What Are They?
- Wood: The classic and still the most popular deck material, this is usually pressure-treated softwood, such as hemlock, fir, or pine. More expensive wood decking types include redwood and exotic hardwoods, such as teak or ipe. These premium woods typically are not pressure-treated but must be finished (as does pressure-treated wood) to keep it from weathering to a dull grey colour.
- Wood-composite: Wood-composite decking is a mixture of high-density polyethylene and wood particles, along with preservatives and binders. Wood-composite can be (but is not always) eco-friendly when sourced from sawdust by-product of furniture manufacturing and plastics recycled from milk jugs and detergent bottles.
- PVC: Also called plastic or synthetic decking, this is made of cellular polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the same material that is used for plastic fencing. It is lightweight and has the same density as white pine, a softwood. Some PVC decking is “capped,” meaning that a protective shell is added to the surface that also gives it a wood-like look.
Decking Material Pros
- Wood: Natural wood is your best bet when you want to save on costs, you don’t want anything complicated, and you wish to install the decking yourself. Natural wood decking is immediately available at all home improvement centres. The decking also has a natural look and feel that the other materials lack.
- Wood-composite: Choose wood-composite decking when you want a material that closely resembles an exotic wood species. If you have children or just like walking barefoot, wood-composite ensures that you will avoid splinters. Perhaps the best benefit of wood-composite decking is that is guaranteed not to rot or split, and it never needs a stain or other protective finish.
- PVC: You may wish to purchase PVC decking if you want a lighter-weight material that is easier to handle than wood-composite. Like wood-composite, PVC decking does not rot and never needs to be finished. Some homeowners simply like the look of PVC more than with the other materials.
Decking Material Cons
- Wood: Avoid natural wood decking if you’re not willing to regularly maintain your deck with by power-washing and restaining it every two or three years. Also be aware of the cost of refinishing over the life of the decking. The long-term cost of maintenance on a wood deck should be factored in with the initial cost of the material. Wood decking also is likely to need replacement sooner than the other decking materials because it is prone to decay and rot over time.
- Wood-composite: Wood-composite decking may look somewhat like wood at a distance, but up close it looks like something else, and it feels like its primary ingredient: plastic. Composite decking is more expensive than wood and comes in a limited range of colours. Many composite products require joists that are space no more than 16 inches; if your joists have 24-inch spacing, you’ll need to add more joists for composite.
- PVC: PVC decking tends to look the least like wood, when compared to natural wood and wood-composite deck boards. In addition, it comes with all of the same drawbacks as wood-composite.
Estimated CostsGeneral pricing for deck floor material only, not including stairs, guards, rails, or substructure:
- Wood: Pressure-treated wood is hands-down the cheapest way to floor your deck. Redwood decking can be comparable to wood-composite materials, and exotic hardwoods can be much more expensive.
- Wood-Composite: Wood-composites are roughly twice the price of pressure-treated wood.
- PVC: PVC deck materials are similar are 10 to 15 percent higher than wood-composite.
|Hollow inside, yet due to cellular construction it is still strong enough to hold weight
|Solid all the way through
|All wood, solid all the way through
|About 50% of the weight of wood-composite
|Twice as heavy as PVC
|Fairly lightweight and easy to handle
|PVC decking will never rot
|Rot possible but not likely
|Guaranteed to rot, even when pressure treated
|Needs special fasteners
|Uses regular deck fasteners or special “hidden” fasteners
|About 15% more expensive than wood-composite
|Less expensive than PVC
|Cheapest option of all, not just in terms of the decking but because the fasteners are less expensive
Plastic Deck Lumber
An Alternative to Wood
Plastic lumber is one of the primary alternatives to traditional wood decking, along with composite and aluminium decking. If you’re looking for deck material that’s durable, low-maintenance, and never (ever) needs to be finished—and you don’t care much about a natural wood look or texture—plastic lumber might be right for you.
What Is Plastic Deck Lumber?
Plastic lumber is made from either recycled plastic or virgin material, typically single resin polyethylene (HDPE and LPDE), polystyrene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It appeared on the building material market in the late 1980s and is available in rectangular cross-sections with dimensions similar to traditional lumber.
Plastic decking is not the same thing as composite decking, which is made of plastic and wood fibres. Plastic decking is just plastic, although it can have any number of additives for resistance to sun damage, scratching, and weather.
Plastic lumber has other applications besides decking, include trim boards, railings, outdoor furniture, siding, and fences. One thing you can’t use it for is structural applications, so the support posts, joists, and beams of a deck must be built from a different material (usually wood).
