Choosing a deck surface

So far, none of my house-building research has yielded more negative information than deck construction. Everyone seems to hate their deck. People who have wood decks complain about having to stain them every year or two, and people who have composite decks complain about the material not being maintenance-free at all.

I’ve researched no fewer than 10 brands of composite decks and also looked into ipe and cedar, and there just doesn’t seem to be a clear winning option. It’s all about tradeoffs. The one thing I’ve decided I definitely don’t want, however, is a faded (“silvered”) deck. Some people like the weathered look. I don’t. Therefore, ipe is unfortunately eliminated. It’s a shame too because ipe is generally regarded as the most durable wood one can buy. Unfortunately, however, ipe is so dense that it doesn’t take stains or protectants very well, so it is recommended you just leave it alone and let it fade to its natural patina. No thanks. I’ve heard of people using a product called Penofin to keep Ipe brown, but treatment must be frequent and results seem to vary.

Cedar is the other wood to consider, and while I think it would provide the best looking deck out of any of the options, it would require the greatest amount of maintenance, and I’m not sure I want to sign up for that.

From there, we get into the composites. Trex is the best known name in composite decking, but it’s also the company that receives the most negative reviews and has been successfully sued for misrepresenting the quality of its product (actually, they settled out of court, but whatever). After Trex, there are a slew of companies selling their own variation of a composite deck, each one made with slightly different materials and esthetics in mind.

This is allegedly what a Trex deck looks like. In reality, it is significantly less impressive.

I found it next to impossible to find objective, scientific studies comparing deck materials, but it turns out Consumer Reports did a reasonable study on the subject recently. By the way, if you’re building a house, buying an online subscription to Consumer Reports should be one of your first expenditures. The study took many different brands and exposed them to sun, wind, and rain over the course of several years. The results varied wildly, with some decks holding up admirably and others literally disintegrating to pieces. The material which came out on top is called Symmatrix by Dow Chemical. To my surprise, however, I found out the product has been discontinued, despite its great rating. Unbelievable… and a bit suspicious, to be honest. Why would a seemingly great product be abandoned by its producer? If anyone knows, please post in the comments.

The only other brand that scored nearly as well in all of the areas important to me was something called Timbertech. It’s especially good at mildew resistance, and that’s key. Unfortunately, Kevin at Build brought me a sample of it today (along with some Trex), and it has a fake grain texture to it that seems a bit chintzy. I may look at some more samples, but this particular one didn’t look great.

Here is the concerning part though: do a Google search for Timbertech, Trex, or any other brand of composite decking and you’ll see loads and loads of very detailed complaints. The ratio of haters to lovers seems troublingly high. It’s enough to make you want to ditch the idea of planks altogether and go with concrete pavers or something.

I’m not sure where I’ll end up yet, but I’d say so far, I’m favoring Trex, then Timbertech, and then cedar. Would love some first-hand opinions from anyone who has their own deck, so if you have one (a deck or an opinion), please feel free to post your thoughts below.

Incidentally, the best article and discussion I found on the subject was from Fine Homebuilding Magazine.

34 Responses to “Choosing a deck surface”

  1. Daryn Says:

    If you ever want to walk on it barefoot, be aware that none of the composites feel as satisfying as real wood underfoot.

    Just like you probably wouldn’t use laminate in your house instead of real wood, I’d recommend the same decision outside if you’re at all picky. If you’re really picky like me, the screw holes in most laminates also don’t look as good as stainless screws in ipe.

    We have/like the weathered look of ipe, but oiling it really isn’t that bad, you can go get SeaFin from Daly’s, and it “takes” well.

    Or, how about concrete tile?

  2. Jernej Says:

    While wood looks and feels great for a few years it’s definitely not something I want to maintain in a long term. Tiles (whatever type), with underfloor heating if you wish, is by far the most sensible solution if you’re not too keen on fixing stuff around the house all the time.

  3. Cali Says:

    I vote for concrete. It is extremely low maintenance, never splinters and can be decorated in a myriad of ways if gray is not to your liking. If you use a charcoal grill, want to deep fry a turkey or if you use a portable fire pit you don’t have to worry about burning it (and maybe your house) down. You can heat it, or let it act as a passive solar heat collector all on its own. If you really don’t like the look it can always be covered in terra cotta tiles, or any other tile you like. After years of getting slivers in my feet on the deck we had when I was a child, I greatly prefer the concrete patio we have now.

