using the same length
boards for each section. Each seam is a
sandwich made of an elevated vertical
decking board with joists on both sides.
The advantages are many. It's faster
than random seaming; all decking ends
have a full 1-1/2 in. of framing, so it cuts
down on fastener splits; and you can
leave 1/4-in. gaps at the ends so end
grain can dry out after it gets wet.
The vertical deck board is for
looks only. It makes everything look
planned and polished. And there's
virtually no waste. If I need to build
a 20-ft.-wide deck, I'll make it about
19 ft. 6 in. and use all 10-ft. decking
on both halves. That allows for 1-in.
overhangs and cutting off some
Seaming also works well for solid
composite decking, which comes in
fewer lengths. If, for example, I'm
building a composite deck, 12- and
20-ft. lengths might be the only
options. For a 16-ft.-wide deck,
I might seam it to have a 4-ft.
“sidewalk” down the middle for
zero waste. Of course, everything
depends on the design and the
homeowner. But think about it next
time to figure out the best approach.
Tip 3: Cobble together a layout frame
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A layout frame accurately positions corner posts and avoids guesswork.
Home improvement books and TV
shows always recommend laying
out deck footings with
batter boards and string.
But I gave that up
years ago. It's faster
and easier to build a
layout frame from
deck boards or joists.
And unlike string, a
you a solid
guide to mark
and align post
bases. You can mark the
location of the frame by driving a
few stakes and then remove it to dig holes
or pour footings. Then you can quickly replace the
frame to align post bases or set posts. You can even
screw posts to the frame to hold them in perfect position
while you backfill.
Tip 4: Leave a little step below doors
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A 3-in. step
Leaving the deck about 3-in. below the doorsill keeps crud out and prevents rot.
There are so many reasons not to snug
decks right under door thresholds. The
screen and sliding door tracks on patio
doors get full of debris. Storm doors
have to bulldoze their way through
leaves in the fall. And those leaves will
get blown or kicked into the house every
time the door opens. Splashing water
rots out wood casing and jamb trim. And
last but not least, water will inevitably work
its way under any threshold and rot out the
subfloor and then the framing. It's nearly
impossible to flash between ledgers and
thresholds if the decking is flush to thresholds.
Leave a 3-in. step: The house and its
owner will be a lot happier in the long run.
Tip 5: Check the end grain on 4x4s.
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Avoid tree centers
Posts that contain the log center have a high probability of twisting as they dry.
When buying 4x4s, don't just sight them
for straightness; always look at the
ends. Try to avoid 4x4s that include the
center of the tree, especially anywhere
near the center of the 4x4. Those can
twist into airplane propellers in no time.
This is particularly true of 8-footers
because those are often the leftovers
from “peeling logs,” the outer layers of
which have been shaved off to make plywood
veneer. When I order 4x4s over the
phone and need eights, I always order
tens to reduce the chances of getting 4x4
leftovers from peelers.
Tip 6: Get over lag screws
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You can drive special construction screws with a cordless drill.
There are few reasons to
use lag screws anymore.
screws may look
wimpy, but they're
actually stronger than
lags. And you don't
have to spend five
minutes cranking each
one in with a ratchet.
screws a try on your
next deck. You can drive
them with any 18-volt screw
gun without predrilling—they don't
split wood. The price may shock
you (they cost four times as much),
but you'll never go back to lags.
Tip 7: Avoid miters
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Miters in decking and railings always open up after a few years.
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Butt joints may open up a bit, but they still look better than miters.
Avoid miters when you can,
especially in wide boards.
Here's why. Wood installed
outdoors immediately starts
shrinking—or in some conditions,
width. Miters will always
open up unevenly, and your
perfect miter will look like a
hack job in no time. Whenever
possible, use simple
butt joints. They don't look
as professional as miters at
first, but they look better in
the long run.