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 (the 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).
Deck Materials at a Glance
- Wood: The classic and still the most popular deck material, this 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.
- Wood-composite: 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.
- PVC: 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.
Decking Material Pros
- Wood: 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.
- Wood-composite: 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 is guaranteed not to rot or split, and it never needs a stain or other protective finish.
- PVC: 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.
Decking Material Cons
- Wood: 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.
- Wood-composite: 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.
- PVC: 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.
Comparing Costs of Decking
General pricing for deck floor material only, not including stairs, guards, rails, or substructure:
- Wood: 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.
- Wood-Composite: Wood-composites are roughly twice the price of pressure-treated wood.
- PVC: PVC deck materials are similar are 10 to 15 percent higher than wood-composite.
Summary: PVC vs. Wood-Composite vs. Natural 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|