clock menu more-arrow no yes

Read This Before You Build Your Deck

Don't lift a finger without our time-tested guidance on making all the right choices for this popular outdoor project

Cover Your Bases

Expanding your living space by adding a deck is a great American tradition. Whether you plan to do it yourself or hire a pro, the key to success is factoring in all the critical design issues, picking the right material for your budget, climate, and lifestyle, and building a structure that will stand the test of time.

What Will You Do On Your Deck?

Let your favorite outdoor activities dictate its size, shape, and features.

Eat Family Meals

Make sure your table will fit comfortably. A good rule of thumb is to add 4 feet all the way around the table so that people can walk behind those who are seated.

Host Barbecues and Cocktail Parties

Leave room for a prep station and serving area, as well as a grill. Add built-in perimeter seating. Opt for handrails with a wide, flat cap where guests can rest their drinks.

Kick Back and Relax

Create a zone for lounge chairs and a low table or two in a sunny (or shady) spot. If local codes allow it, a fire pit makes chilly nights more cozy and adds to your deck's ambience.

Test-Drive Your Layout

Photo by Kindra Clineff

Use stakes and string to outline your deck's footprint and visualize how much yard space it will cover. Place furniture inside the outline to see if there's enough clearance, and walk around to see if you like the shape, circulation, and views.

Know Your Materials

Photo by John David Becker/Time Inc. Digital Studio

If you want easy-care decking, choose manufactured boards; if looks trump all, opt for wood. Use our cheat sheet to help pick what's right for you.

Pressure-Treated Wood

Pros: Easy to work with. Takes stains and waterproofing easily.

Cons: Will corrode unprotected metal fasteners and connectors. Boards can warp and crack. Requires frequent cleaning, resealing, and restaining.

Price: $

Know Your Materials: Composite

Photo by John David Becker/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Pros: Comes in a range of colors and textures. Long-lasting if cared for properly. Won't splinter, crack, or rot.

Cons: Some products look less wood-like than others. Scuffs and scratches easily. Spills can leave stains.

Price: $$

Know Your Materials: PVC

Photo by John David Becker/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Pros: Superior resistance to moisture. Doesn't swell or shrink. Not prone to rot or termites. Easy to clean.

Cons: Some products look less wood-like than others. Boards can squeak when walked on.

Price: $$

Know Your Materials: Cedar or Redwood

Photo by John David Becker/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Pros: Offers natural insect resistance. Weathers to a handsome shade of gray. Easy to work with.

Cons: Not available everywhere. Requires frequent maintenance and waterproofing.

Price: $$–$$$, depending on location.

Know Your Materials: Tropical Hardwood

Photo by John David Becker/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Pros: Long-lasting if cared for properly. Offers natural resistance to rot and insects.

Cons: Quickly dulls cutting blades. Installation is labor-intensive.

Price: $$$

Let the Surface Drain

Illustration by Eric Larsen

Leave gaps between deck boards so that they can shed water. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for spacing man-made boards. For wood, ⅛ to ⅜ inch is safe; use a 10d or larger nail to help space the boards properly as you install them.

Don't Overload It

Most decks are designed to support 60 pounds per square foot, which includes the weight of the deck (called the "dead load") as well as people and furniture (the "live load"). If you host huge bashes, or want to add a hot tub or heavy planters, you'll need to beef up your deck's supporting structure for safety's sake.

Choose a Pattern: Basketweave

Photo by Photoshot/Redcover/Henry Wilson

Short boards form squares laid in alternating directions. Size the squares to your liking, and plan to add bridging between joists for extra support.

Choose a Pattern: Accent Boards

Here, boards with opposing miters are inlaid into the rest of the field. Lay out joists and bridging to ensure that each board spans at least two supports.

What's New: Jig and Screw Kit

A jig and screw kit allows fast installation of decking without pilot holes. The secret of the handy hidden fastener system is an augering screw that hogs out wood as it's driven, along with a special tool that holds it at the proper angle and acts as a board spacer.

DeckPac, about $60; camofasteners.com

What's New: Deck Stain

This premium deck stain contains a cashew-based resin that repels mold and mildew. One gallon can cover up to twice as much square footage as a standard stain. Choose from among 24 colors, or use a clear finish to let the wood's grain and texture show through.

