Buying a deck can be an exciting process, and it’s a surefire way to add new life to any outdoor area. It can also be daunting for any homeowner as knowing what type of decking you want is just half the battle. There are a number of things you’ll want to consider before settling on a type of decking or even choosing a shade which is why we’ve put together this handy buying guide for decking.
While our guide isn’t going to go into how to install or repair a deck, we will touch on all the decking options available for homeowners today. If you’ve never owned a home with a deck or just didn’t want one due to the maintenance, you may be surprised by the materials available outside of old-fashioned wood.
Why Are You Buying New Decking?
This is a simple question and the first one you need to consider before we delve into building materials. Are you replacing an existing deck around your home or building an entirely new creation?
That can have a lot to do with the style of decking you choose. You may need to add more joists, and if you’re building a deck yourself, the ground comes into play along with moisture. Do you plan on entertaining guests with your grill or have a spa or pool out back? How you plan to use your deck has a great impact on the type of material you should use.
Every deck can handle periods of bad weather, but things like acetone can damage PVC and grill grease isn’t good for any type of finish. Weight limits can be a concern if it’s a second-story deck and you could need a building permit or encounter issues with your Home Owners Association if there are standards for your neighborhood.
Safety can also be an issue if you have children or pets. Decks can get slick, regardless of the texture of the finish. They also fade, so decks in direct sunlight may need an extra measure of protection unless you opt for PVC or metal. In other words, plan ahead or you could end up with a very costly mistake a few years down the road.
The Different Types of Decking
Whether you want a second-story deck or want to surround your pool, there is a type of decking material for everyone. That includes homeowners that just need something simple for a small backdoor deck along with consumers looking for something that will last for generations. We’re going to touch on the most popular options below along with a few exotic alternatives that may not be on your radar.
An often overlooked material, Aluminum is an interesting choice if you don’t mind metal underfoot. While it won’t look or feel like wood, it’s lightweight and will never rot or corrode. It’s extremely easy to clean as well for obvious reasons and is much cooler than you’d expect on a hot summer day.
This style of decking generally comes anodized and textured which adds traction. As its metal, the decks will still be around long after other materials have withered away. The downside is the fact it’s very expensive, and not as DIY-friendly as wooden or composite boards although far from difficult to install.
A relative newcomer to the decking world, PVC or plastic decking has made waves in recent years. Like Aluminum, it’s not a style of deck that will suit everyone’s tastes, and it certainly will not look like wood or feel like it regardless of a company’s high-tech manufacturing techniques. Top quality PVC decking is surprisingly durable, however, and can resist stains and fading caused by UV rays better than other materials.
PVC decking comes in two forms as well with capped and uncapped planks. The former is more expensive, but gives you more protection and mimics the look of wood… to a degree. Keep the size of your deck in mind when considering PVC due to the cost along the joists unless you want a spongy deck. PVC decking also gets much hotter than traditional wood in the summertime.
Composite decking has been popular since the 90s and has gained new fans each year with homeowners looking for a wood-like building material without some of the drawbacks. Most composite decking is made from a mix of recycled plastic and wood by-product or fiber. This process produces boards that won’t split or rot and makes them eco-friendly to boot.
Composite decking can handle stains, scratches, mold, and moisture with ease if you buy a good grade or capped board. With that in mind, the overall cost can be quite high depending on the quality of the product although it’s offset down the line by reduced maintenance. These boards are also perfect if you like variety considering there are dozens of shades to choose from and more than one style of board.
Depending on the manufacturer, composite decking can have a wire-brushed, scraped or distressed finish similar what you’ll find on engineered hardwood flooring. You can choose from deck boards that have varying grain patterns or a smooth, steady grain as well. There are four common styles of composite decking with capped, 4-sided, 3-sided and scalloped.
Capped decking has a thin layer of protection applied to the board, usually in the form of PVC which provides extra protection. Uncapped boards are cheaper and look more like real wood, but both styles are easy to install and come in standard sizes and lengths. They can fade in the sun, but the best composite decking is geared to “weather” naturally with time and will settle after several months.
Wood is one of the first forms of decking, and while we don’t know who was responsible for the first wooden deck, we are thankful for their ingenuity. It’s still the best material to use in a lot of consumer’s minds, and there are more options available today than our parents and grandparents had. That said, it all starts with a very basic and cheap form of pine.
All three of these woods are common, but treated lumber is easier to obtain regardless of where your location. Redwood and Cedar may be considerably more expensive if the decking has to be shipped and isn’t available in your area.
Decades ago, having a deck made from exotic wood harvested from Brazil was something only the rich and famous could afford. That’s changed as there are several species of exotics that are easy to obtain and don’t cost much more than domestic species or solid composite board.
