Decks serve a function as well as adding an aesthetic to our homes. However, like all additions, a deck can require substantial maintenance and repairs.
While wood is the long-standing standard for decks, the development of new products has provided consumers with more options than ever. Before you begin your next decking project, consider the pros and cons of all your options so you can make an educated decision about what's best for your situation.
1. Wood Decking
Forever popular, wood is a great choice for decks. It’s been used for generations since it’s easy to source and is a natural material. However, there are many different types of wood used as decking material so it’s important to know the characteristics of each before you head to the lumber yard.
Cedar is an ever-popular choice for wood decking. Readily available, cedar is a softwood that grows relatively quickly. It’s lightweight so it’s easy to work with. Yet, it’s strong so it wears well as a decking material.
Cedar is an affordable option due to wide availability. It’s naturally insect resistant, which is important if you don’t want the little buggers chewing through your deck. It’s also resistant to rot when properly cared for.
In addition to making a reliable decking material, cedar is a strong choice for deck railings, as well as other backyard structures such as fencing and pergolas.
The four best grades of cedar to use for decking are architect clear, custom clear, architect knotty, and custom knotty. These are all offered at increasing price points.
Perhaps the second most popular natural wood decking material comes from the redwood tree. This type of wood is most predominant on the west coast of the United States, since that’s where it primarily grows.
Redwood decking comes with many of the same attributes as cedar. It’s a durable option, but is typically more expensive than cedar, especially further away from its growing region. The red hue is a standout trait of redwood, and may be a deciding factor based on the look you hope to achieve.
Redwood is better equipped to resist warping and maintain stability than cedar, yet it still succumbs to the elements of weather. Redwood also comes in a variety of grades, with the strongest boards coming from the heart of old-growth trees.
Both redwood and cedar have high maintenance requirements. They need to be sealed upon installation and resealed every one to two years. They also frequently crack and splinter due to the common constricting and expanding as humidity levels in the air shift throughout the seasons.
If you live in an area with high snow or rain amounts, the wood surface must be protected. You can tell if it’s time to reseal the surface with a quick water test. Simply dump some water onto the deck. If it beads up, it’s still protected. If, however, the deck absorbs it, it’s time for some maintenance work.
Both cedar and redwood will fade to a dull gray color over time.
Because wood is so volatile when it comes to changes in the weather, airflow is a crucial component of wood decking health. During installation, ensure the deck is elevated at least 18 inches above the ground. This allows for proper airflow beneath the decking boards.
There is an environmental aspect to consider when it comes to wood decking. For example, the highest quality of redwood comes from old-growth stands that are dwindling in availability.
These massive trees can live for hundreds of years. Cutting them for decking material production means contributing to deforestation and all the associated problems. One way to mitigate this issue is to choose wood products labeled from sustainably-managed forests.
The most common type of lumber used as a decking material is pressure-treated lumber. This material starts out as natural wood. It can come from a variety of tree species.
The wood is then chemically-treated to make it more rot and insect resistant. It’s a cheaper alternative to cedar or redwood because it relies on lower-quality wood as a base--typically pine or a mixture of woods.
Pressure-treated lumber is widely available and is the premiere choice for decking supports due to its durability in the face of natural elements like moisture and contact with water.
However, the material is not consistent and is well-known to shrink, warp, and twist. While this isn’t ideal, it can be minimized with additional attention. A deck made of pressure-treated materials can last 15 years with proper care, but homeowners can expect to see shrinkage, splitting, splinters, and other issues along the way.
Pressure-treated lumber does come in different grades with the higher quality options being treated with water repellents or even being pre-stained.
Note: Avoid burning pressure-treated wood due to the chemicals it is treated with.
Other Wood Materials
In addition to the ubiquitous cedar and redwood, other woods are also used for decking. These include mahogany, teak, and ipe. Most of these woods are pricey and can be difficult to find for your project.
From an environmental standpoint, there are also serious questions about how these trees are harvested and shipped to the United States.
These are also hardwoods so they are more difficult to work with than their softer counterparts. However, they offer superior durability.
Tropical and other hardwoods offer rich colors and a dense, strong material that can last 25 years. They are also insect and rot-resistant. Remember these materials are significantly heavier, which is important information in calculating support requirements.
For installation, tropical hardwoods typically require pre-drilling of holes due to the wood density. Also note that dark hardwoods tend to heat in the sun, creating an unpleasant deck surface on a hot day.
2. Modified Wood
Like most modern products, science has stepped into the game to look for improvements over what nature provides. Modified wood decking offers enhanced performance coupled with the look of real wood. Think of it as engineered hardwood for the outdoors.
Modified wood products offer superior durability and low maintenance. They are created from softwoods that are treated with a non-toxic liquid to enhance density and strength.
Depending on the brand you choose, you can find it in a smooth finish or with more of a rustic look. It is also moisture and pest resistant and will fade to a silvery-gray color like solid woods. However, you don’t need to sand or reseal the surface unless you want to rejuvenate the look.
Probably the biggest game changer in the decking material world is the invention and continued innovations of composite materials. Basically this just means any material that is combined with other materials. The standard product is a mixture of plastic and wood.
