This Isn't Your Father's Deck

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When most of us started in this business, redwood, western cedar and pressure-treated pine were pretty much our only choices for deck boards.

April 01, 2003

 

When most of us started in this business, redwood, western cedar and pressure-treated pine were pretty much our only choices for deck boards. We tried to be as imaginative as possible in creating masterpiece decks. We added flower boxes, built-in seating, storage boxes for tools and toys, and hot tubs. All those things still apply today in various applications, but now we have myriad choices in three basic types of deck board materials.

Natural woods

The old standbys are still around, but taking an ever-expanding share of the market is a number of imported woods. Once considered exotics, these species are usually products of ecologically diverse, government-managed forestry programs. Add the increasing costs and red tape of harvesting homegrown lumber, as well as high tariffs on Canadian timber, and you can understand why many distributors are looking overseas. "Other countries have created successful sustained-forest programs," says Tim Boddington of Boddington Lumber Co. in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Until we have a certification program for our national forests, we are forced to explore other resources."

Ipe, also known as Brazilian walnut, Pau Lope and ironwood, is one of the most popular imports. Twice as dense as other species and up to five times harder, it can be left to weather naturally. It is widely distributed from Columbia, Bolivia and southeastern Brazil. Knot-free with a rich, dark brown color that resembles teakwood, a deck now can look as beautiful as an indoor hardwood floor.

Mahogany from the Philippines, teak from Malaysia and batu from West Borneo are also fine examples of the choices we now have. Another interesting new product is the jarrah hardwood from Australia. Manufactured in interlocking tile modules, it is suitable for installation on flat surfaces such as patios, balconies and around pools.

Most of the products mentioned above are considered maintenance-free in that their distributors claim they never need staining or sealing. The first deck my company built using Ipe is approaching 3 years old and seems to look better every year, and the homeowner is very pleased that we did not use a sealer on it. Also, the incredible denseness of these hardwoods gives them an amazing resistance to decay and insects.

One last comment on hardwoods: Although some builders report being able to run their deck screws directly through the material, we prefer to pre-drill every hole before placing any surface fasteners. This alleviates pressure around the screw and helps prevent splitting and cracking down the road.

 

A classy deck with Ipe hardwood and wrought-iron railing. Many contractors have started using wrought-iron railings. A fully welded rail and baluster system works very well with traditional homes, especially country French. Many styles of individual wrought-iron pickets can be installed easily in a variety of wooden railings for a warmer feel.

Composites

Advances in technology have given manufacturers the tools to combine an amazing array of substances. It seems like a new brand of composite decking material is introduced to the market every week.

A combination of reclaimed hardwood sawdust and reclaimed/recycled polyethylene plastic such as grocery sacks and stretch film, Trex is a good example of responsible recycling within the construction industry. According to the manufacturer, "The plastic shields the wood from moisture and insect damage, and the wood products protect the plastic from UV damage and provides additional stability and traction." Another composite, TimberTech, uses recycled wood and virgin PVC polymers, also known as thermoplastics. A third brand, E-Z Deck, is a fiberglass-reinforced composite.

These and other manufacturers have succeeded by combining man-made materials with natural woods, resulting in products that have a consistent appearance and are virtually maintenance-free. The stability of these composites also provides low thermal expansion/contraction properties.

Most composites can be worked like their wood counterparts as far as sawing, drilling and screwing. Some have a modified tongue-and-groove system, while others use a retaining clip that snaps the boards together. In general, the composites are a breeze to install and effortless to maintain.

 

Popular in the Southwest, the combination of latillas and vigas results in an earthy, Western look with roots in the Hispanic culture. Latillas are essentially young aspen trees 11/2 to 3 inches in diameter with their bark removed by hand. They usually are installed vertically with the tops staggered. Vigas are generally some variety of native pine trees and used in a more structural sense, either as posts, beams or newel-posts. Vigas also have had the bark removed, either by hand or machine, and can range in diameter from 6 inches to more than 20, depending on the use.

Vinyls

As in the first two types of materials, there are many manufacturers and processes to choose from in the family of 100% plastic and vinyl decking. Some companies strictly use virgin plastic, freshly made for its intended purpose. Others recycle post-consumer waste (milk jugs) and/or post-industrial reclaimed plastic. Still others make their plastic lumber from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), commonly known as vinyl. Quite a debate is going on regarding the public health issues surrounding the production, use and disposal of chlorine-based vinyl. This article cannot begin to address the many concerns and issues of vinyl decking, so do your own research and make your best-informed decision.