The most popular tropical hardwood tends to be IPE or Brazilian Walnut. Quality IPE deck planks should have a Class A fire rating which makes it ideal for regions prone to wildfires. It is also one of the harder woods with a rating of over 3,000 on the Janka scale.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to acquire and isn’t cheap compared to domestic wood or other exotic species. If you still want something unique, but can’t afford IPE decking, Itauba is durable and resists rot well at a fraction of the price.
Itauba is an acquired taste whereas Brazilian Teak or Cumaru decking isn’t as busy and comparable in price. Other exotic options include Garapa, Tigerwood, Red Balata and Cyprus. Those are just the more common species, and there are others available that have a higher resistance to moisture and insects than domestic woods.
Just keep in mind, many exotics carry a premium price tag and may be difficult to find, but they are more durable than Pine, Cedar or Redwood.
Composite Decking vs. PVC
Composite decking is found on more residential structures than PVC, but the two materials share several common traits. If you’re wondering how they stack up against one another, here’s a quick breakdown.
Both materials are considered low maintenance, so you won’t have to stain, paint or refinish your boards every few years. There are no more splinters to deal, and they won’t rot, but neither would pass for real wood by any stretch of the imagination. You can find capped PVC and composite boards as well which increases their ability to withstand elements, but that’s where the similarities end.
PVC is more expensive than “most” composites and can also expand and contract more if you live in an area with extreme cold or heat. While manufacturers have made strides in texturing plastic, it’s slicker than composite boards and trickier to install. You can’t “rip” a PVC deck board in half like you can a hybrid plank. On the flipside, PVC can deal with the weather better, so fading generally is not an issue.
Composite boards look more like wood, are heavier, and feel more solid beneath your feet. You won’t have to worry about slippage as much, and it’s more eco-friendly considering these boards are made from recycled plastic and wood by-products.
These boards are also cooler during the summer and cheaper than PVC although there are some capped composites that clock in at around the same price. You generally have more color selection with composite decking as well.
Composite Decking vs. Wood
Comparing wood and PVC is like comparing apples and oranges, so we’re going to take a look at wood against composite decking considering they are the most popular and cost-effective form of decking. That means they are also the first choice for homeowners that want something traditional and affordable.
A real wooden deck feels warm and inviting. You also get an unlimited array of color options thanks to stains, and while only a few domestic species are suitable, exotic lumber opens the doors to new possibilities. You can also change the look of your deck every few years if you’re handy with a pressure washer. Wood is very durable, feels solid underfoot and can support more weight than other types of decking.
While it’s heavier than some building materials, it’s still usually easy to handle and install than composite boards. On that note, exotic hardwood species are harder and more difficult to cut or work with. While not a con by any means, it is something to keep in mind if you plan on installing IPE decking or anything harder than domestic walnut on the Janka scale. The biggest disadvantage of wood decking is maintenance, pure and simple.
When compared to wood, composite boards have several advantages and a few drawbacks. High-quality products are more expensive than wood, and while you never have to worry about stripping your decks, you’re also stuck with that shade forever. Alternatively, a bucket of soapy water and a brush is much easier to deal with than a pressure washer and stain when your deck starts to show its age.
Another unique advantage comes with installation as most composite board companies have a hidden fastener system. That means you’ll never have to look at a nail or screw again and you’ll get a clean, uniform deck. Unfortunately, the selection of brands and collections can be confusing compared to domestic or hardwood species, so quality control and product selection is a bigger issue with composite decking.
While we compared the most popular styles of decking, the table below will give you a better idea of how they all compare in a few key areas including the overall weather resistance, lifespan and how wide a color range you can expect whether it’s natural or artificial.
Fair to Good
15 – 20 years
Good to Excellent
20 – 40 years
Good to Excellent
20 – 40 years
40 – 50 years
30 – 50 years
25 – 50 years
40 – 100 years
Good to Excellent
15- 50 years
Finishes and Maintenance
Maintenance with composites, PVC or aluminum decking is low, so you won’t have to break out a pressure washer unless you’ve got serious gunk to deal with. Manufacturers will always tell you the best way to clean your decks, and with these three styles, it usually involves a hose and a bit of elbow grease. You may pay more for these decks starting out, but you will save on upkeep in the end.
Wooden decks will require more work all-around as they can split, splinter and take a beating from rough weather. In other words, you’ll need to spend money to maintain those decks for a few decades if you want them to meet or exceed their expected lifespan. That said, how long they last can have a lot to do with the type of finish you choose.
If you plan on buying decking made from composite boards or PVC, your color options are limited to the manufacturer producing your planks. Aluminum decking usually comes prefinished, but you can have it repainted as well. Wood is the only type of decking that gives you unlimited options considering you can paint or stain it although there are some drawbacks.
While having a wide range of colors at your disposal is an advantage, there are some things to keep in mind depending on the type of wood you choose. Pressure treated wood has to be dry before it will take a stain or paint properly. An easy way to test that is a water test. If the water soaks into the surface of the deck, it’s good to go, but if it puddles or beads up, you’re going to need to wait.
