If your existing deck is old, shabby and a maintenance nightmare, you don’t have to tear it all down and start over. Chances are that the structural parts are still in good shape. If so, you can simply remodel it with new decking, rails and stairs, and save tons of money over the cost of a complete rebuild.
In this story, we’ll show you how to replace worn decking, railings, stairs and several other features. We won’t tear out the basic deck framing—instead we’ll describe how to tell if your deck is in good structural shape. We’ll show you how to replace old decking with low-maintenance composite materials and build a new “floating” landing at yard level that expands the deck in an attractive, practical way.
We’ll show you how to make a new set of safer and stronger enclosed stairs and build handsome handrails from cedar and prefinished aluminum spindles. We added a simple privacy screen to shield activities from nosy neighbors and a below-deck skirting system to mask the unsightly posts and ugly area below. We used rough-sawn cedar for all of the exposed wood parts because its rough-hewn surface will hold stain for years.
If you’ve built a deck before, you know that even without the structural work, it’s still a big project that can take several weekends to accomplish. The nice thing about deck work is that you can pick away at it over time without disrupting the house. Just make sure you keep the door that opens onto the deck locked or barred until you’re finished! You’ll need all of the standard carpentry tools, including a 4-ft. level, circular saw, screw gun and carpenter’s square, and tools for the demo work, including a sledgehammer and pry bars. And a power miter saw is almost mandatory for clean, accurate cuts on railing parts.
The No. 1 thing to check before deciding to reuse the deck framework is whether the deck footings, posts and joists are structurally sound. Here are the main things you should examine when making the decision.
1. Sound footings. Start from the ground up by examining the footings. You’ve probably noticed if your deck footings have “heaved” above grade because the deck will appear warped (sometimes only during the winter). That’s a sign of too-shallow footings. If so, replace them with deeper ones. Usually you can dig and pour new ones directly next to the old ones rather than ripping out the old footings, which is a brutal job.
2. Wood condition. Examine your posts and other framing members to see if they’re made of treated lumber or not. Treated wood, the material used to frame most decks, will last for decades. Treated lumber should have a familiar green hue. Look for markings that say “.40 treated” or a CCA label that indicates that the wood has been preserved. If the wood is badly stained and you can’t find any stamps, it may come to cutting a thin sliver off the end of some framing with a circular saw and looking at the fresh end, which should have the green tint of preservative around the edges of the cut. If your deck is framed with cedar or redwood, it’s best to start over and reframe it with treated wood. Neither wood will last nearly as long as your low-maintenance deck improvements. Whether your deck framing is treated or not, if a screwdriver penetrates into punky, soft wood anywhere, indicating rot, it’s best to start your deck from scratch.
Pay particular attention to the posts. Posts usually start to rot where they come in direct contact with the footing or ground. The posts on this deck were in good shape because they had been installed with a bracket that held them above grade.
If your posts are buried underground, dig down and inspect their condition. If the top of the footing is only a few inches below grade and the post is in good shape, clear away any grass, rock and wood chips around them. If your footings seem solid but your posts are in bad shape, you can raise the outside of the deck with a car jack or bottle jack and replace the posts. If you don’t have footings, talk to your local inspector about the best way to proceed. Complete this seven-point inspection to identify and fix the most common deck problems.
3. Structural integrity. Make a drawing of your deck and list the spans and sizes of the joists and beams. Bring it to the building department at your city hall. An inspector will let you know if the framing sizes and spans are adequate. Don’t rely on your own structural analysis. Apply for a deck building permit, and before starting your project, ask the inspector for an on-site opinion to confirm the structural integrity of your deck.
4. Details. There should be at least one 3/8-in. lag screw or bolt into the ledger between each pair of joists for a solid connection, but your building inspector may call for even more depending on the size of the deck they support.
Look for joist hangers on each joist with all of the nail holes filled with galvanized joist hanger nails—not roofing nails. Add joist hangers if they’re missing. They’re not necessary on the ends of joists that rest on a beam, even if they project over the edge.
