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How to Build a Deck: Planning Design, Prepping Site and Buying Materials

By Edited Oct 25, 2016 2 0
Building a Deck
Credit: mjpyro

Decks provide an extension of your home that creates outdoor living space for activities ranging from grilling out to entertaining guests.

Building a deck is time consuming, but not difficult to do. If the thought of constructing something so large is a little intimidating, I understand. I too felt that way once until several years ago when I decided to take the plunge and build one myself after getting several estimates by some contractors. One wanted $4000 to build a 12 x 16 ft deck. I had already estimated the lumber costs that I would need and total materials came to less than a third of that. In fact, I think my estimates for lumber were around $1100 initially and that turned out to be accurate in the end.

So if you are thinking about doing it yourself, I would like to provide some encouragement for you. I had never built anything like this before but after reviewing some books, I decided that the only skills you really needed were the ability to measure accurately and the knowledge of how to use a circular saw,  table saw and a power drill.

So once you actually make up your mind you are going to do it, there a few things to consider before you get started.

Four Things to Decide Before You Begin

The most important decision you have to make in the beginning is how big you are going to make it.

Let me give you some advice on this. Build the deck size you want and don’t be limited by the longest piece of lumber available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The longest header or deck board they have at both of those locations is 16 ft. If you want a deck longer or wider than that, you can place a special order for longer boards.

If you have a lumber supply business close to where you live, I would recommend that you go there to order your wood.

Second, decide what type of railing system you are going to put on the deck. Do not take this part for granted because it is the most visible part of the deck. If you mess up in this area, people will notice.

Third, decide where you are going to locate the stairs that exit into the yard. Since this is your first deck, I would not recommend that you design or try to build a multi-level deck and/or stairs with a landing separating them from more stairs. Save that for the future when you have some experience under your belt.

Finally, decide how you are going to support the deck off the ground. This is a crucial decision. Without a good foundation, it will sag, bounce or not be structurally sounds.

There are several types of methods to support the end of the deck that isn’t attached to house. You can use a cantilever design that creates a support board spanning the length of the deck. The joists simply rest on the cross support. The advantage to this method is that you will not need posts in the ground at the very edge of the deck to support it. Cantilever decks also provide more strength over the long-term, but initially, setup is a little more difficult.

Build Footings for a Deck
Credit: mjpyro

The other option is to place your support posts in the ground, or on concrete footings, and attach the header board to the posts. If you are planning on underpinning the deck with some sort of material, this type of design is easier to frame with lattice or a similar material. It is also easier in the beginning to setup, although getting everything square is crucial.

In my own personal experience, I chose to bury pressure treated 4 x 6 posts in the ground. That is not the best option and I knew it at the time, but I thought it was the easiest method and given my inexperience with building decks, I opted for the easiest way to get started.

However, my recommendation to you is that you place the wood on concrete foots secured on the ends with j bolts buried in the concrete before it sets.

In the coming years, I am going to replace the support system of the deck with a cantilever support board resting on concrete footings, then I will simply cut the old posts off at ground level to get rid of them.

Once you decide these items, you can start to get an idea of how much lumber you will need. But first, you have to design the layout.

Sketching Out a Rough Design for Your Deck

Plan Your Deck Design
Credit: Giro720 via Wikimedia Commons

Before you go out and buy wood, you need to create a plan.  You can do this on grid paper so that you everything is to scale, or you can do what I did and simply sketch out the basic design on notebook paper. I had an idea of how the scale would work, however, it is much easier to do on grid paper.

Sketch the design with the deck layout without any deck boards on top. This will allow you to see how many joists you will need to span the area.

A deck at its core is simply a series of floor joists attached to ledgers and headers at each end, topped with cross decking boards to add to its structural integrity.

How to Build a Deck for Your Home
Credit: mjpyro

Use joist hangers when attaching to the headers.

