How to Build the Perfect Deck
Get advice from Oprah, Janka and Google before you DIY!
By Tom Heatherington
Will your next deck be made of real wood or composite materials, and will people be walking on it in 2108? Do you know how to build the perfect deck?
If you are like me, you have a handle on DIY home maintenance and you haven’t called a plumber or an electrician since George Bush Sr. was in the White House. My shop is the envy of every guy in the neighborhood, and I know my way around just about any home repair or remodeling project. So, when my wife asked if we could build a deck on the back of our log home, I didn’t give it a second thought. “A quick trip to the local lumber yard and I’ll have us grilling steaks on our new deck by Sunday, I told my bride. After all, I know how to build the perfect deck!
When she hesitated after hearing my construction estimation, I knew there was more to this request than I had been told, and I was soon enlightened. Thanks to Oprah, or some other TV show I don’t watch, my wife had learned that decks have changed. “Nobody builds decks like they used to”, the newly crowned deck expert told me, “now they use composite materials or Brazilian woods that last forever”, I was informed.
The gauntlet had been laid in front of me; my wife knew more about a construction matter than me. I did what any man will do when challenged in such a manner, I fired-up the Internet and headed for Google. Oprah was not going to lecture to my wife about building decks and construction materials – that was my job.
To Build the Perfect Deck – may be more than you bargained for.
What began as a simple weekend project had now become a research operation worthy of a government grant. I could never admit this to my wife, or Oprah, but I soon learned that nobody builds decks like they used to. The last deck I built was constructed using those greenish pine pressure-treated boards that oozed some kind of fluid and weighed five times what they should. Sometime during the last century we were told that wood preservative caused cancer and those heavy green boards disappeared from lumber yards.
Alternative choices for decking made of real wood became (and remain) slim. Because of the huge demand and limited supply such wood requires special orders for over-priced lumber that is never “in stock”. To address this market opportunity, composite materials appeared on the scene and are very popular. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I like wood and the thought of grilling my steak standing on a plastic deck just rubs me the wrong way.
Fortunately, I discovered that I am not alone in my wood lust and that there are companies who offer a better, natural solution to the decking dilemma. Our choices for decking materials other than composites and pressure-treated ugly boards now include woods from the forests of South America that last for decades – many, many decades. I discovered one such company named Brazilian Wood Depot located in Norcross, Georgia, that imports and distributes several species of premium, real-wood decking.
I contacted the owner, Eric Hoover, and received a cram course on real wood decking alternatives. These are beautiful woods that literally require no maintenance and are more durable than composite decking. What’s better still is that lifetime estimates range from 15 to 100 years depending on the species. You read that correctly – 100 years!
My research uncovered information that I would never have considered prior to that TV virus infecting my wife’s database. As an example, I have never built a deck, fence or other outside project with a preconceived notion of how long it would last. I would use what I thought was the best material for the job and know that in a couple years I would need to paint or stain again.
All wood grays over time and many people like a gray weathered appearance. However, an oil-based sealer will help preserve Brazilian decking and help retain the original color if you desire. Regarding the remarkable lifespan of these woods, the estimates are based on the “Janka hardness rating” (used to determine whether a species is suitable for use as flooring.)
- Cambara 15 years
- Garapa 25 years
- Tigerwood 40 years
- Jatoba 50 years
- Cumaru 80 years
- Ipe’ 100 years
Clearly, weather and the elements play a critical part in how long any material survives outdoors, so we are talking averages here. The life expectancy of a conventional deck surface of pine can be as short as 5 or 6 years unless you think navigating rot fractures and loose boards constitutes a “stable” deck. Redwood from the good old USA will last longer and is an ideal substitute for pressure-treated pine, but it is exorbitantly expensive and almost impossible to obtain.
Most composite decking manufacturers warrant against just about everything but color fading. However, I learned that many people’s experience is that it will begin to sag and discolor after 5 to 8 years. I followed some interesting online forums and blogs and discovered that composite decking has “love it or hate-it” fan clubs, so you will want to do your own research and I’d recommend that you dig deep. Some of the horror stories involving $20,000 deck fiascos could give you nightmares.
Affordability is the ultimate decision maker (unless you’re Oprah). As with all things, the bottom line will usually determine our ultimate choice, but I was in love with the beauty and structural soundness of the Brazilian decking woods I discovered. My cost analysis of using Brazilian hardwood versus pine or composite decking was a surprising exercise. My research results showed that pressure treated pine costs approximately $.80 per linear foot (plf), and although inexpensive, we’re talking about incurring that same expense many times over the lifetime of a house. Composite decking costs range from $2.00 to $4.00 plf, but again we’re looking at a reoccurring expense.
Surprisingly enough, the Brazilian woods, which are the most beautiful and offer the longest lasting solution, cost approximately $2.20 plf. After you factor out maintenance and factor in a projected 15 to 100 year lifespan, this was a no-brainer decision. In addition to being affordable and beautiful, Brazilian decking wood is extremely durable, needs no maintenance, is recyclable and biodegradable. I live in a log home – I really like wood, and I just discovered I could afford what I wanted.
After I shared what I had learned with my construction princess, she acknowledged that I had reclaimed my title as DIY PRO. but there was one intsy, wincy, tiny little problem. “There’s this gorgeous log home for sale down by the lake just a few miles from here”, she purred. “And it doesn’t have a deck either, so you’ll be able to use everything you’ve learned when we build our new deck on that house after we buy it.” As I turned to slink away, she asked me where I was going. I answered that it was almost time for Oprah’s show and I needed all the help I could get.
Tom Heatherington is the founder and editor of the Log Furniture Directory and the Log Cabin Directory, “human edited” directories of log homes and rustic furniture and related information for the United States and Canada.