Earth-paint, about $92 per gallon; earthpaint.net

What's New: Composite Boards

Composite deck boards made of 75 percent wood fiber and 25 percent polypropylene are surprisingly wood-like in looks and performance. You can paint, stain, or nail through them, and they can even withstand ground contact without rotting or cracking.

Wood 2.0 Decking, from $4 per square foot; techwood.com

Pick Your Design

Photo by Brad Simmons/Esto

You can build a deck to suit any outdoor space—check out these solutions to common problems.

For a Sloped Yard

A multilevel deck gives you the square footage you need without having to use extra-tall posts that require bracing. Designate each level for a different activity.

Design for a Sunny Spot

Photo by William P. Steele

A pergola provides a shield against strong rays while still letting you enjoy some sunlight. It can be oriented according to the seasons.

Design for Yards with Trees

Photo by Deborah Whitlaw LLewellyn

As long as the trees are healthy, you can work around them. Leave at least 3 inches around the trunk to accommodate growth, and make sure the base of the tree can get water and air.

Design for Dense Neighborhoods

Install a vertical privacy screen that creates a visual and acoustic barrier between your deck and the house next door. The screen should be braced and anchored to the deck's structure to withstand wind.

Follow the Rules and Regs

Many aspects of deck design and construction, from structural requirements to size limits, are covered by local codes. Your homeowners association may also have guidelines on aesthetic choices, such as materials, finishes, and handrail appearance. This is not the time to flout authority. Your choices will be visible for all to see, and violations can set you back a pretty penny—or worse, lead to a disaster if the deck isn't built correctly.

Finishing Touches

The right details give each deck its individuality. Let the style of your house and the furniture you choose influence the look of the fixtures you add and the way the woodwork is trimmed.

Riser Light

Codes already mandate stairway lighting; this option sets the mood and keeps the climb safe.

Highpoint; about $25; deckdepot.com

Finishing Touches: Post-Base Trim

A handsome way to hide imperfect cuts and give each post a more finished look.

Maine Ornamental; about $9; deckdepot.com

Finishing Touches: Post Cap

This decorative piece also keeps water from seeping into the end grain.

Maine Ornamental; about $24; deckdepot.com

Finishing Touches: Baluster Connector

Use these to create a unique railing by forming pairs of stock aluminum balusters.

Deckorators; from $18 per pair; ufpi.com for local dealers

Finishing Touches: Lattice Skirt

Photo by Courtesy of American Deck Northwest

This can't-fail classic hides the structure and keeps critters out but allows ventilation.

Acurio; about $33 for a 4x4 PVC panel; homedepot.com

Care and Maintenance

Photo by Paul Bardagjy

How often you'll need to reseal or stain your deck depends on its material and finish—but cleaning doesn't. Plan to scrub your deck once a year using a power washer on a low-pressure setting, a brush, and a compatible cleaner. Use a fan tip on the wand, and keep the wand moving to minimize surface damage. Getting rid of mildew may require a specialty product. For daily upkeep, sweep away leaves and debris, and mop up spills right away so that they don't leave stains.

Be Sure the Ledger is Safe and Sound

Photo by David Carmack

If this weight-bearing board that connects the deck to your house isn't installed properly, your deck could collapse. It must be bolted, not nailed, to the house's structure, and fully flashed to keep the wood from rotting. Check out How to Build a Simple Deck to see Tom Silva demonstrate how to install and protect the ledger.

Finishes

At the very least, coat a wood deck with a penetrating sealer to fend off rot and decay—or stain it to add color and extra protection. Waterborne stains suit most types of wood, but only oil-based stains can penetrate tropical hardwoods. Stains with more pigment last longer and offer better sun protection than semitransparent or clear ones. Composite boards need a finish that suits the material; seek advice from the manufacturer.

Make Stairs and Railings Comfy

Illustration by Eric Larsen

Much about these elements is governed by code, but there's flexibility. To make stairs easy to climb, opt for shallower steps with deeper treads. Size the treads so that you don't need to rip boards to fit their depth. Choose handrails that are easy to grip and balusters that permit views out to your yard. For safety's sake, avoid horizontal balusters or meshes that might be easy for children to climb.