  4. Rob L. Says:

    I don’t actually have anything to say, I just want to subscribe to the follow-up comments for my own eventual construction project…

  5. Barry Says:

    Hey Mike,

    I am going through the same process right now for my vacation house and after hours of research on the interwebs and phone conversations with deck manufacturers and installers, I chose aluminum – for it’s strength (up to 36″ joist spans), maintainability (close to zero) and it’s aesthetics (varied range of colors, even faux wood grain that pretty convincing).

    When I started out researching, I was sold on composite. (Mostly) recycled materials, maintenance free, double the price of pressure treated planks…sounds great, until I heard and read first hand accounts of the horror stories. Lots of fading (or yellowing), mildew after 6 or 12 months, contracting and it would have required me to double up my current deck joists (which are currently 24″ on center) to prevent sagging.

    After I checked off composite from my list, I moved onto plastic – Eon and Azek. This seemed a bit better, but still issues with contraction and sagging. The price seemed to go up from composite as well.

    I thought at this point, I should reconsider wood – specifically cedar. Cheaper than the previous two and probably a richer color (and scent!). Then I realized this really isn’t an option for me because I would only be there a few times a month and (close to) zero maintainability was paramount.

    Lastly, I started to look into aluminum which I was a bit hesitant about. Not because the thought of aluminum on a deck was so foreign, but because the price was considerably higher than the rest. After contacting (and reading the few posts around the web about) the 2 larger players in the market (LastDeck and LockDry), I decided to get samples and pricing from both. Come to find out, they basically have 2 lines of decking – waterproof (the deck almost forms a watertight roof-like structure) and standard (gaps between each plank), the latter being the cheaper. Here is the pricing I received from both companies:

    LastDeck
    —————
    $7.50/sqft – S200 Standard Color (waterproof)
    $10/sqft – S200 Woodgrain Color (waterproof)

    LockDry
    —————
    $6.38/sqft – LockDry (waterproof)
    $3.68/sqft – NextDeck (slatted)

    I haven’t decided which company to go with, but I will say that LockDry has been 100x more responsive with customer service. I am still waiting for the sample I requested from LastDeck over a month and half and three phone calls ago. All I want to do is give you thousands of dollars LastDeck, what gives?

    Hopefully this is helpful to someone!

  6. Darin Says:

    Mike,

    You might take a look at Tigerwood. It has properties similar to IPE, but I’m told fades from a redish yellow to a deep redish brown. I’ve seen it around, but Advantage Lumber seems to have good information:

    http://www.advantagelumber.com/

  7. Mike Says:

    I’m with Cali – concrete, cobbles, brick, Pave or something similar. God-looking, indestructible (well almost), maintenance free, feels good underfoot, fireproof. There’s active second-hand markets for all these, and it’s easy to include recycled material into your plans. I bet you can find a local source very easily.

    Personally, I hate decking. It’s so overdone, and so 1990′s. But then, I’m a European.

  8. Big fan of cedar. Yeah, it has to be stained if you don’t want it going gray on you, but it’s real wood and has a ton of character.

    That said, I’m not going to help you stain it. I’m letting ours go gray. : )

  9. Mike D. Says:

    Daryn: I don’t mind the feel of the composite stuff, even though wood does feel a tad bit better. Also, the lack of splinters probably evens that equation out. I do like the concrete paver option a bit.

    Barry: Interesting that you chose aluminum. It definitely seems like the lowest maintenance option other than concrete. I haven’t really found a brand with a look that I like, but I’ll check out the companies you listed.

    Darin: Tigerwood looks interesting, but I am looking for something darker. I could probably just stain it dark of course, but it probably shares the maintenance requirements of wood.

    Josh: If you’re letting it silver, why not go with ipe? You literally never have to touch it at all. Not even a sealer.

  10. 1BadBoy Says:

    Hi Mike. Wanting to subscribe for my project information!

