What tools do I need to build a deck?

If you’re a handy guy or gal, chances are you already own many of the tools needed for deck construction. Most hand tools are inexpensive and worth buying, even if you will use them only for your deck. Power tools can be pricey, so you may choose to rent rather than purchase some of them. Deck tools can be divided into five categories: tools for lay out and measuring; for general carpentry and digging; for cutting; for fastening; and for smoothing and shaping. To use these tools effectively, see the section on Basic Skills. There you will also find some tips on choosing the best tools.

Tools for Layout and Measuring
To build a quality deck, you will check constantly to be sure its parts are level, plumb and square. A 25-foot tape measure handles most tasks, but a longer tape can come in handy for a very large deck. Chalk lines, also called chalk boxes, quickly create perfectly straight lines. Blue chalk easily washes off; red chalk is pretty permanent. A framing square, also called a carpenter’s square, is essential for checking corners for square and marking long square lines. Speed squares (shown in two sizes) will be heavily used when marking boards for cutting. To check for level and plumb, you’ll find yourself using a torpedo level for small pieces, and a 2-foot level and a 4-foot level for larger pieces.

Excavation and General Tools
For excavating, hand tools can usually do the job, though, you may want to hire a landscaper or rent an earth-moving or post hole-digging machine for very large jobs. A spade shovel digs earth and removes soil. Use mason’s line to mark off areas to be excavated. A drain spade has a narrow blade that helps when digging shallow postholes. For deeper post holes, use a clamshell post hole digger.
Clamps of various types hold pieces in alignment temporarily while you drive fasteners. A pipe clamp is as long as the pipe you attach the two parts to. A squeeze clamp grabs quickly, but a sliding clamp holds more firmly. A flat pry bar slips into narrow spaces and pulls boards into position with minimal damage to the wood. A pry bar/nail puller does those jobs as advertised, but will likely mar the wood. For tightening bolts and nuts, use a crescent wrench, also called an adjustable wrench, while a pair of locking pliers may be needed to hold the other end of the fastener. Hand sledges are sometimes needed to persuade tight boards into position.

Tools for Cutting
Building a deck does not call for cuts as precise as those for cabinetry, but your cuts should be very accurate. A circular saw is often used for most cuts, so get one that cuts reliably, and equip it with a sharp carbide-tipped blade. Use a jigsaw, also called a saber saw, for curved cuts and cutting in tight spots, and an oscillating saw for even tighter spots. A reciprocating saw is essential for demolition and is also handy for finishing cuts on 6x6 posts, though, you could use a hand saw instead. Keep a utility knife and some wood chisels in your tool belt to finish and slightly modify cuts. Tin snips, also called aviator shears, cut metal and plastic flashings. A small plane that is correctly adjusted shaves boards with ease. You may occasionally need a grinder to cut away metal or masonry.

Table Saw
A small table saw like this, called a worksite saw, quickly rips boards to width.

Chop Saw

A power miter saw, also called a chopsaw, makes accurate crosscuts with ease.

Fastening Tools
Though you can fasten deck framing and even decking using a hammer, a power nailer works much faster and prevents denting often produced by mishits when hand nailing. Still, a hammer is often used for driving joist-hanger nails and for getting into tight areas. A nail set extends your reach when nailing. A teco nailer, which attaches to an air compressor like a power nailer, can also be used for driving small nails for joist hangers and other hardware.
A cordless drill that is 18 or 20 volts has become one of the most popular fastening tools. Also, use an impact driver to easily drive screws and bolts very firmly. If you will install decking with face screws, a speed driver uses screws in a clip, so you can drive a lot of screws quickly. Its extender enables you to do the job while standing up.

Nail Gun with Compressor
Though professionals often have larger compressors, a model like this, with 150 PSI and 6 gallons, is plenty of power for building a deck.

Tools for Shaping and Smoothing
Use a router with a roundover bit or a decorative bit to ease sharp edges and creative custom looks. A belt sander is the most powerful sanding tool, but should be used carefully so you don’t dig into the wood. A random orbit sander is also effective at smoothing and removing stains, but is safer to use. A hand sander also does the job.