Stacking the Deck: Wood vs. Composites
Welcome to the great American outdoor deck, the last bastion of the home where barbecues meet lounge chairs. For many homeowners, the deck is an extension of the home that becomes a wonderful multipurpose area for entertaining and relaxing.
“Decks truly bring the living space outdoors,” says Jeff Walter, of PDX Deck and Fence, a Portland, Oregon-based construction company that specializes in decking installation. “The average deck we do is between 600 and 700 square feet. If you consider that a living room might be a couple hundred square feet, adding a deck is a huge addition to your living area.”
LET’S GET REAL
There’s no denying the appeal of decking; however, there’s a choice to be made in what materials to use in building that deck: natural wood vs. composite material. The short answer in this debate is easy: wood is king. According to research from Consumer Reports, about 80% of homeowners who install decks use wood lumber.
But not all wood is the same. Essentially, there are three types of natural wood products: pressure-treated lumber; redwood and Western red cedar; and tropical hardwoods.
It’s estimated that of all the natural-wood decks installed today, 75% of them use pressure-treated lumber. Economically priced and widely available, most types of this wood are cut from pine and then chemically treated to resist decay, fungus and wood-boring insects. While it’s cheaper and easy to find, it also has a tendency to swell, warp and split. In addition, it requires regular washing and maintenance, and to have a clear wood preservative applied at least every couple of years.
Redwoods and cedars are quite popular with homeowners because of their rich, natural beauty. Unlike pressure-treated wood, these two Western softwoods contain natural tannins and oils that make them resistant to rotting. They’re also less likely to warp or split. These advantages come with a price; redwoods and cedars are more expensive than pressure-treated pine and they also require, like any natural wood, regular washing and the application of a wood preservative every three to four years.
Finally, there are the tropical hardwoods, such as those from South and Central America, Africa and Malaysia. Walters uses ipe and mahogany woods in many of his deck projects. “Up in the Northwest, we get lots of rain,” he says. “These woods last and are easier to maintain in this type of weather. In my opinion, ipe is one of the best wood-deck surfaces, as far as durability.”
While no wood is maintenance free, tropical hardwoods come close, requiring far less care than their natural cousins. However, they’re also considerably more expensive than pressure-treated lumber, though only slightly more costly than redwoods and cedars.
NAME THAT COMPOSITE
OK, unless you’re a lumberjack, the average ‘Joe’ on the street is probably not going to have a real clear understanding of what a composite is. So, let’s start at the beginning.
Composite lumber materials have been around for about 25 years. Generally speaking, composites are a hybrid material made from a mixture of wood fiber, plastic, and a binding agent. While heralded in its infancy as a perfect alternative to natural wood, it soon fell out of favor because of problems with mildew and discoloration. Over the years, as technology has improved, so have composites.
“Composites have come a long way,” says Duberney Ospina, senior product manager at Behr Process Corporation. “When composites were first introduced, there were a lot of issues with mold and mildew just because of the wood fibers that were mixed in to create the composite. Then, they came back with a composite deck board that still had some wood in it, but it had a plastic cast to it, which addressed the mold issues they were having.”
There are also deck composites that are made from 100% plastic that are extremely stain-resistant and never requires scraping, sanding or sealing. They also don’t warp or splinter.
Ospina says the new technology used today is a capped PVC material, which all but eliminates the issues with mold and mildew. “Now, you get into problems with how hot that plastic can get. But they are definitely better.”
Walter likes the change. “As composites have improved, we have used them more frequently,” he says. Plus, there are more manufacturers in the industry, which offer contractors a variety of choices. “There are quite a few different composites out there, but for me, there are truly four main players. Those would be TimberTech,® Trex, ® Fiberon,® and AZEK.® Each manufacturer has a few different lines.”
A MATTER OF CHOICE
In weighing the advantages of wood vs. composites, it almost always comes down to two major factors: cost and maintenance. Fact is, composite decks do cost more, but require very little maintenance. On the contrary, natural wood continues to be popular with homeowners despite added maintenance and associated costs.
The additional cost of choosing a composite instead of natural wood can add 30% or more to the price tag of the deck. Mark Rymarczyk, technical director with Behr Process Corporation, says it’s sometimes a dramatic difference. “Someone with the same amount of money could do a lot more, such as build a larger deck, add more railings, etc. In my opinion, the people who want a wood deck are people who appreciate and like the authentic look and natural feel of wood. That would probably be one of the big advantages.”
On the other hand, Peter Slade, a territory representative with TimberTech, believes cost is a non-factor. “The main value propositions for composite products are much less maintenance and the product will last longer,” he says. “Composite deck material definitely adds more value as a percent of cost. Even when a wood deck is maintained on a regular basis, the wood degrades over time. Remodeling magazine annually publishes a cost-to-value report for many materials, including deck products. This measures the cost of the remodel project as a percent of the value it adds to the house. Consistently, a composite deck returns a higher percent value to the home than wood decking.”
Walter also doesn’t see cost as being a huge disadvantage. “I don’t believe price point is a huge factor, he says. “When a homeowner chooses to go to a composite, they choose the brand they want.”
ADDING COLOR, DURABILITY
While natural woods can be stained in an infinite number of colors, composites have fewer choices. However, Ospina notes that Behr has several stains that will work on composites, depending on the manufacturer.
Regardless of what choice is made, there are options to add color and elegance to an outdoor deck.
“For composite lumber, we would recommend a solid-color stain,” Ospina says. “For natural wood, it depends on the look that the customer wants—if they desire a natural-wood look that allows the grain to show through, then I’d recommend a light-toned wood finish. If the customer wants to see the wood grain but would like more color choices, then a semitransparent stain is the best choice.”
Want that look to last? “If a customer is looking for color selection and ultimate durability, then we would recommend a solid-color stain.”
Oftentimes, the decision whether to build a deck using natural or man-made materials boils down to personal choice. The key is to do your homework.