  11. Sri Says:

    If you decide to go with a wood product, check out OneTimeWood (http://www.onetimewood.com) stain and protectant. It is supposed to last seven years or more. It looks very good on the test boards I tried it on. You can order a sample kit for the six stain types. I bought enough to cover my 1200 sq ft pressure treated pine deck but unfortunately the weather caught up to me (in NC) and now I’ll have to wait till late spring 2010 to stain the deck. Too bad cause I just finished washing and sanding the deck down. It actually looks beautiful without any stain on it.

    The people at OneTimeWood were also responsive and helpful when I spoke to them.

  12. Jason Says:

    I’ve seen the Rhino Decking, safari color and it’s not too bad.

    http://www.rhinodeck.com/Products%20Decking%20Main.htm

  13. Robin Says:

    We’re laying down Fiberon Tropics in Jatoba right now (alternating by-4 and by-6 stock). The stuff is incredibly beautiful, much more solid than the crap you get from Lowes, and the ultimate convincing factor was the display outside Dunn Lumber in Bellevue that has had that material installed outside for a few years, and it still looks good.

    We decided that anything that needed to be maintained year-by-year was just not going to work out for us. I didn’t even know about aluminum decking, but it probably wouldn’t have passed the wife acceptance test.

    The surface of the Fiberon stuff is basically grainless (though there is a lot of color grain in the material) but still a touch rougher than regular milled wood so it’s not so slippery in the dreadful Seattle rainy season (a.k.a. the year).

    On a related note, we’ll be doing our deck railing using hog panels, which I came across on the LamiDesign blog sometime ago (http://blog.lamidesign.com/2009/04/texas-plat-house-gets-handrails.html).

  14. Doug Says:

    Hi to all! I find it very entertaining that my wholesale pricing is being quoted on the Internet and is also being quoted inaccurately. I am the president of Last-Deck, Inc and pricing can be obtained by contacting our corporate headquarters. Our decking and railing is available in 9 solid colors and 7 woodgrain colors. Yes, our woodgrain is more expensive, but this has to do with production costs. Once you see the woodgrain line for yourself, you’ll see first hand that it is a high quality product and the increased cost is than justified. I was a contractor for 25 years and have used all types of decking products. I thought it was time to give the public a product that they deserve…instead of false promises. I must be doing something right here as it sounds like my competition may be having people write fun little reviews about us. : )
    Hope all is well with you all and I would be happy to assist in your next decking project.
    Doug

  15. Ethan Says:

    I’m in the middle of building my first Ipe deck right now, so I can’t comment on how hard it is to keep it from going silver. (I will be using UV plus for hardwoods. http://www.messmers.com/) If you go with a solid composite, have you considered using hidden fasteners like you would with Ipe? (http://www.ebty.com/index.php or http://www.ipeclip.com/ipeclipExtreme.html) Just an idea.

    p.s. I’m thoroughly enjoying following this blog.

  16. HI Mike, we are currently also reasearching things for our garden. Personnally I like that ipe gets that greyish/silver look :) Anway not sure if you heard of Novadeck? They make wooden like deck boards that are produced from a very high-grade recycled plastic. From what I have heard they keep their orginal color pretty well and are very durable. Not sure if they have it in the US though.
    http://www.govadeck.com/galerij_uk.html

  17. Toronto Modern Says:

    Mike,

    We are “no maintence” people. We started off assuming that we wanted a composite product for our deck. It sounded great, but we were scared off by the negative reports. Also, many of these products are very expensive to source and also to install as they require the use of clips (which our contractor told me is the same method used to construct Ipe decks). We could have accepted the subpar appearance of the composite product if we knew that they’d wear and last as well as we hoped, but after our research that started to seem more and more like an expensive gamble. We looked next at Ipe, but it is very expensive, and most people will admit that unless you are willing to let it go gray (think Atlantic Boardwalk – as one person said on a website “grey and dingy”), you are into a yearly maintenance program of staining because the wood does not absorb stain well. So in the end, we ended up with cedar. It seemed to be the best “bang for the buck” option. It cost about 40% less than Ipe. (Although it is still expensive.) Yes, it will need maintenance, but we believe we’ve found a good product that will minimize the maintenance. We are using a product called Sansin. (www.sansin.com) We had our contractor apply 2 coats. (Three would probably have been better, but it started to get a bit too expensive for the labour.) The stain should last a couple of years, and we can just apply a coat ourselves over the existing stain. We also used Sansin for the wood siding on the exterior of the house, and we found them to be very helpful with technical advice. They have a 1 877 number, and if you want to speak to one of their technical experts, they are very generous with their time and advice. You can also order small tester pots from them.