Trex is the ubiquitous player in the composite decking arena, but many others have followed with variations in the recipe.
Composite decking costs significantly more than wood decks as an initial investment. However, considering you don’t have to strip, sand, stain, or otherwise apply products, the long-term savings add up to a break-even point over the life of the product.
Composite decking is long-lasting, easily performing for decades.
Installation of composite decking is a bit trickier than wood materials. It’s a comprehensive topic because there are several different installation techniques depending on the brand and the product you select. Some can be screwed in through the surface while others feature a hidden bracket system.
One issue that can arise with composite decking is called mushrooming. This is where the decking material is pushed upwards in the location of screw heads. There’s no solution for these bumps except to replace the board, so proper installation is essential.
Always use the recommended hardware and techniques during installation to minimize this risk.
Composite decking continues to rise in popularity because of its durability and long-wearing performance. It’s also impervious to rot and insect damage, and it won’t warp, split, or cause splinters.
The plastic offers UV protection, which means you won’t have to seal the surface. In fact, the only maintenance requirement is occasional cleaning to deter mildew growth.
While composite decking can expand and contract, it’s more flexible than wood so this process doesn’t result in damage to the surface.
From an environmental lens, it’s a product that makes use of existing plastic. Most manufacturers rely on recycled plastic along with wood fibers, often those that are a byproduct of other wood manufacturing processes.
When shopping for composite decking find out what it’s made of by scouring the website or calling the company. Some contain up to 95% recycled content.
Although the original composite decking options had a ‘fake’ wood look, the materials have seen significant advancements in recent years. Today’s composites offer a much more realistic wood texture.
If you’re not going for a natural wood look, however, there are options to suit every design style. In addition to a range of available color options, composite decking can be smooth or feature grain patterns.
Composites are made to look like real wood and come in a wide variety of natural-looking hues and grain patterns. Made by combining a blend of plastic and waste wood fibers, these boards won't splinter and don't need to be stained or painted, thanks to built-in UV resistance.
Installation of composite decking can be a DIY project or one that you hire out.
Some products feature a smooth side and a textured side, while other brands are the same on both sides. If you’re installing materials yourself, watch for proper placement.
Since composite decking is typically heavier than softwood planks, some manufacturers also create grooves on the underside of each board, which lowers the overall weight.
One unique component of composite decking is the innovative systems that feature hidden fasteners. This leaves a smooth, consistent top surface with no visible screws.
PVC is a vinyl decking made entirely from plastic rather than a combination that includes wood. It’s an ultra durable product because of the qualities of plastic. Like composite, it repels water, insects, rot, and splitters. PVC requires almost no maintenance, except for the occasional cleaning.
However, it can be loud and doesn’t look or feel like real wood. They can be challenging to install and are prone to squeaking when fasteners loosen or as the material flexes.
Plus, it’s typically more expensive than composite decking.
Different products offer different features, such as traction, sound buffering, or a thinness that allows it to be installed over an existing deck or concrete patio.
It’s a little difficult to envision, but aluminum makes an outstanding decking material. It’s light and has unmatched strength when compared to every other decking material.
Aluminum decking is impervious to mold, pests, water damage, peeling, cracking, rusting, splintering, splitting, and more. Plus, it’s fire resistant and completely recyclable. However, since it offers a lifetime of performance, recycling is probably not something you’ll even have to consider.
Of course the con to an aluminum deck is the cost. You’ll easily pay three to five times the amount you’d spend on other materials.
Some people may also not like the overall look of aluminum.
6. Concrete and Exposed Aggregate
While some people might not consider these to be decking materials, they are worth considering when planning for a patio space.
Concrete is durable, and with proper drainage, doesn’t suffer from moisture, water, and snow damage. It’s easy to clean and can create a variety of looks with a polished slab or concrete tiles. Concrete decking is low maintenance, but some people feel it lacks an inviting vibe. It also gets very hot in the sun.
Exposed aggregate has similar qualities to concrete, yet it offers a texture that decreases the risk of slipping.
So What’s the Best Decking Material?
The truth is there isn’t one right answer. The best decking material for you is the result of weighing the pros and cons of each material.
You’ll also need to evaluate your needs. Start by planning out the space. Size will be a big factor since material price is often based on square footage. The larger the deck, the higher the material and installation costs will be. Also, custom designs will take longer to install, but a basic rectangle will be faster.
Consider how you will use the deck. Are you hoping to create a basic step-up entryway on the front porch or are you creating a multi-level deck for entertaining with a grilling station and a hot tub?
How much weight does the decking need to support? Also think about the climate in your area and choose a material that will wear well in response. Another factor will be whether you intend to install the decking material yourself or if you’re paying someone else to do it.
Add in additional costs if you’re including a railing, stairs, or built-in benches on your deck.
Overall, composite decking is a winner in most categories. However, if low cost is your primary consideration, a cedar deck is likely the best choice for you.
Learn more deck basics in our related articles How to Prepare Your Deck for Deck Staining and Preparation for Deck Construction.