Look for flashing over the ledger that attaches to the house. It should extend behind the siding and across the top of the deck ledger (Photo 3). There should also be flashing behind the deck ledger at the bottom and over the siding; add it if it’s missing.
Low-Upkeep Deck Materials
This deck features two interesting building systems. The Correctdeck low-maintenance decking uses a completely hidden fastener system. And we’ve teamed up prefinished aluminum spindles with a “Uniball” anchoring system for a rail system that’s foolproof to install and maintenance free as well.
Tearing out the old rails and decking comes first. You can knock off most of the railing with a sledge. But make sure to remove any screws or bolts driven into structural members first because you don’t want to tear up anything you want to reuse. In most cases, it won’t take long for the tear-off. In fact it only took two of us two hours to get this deck down to bare bones.
Have a Dumpster delivered ahead of time so you can throw in the debris right away and keep nail-infested boards out of the yard. A “10-yard” unit will be enough for all but the biggest decks, provided you pack the boards closely and cut up the longer ones. A sledgehammer,a crowbar and a flat bar are the tools of choice.
Start by removing the spindles. If they’re nailed, just hitting each near the deck and the top rail with a light swing of the sledgehammer will knock them free. If they’re screwed on, back out as many as you can and then go back with the sledgehammer to knock off pickets with stripped screwheads. Believe me, they’ll either come free of the wood or the pickets will break around them. If you have 4x4 intermediate posts fastened to the outside of the deck rim, attack them next. Generally that’s just a case of loosening the bolts or removing lag screws.
If decking surrounds the posts, you’ll have to remove the decking first. Clean up any leftover nails by pulling them rather than driving them in where they’ll cause trouble later.
Don’t waste time removing nails from wood that you’ll toss. Just bend them flat so you don’t step on them or get cut during handling. It’s usually not worth the effort to try to back out any leftover screws because by this time, they’ll be too bent to unscrew. Just pull them out with a large crowbar, or if that’s impossible, bend them back and forth a couple of times and they’ll snap off even with the surface.
Tackle the deck boards next. Work from the outside of the deck toward the house so you’ll have an easy way off. If your deck’s nailed down, it’s usually pretty easy to pry up each board with a combination of a flat bar and crowbar, working from one end toward the other.
You may have all kinds of nails left in the joists. Pull them out as you pry up the boards unless you can reach them from the ground later. If your deck is screwed down, the job will take more effort. Screws can be especially hard to back out if heads are stripped or corroded, so be sure you have a drive tip that’s in good shape and matches the screwheads. If some are impossible to back out, try drilling through the head, then pry the board over the shank and break off the screws.
Before you tear off the stairs, drive a stake nearby or suspend a board from the deck and mark the bottom few tread heights (Photo 2). Save the stair stringer (the notched 2x12 that forms the stairs) that’s in the best shape to use as a pattern later for laying out a new set of stringers. The 2x12s are fragile, so use special care when prying up the treads.
Tip: Remember to replace the flashing at the house if necessary (Photo 3). We removed the existing flashing on this deck because it was aluminum, which corrodes when it comes in direct contact with treated lumber. We replaced it with a galvanized steel product designed specifically for deck ledger boards. An 8-ft. flashing costs about $7 at home centers.
You might have to remove a couple of courses of siding to make this happen, but it’s a small price to pay to keep water out of your house. Slide the flashing up under the house wrap.
Tip: Be Prepared for Stripped Screws
If the old decking and railings are held down by screws, you’re bound to strip out a few of them, so buy a screw extractor before you get started. The one shown here is a Grabit, but there are other brands. A set of three sizes costs about $20 at a home center.
All you need to do is bore out the inside of the screw head with the burnishing end of the bit, then flip the bit around and back the screw out. As the bit turns counterclockwise, it digs down into the screw head, creating a very strong connection.
