Wood decks still popular, but which wood is best?
For years, wood has been the obvious choice for decking. If you opt for a real wood deck, you still have numerous options. Although composite and PVC are two alternatives to wood, these decking materials remain more popular:
- Pine: Southern yellow pine is the dominant wood decking on the East Coast, but it must be pressure treated to protect it from decay. Pine isn't as attractive as other woods, but the trade-off is cost. In the East and Southeast, it might be half to two-thirds less than the cost of cedar.
- Cedar: Western red cedar is considered by many to be the most attractive common deck wood. It is easy to work with, and its straight grain reduces warping and checking (cracking). Cedar is best known for its natural resistance to decay, but only the heartwood has that property. The outer sapwood is not much more resistant to decay than pine, and much of the cedar today is young wood, meaning mostly sapwood.
- Redwood: A cousin to cedar, redwood has many of the same qualities, including natural preservatives in its heartwood. But good redwood is even harder to find than cedar, and its use is diminishing. It will cost around a third more than cedar.
- Tropical hardwoods: Ipe is the most common of the tropical hardwoods. It costs a little more than redwood; however, it is more difficult to install, which increases the overall cost. It also resists decay. Because the wood is so dense, it needs to be predrilled before screws or nails are driven. It also won't accept stain well, but requires a coat of oil-based, ultraviolet light protection. Make sure to buy only ipe certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which monitors responsible, sustainable harvesting.
Wood decks should not be painted. Paint on horizontal surfaces doesn't handle water well.
No matter what material you use, all the boards should have a sealer applied to all six sides before the deck is built, and when a board is cut during construction, it should be resealed. After that, the deck surface should be cleaned and replenished with a fresh coat of sealer or stain every couple of years, depending on the conditions.
Grades and board sizes
There are up to 30 grades of lumber. The best (and more expensive) grades are architectural clear (no knots), heartwood and tight-knot heartwood. Lower grades include more knots, sapwood and have an inconsistent grain. When you are comparing prices, consult with the lumberyard about what each grade means.
It is common to use boards that are 5/4-inch thick over joists that are 16 inches apart. Note that 5/4-inch boards are a true one-inch thick. A 2-by-4 or 2-by-6 is really only 1½-inches thick. A 1-by-4 or 1-by-6 (which is only 3/4-inch thick) is too flimsy for decking, although you might find it used on older, cheaper decks.
If you are building a deck yourself, lumberyards in your area can help sort options. Look at the various woods they carry, paying particular attention to the straightness of the boards and the number and size of knots, as well as cost.
With so many wood choices available, however, you just might want to consult with a professional. You can use the form on this page to find local deck contractors who can guide your decision-making.