Comparing Deck Materials: Wood, Wood-Composite, and PVC

Wood Composite Deck

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When planning an outdoor deck, perhaps the biggest decision you face is which material to use for the decking. While most decks use pressure-treated wood lumber for the understructure (posts, beams, joists, etc.), the decking can be a completely different material—or not. The three most commonly used materials for decking are pressure-treated wood, wood-composite (a mixture of wood fibers and plastic), or an all-plastic decking made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Wood Decking

The classic and still the most popular deck material, wood decking is usually pressure-treated softwood, such as hemlock, fir, or pine. More expensive wood decking types include redwood and exotic hardwoods, such as teak or ipe. These premium woods typically are not pressure-treated but must be finished (as does pressure-treated wood) to keep it from weathering to a dull gray color. 

Pros

Natural wood is your best bet when you want to save on costs, you don't want anything complicated, and you wish to install the decking yourself. Standard wood decking is sold at local lumberyards and home improvement centers, while exotic woods (and sometimes redwood) must be ordered through specialty lumber dealers. Real wood decking also has a natural look and feel that the other materials lack. 

Cons

You should avoid natural wood decking if you're not willing to regularly maintain your deck by scrubbing or power-washing and restaining it every two or three years. Also, be aware of the cost of refinishing over the life of the decking. The long-term cost of maintenance on a wood deck should be factored in with the initial cost of the material. Wood decking also is likely to need replacement sooner than the other decking materials because it is prone to decay and rot over time.

Cost

Pressure-treated wood is hands-down the cheapest way to floor your deck. Redwood decking can be comparable to wood-composite materials, and exotic hardwoods can be much more expensive. Pressure-treated wood is also the cheapest material for the non-decking components, such as stairs, guards, and rails.

Wood-Composite Decking

Wood-composite decking is a mixture of high-density polyethylene and wood particles, along with preservatives and binders. Wood-composite can be (but is not always) eco-friendly when it is made with leftover sawdust from furniture manufacturing and plastics recycled from milk jugs and detergent bottles. 

Pros

Choose wood-composite decking when you want a low-maintenance material. Some composites can also resemble exotic wood species, giving you the best of both worlds. If you have children or just like walking barefoot, wood-composite ensures that you will avoid splinters. But the best benefit of wood-composite decking is that it is guaranteed not to rot or split, and it never needs a stain or other protective finish. 

Cons

Wood-composite decking may look somewhat like wood at a distance, but up close it looks like something else, and it feels like its primary ingredient: plastic. Composite decking is more expensive than wood and comes in a limited range of colors. Many composite products require joists that are spaced no more than 16 inches apart; if your joists have 24-inch spacing, you'll need to add more joists for composite decking. 

Cost

Wood-composites are roughly twice the price of pressure-treated wood.

PVC Decking

Also called plastic or synthetic decking, this is made of cellular polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the same material that is used for plastic fencing. It is lightweight and has the same density as white pine, a softwood. Some PVC decking is "capped," meaning that a protective shell is added to the surface that also gives it a wood-like look.

Pros

You may wish to purchase PVC decking if you want a lighter-weight material that is easier to handle than wood-composite. Like wood-composite, PVC decking does not rot and never needs to be finished. Some homeowners simply like the look of PVC more than with the other materials. 

Cons

PVC decking tends to look the least like wood, when compared to natural wood and wood-composite deck boards. In addition, it comes with all of the same drawbacks as wood-composite.

Cost

PVC deck materials typically are 10 to 15 percent higher than wood-composite.

Summary: PVC vs. Wood-Composite vs. Natural Wood

  PVC Wood Composite Wood
Solidity Hollow inside, yet due to cellular construction it is still strong enough to hold weight Solid all the way through All wood, solid all the way through
Weight About 50% of the weight of wood-composite Twice as heavy as PVC Fairly lightweight and easy to handle
Rot PVC decking will never rot Rot possible but not likely Guaranteed to rot, even when pressure- treated
Installation Needs special fasteners Uses standard fasteners (deck screws) or special "hidden" fasteners Uses standard fasteners
Cost About 15% more expensive than wood-composite Less expensive than PVC Lowest upfront cost, but long-term maintenance costs can be significant