Tip: Straighten Bowed Joists
Wood decking is stiff and tends to flatten out the deck, even if joists are bowed. Manufactured decking isn’t nearly as rigid as wood, so before you lay down the new decking, check the joists for flatness. Stretch a string or chalk line across the joists at the middle of the deck. You may need to put a spacer under each end of the string to raise it above the joists. Measure the distance between the string and each joist.
If some joists are bowed way up (more than 1/4 in.), snap a chalk line from the top of one end of the joist to the top of the other, and either plane down to the line or grab your circular saw and cut along it. If a joist is bowed down in the middle, you’ll have to pull some nails and remove it from the deck. Straighten the edge (as shown at right) and reinstall it with the straightened edge up. Some of the joists on this project were bowed more than 1 in.
Mark your post positions, spacing them evenly on each edge of the deck. Shifting them an inch or two in either direction won’t be noticeable, but keep the post spacing under 6 ft. to prevent sagging. Cut 10-ft. long 4x4s in half (it’s easiest to cut them to their final length after the decking is installed).
Plumb each post, holding them in place with clamps, and then drill 1-in. countersink holes with either a Forstner or a spade bit about 1/2 in. deep to inset the bolt heads. Later you’ll cover them behind fascia boards. Drill 3/8-in. holes through the whole works with a 12-in. long bit (Photo 4) and install and tighten the nuts and bolts. Choose bolts that are 1 in. longer than the thickness of all the wood you’re securing.
Check for plumb again; you may have to loosen the bolts and add shims to accomplish this. If so, use shims ripped from treated wood. Be accurate—you won’t get another chance to plumb the posts once the decking is on. Nail blocking on both sides of the tall privacy screen posts and another block into the next joist to make the posts more rigid (Photo 5 and Figure C).
Add the 1x10 cedar fascia flush with the top of the joists. Set your saw to 45 degrees and miter the outside corners for a clean, handsome look. To protect the cedar and keep it more stable, it’s best to stain all four sides and any freshly cut ends with two coats of latex stain.
Tip: Use plenty of screws if you decide to use composite or other plastic types of facia boards. These types of boards expand and contract more than regular wood, so they need a lot of fasteners to keep them from becoming distorted. Drive three deck screws at the ends and two every 12 in. in the field.
Tip: Add Joist Blocking for Extra Stiffness
If your joists span more than 8 ft., install blocking between the joists. Blocking holds joists straight and adds stiffness to a bouncy deck. Blocking also allows each joist to share the impact of footsteps with neighboring joists and reduces “deflection,” or flexing. Snap a chalk line at the center of the longest span of the deck framing perpendicular to the joists, and install blocks made from the same size material. Stagger the blocks along the chalk line; that way you’ll be able to drive the nails or screws straight in from the other side of the joist.
Tip: Tape the Joist Tops
Install flashing tape to cover the old joists. If you don’t cover the joists, water will get trapped in the nail/screw holes and rot the wood from the inside out. You can use tape designed for doors and windows or one designed for decks. Avoid buying white or shiny silver tape—it may be noticeable in between the deck boards. Flashing tape isn’t cheap. We bought a product called Barricade from a local lumberyard, and it cost about $25 for a 4-in. x 75-ft. roll. If you have more time than money, you could cut the tape in half to double the coverage.
Choosing Composite Decking
We chose our composite decking because of the color selection and the nifty hidden fastener system that hides all the screws between the deck boards (Photo 8). It was easy to install and came in lengths long enough to span the whole deck—no butt joints.
However, when you select a composite decking, you’ll often have to buy additional edgings, nosings or elaborate fastening systems that may drive up the cost. It’s best to study printed information first to know what you’re getting into. Also ask your building inspector whether the synthetic decking you’ve chosen is code compliant for your deck. If your joists are spaced more than 16-in. on center, you may need to add more joists or use wood decking.
Start installing the decking at the edge of the deck opposite the house. You’ll have to notch the first couple of deck boards around the posts (Photo 6). To get a perfectly straight start, snap a guideline to mark the edge of the first deck board, allowing for a 1-in. overhang.
