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How to Build the Deck of Your Dreams

Our best tips to make it extraordinary!

deck with planters
Learn key features and techniques for building first-class decks, including planters, shading ideas, stairs, durable materials, privacy screens, curved railings and other features.

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Overview: Unique features make a deck extraordinary

Here at The Family Handyman magazine, we’ve been building decks for more than two decades, and in that time, we’ve learned a lot about what makes a deck a special place. In its most basic form, a deck is just a platform. It’s the unique features you add that turn a simple structure into a perfect spot to while away the hours. In this article, we’ll show you some of the features we’ve built into our dream decks over the years and give you some construction tips to help you incorporate them into your next deck. If you already have a deck, most of these projects can be added on with only minor changes to your existing structure.

Tip 1: Green up your deck with planters

Deck edge planters

Planters can follow the deck edge, and here also offer handrail support on stairs.

The ultimate maintenance-free planter

Stack stones to build planters along the sides or in front of the deck. Here we covered the spaces under the deck with stone planters. We laid these stones with mortar but kept the mortar away from the face of the stones for a dry-laid look. Fill the lower section of the interior with stones or gravel to allow drainage.

Don’t forget bracing

Even a little soil can add a lot of pressure to the sides of a planter. For large planter boxes like these, tie the sides together with cross-braces that are screwed to the upright framing on both sides. We finished off this planter with cedar siding.

Add a planter or two to your deck design and take advantage of your green thumb to provide color and greenery in your deck environment. You could even grow fresh veggies for the grill. Planters can take the place of low rails and double as seating. The photos here show a few construction details to keep in mind when you’re building planters.

DIY Success Story

When our deck was built, the piers were left exposed above the concrete patio. They stuck up about 3 in., and the paper from the forms was exposed as well. Because the deck provided nice shade, my wife suggested that I build flower boxes for impatiens that would surround the piers and post. I built forms out of pressure-treated 2x2s and then used cedar 1x3s to cap the boxes. I also wrapped the posts with landscape fabric to keep the topsoil in the box and prevent the outside of the boxes from getting dirty. Don’t do this if your posts aren’t treated wood. —Michael Hanson

Tip 2: Build elegant cascading steps

Cascading steps

Wide steps make nice transitions to other levels.

Stack boxes for wrap-around steps

It’s easy to build cascading steps like these if you just build boxes and stack them up. You may have to shim each layer to get the correct rise, but it’s still simpler than cutting a bunch of notched stringers.

If your deck is low to the ground, consider building wraparound steps rather than a conventional 3-ft.-wide stairway. Wraparound steps visually anchor the deck and tie it to the landscape. They also provide access from all directions, freeing up traffic patterns and spreading out wear and tear on the lawn. Finally, these steps serve as bleachers for extra seating at a party or a place to just sit back and watch the grass grow. For information on how to calculate the rise and run of deck steps, type “deck stairs” into the search box above. If you decide to add wraparound steps to your design, here’s a tip to help simplify construction.

Tip 3: Keep cool in the shade

Shade structure

A shading structure keeps the sun off during the hot hours of the day.

Plan ahead to anchor the posts

One good way to lock the posts into the deck is to build a “socket” into the deck framing, then sandwich a 2×4 between 2×6 lumber for the post. Extend the center member of the “sandwich” so it will fit into the socket. Drop the post in and secure it with construction screws to keep the shade structure from lifting off during windy storms and help prevent sway. Then add decorative braces between the posts and the beams at the top.

Notch posts for extra support

Another method for providing strong support at the top and bottom of posts is to notch them to fit around the joists and the beams. Then drive construction screws through the notched posts to ensure a strong connection for maximum strength.

When it’s 20 degrees F outside, the prospect of relaxing on your deck in the warm sun sounds wonderful. But on a scorching summer day you may have a different opinion. When you’re planning your deck, don’t forget about shade. Unless you buy a freestanding shade awning or canopy, you can’t just build on top of the deck. Depending on the covering, you may need extra support under the posts to hold the weight or extra bracing to prevent the wind from lifting or racking the structure.

Shade structures can be a simple pergola design or more elaborate fabric-covered frames. Pergolas let in more light and can double as a lattice for vines. Fabric covers provide complete shade and offer some protection from rain. Keep in mind that in snowy climates you’ll have to bring the fabric cover in for the winter.

