Buyer’s Guide To Decking Materials
Deck foundations are usually made of wood, but you have choices when it comes to deck boards. Here's a rundown of some of the most popular options.
Building a deck is one of the most DIY-friendly residential building projects out there, significantly increasing your home’s usable space. Besides offering a place for sitting and sunning, a deck can support an outdoor kitchen and dining area, a hot tub or portable sauna, or a greenhouse.
Although there are plenty of building codes to know and follow when you’re building a deck, there aren’t as many as for a closed structure. That’s because there are no doors or windows, and plumbing and electrical installations are usually minimal.
You could summarize the building process in four steps: setting the posts, building the foundation, installing the decking, and adding the steps and railings.
Choosing the decking board material is a crucial part of the third step, as decking largely determines the appearance and longevity of the structure. Today there are lots of cost-effective and long-lasting options, ranging from wood (the perennial favorite) to synthetic alternatives. Here’s a rundown of your choices.
Types of Decking: How to Choose
Trex changed the game when it introduced composite decking in the mid-1990s. Before that, builders and homeowners overwhelmingly preferred wood. Only certain types of wood are weather-resistant enough for decking, however, and these have become increasingly expensive.
When looking for decking materials, keep these things in mind:
- Cost: Decking forms the bulk of a deck, so cost is an important issue — often the main one.
- Appearance: People tend to envision wood when they think of decks, so alternative materials are engineered to look like wood, with varying degrees of success.
- Longevity: Wood lasts a long time — 20 to 30 years — but many other materials can outlast it.
- Sustainability: Builders and homeowners now consider the environmental effects of the materials they use. With decks, that includes impact on forest resources, the amount of recycled materials in the product and whether it can be recycled after use.
- Ease of installation: Some decking products require specialized fastening systems.
Decking Material: Redwood/Cedar
Redwood and Western red cedar are two naturally rot-resistant wood species, attractive and long-lasting. That’s why they’ve been popular for decades. Redwood is most common in the West, with cedar the popular choice elsewhere.
- Traditional and beautiful: Nothing is more authentic than real wood.
- Color flexibility: You can leave it unfinished or stain it.
- Workable: The wood can be cut to any length or width you need, then nailed or screwed to the foundation.
- Needs maintenance: Both need periodic washing and possibly refinishing.
- Costly: Redwood and cedar are no longer cheap; each can cost as much as $1,100 per 100 square feet.
- Can deteriorate: Unfinished redwood and cedar turns gray in the sun and can warp or crack.
- Limited sustainability: Forest supplies — especially redwood — are no longer as abundant.
Decking Material: Pressure-Treated Pine
Pressure-treated pine takes advantage of a more abundant wood species. Pressure-treating offers the durability and rot-resistance of redwood and cedar along with fire resistance. The wood can be stained or painted.
- Cost-effective: Pressure-treated wood costs 30 to 40 percent less than redwood or cedar.
- Durable: Warranty periods can be as long as 40 years.
- Workable: It’s wood, so pressure-treated pine can be cut and fastened with normal woodworking tools.
- Risk of chemical exposure: Cutting pressure-treated wood can expose you to toxic chemicals, and rain can wash chemicals from unsealed wood into the ground.
- High maintenance: Pressure-treated wood needs to be sealed, and requires frequent cleaning and resealing to keep it looking good.
- Not eco-friendly: It can’t be burned and deteriorates slowly in landfills.
Decking Material: Exotic Hardwoods
Also known as Brazilian walnut, ipé is grown in South America. It’s one of the most attractive and long-lasting decking materials there is. Hardwood alternatives such as black locust and black walnut are also available.
- Durable: Naturally rot-resistant hardwood decking can easily last 30 years, probably much longer.
- Attractive: Hardwoods have beautiful natural hues that can be preserved by periodic re-sealing.
- Sustainable: Because hardwoods are often intentionally cultivated, they usually have a low environmental impact.
- Expensive: Hardwood decking materials are definitely a premium investment.
- Difficult to install: You can’t nail hardwoods. Ipé in particular is so hard that screw holes must be pre-drilled and saw blades frequently replaced.
Decking Material: Composites
Composite decking boards combine wood fibers and synthetic resins. Molded to look like wood, they’re generally easy to maintain.
- Eco-friendly: Typically made from recycled or waste wood.
- Low maintenance: Composite decks just need occasional washing. No repainting or re-sealing.
- Design flexibility: Available in various colors and styles, composite can be installed with screws, nails or hidden fasteners.
- Absorbent: Although manufacturers have largely corrected this flaw, some composite boards can absorb water and swell or become moldy.
- Pricey: Composites have historically been more expensive than wood, but that’s changing as wood prices rise.
- Hot and heavy: Composite boards weigh more than wood, and the plastic content can be uncomfortably hot in the sun.
Decking Material: PVC
Manufacturers began making pure plastic decking boards in the 2000s. Molded and colored to look like wood, some are solid while others are hollow. They’re rot- and mold-resistant.
- Durable: PVC decking won’t rot, warp or otherwise deteriorate, and the color doesn’t fade. Warranty periods exceeding 40 years are common.
- Lightweight and low-maintenance: PVC boards never need painting or staining, and they’re lighter than composites or wood.
- Cost-effective: Typically costs half as much as wood.
- Artificial looking: PVC is a synthetic material, and its glossy, reflective surface looks it.
- Uncomfortable: Gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
- Not particularly eco-friendly: Typically made from virgin (not recycled) plastic.
Decking Material: Aluminum
Metal decking, particularly aluminum, has been around since the 1940s, and it’s still an option. Contemporary aluminum decking boards are often installed in a system with metal joists. The decking boards are screwed in with hidden fasteners.
- Durable and lightweight: Aluminum is rust and corrosion resistant and one of the lightest decking materials available.
- Elegant: Aluminum decks are sleek and attractive and stay that way for years without a finish, although they can be painted.
- Dissipates heat: Unlike vinyl and composite decking, aluminum decking does not overheat in full sun.
- Noisy: Heavy footsteps or large raindrops makes aluminum “ping.”
- Slippery: Even molded with a slip-resistant surface, aluminum tends to be more slippery than other materials in wet and icy conditions.
- Not as sustainable: Aluminum mining damages soil, waterways and forests, but used aluminum decking is recyclable.