Comparing the Best Deck Material Options
Choosing a decking material is arguably the most important decision you’ll make while building a deck. Different circumstances call for different types of decking, and each option has its own unique aesthetic appeal, maintenance requirements, and other important considerations to keep in mind when choosing. Deciding which decking material option is right for you comes down to both personal and practical tastes.
Types of Deck Material Options
Before you choose the type of material you’ll use to build your deck, it’s important to explore your options, understand the pros and cons of each, as well as the level of maintenance required to keep your deck beautiful for years to come. Here are some of the most popular material options to choose from when building your deck.
#1 Pressure-Treated Wood
Among the various types of wood decking, pressure-treated lumber is the most common. While not all lumber is treated with the same chemicals, pressure-treated lumber is permeated with chemicals that contain insecticides and anti-rot properties, helping to enhance its natural durability. It’s also easy to find, easy to cut, and is generally easy to work with. If you don’t like the natural hue of your pressure-treated lumber, a stain can help with that and make it more aesthetically pleasing to suit your own tastes.
Typically, it’s recommended to let your deck weather for a few months prior to staining, and there are some benefits to sanding prior to applying stain. It’s also important to note there are different grades of treated lumber and your local supplier can help you choose the grade that’s right for your budget.
When comparing composite and wood decking, the most important differences involve how ordinary lumber has a tendency to split, warp, or crack. Pressure-treated wood also requires regular maintenance. But with care, including power washing, sanding and regular re-staining, you can extend the lifespan of your pressure-treated deck. Pressure-treated wood is also quite affordable, available at around $3-$6 per square foot.
#2 Cedar Decking
Cedar is commonly regarded as a higher-quality material than pressure-treated lumber. This natural wood gradually weathers into a soft grey tone through the years. It’s lightweight and easy to work with, which makes it great for DIY projects. Cedar also contains natural tannins, which make it resistant to decay, infestation, and rot.
One important distinction to make if you choose cedar as a decking material is that you must ensure the cedar you use is heartwood as opposed to sapwood. Heartwood is cut from the center of the tree and is considerably denser, whereas sapwood is the softer material on the outside of the tree. The extra density of heartwood makes lumber more resistant to environmental decay.
Similar to pressure-treated wood, cedar will require a fair amount of regular maintenance. But if you select quality cedar and provide annual refinishing, you can expect your cedar deck to outperform standard pressure treated wood decking. You can find cedar around $9 - $11.50 per square foot.
#3 PVC Decking
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics are available in many levels of quality, but nearly all of them are quite resilient. In fact, high-quality PVC decking has almost none of the vulnerabilities of wood. That means you don’t have to worry about sanding or staining plastics, which makes vinyl decking almost maintenance-free.
Aesthetically, vinyl provides a wider range of options than ordinary lumber. You can find color options for brown, gray, white, tan, or even patterns that mimic the grain of wood. Aesthetically, PVC provides a wider range of options than ordinary lumber. You can find color options for brown, gray, white, tan, or even patterns that mimic the grain of wood. Solid PVC decking has been manufactured for over 20 years and has improved in both formulation and aesthetics over that time. It is also lighter than many synthetic decking materials, making it easier to move around the jobsite.
Some of the downsides of PVC decking are cost and recycled content. When compared to wood, PVC decking has a much higher upfront cost, around $10-$12 per square foot, depending on the manufacturer. As with any longer-lasting building material, the increased cost of materials can be mitigated over time by the savings of reduced maintenance. Lastly, most PVC decking has less recycled content than other synthetic decking options (some PVC products are 100% virgin material). This increases the carbon footprint and doesn’t necessarily result in a higher quality deck board.
#4 Composite Decking
There are many types of composite decking. In general the word “composite” means different materials combined to make a new finished product. Most commonly low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and wood are used together, but some products use rice hulls, high-density polyethylene and other combinations of various materials. Among the many benefits of composite decking, you’ll find they stand up well to environmental conditions. Composite also comes in a wide range of several colors, including many that approximate the appearance of wood. Composite has a reputation for being extremely scratch resistant, but that can vary quite a bit with different brands and price points within each brand.
Composite decking is very low-maintenance and does not require sanding or refinishing. Washing your deck a few times per year is typically the extent of the required maintenance. With minimal care, high-quality materials like Trex Composite Decking can last for 25 years. There are many manufacturers and color options to choose from when selecting composite materials, so the cost of composite decking can vary widely – as much as $8 to $12 per square foot.
Lastly, due to the composition of composites many manufacturers can effectively use recycled materials with no impact on performance. Some brands use up to 95% recycled materials. If reducing your carbon footprint is important to you, refer to each manufacturer for more information about materials used.
Exotic hardwoods like Ipe wood are another excellent decking material option. The advantage of hardwoods is suggested right in their name – they’re hard. Their dense composition makes them resistant to infestation and rot. They also contain natural tannins that work similarly to the chemicals added to pressure-treated lumber.
Each hardwood has its own distinct appearance. For example, Ipe is a rich crimson brown, and fades to a soft grey color unless it’s oiled 1-2 times per year. Other options in the hardwood category are Tigerwood, Cumaru and Mahogany. Because of their density, hardwoods can last longer and look better as they age when compared to softwood. One downside of some hardwoods is that many are slow growth and don’t grow in great density in the parts of the world where they are harvested. As such there has been debate about how renewable of a resource those particular species are. If this is a concern there are many resources to consult online as you decide what material is best for your project.
From cost and appearance to maintenance and installation, many factors go into choosing deck material options. If you want to make the best choice for your own deck, it helps to be fully informed about your options. Take a moment to learn more about decking materials here.