The Deck Handbook: Part 1 Introduction to Decks

Once little more than a homebuilder's afterthought, decks today are the focal point of most backyards. Good for entertaining, curling up with a good book, or just hanging out with a cold one; they serve as the open air family room. As deck materials and construction methods evolve, designers are pushing the limits of form and function farther than ever before.

In the 1970s, you could have any deck material you wanted, as long as it was wood. On the west coast, Redwood and Western Red Cedar dominated. In the rest of the country, pressure-treated pine (that did not have to be painted) was beginning to take over from Douglas Fir (that did) as the deck material of choice.

Today the choice of deck materials is, by contrast, seemingly limitless: wood (of course), including the standards &hyphen pressure treated pine, cedar, redwood &hyphen and now imported exotic hardwoods such as Ipe (which are even more rot and insect resistant than their domestic counterparts); composite materials, vinyl, concrete, fiberglass, even ceramic and stone tiles.

To plan your deck you need to consider all the choices available, filter them through your budget and come up with a number of decisions that will affect how your deck will look and perform. This handbook is intended to help you make informed choices by introducing you to some of the issues involved in planning and building a deck.

It's not nearly as simple as it may seem at first glance. In just the past 15 years there has been an explosion of new materials, advanced construction techniques, and a whole raft of new building, fire and safety code regulations. A deck built to code as late as 1995 would probably not be legal today. A deck used to be a project where beginning carpenters learned the basics of their craft. Today that's no longer true. Building a safe, solid, durable and long-lasting deck requires much the same experience and craftsmanship as any other complex building or remodeling project. It is no longer a place for beginners.

Designing Your Deck

If yours is to be a very simple wood deck on fairly flat ground, you might consider designing it yourself. There are even a number of do-it-yourself design sites on the Internet.

If, on the other hand, you envision a more complex structure with multiple levels, composite or vinyl materials, a railing that involves something more advanced than 2"x2" wood balusters, or interesting lighting effects, then you may need a professional designer. That would be, for example, us.

Our experienced design team can design your deck for you. If we then build your deck for you, the design is free. If you elect to have another builder construct your deck, then you pay only for the design and plans. You can't lose with this proposition. So contact us for a deck that is uniquely your own. Our computerized design process will let you examine your new deck in full-color photo-quality drawings so you can see what it will look like before the first post-hole is dug.

We use truly sophisticated design software that, among other nice things, allows us to place lighting on the deck then look at it at night to see if the lighting is adequate and properly positioned. We can also look at sunrise, high noon and sunset views to see how the angle of the sun will affect shaded areas on the deck. It even allows us to look at the deck under winter light and summer light. The only thing it will not do is provide artificial snow. They may be working on that.

Straight Decking Pattern Straight: The basic straight pattern. Deck boards are laid parallel to the edge of the deck.

Diagonal Decking Pattern Diagonal: An excellent pattern for smaller decks, deck boards are set at an angle to the edge of the deck.

Split Diagonal Decking Pattern Split Diagonal: A rib board separates diagonal sections.

Herringbone Decking Pattern Herringbone: Alternating diagonal sections may be butted or separated by rib boards.

Decking Patterns

We can make any changes to the deck design needed until the deck is just right for you. We then create a complete set of plans and specifications suitable for permit application from which the actual deck is built by our skilled and experienced craftsmen and -women.

Deck floor pattern choices are endless. They can add style and panache and can make a deck look larger or smaller, or accentuate different areas. Deck floor patterns can be achieved using any flooring material. You can stick with a single pattern or combine different patterns for another look entirely.

Different deck frames support different patterns, so it is important to choose a floor pattern before building. The location and spacing of the supporting joists depend on the decking pattern. Decking boards must always be oriented across the joists. Decking board ends must rest on a joist. They cannot float in mid-air.

By combining these basic patterns, a deck may be made as complex as you may wish. Even very complex patterns can be made up of simple combinations of straight and diagonal patterns.

Generally, the more complex the decking pattern, the more complex the framing structure and the more labor and material involved and the more costly the deck.

Cost is also influenced by the method by which deck boards are attached to the deck framework.

The most common and least expensive is to nail or screw through the deck boards into the framing structure. This leaves the nail- or screw-heads visible in the deck.

There are also a great variety of hidden fastening systems for use with wood decking, and proprietary attachment mechanisms designed by just about every composite decking manufacturer for use with their own product. All of these involve some sort of hardware device that attaches to the deck board from underneath where it cannot be seen.

As a rule of thumb, hidden decking attachment involves about twice the labor of surface attachment, and about one-third again the material expense for the additional attachment hardware.

Decking Materials

While the most common decking material is wood or a wood substitute, the drive for increasingly maintenance-free decks has increased interest in alternative decking materials. Decking takes the most abuse on a typical deck, and while railings may suffer from the elements over time, especially the horizontal parts of the railing like the handrail, no part of the deck deteriorates faster or requires more maintenance than the decking. In consequence, other, more durable materials are getting a second look.


Aluminum decking, long popular on marine docks and commercial decks, is becoming the up-scale deck of choice in many localities. Durable and virtually corrosion free, aluminum needs little more than a broom and garden hose to stay new looking nearly forever.