That said, plastic decking has several advantages over natural woods and composites. Obviously, it is preferred for docks and other high-moisture areas. Pure plastic typically won't rot, split, crack or splinter. It never needs to be painted, stained, waterproofed or sanded, and a quick wash with a hose or pressure washer generally restores its original appearance.

Most plastics have the color through the entire product and also are protected by ultraviolet stabilizers to prevent extreme fading. The lighter-colored plastic decking doesn't get as hot as many other products and is easy to walk on barefoot in the summer heat.

There is even a new product called "over-decking" that is made of 100% virgin vinyl. It is used to cover existing new or old deck boards as well as concrete surfaces. Distributed by Backyard America, it is ideal for decks and docks. As plastics technology advances, the possibilities for new uses are endless.

 

An Alternative to CCA

On Feb. 12, 2002, the EPA announced that the manufacturers of pressure-treated materials voluntarily had agreed to stop producing lumber treated with CCA (chromated copper arsenate) for residential use by Dec. 31, 2003. Although the EPA admits there is no "unreasonable" risk to the public, it believes any reduction in exposure to materials treated with arsenic is desirable.

The ban on CCA-treated lumber will affect all residential uses of wood for play structures, decks, picnic tables, landscaping timbers, patios and walkways.

The leading replacement for treated lumber at this time is ACQ, or Alkaline Copper Quat. Quats are fungicides that attack decay organisms, and copper is used to protect wood from insects and rot. According to Backyard America, "ACQ- treated wood has been tested thoroughly and found to have performance characteristics similar to wood treated with CCA." Estimated price increases for ACQ-treated southern yellow pine range from 10% to 30%.

Accessorize your deck

Railings and balusters have come a long way from the tried-and-true 2x4 handrails and 2x2 pickets. As with deck boards, we're seeing all kinds of new materials available to enclose a deck safely. Sometimes two or more materials are combined to create an attractive, classy look.

For more contemporary styles, try steel pipe railing. Usually installed horizontally, the pipe can be curved in any direction, up or down steps and around radius floor decking. Powder-coated paint gives it a hard, glossy, enduring finish.

Some deck builders have borrowed from the commercial building industry. Two styles making the rounds are cabling and tempered glass. Tensioned, horizontal steel cables have a great industrial look, very appropriate for contemporary homes or simply for a more eclectic appearance. In my part of the country, Colorado, homeowners don't want anything to impede their incredible mountain views, so we often install panels of tempered glass between a thin handrail and the deck floor (with a space at the bottom for snow removal). When you're lounging on a deck perched on a Rocky Mountain hillside, the views through the glass can be exhilarating.

Along with many new styles of baluster centerpieces, finials and post caps, deck railings can be a thing of beauty as well as a safety device.

Finally, let's examine some of the new fasteners on the market. Galvanized nails have given way to coarse deck screws specifically designed to hold down deck boards in high-traffic areas. Stainless steel deck screws also have become popular in recent years, further preventing corrosion and staining.

The most exciting innovation in deck fasteners is hidden, or invisible, fasteners. One brand, Tiger Claws, attaches to the framing from the top, holding the deck boards securely, but virtually unseen. Tiger Claws are designed for use with most softwoods and aren’t recommended for composites or hardwoods.

Another "invisible" fastener gaining popularity is the Deckmaster Hidden Deck Fastening System. Essentially a 22 1/2-inch long, 24-gauge piece of steel with holes pre-drilled for screws, the Deckmaster comes in two finishes: galvanized for most uses and stainless for corrosive areas. Installed on the side of the framing joists, screws are run through the steel bracket into the deck boards, invisibly securing the board from below.

One of the most important advantages of these two fasteners over surface fasteners is reduced potential for rot, which typically begins around the head of screws and nails. Other benefits are enhanced deck appearance, reduced cupping, extended deck board life and easier maintenance.

With the combined use of any number of the new deck board materials, rails, balusters and fasteners, decks today can and should be a tribute to your imagination and craftsmanship.

Kenton Pass is the founder and co-owner of The SawHorse Co., a design/build remodeling and custom home building firm in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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