Screw (or nail) down the first board and lay the others, working your way toward the house and leaving the ends hanging over both ends of the deck for later trimming (Photo 7). As you can see, we used decking with hidden fasteners.
As you progress, check the spacing between the house and the deck boards to make sure they stay parallel with the house. Correct variations a little at a time over several rows to avoid large, tapered gaps. When you reach the deck board nearest the house, cut it to width and length (with 1-in. overhangs at each end) before fastening it down. The house wall will prevent you from completely cutting it with a circular saw once it’s in place. Then snap lines on the decking 1 in. beyond the fascia and trim the ends (Photo 9).
Unlike the deck, our landing doesn’t have frost footings. Instead, it “floats” on landscape timbers supported by gravel. This system works best in spots that have little slope. If you have more slope, build a smaller landing or build it on regular footings and posts. If you choose to make a smaller landing, make sure it extends at least 3 ft. in front of the stairs.
Nail the landing frame together first, then square it by adjusting it until diagonal measurements match and brace it to hold it square. Position it and use it as a pattern to lay out the 6x6 footings (Photo 10). Drive positioning stakes so you’ll be able to replace it in the same location later.
Then set the landing frame aside and dig the footing trenches with a fairly level bottom 20 in. below the reference mark. Add about 6 in. of gravel and set the 6x6s so they’re level and at the right height (7-1/4 in. below the reference mark; Photo 11). If you’re building stairs from scratch, just make the final height of the landing at any multiple of 7-1/4 in., measured from the top of the deck framing to the landing framing.
You’ll undoubtedly have to fool around with removing, adding and leveling the gravel to get the 6x6 heights accurate. Adjust the gravel level and then test it again. Start with the timber nearest the deck. Lay the timber on the gravel; check it for level and for spacing down from the reference mark. It’ll take you several attempts to get it right. Then level from the first timber over to the second one to set it at the same height. Then dig the footings and lay in the short 6x6 timbers that support the lower step framing (Photo 12).
Toenail the frame to the timbers and finish framing the landing as shown in Figure A. Then trim and deck the landing.
The ideal tread notch width is 10-1/4 in. (it’s 11-1/4 in. with tread in place, and never less than 10 in.), and the riser height should range between 7 and 7-3/4 in. (never higher). But if you’re new to stair building and don’t want to start from scratch, use the old stair stringers as a pattern for tracing and then cutting new ones. However, the new stringers we show aren’t exactly the same as the old ones.
The stringers will be 2x10s that you’ll reinforce on the sides with 2x12 “skirts” (Figure B). Lay the pattern on the new 2x10s with the points of the stairs along one edge, measuring to make sure the overhanging edge on the backside is even (Photo 13). After tracing, measure and mark the top tread so it’s 1-1/2 in. narrower than the others. And mark the bottom “rise” so it’s 1 in. less than the others.
Tip: When replacing wood decking with maintenance-free decking, you may have to add a stringer to the stair framing (check your manufacturer’s specifications). The distance a deck board can span is less on stairs. That’s because the force from stepping down onto a stair tread is much greater than the force from just walking around on the deck.
It’s best to just cut the bottom and top of the first stringer and lay it in place against the deck to make sure the top tread is the correct distance from the deck (the stair height) and that the angles at the top and bottom meet the deck rim joist and landing without huge gaps. Make adjustments as necessary and finish cutting out the stairs, then use the first stringer to lay out the other three.
Use one of the new stringers to lay out the cedar stair skirts (Figure B). When you’re laying out the stair skirts, remember that they extend 1-1/2 in. beyond the top of the treated stringers to hide the end of the hanger board (Photo 15). Mark the stair skirt positions on the deck frame and toe-screw them into place. In our situation, we mounted the outer one flush with the deck’s outer trim board to get maximum stair width.
