All Decked Out

A deck is as American as a manicured lawn. But unlike the front yard you rarely walk across, a deck represents additional living space from spring until fall. The options for deck boards range from organic wood to wood/plastic composites to synthetic plastics. Selecting the best material is a balancing act between aesthetics, cost, durability and ease of maintenance.

A deck once conjured images of olive green wood that splintered and stained and required regular washing to keep mildew at bay. Today’s pressure-treated woods still represent the best value and look even better because the treating process can yield boards that resemble the southern yellow pine they’re made from, not that drab green. Wood is warm and can be stained to just about any color, but it’s an organic material so food and grease will blemish it, mildew grows and splintering occurs if the deck isn’t properly maintained. Redwood and cedar naturally resist rot and insects and fade to a silvery gray with sun exposure—a welcomed aesthetic for many East End homes. Of all, a premium wood option would be a tropical hardwood, which provides the look and feel of real wood with less maintenance. These dense, very durable options with names like ipe, teak and cumaru are naturally color rich, don’t require staining, have tighter grain that resists scratches and natural oils that keep the wood preserved. But expect to pay around 50 percent more for these and even more for labor because each board is so hard that pilot holes must be drilled before fastening them to the framing.

Composites became popular in the early 90s when plastic and recycled wood pulp were combined to create slabs resistant to splintering. The authenticity of the grain varies among brands and some boards have a texture on both sides so you can flip a damaged one over to a fresh face. Most composite brands also have rail and baluster systems that match the deck’s color for a cohesive look.

Decking made from PVC represents the newest attempt at a truly maintenance free deck. Inorganic cellular PVC doesn’t stain easily and is mixed with reinforcing fibers to give it strength and scratch resistance. The manufacturing process allows for a good range of colors that are meant to mimic solid stained wood, from warm browns and reds to weathered grays. Some versions have two-toned color that replicates the look of tropical hardwoods. The trade off for the ease of maintenance is the high cost and, often, a less than believable feel of wood. Because it’s inorganic, PVC won’t absorb water making it a nice option around pools and hot tubs.

Choosing a qualified decking contractor is just as important as picking the material. The installation process is slightly nuanced and a contractor who usually installs wood decking might not understand how weather and the installation process affect PVC. When it comes to the deck’s structure, make sure it’s sound and free of rot before replacing the worn decking.