Deck Tips From Our Field Editors

Oversize your joists
If your deck plan calls for 2×8 joists, consider using 2x10s instead. That might add $100 or more to your materials cost, but it would also eliminate that bouncy feel you get when you use “just-big enough” joists.
Ken Huntington, Burleson, TX

Keep a router handy
A router equipped with a 1/4-in. round-over bit is an essential deck tool for me. That 1/4-in. radius matches the rounded factory edge on most decking, so I can quickly put a matching edge on a ripped deck board. And you’d be surprised how often you can dress up a deck or railing part with a rounded edge.
Kevin Zook, Bellingham, MA

Save time with a palm nailer
I’ll never build another deck without a palm nailer. It’s noisy but saves tons of time when nailing joist hangers. Great for nailing in tight spots too. (Name brand palm nailers start at about $80.)
Kevin Lind, Northport, AL

Video: How to Build Deck Stairs

Tip 4: Create a cozy hideaway with a privacy screen

Privacy screen on a deck

This simple privacy screen partially blocks wind.

Reinforce the joists

Privacy screens have to withstand natural forces like the wind and people who like to lean on them. Where the joists run parallel to the screen, strengthen them by cutting tight-fitting blocks to fit between the outermost joists every 2 ft. Nail the bridging to the joists. The bridging will prevent the joists from twisting and keep the screen strong, whether the posts are placed inside the framing as shown here or outside as shown above right.

Prebuild the panels

Notch 4x4s and bolt them to the rim joist. For a design like this, measure the exact distance between 4x4s after you bolt them on and build panels to fit between them. Slip the panels into place and attach them with angled screws.

If you need a little break from your chatty neighbor or just want your deck to feel more intimate, add a privacy screen. The basics are simple. You build a frame and fill it in with something—slatted wood, lattice, fabric stretched over a frame, bamboo curtains or even a vine-covered trellis. Consider whether you want to block wind or allow it to pass through, whether your privacy screen can do double duty as a shade structure in the late afternoon, and whether you want to totally block the view or just create a sense of separation, and then choose the appropriate material. Here are a couple of privacy screen designs and a few construction details to keep in mind when you build the screen.

Tip 5: Curves add class

Curved railing and deck

Curves add a distinctive custom touch.

Swing an arc for curved deck framing

The easiest way to frame a curve is to run joists long. Then hook a marker to the end of a wire, chain or non-stretchy cord and swing an arc from the center of the circle. Cut the joists at the marks and you’re on your way to a curved deck.

Bend plywood for a curved rim

You’re not going to bend a 2×10 around a curve. But strips of 1/2-in. treated plywood will bend easily. Glue and screw three layers together to form your curved rim joist.

Laminate siding for a curved rail

Standard 3/4-in.-thick boards are too stiff to bend around a curve. But 1/2-in. x 3-1/2-in. cedar lap siding will work. Rip 1/4 in. from each edge to make square edges. Spread waterproof wood glue over the meeting faces and use lots of clamps to hold it together while the glue sets. In this photo, we ripped the center pieces narrower to create a groove for the rail parts.

Looking for that little something to set your deck apart? Work a sweeping curve into the design. Building a curve into the deck framing is straightforward. It’s a little trickier to build curved rails and benches. But if you’re up to the challenge, here are some tips to make the job easier.

Lessons From a 10-Year Old Deck

When we built this dream deck 10 years ago in Little Canada, MN, we made the promise that it would last as long as the house. That’s a pretty bold statement. After 10 nasty Minnesota winters, we decided to hold our own feet to the fire and go back to see how the deck was holding up.

Trex composite decking
Yes, it looks great in the photo and indeed, looks nearly as good in person. No sagging, no rot, nothing bad. And despite heavy use, there’s no sign of any wear. The decking doesn’t look quite as fresh as new; falling leaves, dirt and party plate spills have all conspired against it. But it wouldn’t take much more than a good cleaning to spruce it up.

The lesson:
If you want split-proof, rot-proof, low-maintenance decking, skip the wood and go with composite decking. It’s come a long way in the past 10 years, with much better colors and more realistic grain patterns. We endorse it.

Stain
All of the exposed cedar got two coats of semitransparent stain during construction. Some of the stain has worn off. There aren’t any huge swaths of peeling going on. If you squint your eyes, it still looks pretty fresh, but it’s about ready for a recoat.

The lesson:
If you want stain, put on at least two coats and buy the best, even if it is expensive.

Framing
We crawled under the deck to do some probing with a screwdriver to check for rot. Not a sign of it. The pressure-treated framing was absolutely solid everywhere. We even dug down around the wooden posts to check those below grade. They were rock solid too. But since we used foundation-grade lumber for the posts, that was no surprise.

The lesson:
Choose or special-order 2×6 and 2×4 foundation-grade treated lumber if you’re planning on using below-grade wooden posts like ours. Build “sandwiches” with the lumber—it’ll never rot.

Cedar siding and trim
The cedar and the joinery have held up well, with one exception. The corner boards on the planters have begun to rot where they contact the decking.

The lesson:
Seal any end grain with stain before installation. Space end grain above horizontal surfaces at least 1/2 in. to keep it from wicking up moisture.