Benefits of Plastic Lumber
Plastic lumber offers many advantages over wood as a decking material:
- Can be moulded into many different shapes and sizes, including curves
- Waterproof and resists rot and mould without sealant
- Stain-resistant against many chemicals and substances
- Manufactured in a range of colours and doesn’t require paint
- Fade-resistant against the elements
- Does not contain chemical treatments
- Does not splinter, crack, or warp
- Resists insects
- 100 percent recyclable
- Comes with a manufacturer’s warranty (often up to 30 years; limited, of course)
Plastic lumber can be cut and drilled like wood. No special tools are required. This makes it an option for do-it-yourself installation. It can be screwed down to a wood deck structure, just like wood decking, but many types of plastic decking are designed for hidden-fastener systems that leave the top of the decking unmarred by screw heads.
Keep in mind that plastic isn’t able to span as far as wood, and you must provide adequate support for the decking boards. Also, leave room for the plastic boards to expand. For these and other reasons (like maintaining the warranty), it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s installation specifications.
Plastic lumber costs quite a bit more than wood decking. It’s impossible to provide an average cost, as each project varies in scale, geographic location, and level of detail. Keep in mind that you will recoup a large portion of these upfront costs since plastic deck lumber is so low-maintenance compared to wood and likely will have a longer lifespan.
For an accurate cost comparison with wood decking, factor in the cost of periodic finishing that wood decking requires. Wood decks should be re-stained or sealed every two to three years in most conditions. The cost of materials adds up, as does the labour or the time (if you’re doing the work yourself).
The Question of Aesthetics
While you’ll love how durable this material is, plus the fact that it’s recyclable, you may not exactly love the way it looks. Plastic deck lumber can look decent from a distance in some cases, but the moulded wood grain pattern is often too perfect and consistent to look real up close. Fortunately, plastic lumber is available in a variety of textures, and it’s possible to avoid the fake-wood effect.
By Murrye Bernard and By Lee Wallender
Wood and Composite Decking: Pros and Cons
Wood or composite decking—or something else? Like any major home purchase, decking materials vary in looks, durability, and cost. Start your research by becoming familiar with types of authentic and synthetic decking. Also, you might want to use certain types of lumber or decking for structural parts of your deck project, and other decking timber for surfaces and railings—the parts on which you will walk and actually see.
Learn about the materials most widely used to construct a residential deck, from railings to floorboards, including the pros and cons of each type.
Natural Wooden Planks
Wood is the original and traditional material used for decks. The Atlantic City boardwalk—the first oceanside wood boardwalk in the United States—was made of wood, and, according to some studies, continues to be the top choice for most residential homeowners’ deck projects. Hardwoods—all woods, really—should be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council
- It’s the real deal—authentic; has a natural warmth
- Smells good
- Looks natural, because it is
- Some types of wood—often softwoods—can be among the most inexpensive decking material available
- Hardwoods like ipé can be expensive.
- Unmaintained wood can split, crack and change colour.
- Availability and price are determined by region.
Also known as composite, wood alternatives, or synthetic decking, wood-polymer composite has quickly become the fastest-growing decking material for residential use in the past dozen years. Composite decking is an environmentally friendly lumber alternative that combines plastic and wood fibre.
- Weather resistant
- Stain resistant
- Won’t splinter or rot
- Low maintenance
- Colour variety
- Some look obviously fake or cheap.
- Some brands can be slippery.
- Not resistant to mould and mildew, especially in shade.
- Eventually shows signs of age and decay.
- Tend to sag and bend more than wood.
Less durable woods, like Southern pine and Western fir, are treated with preservatives. This makes them more resistant to the elements, rot, and insects.
Chromated copper arsenate (CCA) is a wood preservative containing chromium, copper, and arsenic. Starting in the 1940s, CCA was used to make pressure-treated lumber. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified CCA as a restricted-use product. Since 2003, the pressure-treated wood industry discontinued the use of CCA for residential use. Arsenic-free alternatives include ACQ, borates and copper azole.
- More available than wood in some areas
- Good for surface decking and structural parts
- Unnatural colour
- Warps or bends easily
- Contains chemical preservatives
High-density plastic lumber (PL) is made from recycled polyethylene (ReHDPE) plastic. That means your old milk, water, and juice containers and detergent and shampoo bottles may be recycled into the plastic lumber that is used to construct your deck. An eco-thought.
- Weather resistant
- Doesn’t need to be stained
- Eco, recycled, green
- Easy to clean, using a hose or mop
- Requires more substructure compared to wood decking
- Colours and texture don’t always resemble wood
Continue to 5 of 5 below.
There are lots of good reasons why aluminium is a near-perfect decking material: it’s weather resistant, won’t rot or decay. Have you ever heard of termites drilling their collective way through an aluminium structure? It doesn’t burn, either. It’s too bad aluminium is so expensive. Looks-wise, you really won’t mistake aluminium for a plank of teak or redwood.
- Tough and strong
- Colour lasts indefinitely
- Textured finish
- Stays cool
- Won’t rot, splinter or warp, like other decking lumber
- Most expensive decking
- Does not resemble wood
By Lisa Hallett Taylor