An Overview of Different Materials You Can Use on Your Deck Project
This article provides information to help you choose the best material for a deck. This is a tricky topic, because what's "best" depends on what you value most in your outdoor deck--cost, looks, maintenance, etc.
Your building options have really expanded in recent years. In the past, your only choice was wood; however, there are now a wide variety of wood types to consider, along with composites and some unconventional materials like aluminum.
The table below provides a summary of the different deck building materials, compared across several key attributes. If you would like more details, scroll past the table for a deeper description of each option. By the end, you can decide what is the best material for a deck, for you.
Pressure Treated Lumbar
|Lacks the "wow" factor.||Treat every 2-3 years||Cheapest option, about $1-$2 per linear foot|
|Beautiful when properly finished||Treat every 1-2 years||Moderate, $2-4 per linear foot|
|Nice natural look||Treat every 1-2 years||Moderate, $2-$3 per linear foot|
|Nice look, similar to Cedar||Treat every 1-2 years||About $2-3 per linear foot|
|Attractive alternative to Cedar and Redwood||Treat every 1-2 years||About $1.75-$2.50 per linear foot|
|Composite||Not for purists due to unnatural look and feel||Low - keep clean||High, about $3-5 per linear foot|
|Aluminum||Strong, light, resistant to bugs and weathering, but far from "natural" looking||Low - keep clean||Very high - $9 per linear foot|
Wood - Pressure Treated Lumbar - This material is the most commonly used deck material today. Pressure treated lumber is wood that has been--you guessed it--treated with preservative chemicals to prevent rotting and insects. Most pressure treated wood available today is milled from Pine/Fir and usually costs only about $1 per linear foot. This choice is also a good one if you are concerned with longevity. Pressure treated wood will sometimes comes with a lifetime warranty. This material will often change shape slightly over time, do to shrinking or twisting when the wood dries fully. Look for premium or select varieties of pressure treated wood, which may cost a little more, but will be less likely to change shape.
Bottom Line: If you are mostly concerned with the cost of your deck, pressure treated lumber is a probably the best choice for you.
Wood: Redwood - Redwood is a great choice for decks because it has a beautiful look to it, it's sturdy and straight, and it is naturally resistant to boring inserts and rotting. It is also very durable, lasting up to 30 years under proper care, which involves applying a sealant every 1-2 years. If you are concerned about fires, Redwood happens to be one of the more fire resistant varieties of wood. In terms of cost, Redwood is moderately priced, usually slightly more than cedar. Of course, pricing can vary widely depending on the variety of Redwood you choose. There are over 30 types of Redwood available. To keep things simple, ask whether you are getting "Architectural Grade" or "Garden Grade." Stay away from Garden Grade Redwood because it contains lower quality wood from the outside of the log (called sapwood).
Bottom Line: If a natural looking deck is your goal, Redwood is a great choice.
Wood: Cedar - Cedar is a common choice for wood decking and has a good balance of features, so many conclude that it is the best material for a deck. It is a soft wood with a nice fragrance and properties that allow it to naturally resist rot and insects, especially if you use the "heartwood" part of the tree, which is the darker center part of the log (as opposed to the sapwood). This material is very similar to redwood, but will flex a bit more before breaking. Cedar has a nice natural color to it and will maintain its structure (lay flat and stay straight). In terms of maintenance, one must apply a sealant every other year, at a minimum. Diligent maintenance will preserve that rich warm color longer, but most cedar decks will inevitable darken in the direction of gray over time. Cedar will have a lifespan of 15-20 years. In terms of cost, cedar is priced somewhere in the middle of the options presented here.
Of course, there are many different types of Cedar, depending on the origin. For example, there is Western Red Cedar (the most common), Eastern White Cedar, Atlantic Cedar, Incense Cedar, Northern White Cedar, Port Oxford Cedar, and Southern Red Cedar. Getting into the details of these varieties is outside the scope of this article. If you are concerned about the quality of your wood, ask about the grade of the cedar you are buying. You will generally run across either "Select Tight Knot Grade (or #1), which is a high quality product, or #2, which is acceptable for a deck, but slightly lower quality. Do not buy a #3 or #4 grade wood for your deck.
Bottom Line: If you are going for a classic, natural looking deck, Cedar (or Redwood) is a wonderful choice.
Wood: Larch - This is a wood from Russia (Siberia) that can serve as a nice alternative to the more popular Cedar and Redwood choices. Like Cedar and Redwood, Larch is naturally resistant to weathering and is very stable. In terms of cost, if you can find it, it should be priced comparably to Cedar and Redwood.
Bottom Line: If you prefer the look of Larch to Cedar or Redwood, this material is comparable.
Wood: Cypress - Like Larch, Cypress is another good alternative to the more popular Redwood and Cedar. It possesses many of the same attributes, including natural decay resistance and high stability (although not quite as stable as Redwood, which is the most stable). Like the other natural woods listed, maintenance involves treating the wood once every year or two. If you are in the South, this wood may be easier to find. If so, it should be priced lower than Cedar and Redwood, but higher than pressure treated wood.
Bottom Line: A slightly less expensive, and slightly lower quality natural wood option when compared with Cedar and Redwood; however, it may not be readily available outside of the South.
Wood: Exotics - If you want to consider a less conventional approach, but want to stay in the natural wood category, there are several tropical hardwoods to think about. The most popular varieties are Massaranduba (Brazilian Redwood), Cumaru (Brazilian Teak), Ipe (Brazilian Walnut), and Mahogany. Each of these materials are unique, but in general, they do not accept stains as well, they are slightly more expensive than traditional wood options, since they are harder to find, and they often require more work during installation (e.g. drilling pilot holes first).
Bottom Line: Exotic woods can give your deck a unique look, but be prepared to pay a little more and apply some special care.
Composites - Composite planks are made with recycled wood fibers (chips and sawdust), combined with plastic resins. This is one of the more expensive options, but the boards require very little maintenance. In fact, the only required upkeep is to keep it clean with a broom or hose. Purist will scoff at the look and feel of this material, however.
There are many different types of composite decking. You can find composites using a wide variety of recycled plastics, solid or ribbed shapes, different fasteners, and an endless array of colors and textures.
Bottom Line: If you care most about maintenance, go with composites, which require very little upkeep.
Aluminum - Aluminum decking is an unconventional option, but it makes a lot of sense on paper: no boring bug problems, no rot, no warping, very strong, light, etc. Surprisingly, aluminum even stays cool in the sun. Like composite materials, aluminum is very easy to maintain. Aside from the industrial look, the big downside of aluminum is the cost -- up to $9 per linear foot (1x6 plank).
Bottom Line - If you are confortable with the look and the cost, aluminum makes a lot of sense as a strong, durable deck material.
When deciding the best material for a deck, I hope you consider the asthetics, maintenance, and cost of each material to make the best decision for you.