Pick a solid 2x6 for the “hanger board” that supports the stringers (Photos 14 and 15). Screw it to the deck rim joist with at least four screws. Most of the stair support is provided by the skirts, so make sure you screw them to the hanger board with two 3-in. deck screws at each side and toe-screw them to the deck rim. Attach the treated stringers to the skirts with 2-1/2 in. deck screws from the inside where they won’t be seen.
Tack a spacer board (the length of the hanger board) to the bottom risers and use it to align and square the stringers. Then toe-screw the stringers to the landing. Toe-screw the skirt bottoms to the decking when they’re square to the deck and evenly spaced. Add the middle stringers (Photo 15) and then cut and nail the risers to the stringers so the tops are flush with the tops of the treads. Then anchor the newel post to the bottom outside as shown in Photo 16. The blocking is essential for making the post solid and strong, and it also supports the notched treads.
Cut the rails to fit between each set of posts and label them so you don’t confuse where they go later.
You don’t have to rip shoulders on the 2x4 rails, but shoulders will help shed water and improve the rail’s appearance. Set the table saw at 30 degrees and adjust the fence so you’ll have a 1-1/2 in. wide flat spot between the bevels. (Rip with the narrow part of the 2x4 resting on the saw table.) Cut the spindles to length with a miter saw fitted with a blade rated for cutting aluminum. The Uniball system simplifies spindle installation. You simply screw them into place (top and bottom; Photo 19) and slip the hollow aluminum ends over them (Photos 21 and 22).
Scribe the rails for the stairs and then cut the proper angles with a circular or miter saw. Lay out and screw the Uniballs in place. Cutting the stair spindles is trickier than the deck spindles because the angle cuts must be parallel. That’s best done with a stop block cut at the same angle as the rails (Photo 20). The stair spindle angles will be the same as the angles at the rail ends.
Rest the bottom rails on 2x4 spacer blocks and toe-screw them to the posts (Photo 22). Then slip the spindles over the Uniballs, and starting at one end, work the top rail Uniballs over each consecutive spindle until the rail is seated. Toe-screw the top rail to the posts. Then cut and fit the 2x6 top caps, hanging them over both sides of the post 1 in., and screw them to the post tops with 3-in. deck screws. Assemble the deck rails and spindles and top caps as you did with the stair rails and toe-screw those assemblies in place.
You’ll also need to attach a “grippable” handrail between 34 and 38 in. high measured directly above the front edge of the stair treads. We used standard fir handrail sold at any lumberyard and screwed it through the top cap spaced with a piece of cedar. Choose the design that works best with your deck. You can use standard handrail and attach it to the posts with brass rail brackets or even buy premade 2x6 cedar handrail that has finger grip coves machined into the sides.
Follow Photos 24 and 25 and Figure C for assembling the privacy screen. It’s designed to be covered with climbing vines. Install the second row of rails and spindles, and then cut the privacy trellis posts to length. Rest the 2x8 beams on temporary blocks and screw them to each post with three 3-in. deck screws.
Frame the support structure for the 1x8 cedar skirt boards from treated 2x4s. Space vertical 2x4s about every 3 ft. and screw or nail them to the joists (add blocking where needed). We held ours back about 6 in. from the fascia.
Screw the top horizontal 2x4 to the uprights just under the deck, and the bottom 2x4 a few inches above grade. If your screening is more than 4 ft. tall, add a middle 2x4 as well. Plumb and angle-brace each upright from the underside of the deck framing using 2x4s. Custom-cut each of the 1x8s so theyend a couple of inches above the ground.
A Railing Style Alternative
Low-maintenance railings are available in a number of styles. This square style is called the Trex Transcend system (trex.com). Transcend railing is a PVC product that is maintenance free, easy to work with and available in several colors. It comes as a kit in 6-ft. or 8-ft. sections. There are two types of kits, one for the deck and one for the stairs. As you can see in the photo, there’s a PVC sleeve that slides over your wood deck posts. The railing is attached with brackets. It’s a very simple system, although every manufacturer’s approach is different. This railing system costs about $50 per linear ft. of rail.