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

Wood Composite Deck
Wood Composite Deck. Getty / Astronaut Images

When you build an outdoor deck, you will need to choose between three flooring materials:  natural pressure-treated wooda mixture of wood fibers and plastic called wood-composite; or an all-plastic product called PVC.

What Is It?

  • Wood:  The classic and still the most popular deck material, this is usually pressure-treated hemlock or fir.  Unlike the other two materials, it is 100% natural wood.  Less popular due to costs are exotic woods like ipe.
  • Wood Composite: A mixture of high density polyethylene and wood particles, along with preservatives and binders.  Wood-composite may be (but not always) eco-friendly when sourced from sawdust byproduct of furniture manufacturing and plastics recycled from milk jugs and detergent bottles.
  • PVC:  Plastic or PVC are popular terms for this synthetic decking, which is made entirely of cellular polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the same material that is used for plastic fencing.  It is light-weight and has the same density as white pine, a softwood.  PVC decking is "capped," meaning that a protective shell is added to the surface.

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Why You Might Want It:

  • Wood:  You're trying to save on costs, don't want anything complicated, and you'd like to do it yourself.
  • Wood Composite:  You want a material that closely resembles an exotic wood species.  You have children or just like walking barefoot, so you want to avoid splinters.  
  • PVC:  You want a lighter-weight material that is easier to handle than wood-composite.  Also you may be installing it in a high-moisture environment and don't want to worry about rot.

Why You Might NOT Want It:

  • Wood:  You hate annual maintenance projects such as power-washing and deck-sealing.
  • Wood Composite:  You don't want to go broke buying deck materials.  Also, you don't want to break your back hauling around this product that is heavier than both wood and plastic deck materials.
  • PVC:  You have a discerning eye for the look of fake wood.

Which Resists Rot the Best?

  • Wood:  Worst.  The pressure treatment will retard rotting on its own.  
    Regular sealing will greatly extend your wood deck's lifespan.  Expensive exotic species like ipe are good at slowing down rot, even without sealing.
  • Wood-Composite:  Good.  Touted as "rot-free," this isn't entirely the case, as the wood particles--being organic--are still susceptible to rot.  Preservatives added to the mixture off-set the rot.
  • PVC:  Best.  The all-plastic content of this deck material is completely impervious to rot.

Cost

For a 100 square foot section, deck floor material only, not including stairs, guards, rails, or sub-structure.

  • Wood:  $240
  • Wood Composite:  $550
  • PVC:  $640

Representative Brand Names and Makers

  • Wood:  Interchangeable brand names found at your local home improvement store or lumberyard.  
  • Wood Composite:  Trex, TimberTech Earthwood Evolutions
  • PVC:  AZEK, XLM, Fiberon Paramount, Genovations, Wolf

PVC vs. Wood Composite

The differences between the two plastic-based products--PVC and wood-composite--and natural wood are apparent, as demonstrated in other modules in this article.  But the difference between PVC and wood-composite are more difficult to discern.

 Here is a break-out:

 PVCWood Composite
SolidityHollow insideSolid all the way through.
WeightAbout 50% of the weight of wood-compositeTwice as heavy as PVC.
RotWill never rot.Rot possible but not likely.
InstallationNeeds special fasteners.Use regular deck fasteners.
CostAbout 20% more expensive than wood-composite.Less expensive than PVC.