    I don’t want to insult you, but if you do go with cedar, make sure you specify stainless steel screws. They cost more, so not all builders use them.

    By the way – it’s never too early to start thinking about the wood siding for the house… There are a lot of pre-finished products out there that offer good wear and durability, but in the end, we ended up with cedar siding for our exterior as well. The pre-finished stuff just didn’t look right for our house. (Even though we are “no maintenance” people, the whole point of doing a custom modern house was to end up with something we loved – we just couldn’t settle for something less, even if it involved less work. Let’s hope we feel this way in a couple years time when it comes time to put in some maintence)

  18. Toronto Modern Says:

    Sorry, Mike

    Having now caught up on your past entries, I see that you did already write about the exterior siding. You were leaning against wood for the exterior based on maintenance concerns. If you find a good-looking synthetic or pre-finished siding product, I’d love to hear about it. We looked and looked, and eventually gave up and went with cedar that we stained with Sansin. (I could go on and on about the subject of “backpainting” of siding but will spare you.) None of the other products we investigated for our project looked like they belonged on (what we hoped would be) a beautiful modern home.

  19. TORONTO MODERN'S SPOUSE Says:

    I just wanted to mention another product that looked lovely, but is more experimnetal in nature, and that is torrefied wood. Basically the wood is roasted in a kiln and this takes all of the moisture out of it and makes it extremely long lived – although the samples I got were brittle and I was concerned that regular nailing would be tricky for a GC. Maibec has a product called Thor that you might want to check out.

  20. TORONTO MODERN'S SPOUSE Says:

    To clairfy – torrefied wood would work for siding not for decking. Perhaps the wrong location in the blog for the above comment. For decking, cedar was our clear winner.

  21. TORONTO MODERN'S SPOUSE Says:

    To clairfy – t.w. would work for siding not for decking. Perhaps the wrong location in the blog for the above comment.

  22. Mike D. Says:

    Hi Toronto: Yep, we settled on Trex Brasilia. It’s dark and doesn’t have any of that cheesy “fake grain” texture to it. Should require nothing more than a pressurespraying once a year and it looks almost as good as wood.

  23. Mike D. Says:

    Geert: Yep, I’ve heard of that stuff. Pretty much all synthetics have their downsides, so I’m just going with the one that’s been around the longest, does the most sales, and has the best warranty: Trex Brasilia. My expectations are tempered, so I’m sure it will turn out fine.

  24. Barry Says:

    Hey Mike,

    I know you made your choice on Trex Brasilia, but did you see their upcoming (scheduled to be released 1/10) product, Transcend? It looks pretty comparable to Timbertech XLM and Fiberon Horizon – hardened plastic outside w/ wood pulpy innards. The only thing that threw me for a loop was it’s hard candy shell is only on three sides (top and both sides). They claim this allows the innards to “breathe” which prevents separation from it’s plastic counterparts. I’ve never read this being an issue, but I am not in the deck building trenches, so maybe it is.

    Even though I haven’t seen it in person, I do think the faux grain looks to be one of the better ones out there. Interesting to see how it’s received.

  25. Mike D. Says:

    Barry: Interesting. Hadn’t heard of that. It looks like good stuff, if you’re into the grain thing. One of the things I noticed right away with the fake decks though is that it seemed like the stuff without the grain always looked better than the stuff with the grain… at least for a modern home. I could see the grainy stuff looking better with a craftsman or more traditional home.

  26. Agnes Says:

    Barry, I am curious if you installed the LockDry for your decking? I am considering them also. And I will be consulting with them in January to place an order, but before that I was hoping to get some feedback on people who had the product installed.

  27. robert Says:

    If you are looking for another alternative for aluminum decking check out Ariddek-Wahoo Decks.

  28. Roger Says:

    I really don’t have a dog in this fight, but have installed a lot of decking over the years. When reading negative comments on-line do keep in mind that 20 people will take the trouble to complain for every one that is inspired enough to write positively.