When determining the number of joists you will need, consider the length they will be spanning and whether you will be using 8x10 boards or 10x10 boards. The thicker the board, the larger the gap you can leave in between each joist. However, I would not gap more than 16 inches, even with 10 inch thick boards. You do not want any bounce in your deck, so don’t cheap out on figuring up the cost for an extra joist or two.

Once you have the sketch, you can see how many boards you are going to need. Go online and get an estimate of the cost based on your design. Be sure to look at pressure treated wood. This is a must for all outdoor building projects that required wood.

My suggestion is that you add one board to all of your estimates just in case. You can always return it if you don’t need it.

Finally, take into consider any utility lines that may be located near your new deck area. If you aren’t sure where they are located on your property, you can call 811 and have someone come out and mark them with spray paint.

Depending on our local codes, you will probably need to get a permit before you build the deck since you are adding on to the structure of the house. This does not need to be an intimidating process. Simply take your plans to a local office and let someone review it. They may make suggestions on footings or changes in wood dimensions, but they will approve it.  There will be a fee of course.

Finally, if you live in a plan or subdivision, make sure there are no restrictive covenants in place that might affect your build. Normally this is not an issue unless you are planning on building a really tall deck, perhaps to a second floor. If that is the case by the way, you might want to consider professional contractors because that is much more difficult to build.

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Buying the Materials

As I wrote about in my companion article on how to build a shed, I took my design to Lowes and filled out a lumber list so that it could all be delivered to me next day or so. I recommend this approach for a couple of reasons.

First, you will have a lot of lumber to gather in the store on one of those lumber carts, and that is not fun particularly if you are doing it alone.

Then you have to load it on your truck, assuming you have one, and that is no fun. Then you have to unload it when you get home. If you have a helper or two, this can go quickly.

The other issue with transporting the wood on your own is that the boards are likely to be at least 12 feet longer depending on the length and width of your deck design. Most of the longest truck beds are about 8 feet at most, so those boards will be hanging off the edge of the tailgate. For example, I purchased a number of 12 foot joists as well as 16 foot ledgers boards and many 16 foot deck boards. Deck boards of those size would have hung off the back of a truck too far so I opted for delivery.

The cost is around $100 and well worth it in my opinion. They will deliver it in a day or two depending on how backed up they are.

While you are there, you might need to purchase a couple of tools that you will need if yours are not so great.

I have to laugh because I built my entire deck with just a $30 circular saw and an underpowered Ryobi battery powered drill.

I suggest that you get an electric hammer drill, one that plugs into an electric outlet so you don’t have  to stop your work because your drill battery is dead. In addition to a circular saw, a table saw would be nice for some cuts, but again, it is not mandatory. Those are the only power tools you will need.

The rest of the items you will need include the following:

  • 4 foot level, tape measure and chalk line
  • Hammer and hand saw
  • Combination and framing square


  • A box of lap screws and washers
  • Expansion bolts
  • A box of carriage bolt
  • Ring shank nails
  • Joist hangers
  • J-bolts and cement fastners

Using your sketch drawing, you can count how many lap bolts, carriage bolts and washers you will need, but take my advice and go ahead and box the box of them. There will be 20 or 25 in a box and you will probably end up needing more than you think. The per cost is much less if you buy the box.

Be sure all of the nails, bolts and connectors are zinc coated to prevent rust. No matter how much you plan, you will end up going back to the hardware store multiple times to buy more connectors or bolts, or exchange them for longer or shorter lengths. Make sure you keep all of your receipts.

Safety First

It is critical that you take certain precautions when building your deck. You will be cutting and drilling a lot of pressure treated wood and it is not healthy for you to breath in that dust. The chemicals that keep the wood from rotting have also been shown to cause cancer in rats. So it is critical that you wear the appropriate mask whenever you are cutting into the wood.

You also need a good pair of tight gloves. Do not bother with the bulky ones that give you no feel with your fingers. You will head up removing them to do things more often than not.

Finally, you need a good pair of work goggles or shatter resistant sun glasses.

Now that you have your design in place and have ordered all of your materials, you can start the building process.                                                            

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