Different Decking Materials to Choose and Why
It wasn’t long ago that the only choice was wood, which came in perhaps two or three species. However, thanks to an explosion of composite lumber, plastic decking and hardwood imports, there’s now an array of decking available.
Four basic types, each with their own aesthetics, maintenance and price range, have emerged.
1. Pressure-Treated Lumber
Despite all the competition, pressure treated wood is still the No. 1 decking material sold today.
The widespread popularity of PT lumber isn’t surprising: it’s affordable, readily available coast-to-coast, and easy to cut and fasten with nails or screws. Most PT decking is milled from southern yellow pine, and then chemically treated to resist rot, fungus and wood-boring bugs. The two most common sizes of treated decking are 2 x 6s and 5/4 x 6-in. planks.
The downside of PT lumber is that it’s not very dimensionally stable, so it has a tendency to crack, split and warp. And routine maintenance is necessary to prolong the life and look of the deck. This will include an annual power washing and an application of stain or wood preservative every two or three years.
2. Western Red Cedar
Western Red Cedar is a softwood and known for its color and natural beauty, and because it isn’t pumped full of chemicals or preservatives. Cedar contains tannins and oils that makes it naturally resistant to rot, decay and voracious insects.
According to the experts at the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association, the four best grades of cedar to use for decking are architect clear, custom clear, architect knotty, and custom knotty. We at Tab Property Enhancement use architect knotty most often on decks. We sometimes use custom clear for front porches.
Cedar requires an annual power washing and coat of finish every three to four years. To protect the cedar surface from the weather, and to help reduce checking (fine splits), apply a clear, water-repellent wood preservative.
To maintain the cedar’s natural color, however, you’ll have to apply a semi-transparent stain. If you don’t apply a stain, cedar will eventually weather to a soft silvery gray.
3. Tropical Hardwoods – IPE
IPE is an exotic hardwood that is extremely hard, very durable and naturally resistant to rot and insects.
However, because IPE is so dense, it is heavy and difficult to cut and drill. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to drive a nail or screw without first boring a pilot hole, which is why IPE decking is typically installed with some sort of hidden fastener that clips or screws into the edge of the boards.
IPE is very expensive, especially when compared with PT lumber.
IPE is so dense it doesn’t accept stains very well. But if you’re determined to apply a stain, be sure it’s an oil-based penetrating stain specifically formulated for hardwood decking. If you choose not to stain the deck, you should at least apply a UV-blocking clear wood preservative every three to four years.
And like cedar, IPE will weather to a soft silvery color if it’s not stained. The amount and speed of any fading depends greatly upon the deck’s exposure to sun, rain and snow.
4. Azek and TimberTech Composites
Composites, like TimberTech are composed primarily of wood fibers and recycled plastic. The result is an extremely weather- and stain-resistant board that won’t splinter, warp, rot or split.
Plastic lumber, like Azek, is made from 100 percent plastic (recycled and/or virgin); it contains no wood fibers. It, too, is highly resistant to staining and decay, and free of knots, cracks and splinters.
Both composites and plastic lumber come in sizes similar to wood decking, including 2 x 4, 2 x 6 and 5/4 x 6-in. Prices vary because there are so many different companies.
Most composite decking and plastic lumber manufacturers also offer a line of handrails, balusters, fascia’s and other decorative trim.
Now, not everyone likes the idea of installing man-made decking, but composite decking and plastic lumber do have certain advantages over wood: They’re extremely low-maintenance and never need to be sanded, refinished or stained. However, they aren’t maintenance-free. Mold and mildew can grow in shady, damp areas of the deck, and some composites can eventually show signs of decay, which makes sense since they are partly wood.