    Secondly, check the dates on those comments! We are now into the third and fourth and maybe fifth generation of composite decking and many complaints relate to early generation products. Nothing is maintenance-free, but all current composites are waaay less work than wood.

    Finally, please think green! Despite claims to the contrary, the vast majority of Ipe is not sustainably harvested, and centuries-old tropical forests are being pillaged for decks that will vanish in twenty years tops!

  29. Mike Says:

    I just installed a LockDry deck in Toronto (Canada). After 5 years with an Ipe deck I was kind-of disappointed with it. Basically if you install Ipe, then it will go grey regardless of the sealants you try and put on it, especially in parts of Canada where the winter strip off any type of sealant and re-coating ends up being a twice a year chore. So I first looked at other alternative woods, and not being a fan of composites, never went there. Eventually I chose an aluminum deck partially because it was extremely low maintenance, and also because it made the area under the deck dry.
    Price-wise I thought it was extremely comparable. Colours are limited, but what I realized was that the lighter colour afforded by Lockdry actually brought more light into the back of my house. That and it was easy to install. The aluminum is actually warm in the sun, but not hot like the Ipe got sometimes. and in the shade it is cool. We’ll see how it holds during the winter, but I expect come the spring, getting the deck ready will involve just a hose. I won’t take to spend a couple of hours power-washing gunk off it.

  30. Robyn Says:

    Hi Mike,

    I specified LockDry watertight aluminium decking for our new home because the deck will be located on the north side of the house and will be over a concrete pad for the walk-out basement. I do not want to worry about mold issues or water dripping on us as we enter the basement, and especially about maintenance. The aluminum has good traction and I personally like the way it looks. It should last a very long time and not sag. The higher cost is justified by the lack of maintenance and the fact that the space underneath will not be dripped upon. The sample I ordered arrived very quickly and impressed my builder as well.

  31. Vince Says:

    Mike, Robyn and others that used LockDry.

    We are also looking at this product as well as LastDek and have obtained samples of each.

    a few questions:

    Are you still pleased with your choice?

    Is it really cooler than wood or composite?

    Any problems with leakage?

    How hard to install compared to wood or composite?

    Why did you choose LockDry over LastDek or the others?

    How do you like the look?

  32. Robyn Says:

    Yes, we are still very pleased with our choice. Our sub said the metal was hard on his cutting blade, but not difficult to install. We’ve had no problems with leakage. I can’t opine on coolness, because the decking is on the north side of our house and covered by a porch roof, so it gets no sun at all.

    I personally like the look very much and am even more pleased by the no-maintenance factor. We have poured concrete as a roof over our root cellar and my husband’s room in the basement, but could not afford concrete to span the porch area between the concrete pads. I was able to match the brown LockDry decking with colored concrete, so our entire wraparound porch looks like Swiss chocolate. Everyone who has seen it thinks it looks great. If you are near central PA, come and see it.

  33. Park City skier Says:

    Eight years ago, we built a 200 sf deck using beige Trex. Today, it looks bad, with traces of water (melting snow) seeping down the vertical sections of the skirt and railings. What’s worse though, is that we use that deck for dinning three times a day, from June through September, and with barbecuing and handling food around, grease stains are frequent and can’t only be removed with sand paper. Forget about power washing or scrubbing with non-abrasive material! Today, as we’re building a new home, we’re considering NextDeck, but we can’t find anyone who’s installed it anywhere in the state of Utah. That’s the only thing holding our decision…

  34. Hi,

    We’ve had the LockDry deck for over 3 years now. Couldn’t be happier with it. Because it is metal, it will expand and contract, so it will occasionally make the noises associated with this, however there have never been any leakage problems… as long as you seal between the deck and house properly. In the summer it is cooler than a hardwood. Installation-wise it slopes away from the house so water runs off from the house out. My joints were running perpendicular to the house, so I had to block in between them because the LockDry runs perpendicular as well. No big deal though.
    As to why LockDry? A local distributor. Couldn’t find one for the LastDek waterproof product. The look is great, I went with the beige type colour… easy to maintain, doesn’t matter how much snow sits on there (it’s easy to clean off using a plastic shovel). I did the steps (24″ wide platforms really) going off the deck as well.

    Mike