Cedar and Redwood decking doesn’t undergo any type of treatment so you can pick a shade and finish your decks without waiting weeks or months. Due to their natural coloring, a nice clear finish may be your best option if you want to appreciate and not alter their hues. The same rules apply to tropical woods and IPE decks although some take stains easier than others so look before you leap. If you’re torn between paint and stain for your new wooden deck, this will make things simple.
Paint or Stain?
Paint can fill cracks and small gaps in older decks. It’s a great way to hide flaws, and you can paint any type of wood with ease as long as it’s properly primed first. Paint jobs last longer, but it’s a double-edged sword as paint is much harder to remove. If you want to change colors, you’ll need to scrape, and it can peel or chip over time with exposure to the elements.
Stain will need to be reapplied anywhere between 2 – 5 years depending on the quality of the product, the weather, and how well it’s initially applied. A good stain will also show off the natural beauty of your wood instead of hiding it.
There are even clear finishes and semi-transparent stains that offer an extra measure of protection against the elements. It’s not as thick as paint, so it can’t hide damage, but it’s the best choice if you plan to purchase exotic hardwood decks or want something with a natural look.
Safety & Certifications
We’re not going to spend a great deal of time here as certifications can vary wildly depending on the type of decking, so only a few things remain common across the board. There may be certain standards your deck needs to meet depending on your state, and you’ll definitely want to look into the fire codes if you live in sunny California, so check for the WUI approved label.
Most manufacturers’ list things like this clearly, but you may have to dig for that information at times. You may also be surprised by some of the data you’ll come across including slip test ratings and how products fared in color-fastness testing. If you’re curious about a particular area of a plank, reach out to the manufacturer or distributor to get additional information or ask to see the sell sheet.
The other type of certification is of the eco-friendly variety and only applies to “Green” products that meet certain criteria. Composites and PVC are a hot topic of debate as while they use recycled materials, the energy and methods needed to produce them puts a damper on things. With traditional wood, things are clearer as you can simply look for wood that’s been certified by the FSC or Forestry Stewardship Council.
DIY vs. Professional Installation
Next to actually picking out a style of decking and choosing a color, this will be the hardest decision for most homeowners. Decks are not something most people consider cheap, but you can expect that cost to rise considerably if you plan on hiring a contractor to install your new decking.
If you’re unsure about doing it yourself, we’ll make things easy. PVC planks are not “forgiving” to work with and not something we recommend installing yourself. Aluminum is fairly straightforward, but can still be tricky while composite and wood are the easiest by far. If you are building a deck from the ground up, you may need to consider things like frost footings along with things like nails, screws and other traditional tools of the trade.
The price to install a deck varies by region and depends on the contractor you choose. If you are curious about the cost of hiring a professional in your area, check out our Free Local Estimate Tool.
While many factors go into the cost of decking including the grade of wood or the collection PVC or composite comes from, here’s a rough idea of what you can expect from each style. Keep in mind; these prices are just an estimate, and some species may be more expensive to acquire depending on your location.
$6 - $9.60
$6 - $12.00
$10 - $25.00
$20 - $45.00
$30 - $50.00
$35 - $70.00
$19 - $23.00
$24 - $29.00
$33 - $40.00
$38 - $49.00
$60 - $72.00
$80 - $98.00
$26 - $32.00
$48 - $56.00
$61 - $79.00
$24 - $27.00
$43 - $50.00
$57 - $70.00
$30 - $70.00
$75 - $98.00
$80 - $135.00
$62 - $76.00
$83 - $100.00
$105 - $135.00
$24 - $85.00
$46 - $95.00
$55 - $130.00
The Best Places to Buy Decking
You may be wondering where you can purchase a 20-foot plank of PVC or top grade IPE decking. Well, it’s easier than you think as large hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot carry most of these products. You may not find the exact brand you’re looking for, but you will not have any trouble finding pressure-treated, cedar or composite decking at those two stores.
If you are interested in composite boards, you will want to check out our brand reviews where we touch on companies like TimberTech and Trex. Composite decking companies produce their boards in several ranges from premium capped products to budget-friendly decking. Many of the top brands also have PVC decking line as well.
You won’t have as much of a selection when it comes to aluminum decking although Wahoo and Markstaar make quality products, and there are some interesting options like LockDry. Real wood that’s been unaltered by chemicals may actually be the hardest to find, especially if you’re looking for something exotic instead of domestic.
One of the best places to pick up exotics is through Advantage Lumber. They even have a selection of FSC certified decking including IPE and Garapa. Nova USA is another great option with Mahogany, Cumaru, Angelim and other exotics. That said, stock varies more than with domestic wood so make sure you order enough for your project the first time around.