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Decking

Decking buying guide

Last updated: June 2013

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Getting started

About 80 percent of homeowners who install decks use wood. But our latest tests show that synthetic planks can offer good looks with less upkeep. Composites, which blend ground-up wood and plastic, are chipping away the fastest at wood's popularity. Some contain recycled plastic.

If your decking has cracks, looks dirty, or suffers from mildew, it's time to decide whether to refinish or replace it entirely. Signs of an unsafe deck are often less obvious but safety checks are critical when deciding to repair or replace. Also, if your deck was built before 2004, it's probably made of lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate. Regular refinishing helps to seal in the toxic arsenic that CCA decking contains. But if the finish is flaking or worn off in spots, we suggest hiring a pro who's equipped to safely remove the old finish, dust, and debris and then refinish it.

Weigh all the costs

You can save hundreds by replacing the decking yourself. Along with a circular saw, you'll need a corded or cordless drill. Don't skimp on support joists if you choose heavier composites or less-rigid plastics. For wood, solid stains typically yield longer-lasting results.

Note that the prices cited in our Ratings are just for the planks under foot. The cost of railings, stairs, and supporting structure isn't included. The prices also don't include labor costs, either to build a new deck or replace worn planking on an existing structure. The cost of labor can easily exceed the cost of the materials.

Be sure the style of the deck material complements the house design

The width of the decking, its color and finish, and the design of the railing become important design elements. A ranch, a raised ranch, or contemporary house style can work well with many deck designs. It's more challenging to make a deck work with older styles, such as Tudor, colonial, or 1920s bungalow. Many manufacturers of synthetic decking offer a variety of railings, such as provincial or Mission style, that can help the deck fit with the rest of the house.

Sidestep the usual goofs

Nails and screws are low cost, easy to handle, and suitable for nearly any material. But nails can pop loose over time, while screws are more permanent. Ceramic-coated screws come in several colors, which helps them to blend in.

To avoid splitting planks, drill pilot holes for nails, countersink screws in wood, and predrill screw holes into composite. Choose zinc-coated or other corrosion-resistant fasteners, and use the right fasteners for composites. Also consider hidden fasteners or systems that hide the attachment (see Features for more).

Before staining, pressure-wash or brush the old surface with a cleaning solution. If there is any remaining mold and mildew, remove it using a solution of 1 part bleach and 3 parts water. When staining, use as many coats as the maker recommends. And be sure it's at least 50 degrees F from the time stain is applied until it dries completely.

Types

While wood is the most popular type of decking, other materials are catching on with homeowners. Here are four types of decking material to consider.

Wood

Pros:

Authenticity. Most is pressure-treated pine, but more expensive options include cedar, redwood, and tropical hardwoods.

Cons:

Wood tends to change color, crack, and absorb stains if it isn't restained. Hardwoods and exotic choices can be expensive.

Price: About $225 to $825 or more per 100 square feet.

Composite

Pros:

Best for the look of wood without the need to stain. It's made of plastic and wood fiber and can be stained to change its look.

Cons:

Some offer far less resistance to slips, stains, and mildew. Most choices are heavier and more expensive than the usual pine.

Price: About $425 to $650 per 100 square feet.

Plastic

Pros:

Best for resisting the elements without staining. Choices include PVC and polyethylene. It's also lightweight.

Cons:

Some can look cheap, some is slippery, and all sagged more than wood.

Price: About $525 to $625 per 100 square feet.

Aluminum

Pros:

Toughness, rigidity, and slip resistance. Its baked-on or anodized finish should last a long time, and its textured surface added traction in our tests. Sections of LockDry aluminum decking that we tested interlock so that rain won't drip through.

Cons:

It's expensive, and no one will mistake it for wood.

Price: About $700 per 100 square feet.

Features


Our grueling tests also show that some synthetic decking didn't make the grade for rigidity, and some tonier wood products looked worse for wear. Here are some decking features to consider.

Synthetics resist sun and spills

All of the composite, plastic, and aluminum decking kept their original color better than our unfinished wood. Many also fended off mustard, wine, and other stains.

Some decking is stiffer and surer

All of our wood and the LockDry aluminum resisted slips best in our wet and dry friction tests. Wood and aluminum were excellent at resisting bending and sagging. Some plastics and composites came close in those tests, but several flexed or sagged notably.

Synthetics offer a range of design options

Many of the synthetic products are available in colors such as white, gray, and several shades of brown. Surface textures include smooth (like plastic lawn furniture, in some cases), subtle wood grain, ridges, and other decidedly nonwood-like patterns. Some composite planks are flexible enough to be easily curved into patterns or shapes that would require much money and skill to duplicate in solid wood.

New fasteners improve looks and ease installation

TrapEase is one brand of special-purpose screw intended for use with plastic and composite decking. It has coarse threads at the tip to bite into the deck's supporting joist and finer threads toward the head to stop the decking material from bulging out.

Invisible fasteners suitable for wood or plastics come in three types: metal clips with sharp prongs that dig into the deck planks and the joist, elliptical wafers that fit into a slot cut into the sides of the planks and are held with a screw driven into the joist, and strips that fasten to the joist and underside of the plank. When all the planks are in place, the fasteners don't show.

Snap-in-place fasteners are easy to install, but unique to specific brands. One brand of aluminum decking we tested snaps together, much the way tongue-and-groove flooring does. A vinyl decking product we reviewed snaps in place over metal clips screwed onto the joists.

   

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