HomeownerEducational: A-M

Deck Building & Maintenance

Deck Building & Maintenance

Deck Design Types

Multilevel. Multilevel decks divide different areas of the deck through a change in elevation. Steps or walkways make the transition from one area to the next. These different levels may then connect with different parts of the home and yard, give certain deck areas more privacy, or offer different views of the landscape. If your backyard slopes down and away from the house, a multilevel deck may be a practical option.

Wraparound. Many decks are designed to wrap around two or more sides of the home. This is useful if a homeowner wants many rooms or different areas of the yard to have direct access to the deck. Wraparound decks are often extensions of the home’s front porch.

Cantilever. The posts on a cantilever-design deck are less visible because they are usually located underneath the deck, one to three feet from the deck’s perimeter. Although cantilever design can be more complex, many homeowners find the look more appealing. Keep in mind, however, that the price of a deck usually increases with the complexity of the design.

Platform. Platform decks are typically low to the ground and are most often installed adjacent to the ground floor of a home or on single-story houses. Depending on the design of the structure and your local building codes, a platform deck may not require railings. If railings are not necessary, consider adding built-in benches or planters along the edge of the deck for visual interest and practical seating options.

Detached. In some cases, a deck attached to the home is not an option. A detached deck uses the same construction methods and materials as a traditional deck, but it can be placed in almost any location in the yard. Be sure to maintain a detached deck just as you would an attached structure.

Deck Materials

Pressure-treated lumber is softer wood, usually pine, that has been treated with preservatives to resist rot, decay, and infestations from insects. The exact type and amount of preservative chemicals determines whether or not the lumber can be used in or on the ground. Pressure-treated wood is not maintenance-free—it should be sealed, stained, or painted regularly to maintain its water resistance.

In the past, pressure-treated lumber contained chromate copper arsenate (CCA), a wood preservative that has an arsenic component. Because of health concerns, the industry has turned to other chemicals, such as sodium borate, copper azole, and other copper-based preservatives, for treating residential lumber. These newer preservatives do not contain arsenic, but it is still important to wear gloves and wash your hands when handling pressure-treated wood. If you have an older deck, it may be made of lumber that was treated with CCA. The EPA suggests that existing CCA-treated decks should be sealed and properly maintained. More information on CCA is available on the EPA website at www.epa.gov as well as from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission’s Consumer Hotline.

Engineered composite materials are becoming very popular choices when it comes to building or replacing a deck. Though these materials may cost more up front, composites are strong and durable, require less maintenance, and are usually guaranteed by the manufacturers against rot, insect infestation, warping, cracking, and splintering.

Redwood has a dark red color when first cut, but if not finished by staining or sealing, it will turn a gray color over the years. Redwood is a strong, durable, and attractive deck material. A number of grades are available, and the cost varies depending on how much heartwood is in each board. Heartwood is prized because it grows at the center of the tree and is therefore quite hard and resistant to damage from the elements and insects.

Cedar wood is highly regarded for its beauty and is commonly used for fences and overhead structures, but it is a soft wood that is susceptible to scratches and marks from furniture and pets. Cedar wood naturally resists insects and decay and works best for vertical elements and low-traffic areas.

Tropical hardwoods, such as ipe, cumaru, red tauari, and Philippine mahogany, are popular among homeowners looking for a high-end, distinctive deck. These imported materials are typically very dense and hard, which means that they carry a natural resistance to insects and decay. Many tropical hardwoods are also darker in color than more commonly used materials, but they will weather to a gray color if they are not regularly stained or sealed with a wood protectant.

Maintaining Decks

To look its best over time, a wood deck must be sealed. Brand-new decks are usually allowed to cure for four to eight weeks of relatively dry weather before the initial sealing. Many contractors will do this initial sealing or advise the new owner to take care of it promptly. Periodic cleaning and sealing will keep the deck looking good for years and will protect it from the following hazards:

Moisture damage. For wood decks in particular, water from rain or dew can create problems. Water absorbed into the wood can wash out the wood color, increase the likelihood of wood rot, and make the wood susceptible to mold, mildew, and algae growth.

UV exposure. Decks are constantly exposed to the elements. Unfortunately, the UV rays in sunlight can fade or gray the beautiful, rich tones of the wood. Sun damage is the worst enemy of a deck. Apply a sealer and toner to the deck every spring to protect the wood from UV damage.

Stains due to normal use. A deck, like an indoor floor, is likely to be stained or discolored from normal use. However, because the deck is an exterior structure, it is also prone to other stains, such as bird droppings and mildew. Candle wax poses a special threat to wood decks because it is not removable from wood; the only way to rid a board of candle wax is to replace the board itself. Deck cleaning will address preexisting stains; also keep in mind that a deck that has been properly sealed will not absorb stains as readily.

Building Permits

Most jurisdictions require a building permit before any substantial change is made to the exterior of a home. While the exact process can vary from city to city, competent deck contractors will know the specifics on obtaining a permit in the areas they serve, and they will usually handle the process on the homeowner’s behalf. In addition, some homeowners’ associations require approval before exterior work on a home can begin, so it is a good idea to check with your association for information on its requirements.