One drawback, however, is heat retention. Aluminum can hot enough that an unshaded aluminum deck may become very uncomfortable on sunny days. However, heat retention is somewhat reduced if the aluminum material is kept fairly thin &hyphen thin materials tend to radiate away heat from the sun at about the same rate it is absorbed. Heat retention tests by Nexan Building Products, a manufacturer of aluminum decking products, showed that aluminum decking does not retain as much heat as most wood and composite decking.

Another issue is impact damage. Relatively thin aluminum is more susceptible to hail and damage from falling objects.

On the plus side, however, aluminum does not burn, and even the powder coating on most aluminum decking resists scorching better than any other deck material except the stones and ceramics.

For most homeowners, the real drawback of aluminum decking is cost. Expect to pay 4 to 10 times the price of a treated pine deck, not just because the material costs considerably more but because it takes a specially trained team to install an aluminum deck.


Concrete, at home in pool-side decks for decades, has migrated into backyards that do not boast a swimming pool. Because it is poured wet and needs a lot of reinforcement until it cures and hardens, concrete is an expensive deck, and it is not a look that everyone likes.

There are many variations of plain concrete: stained and formed to look like stone, for example. These enhancements do add to the cost of an already pricey product.

Many homeowners, rather than choosing concrete formed and finished to look like tile, are opting instead for concrete tile as a decking material. Formed to look like stone, these pavers are less expensive to install but as they are heavy, do require a reinforced deck structure.

Ceramic and Stone Tile

Ceramic and stone tile on patios is common in the U.S. but the idea has not, for some reason, widely migrated to decks. Possibly, because in the past building a strong deck under-structure suitable for tile was not a trivial undertaking, involving as it did wet concrete and much skill at getting it very level.

Today, however, the invention of fiber cement tile underlayment panels makes the process much easier and much less expensive. In fact, depending on one's choice of tile, a tile deck will cost barely more than a treated pine deck but somewhat less than a cedar deck. But rather than lasting for a few years, will last your lifetime, and probably that of your children and grandchildren.

Properly set tile is a lifetime deck that needs almost no maintenance beyond a periodic sweeping and washing. An almost infinite variety of colors and patterns make tile an easy match for any decor, and unlike concrete and most aluminum decks, avoids that "industrial" look to which so many object. (For more information on ceramic and stone tiles as a deck surface, skip to Part 7: The (Almost) Maintenance Free Deck.

Composite Decking

Wood-plastic composite decking appeared on the scene in the 1990s surround with claims "no maintenance" and a "lifetime deck". The early gray deckboards gave way in the first decade of the 21st century to new textures and colors that looked more like tropical woods like Brazilian Walnut and pricey domestic lumber such as red cedar, increasingly accompanied by match railing components.

Wood-plastic composite decking appeared on the scene in the 1990s surround with claims "no maintenance" and a "lifetime deck". The early gray deckboards gave way in the first decade of the 21st century to new textures and colors that looked more like tropical woods like Brazilian Walnut and pricey domestic lumber such as red cedar, increasingly accompanied by matching railing components.

Composite decking is man-made from what is essentially lumber waste, usually sawdust salvaged from lumber mills, and plastic. Some of the plastic is new but much of it is recycled. On manufacturer, Trex, claims to save some six million pounds of plastic from the landfill each year.

The wood dust and plastic is mixed with preservatives like borate, pigments, and UV inhibitors, heated to the consistency of soft putty and extruded through dies to make boards. Some are embossed with "wood grain" to look more realistic (although we have never seen a real wood deck that showed embossed wood grain). Premium boards are often wrapped with a shell of pure vinyl or another durable plastic, and this wear layer can be colored and textured into a fairly accurate imitation of wood planks.

Unfortunately, the early promise of composite decking did not materialize. Composite rotted, splintered and fell apart. It harbored whole colonies of mold and mildew which could not be eliminated. It faded to gray and had to be re-stained to keep its fresh appearance.

Disenchanted consumers sued. Major composite manufacturers, Trex, GAF, Lou­isi­ana-Pacific, and others, settled several class action lawsuits, paying out large sums while promising to stop claiming that composite decks were maintenance free and lifetime decks. Some manufacturers, like CorrectDeck, were forced into bankruptcy and some, like EON, simply quit the business.

Wood Decking

By far the most popular material for decks is wood. Over 80% of all decks are wood. Wood decks can be created in an endless variety of tones and patterns, and modern sealing products ensure they will last for many years with regular, routine maintenance.

Homeowners face a wide range of choices when planning a wood deck. Some wood products are extremely costly ‐ particularly tropical hardwoods. Others, while inexpensive, may require more maintenance than most homeowners prefer.

When planning your deck, it makes sense to use more expensive wood where it will show, and less expensive materials for concealed structural members. For example, it is typical to use relatively inexpensive pressure-treated pine for structural members and more expensive, exotic woods for the decking and railings. Some designs go one step farther and use a less costly wood for the decking, and highlight the railings and fascia with more attractive materials. . . .(Continues)

Rev. 04/30/21