Decking Choices Abound

Pros and Cons of Woods, Synthetics
by Paul Bianchina

Deck railingsIf you’re thinking of a new deck or perhaps rehabbing your old one by replacing those worn deck boards, you have no doubt noticed that you have a whole lot of choices these days.

Natural wood, treated wood and synthetics abound, with some pros and cons to each choice.
So here’s a basic rundown on some of things you might want to consider when making your selection.

Also, remember to ask about fasteners when you make your decking choice. Some types of both natural and synthetic decking materials require specific fasteners to prevent staining, “mushrooming” around the screw head, and other possible problems, so be sure to select the right fastener for the job.


Until relatively recently, natural wood was the only option you had for a deck. Today, even with all the choices, wood is still extremely popular, and it has lots of things going for it.
First of all, no synthetic deck board, no matter how well designed and engineered, can match the natural beauty of real wood. The warmth, color and grain variations found in wood enhance a deck, and seem to flow more readily into the outdoor surroundings. Wood is also a nice material to work with. It cuts and machines easily, and is easy to fasten.
On the downside, there is no denying that wood requires some maintenance to keep it looking nice. To keep that new-deck appearance, a deck stain or other treatment should be applied at least every other year. Even if you want to allow the wood to weather naturally to the soft gray color that most wood takes on after a few years, you need to apply some type of moisture and UV protection to help keep the wood from prematurely deteriorating.
When selecting wood for use on an exterior deck, you want to select one that is both weather- and insect-resistant. There are several good choices, with cedar and redwood being the most common and the most affordable. At the upper end of the price spectrum, other beautiful, long-lasting deck woods include mahogany, teak and plantation-grown South American hardwoods such as Ipe (also called ironwood).
Another choice for decking is pressure-treated lumber. Pressure-treating woods such as fir, hemlock, and pine will greatly improve the wood’s resistance to weather and insects, so it lasts considerably longer. The treatment process gives the wood a green or brown tint, which some people find attractive and some don’t. And while this is still natural wood with all its inherent grain characteristics, there are also small slots at regular intervals along the face of the wood where the treatment chemicals are injected.
Within the last decade or so, the number of synthetic decking materials on the market has exploded. Synthetic decking, like wood, has some advantages and disadvantages that you need to look at carefully before making your final choice.
Synthetic decking is made from different types of materials, depending on the manufacturer, but is basically a mixture of plastic and wood fiber. The material is pressed and formed into boards, and during the molding process the face and sometimes the edge of the board is given a wood-grain appearance. Synthetic decking materials are available in several different grain patterns that range from fairly heavily embossed to almost smooth, as well as in a variety of different colors. Some types look remarkably like natural wood, while others retain more of an "imitation wood" appearance. Virtually all synthetics can be cut and machined with normal woodworking tools.
One advantage that synthetic decking has over wood is a reduced amount of maintenance. However, that does not mean that once the material is installed, you can just forget about it. In fact, synthetic decking was touted as being “maintenance free” when it first came on the market, but those claims proved to be a little optimistic.
Today, you will see synthetics marketed with terms more along the lines of "low maintenance," and that’s really a more accurate description. The decking needs to be washed periodically to remove dirt and dust, and many types are prone to staining from grease, oil and other materials. As such, it’s a good idea to use some type of protection under and around barbecues and other cooking areas.
Many synthetic decking materials are also subject to color fading over time, especially in areas with high UV concentrations. Prior to selecting a synthetic decking material, be sure that you take the time to see a couple of actual decks that have been in place for three years or more, so that you can get a better idea of how the material holds up over time.
Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at [email protected].
Copyright 2009
See Paul Bianchina’s feature, Deck Railings Become Fun and Exciting.
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