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

Wood Composite Deck
Wood Composite Deck. Getty / Astronaut Images

When you build an outdoor deck, you are usually presented with a choice of three flooring materials: natural pressure-treated wood, wood-composite (a mixture of wood fibers and plastic), or an all-plastic product called PVC.

What Are They?

  • 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 all natural wood. Found on fewer decks (but only due to the high cost) are exotic hardwoods like ipe.
  • 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 sourced from sawdust byproduct of furniture manufacturing and plastics recycled from milk jugs and detergent bottles.
  • PVC: Plastic and 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 that also gives it its wood-like look.

Pros

  • Wood: Natural wood is your best bet when you want to save on costs, don't want anything complicated, and wish to do it yourself. Natural wood decking is immediately available at all home improvement centers.
  • Wood-Composite: Choose wood-composite decking when you want a material that closely resembles an exotic wood species. If you have children or just like walking barefoot, wood-composite ensures that you will avoid splinters.  
  • PVC: You may wish to purchase PVC decking if you want a lighter-weight material that is easier to handle than wood-composite. Also, if you are installing in a high-moisture environment, PVC resists rot.

Cons

  • Wood: Avoid natural wood decking if you dislike annual maintenance projects such as power-washing and deck-sealing. Also, manufacturers of wood-composite and PVC deck materials like to point out that wood splinters easily. They are correct. If you plan to do anything on your deck that involves bare feet (yoga, kids, etc.), avoid natural wood.
  • Wood-Composite: Purchase wood-composite decking if you want a realistic-looking material. Another thing to consider: wood-composite is heavier than both wood and plastic deck materials and is prone to sagging. This means that you will need to use more joists.
  • PVC: PVC decking tends to look the least like wood, when compared to natural wood and wood-composite deck boards.

Which Resists Rot the Best?

  • Wood: Natural wood, even pressure treated, is the worst choice if you are concerned about rotting. The pressure treatment does retard rotting but it does not stop it. Regular sealing will extend your wood deck's lifespan. Expensive exotic species like ipe are good at slowing down rot, even without sealing.
  • Wood-Composite: Wood-composite is often touted as rot-free, this isn't entirely the case, as the organic wood particles are still susceptible to rot. Preservatives added to the mixture off-set the rot.
  • PVC: The all-plastic content of this decking material is completely impervious to rot. Mildew and moss will still attack PVC decking, but only the surface. 

Estimated Costs

General pricing for deck floor material only, not including stairs, guards, rails, or sub-structure:

  • Wood: As long as it is the fir, hemlock, or another type of pressure treated wood referenced earlier, this will be your absolute cheapest way to floor your deck.
  • Wood-Composite: Wood-composites will be roughly twice the price of natural wood.
  • PVC: Count on PVC deck materials being about three times more expensive than natural wood.

Representative Brand Names and Makers

  • Wood: Pressure-treated wood comes under 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

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

 PVCWood CompositeWood
SolidityHollow inside, yet due to cellular construction it is still strong enough to hold weightSolid all the way throughAll wood, solid all the way through
WeightAbout 50% of the weight of wood-compositeTwice as heavy as PVCFairly lightweight and easy to handle
RotPVC decking will never rotRot possible but not likelyGuaranteed to rot, even when pressure treated
InstallationNeeds special fastenersUses regular deck fastenersCan use ordinary fasteners
CostAbout 20% more expensive than wood-compositeLess expensive than PVCCheapest option of all, not just in terms of the decking but because the fasteners are less expensive